[Post I'm contemplating: Why does mussar have such bad street cred? at Modern Uberdox]
Many of my friends take umbrage when “Modern Orthodoxy” is challenged by those who consider themselves more traditional. They argue that our claim to Torah-loyalty is made no less serious and no less legitimate by our kippot srugot, embrace of the State of Israel and universalist tendencies.
Fair enough. But, at the same time, I think that our claim to Torah-loyalty is less clear, so long as we don’t state what, exactly, we mean by Torah.
Open up your gemara to Berachos 6a, and read about trapping sheidim in a lead pipe. Then read the Modern Orthodox Jew say that he prefers the alternative view of Rav Hai Gaon and others, that sheidim may not be real.
Turn to Yevamos 118b and learn the suggestion that a woman will be satisfied with any marriage, even a quarrelsome one, because she is better off married than alone. Then read the Modern Orthodox Jew say that he wishes to extend Rav Moshe Feinstein’s ruling from Igrot Moshe Even haEzer 1:180 to permit re-marriage without a get where the husband exhibits certain flaws.
There are many other passages of gemara we could cite –
Declarations regarding physical reality that are very difficult to support in light of our observations of physical reality;
Assertions of biological differences between Jews and non-Jews;
Lessons predicated on readings of pesukim which vary from our own editions;
and so on.
Many of these passages are challenged by many Jews today, people who identify themselves with YU or YCT or Rabbi Riskin or Gush Etzion. Granted that they accept the vast, vast majority of gemara, but there are quite a few passages of concern.
This post is not designed to weigh in on whether a Jew should trust certain challenging passages, or what mechanisms should be employed to determine that trust. That is an important issue, but it’s not the point of this post.
The point of this post is: One of the reasons why many traditional groups challenge the legitimacy of Modern Orthodoxy is that it’s hard to pin down what, exactly, Modern Orthodoxy accepts and rejects.
This is relevant regarding Talmud as well as midrash, and it’s relevant regarding the centuries of commentary and responsa that build on both.
It’s relevant when the Rashba rejects observed reality that contradicts the gemara.
It’s relevant when the Tashbetz supports the idea of learning in kollel.
It’s relevant when Rav Yosef Karo describes personal conversations with angels.
It’s relevant when Rashi, building on midrash, reads apparently-strained hints into the text of the Torah.
And so on.
Several years ago, I did research on the Conservative position on homosexuality in Judaism, and found that some Conservative rabbis believe that the pasuk in Vayyikra condemning homosexuality was Moshe’s own thought, based on his environment, and not from Gd. Aside from the interesting questions this generated in my mind (such as why would Gd select a herald who would get a law so wrong, with such great repercussions for so many) it also forced me to ask what other biblical passages those Conservative writers might similarly downgrade.
The same question, though, may fairly be asked of the Jew who self-identifies as Modern Orthodox.
Remember the old line, "Orthodox is crazy, Reform is lazy, Conservative is hazy?"
While it’s legitimate to say that these are gray areas, and that the vast, vast majority of passages are accepted by all, the bottom line is that until this question is answered clearly – until one knows what “Modern Orthodoxy” believes, until there is a “Modern Orthodox”-approved version of Talmud and masorah - I believe it’s legitimate for those outside of our camp to feel that we are hazy, too.