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The Middle Way in Israel Today
Responsa in a Moment: Vol. 10, Issue No. 3, November 2015

In memory of Prof. Solomon Schechter prolific scholar, discoverer of the Cairo Genizah, President of the Jewish Theological Seminary, founder of the United Synagogue, Zionist, and inspiration for the Schechter Institutes on his 100th yahrzeit
12 Kislev 5776, November 24, 2015

In December 2013, Chancellor Arnold Eisen of the Jewish Theological Seminary gave a lecture in Hebrew in Jerusalem entitled “A Vital Religious Center in our Day” with responses from Dr. Tova Hartman and myself. In this month’s Responsa column, I am republishing my speech in honor of Prof. Solomon Schechter’s 100th yahrzeit. I quoted Prof. Schechter quite a few times in this article and he is the role-model for “the middle way” which has been so successfully pursued by the Schechter Institutes for over 30 years, attracting 55,000 Israelis to our programs every year. Yehi zikhro barukh! May his memory be for a blessing! 

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The Middle Way in Israel Today

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:

  1. I) What is “the middle way” in the Jewish tradition?
  2. II) Three possible critiques of “the middle way” and a reply.

III) What should be the agenda of “the middle way” in Israel today?

 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. The original version of this article was published at in May 2014 and in my book Responsa in a Moment, Vol. III, Jerusalem, 2014, pp. 16-26.).

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.

  1. Sifrei Bemidbar, B’ha’alotkha, paragraph 59, ed. Horovitz, p. 57; ed. Cahana, Vol. I, p. 148:

“Opposite the face of the Menorah the [seven candles] shall give light” (a literal translation of Numbers 8:2)…

How so?

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.

  1. Bahya ibn Pakuda lived in Saragosa, Spain (ca. 1050-1120). In his classic work The Duties of the Heart (8, 3, 25, ed. Hyamson, Vol. 2, pp. 260-263), he quotes the above verse from Kohelet and explains:

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…

  1. Maimonides discussed our topic in Hilkhot Deot (1:1-5; and cf. his Eight Chapters, which is his introduction to Pirkei Avot, Chapter 4, ed. Kafih, pp. 151ff.):
  2. Each and every person possesses many character traits. Each trait is very different and distant from the others.

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…

  1. Between each trait and the [contrasting] trait at the other extreme, there are intermediate traits, each distant from the other…
  2. The two extremes of each trait, which are at a distance from one another, do not reflect a good path, and it is not fitting that a man should behave in accordance with these extremes or teach them to himself.

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.

  1. The straight path – this is the midpoint temperament of each and every trait that man possesses. This is the trait which is equidistant from either of the extremes, without being close to either of them.

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…

  1. Every person whose traits are in the middle is called wise…  (On Nahmanides’ unsuccessful attempts to find the middle way between the two camps regarding the works of Maimonides, see Solomon Schechter, Studies in Judaism, I, London, 1896, pp. 102-103.).

Our topic arose again with renewed vigor in the 19th century as part of the struggle between the streams which arose in modern Judaism.

  1. The first to discuss this was R. Nahman Krochmal (1785-1840), one of the pioneers of Wissenschaft des Judenthums (Jewish Studies) and of “the Historical School” in Judaism. He quoted Yerushalmi Hagigah (see above) at the beginning of Gate 2 of his classic work Moreh Nevukhei Hazman, which he then proceeded to explain in that chapter (ed. Rawidowicz, Berlin, 1924, pp. 10-12). His approach to the middle way was cleverly summarized by Solomon Schechter:

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 at either extreme; 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.).

  1. Rabbi Zekhariah Frankel (1801-1875) and “the Breslau School” also professed the middle way. As the historian Prof. Mordechai Breuer explained:

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 in France 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.).

  1. The third proponent of the middle way was Prof. Solomon Schechter (1847-1915), the primary founder of JTS in New York and of the Conservative Movement, for whom the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem is named. He related to our topic in a letter which he sent to Louis Marshall in 1913. It is clear that he was influenced by Maimonides quoted above:

[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.).

  1. II) Three possible critiques of “the middle way” and a reply
  2. One could claim that this is a non-Jewish idea which came to us from the outside.

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 England from 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 various ideas and methods from the environment and changed them, like any living, dynamic religion.

  1. The Orthodox in the nineteenth century attacked Rabbi Zekhariah Frankel and the Breslau School and even mocked them. As Prof. Mordechai Breuer explained in his above-mentioned book:

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 the Breslau stream particularly disgraceful, equivocal and two-faced. [Rabbi] Azriel Hildesheimer certainly thought of Breslau when 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, but Tosefta Hagigah is recommending a path in life: “to walk in the middle”.

  1. Finally, one could claim that the middle way in politics and religion and thought simply doesn’t last. And so wrote the poet W.B. Yeats in “The Second Coming” in 1919, immediately after World War I:

… Things fall apartthe center cannot hold…

… the best lack all conviction,

while the worst are full of passionate intensity…

Indeed, so it is in Israeli politics. Most 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 this seems to be what is happening to the Conservative and Modern Orthodox movements in the United 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 Louis Marshall quoted 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, 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:

  1. Torah study in its broadest sense: Bible, Talmud, Midrash, Kabbalah, Halakhah, Jewish Thought, Jewish History, Jewish Literature and Piyyut.
  2. Holiday customs and life-cycle events. It is clear from the “Third Guttman Avi-Chai Report 2009” that these are things which unite most Jews in the State of Israel.  (See the report at
  3. Hebrew.
  4. Zionism and love of the Land of Israel.
  5. Jewish history/shared destiny in the past, present, and future/Jewish peoplehood.

On the other hand, I did not include the following items because, unfortunately, in our day, they divide rather than unite:

  1. Belief in God.
  2. Prayer. Nothing is more divisive today – some pray with amehitzah, some without, and some do not pray at all.

Who are our partners in “the Middle Way” in the State of Israel?

Over 2,000 students and graduates of the Schechter Institute;

the students and graduates of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary;

135,000 TALI teachers, parents and pupils;

15,000 people who study at Neve Schechter and at the Schechter Centers in the Galilee;

the Conservative/Masorti Movement in Israel;

Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem;

the Reform Movement in Israel;

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.

  1. According to the Guttman Avi-Chai Report of 2009, 61% of Israelis support recognition of the non-Orthodox streams in Judaism, but the State still does not.
  2. A large and growing number of parents are looking for pluralistic Jewish education for their children as is evidenced by the huge growth of the TALI school system (to 43,000 children in 2015), but the State, as a rule, does not provide any Jewish education. The officials at the Ministry of Education are frequently “Orthodox in their Secularism”. One of the highest officials in the Ministry said to me a few years ago: “we teach Hebrew and Bible – what else is necessary?!”
  3. According to Rabbi David Stav, who ran unsuccessfully for the position of Chief Rabbi in 2013, 25% of young couple couples get married overseas every year in order to avoid the Chief Rabbinate.
  4. There is almost no government funding for pluralistic Batei Midrash.

The middle way – what should we demand from the State of Israel? 

  1. As I maintained in an article in The Jerusalem Report, we must demand the abolishment of the Chief Rabbinate in order to allow Judaism to flourish in the State of Israel.  (See The Jerusalem Report, December 16, 2013.).
  2. We must demand alternatives regarding rabbis, marriage and conversion: Conservative, Reform, Modern Orthodox, Haredi, Humanistic, Civil – with funding for each alternative.
  3. A third stream at the Ministry of Education – Pluralistic Jewish Education with funding and pedagogic freedom. 

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 should work together in the areas which unite us and separately in different kehillot in areas where we differ.

All four volumes of Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin’s Responsa In A Moment – Halakhic Responses to Contemporary Issues as well as other books by the author are available for purchase from the Schocken-JTS Press Bookstore.

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.

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