In the 1980’s, Orthodox intellectuals, primary among them R. Norman Lamm, attempted to name their religious movement “Centrist Orthodoxy.”1 The name never took and even his devotees generally do not bother to use it. As R. Mark Dratch recently noted on this website (link), R. Lamm used the name Centrist as a reference to Rambam’s adaptation of Aristotle’s Golden Mean.
However, I have found an earlier reference to Centrist Orthodoxy. Scholars of modern Hungarian Judaism point to a three-fold division of Orthodoxy in the 1860’s. There were the Ultra-Orthodox, of which R. Hillel Lichtenstein and R. Chaim Sofer (the Machaneh Chaim) were two of the leaders. There were the Traditional Orthodox, led by R. Moshe Schick and R. Avraham Binyamin Sofer (the Kesav Sofer) among others. And there were the Neo-Orthodox, led primarily by R. Azriel Hildesheimer.2 By the end of the decade, R. Hildesheimer had left Hungary for Berlin, where he would found a rabbinic seminary based on the principles of what we would now call “Torah U-Madda.”
In Germany, R. Hildesheimer was not just a leading Torah educator but also a halakhic decisor. His published responsa cover all four sections of the Shulchan Arukh. In a responsum (Yoreh De’ah 179) dated 1877, R. Hildesheimer was asked by a rabbi about a prominent layman who received a medal from the government which he proudly wore to synagogue. The medal contained a cross. Is he allowed to wear the decorative cross, particularly to synagogue?
R. Hildesheimer responded that it is technically permissible but highly improper. The layman should be told not to wear the medal. However, while R. Hildesheimer volunteered to speak to the man personally, he suggested that a Centrist rabbi should preferably be enlisted to instruct the layman (min rabbani[m] ha-nikra’im Emtza’i’im). Apparently, R. Hildesheimer used the term Centrist to refer to a moderate rabbi. Much like today, if a layman senses that the rabbi does not share his values, he will be less likely to accept his views. This is especially true on an issue that hinges on openness to general society. To R. Hildesheimer, a Centrist rabbi will have more influence on the public who view him as sharing their values. And more importantly, R. Hildesheimer did not consider himself a Centrist.
Did R. Lamm and R. Hildesheimer use the term Centrist in the same way? This fleeting reference is insufficient to reach a conclusion. However, the impression I get is that R. Hildesheimer meant Centrist more culturally while R. Lamm meant it ideologically.
See Jacob Katz, A House Divided: Orthodoxy and Schism in Nineteenth Century Central European Jewry; Michael Silber, “The Emergence of Ultra-Orthodoxy: The Invention of a Tradition” in Jack Wertheimer ed., The Uses of Tradition: Jewish Continuity in the Modern Era. ↩