In his ethical writings, Moses Maimonides puts great emphasis on the virtue of moderation—drawing in equal measures on Aristotle, rabbinic writings, and biblical wisdom literature. In recent times, the late Norman Lamm, a leading American Orthodox rabbi and the former president of Yeshiva University, spoke often about this same virtue, its importance in both public and personal conduct, and its theological implications. He even took to dubbing his preferred sub-denomination as “Centrist Orthodoxy” in a nod to the importance of the middle path. Tzvi Sinensky traces the development of Lamm’s thinking about moderation, and its relation to politics and to the interconnected virtue of civility:
[Lamm] acknowledged that some may contend that Maimonides’ middle path is limited only to individual character, [rather than public life]. Yet he rejected this view on the basis of a number of arguments. First, prima facie there is no reason to distinguish between the private and public levels; if anything, mass extremism is more dangerous than its individual counterpart. Second, Maimonides’ own approach to matters of public policy, such as his tolerant attitude toward the Karaites, was characterized by precisely the sort of levelheaded balance Rabbi Lamm advocated. Third, Lamm noted that one of Maimonides’ biblical sources for the Golden Mean was drawn from Abraham’s path of righteousness and justice (ts’dakah u-mishpat), which the Torah connects with his advocacy on behalf of the people of Sodom; thus, the very source for following the middle path is drawn from a scenario of public policy!
In 1989, Lamm dedicated a full essay to the theme of Centrist Orthodox and moderation, or what he now preferred to call “moderationism.” Pushing back firmly against those who misconstrued the idea as a sorry compromise, Lamm argued that it was anything but—and that, in fact, the dynamic act of weighing what was made such judiciousness “the way of the Lord.” Lamm cited his mentor Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s interpretation that Maimonides was not simple-mindedly requiring one to fall in the middle in each individual scenario, but rather over the course of one’s life.
As Lamm summarized the point, “The key to character for Maimonides is not the mean as such, but this weighing and measuring and directing, the conscious use of reason rather than passively following Nature blindly and supinely. . . . The process of arriving at a determination of one’s own life and character is more important than the results.”
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