In memory of 23,169 soldiers who fell defending the State of Israel. May their memory be for a blessing.
In December 2013, Chancellor Arnold Eisen of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York gave a lecture in Hebrew at the Schocken Institute in Jerusalem entitled “A Vital Religious Center in our Day” with responses by Prof. David Golinkin, President of the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem, and Dr. Tova Hartman of the Ono Academic College in Kiryat Ono. In this month’s Responsa column, we are publishing the speeches given by Profs. Eisen and Golinkin, in honor of Israel’s 66th birthday. Both authors believe that Israel needs “a vital religious center” or “a middle way” between the ultra-Orthodox and the ultra-secular.
The Middle Way in Israel Today
By Rabbi David Golinkin
I thank Prof. Eisen for inviting me to this symposium and for forcing me to think about this important topic. When Prof. Shmuel Glick turned to me about two months ago regarding the translation of the title into Hebrew, I thought that the title should contain the expression “derekh ha’emtzah“, “the middle way”, but I did not insist because I assumed that most people would not understand that title. Now I would like to explain the title which I preferred at that time:
III) What should be the agenda of “the middle way” inIsraeltoday?
I) What is “the middle way” in the Jewish tradition? (On the middle way in Judaism, see Shlomo Weissblitt,Mahanayim 5 (1993), pp. 162-169; Alexander Klein, Badad 6 (Winter 1998), pp. 87-100; and what I wrote in my book The Status of Women in Jewish Law: Responsa,Jerusalem, 2012, pp. 374-375).
This basic idea is hinted at in the book of Kohelet (7:18): “It is best that you grasp the one without letting go of the other, for one who fears God, will do his duty by both”.
This idea is found more explicitly in rabbinic literature, and there it is called “to walk in the middle”:
1a. Tosefta Hagigah 2:5, ed. Lieberman, p.381, in connection with the story of “four who entered the orchard”:
To what can this be compared?
To a street that passes between two ways,
one of fire and one of snow.
If he strays here, he is scorched by fire,
If he strays there, he is frozen by snow.
What should he do? He should walk in the middle,
provided that he does not stray here or there.
1b. Yerushalmi Hagigah 2:1, fol. 77a, in a section about Jewish mysticism:
This Torah is like two paths, one of fire and one of snow.
If he strays into one, he dies of fire;
if he strays into the other, he dies of snow.
What should he do? He should walk in the middle.
1c. Avot Derabbi Nattan, Version A, end of chapter 28, ed. Schechter, p. 86 (and cf. the sources listed there and cf. p. 149). The context is words of Torah vs. derekh eretz:
To what can this be compared?
To a street that passes between two ways,
one of fire and one of snow.
If he walks near the fire, he is scorched by fire,
If he walks near the snow, he is stricken by cold.
What should he do? He should walk in the center
and he should be careful that he should not be scorched by the fire or stricken by the cold.
“Opposite the face of the Menorah the [seven candles] shall give light” (a literal translation of Numbers 8:2)…
Three toward the east and three toward the west and one in the middle.
Thus, they all face the middle one.
From this Rabbi Nathan said: the middle one is honored.
[another reading: the middle one is praiseworthy.]
In the Middle Ages, this idea appeared in a number of different ways.
Do not go to extremes in adopting the ways of those righteous people who separate themselves from the world…
So too do not go to extremes by walking in the ways of the wicked who make this world predominant…
Keep to the middle of the road…
One type of man is wrathful; he is constantly angry. Another is calm who is never moved to anger, and, if at all, he will be slightly angry over the course of several years…
And if he finds that his nature leans towards one of the extremes or adapts itself easily to it, or, if he has learned one of the extremes and acts accordingly, he should bring himself back to what is proper and walk in the path of the good which is the straight path.
Therefore, the early Sages instructed a man to evaluate his traits, to calculate them and to direct them along the middle path, so that he will be sound of body.
How so? He should not be wrathful, easily angered; nor be like the dead, without feeling, but rather – intermediate…
Our topic arose again with renewed vigor in the 19th century as part of the struggle between the streams which arose in modern Judaism.
What, then, must he do? He must walk in the middle, or, as we should say, he must choose the golden mean. But, as Krochmal suggests, the middle way in historical and philosophical doubts does not consist, as some idle heads suppose, in a kind of compromise between two opposing views. If one of two contending parties declares that twice two make six, while his opponent asserts that twice two makes eight, a sort of compromise might be arrived at by conceding that twice two makes seven. But such a compromise would be as false as either extreme; and the seeker after the truth must revert to that mean [=middle] which is the heart of all things, independently of all factions, placing himself above them (Ibid., p. 62).
Contemporary writers and journalists frequently denoted the middle position of the Breslauschool between Reform and Orthodox with the [French] term juste milieu [=exactly in the middle]. This term entered usage inFrance in the middle of the [nineteenth] century in order to characterize the political position of that stream which opposed the revolution and the reaction to the same degree. [Heinrich] Graetz called Frankel “the suitable middle person” and Hermann Cohen called him “the theologian of compromise” (Mordechai Breuer, Eidah Udeyukna,Jerusalem, 1990, p. 30).
[JTS] should create a Conservative school removed alike from both extremes, Radical-Reform and Hyper-Orthodoxy… [it is] an institution which is meant to pursue a middle course.. (Norman Bentwich, Solomon Schechter,Philadelphia, 1938, pp. 192, 194).
II) Three possible critiques of “the middle way” and a reply
For example, one could say that Maimonides quoted above was directly influenced by Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics (II, vi, 10-11, Loeb edition, p. 93):
I refer to moral virtue, for this is concerned with emotions and actions, in which one can have excess or deficiency or a due mean [=middle]… is to feel the best amount of them, which is the mean amount – and the best amount is of course the mark of virtue.
Similarly, one could claim that Schechter, who lived in Englandfrom 1882-1902, was influenced by the Anglican Church. Indeed, this claim was made recently by Matthew Lagrone. In 1837, John Henry Newman wrote that the Anglican Church is the via media, the middle road between Catholicism and Protestantism (Matthew Lagrone, Conservative Judaism 30/1-2 (Fall-Winter 2007-2008), pp. 127-134).
As a reaction to these two claims, one can reply: so what? Many ideas and approaches and customs were absorbed into Judaism from the outside and Maimonides himself already said: “accept the truth from he who said it”. The Torah portion of Mishpatim (Exodus 21 ff.) was influenced by the Code of Hammurabi, the 13 exegetical principles of Rabbi Yishmael were influenced by the exegetical methods of the Greeks, the Pesah Seder is based on the Greek symposium, Rav Sa’adiah Gaon was influenced by the Kalam, Maimonides was influenced by Aristotle, and medieval Hebrew poetry was influenced by Arabic poetry. There is nothing wrong with this. Judaism never lived in a vacuum – it absorbed from the environment and changed them like any living, dynamic religion.
In the eyes of many Orthodox spokesmen, the careful refusal to identify positively with one of the two movements struggling over the future of Judaism made theBreslaustream particularly disgraceful, equivocal and two-faced. [Rabbi] Azriel Hildesheimer certainly thought ofBreslauwhen he characterized those who chose “the golden mean” with these insulting words: “On the two sides of the street, on the left and the right, walk human beings. Only horses walk in the middle” (See above, note 4).
He is hinting, apparently, at Tosefta Bava Kamma 2:12 (ed. Lieberman, p. 9): “It is the way of an animal to walk in the middle [of the road], but human beings go on the sides”.
In other words, Rabbi Hildesheimer used Tosefta Bava Kamma in order to attack Tosefta Hagigah quoted above, but there is no contradiction between the sources. Tosefta Bava Kamma is simply describing the situation on the street in the Mishnaic period, butTosefta Hagigah is recommending a path in life: “to walk in the middle”.
… Things fall apart, the center cannot hold…
… the best lack all conviction,
while the worst are full of passionate intensity…
Indeed, so it is in Israeli politics. All of the middle-of-the-road parties have not lasted: Dash, Shinui, Kadima, Meimad and so on. They burst upon the scene and quickly disappeared. And thisseems to be what is happening to the Conservative and Modern Orthodox movements in theUnited States according to the Pew Report of 2013 and likewise to the middle-of-the-road Protestant denominations.
Indeed, so Schechter complained in that same letter to LouisMarshallquoted above (emphasis added – DG):
… But I cannot help thinking that the Seminary is given little credit for what it has accomplished. And instead of encouraging it to follow on the path it had set out, there is an unmistakable tendency to reproach us for our want of forming large constituencies and enlisting the support and the goodwill of what is described as the “Orthodox public”. It is overlooked that an institution which is meant to pursue a middle course and to create new currents of thought and action could not possibly be popular with the crowd whose mind is, as a rule, given to extremes and to radical action, whether Orthodox or Reform.. (See above, note 5, p. 194).
I can only reply: Yes indeed! It is difficult to be in the middle. Maybe it is not popular or “sexy” – but that does not mean that it is not correct. I agree with Tosefta Hagigah and Sifrei Bemidbar and Bahya ibn Pakudah and Maimonides that one should “go in the middle” and that “the middle is honored and praiseworthy” and that “the straight path is the middle trait”.
III) What should be the agenda of “the middle way” in Israel today?
In his fascinating lecture (which is being published here), Prof. Eisen sketched three approaches to the middle way: Schechter’s, Rashi and Maimonides’s, and his own. From these approaches, I believe that we should stress the following in the State of Israel:
On the other hand, I did not include the following items because, unfortunately, in our day, they divide rather than unite:
Who are our partners in “the middle way” in the State of Israel?
2,000 students and graduates of theSchechter Institute;
the students and graduates of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary;
135,000 TALI teachers, parents and pupils;
thousands who study at branches of Midreshet Yerushalayim and Neve Schechter;
the Conservative/Masorti Movement inIsrael;
the Reform Movement inIsrael;
Ne’emanei Torah Va’avodah/the Religious Kibbutz Movement/supporters of Meimad;
pluralistic Batei Midrash such as Hartman, Alma, and the many organizations which belong to Panim;
over thirty unaffiliated spiritual communities (INNSC);
Humanistic Judaism and secular rabbis.
The State of Israel has failed thus far in funding and supporting the middle way.
The middle way – what should we demand from the State of Israel?
Is there still a place for the movements in Judaism? Absolutely.
The middle way unites Israelis regarding the five items that I mentioned, but there are still disagreements regarding faith, prayer, and halakhah, such as marriage, conversion and the status of women in Jewish law. Therefore, we will work together in the areas which unite us and separately in different kehillot in areas where we differ.
David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.