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The Future of Modern Orthodoxy

August 4, 2014

Jack Wertheimer, a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, has authored this month’s Mosaic essay, an overview of the unique vitality of and bubbling tension in Modern Orthodoxy. Though 3% of American Jewry, the Modern Orthodox are especially prominent, counting among their ranks Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and former-vice-presidential nominee Joseph Lieberman. The wealthiest Jewish denomination, and one with impressive rates of participation in synagogue life and day schools, the Modern Orthodox have been able to balance life according to Jewish Law with a commitment to secular knowledge and Western culture. But striking such a balance is a difficult thing to do and Modern Orthodoxy faces threats from its right and from its left. From the right, the haredi community is increasingly relied upon by the Modern Orthodox to fulfill a number of communal roles, including instruction.

Since the passing of Rabbi Soloveitchik from the scene some 30 years ago, the Yeshiva University world has lacked an authoritative figure who personifies for the broader public the synthesis proclaimed in YU’s motto of Torah u’madda. Meanwhile, a neo-haredi group of roshei yeshiva—the term, often translated as deans of talmudic academies, more accurately connotes advanced teachers of rabbinic texts—has planted its flag at YU’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Rabbinical Seminary (RIETS), which educates, ordains, and shapes the religious and halakhic worldview of Modern Orthodox rabbis. In addition, Modern Orthodox day schools often employ haredi teachers who likewise communicate their ideology to impressionable students and may encourage them after graduation to attend an Israeli yeshiva or girls’ seminary where neo-harediperspectives predominate. Of late, some long-time Modern Orthodox synagogues have also taken to hiring haredi or neo-haredi rabbis to fill their pulpits. And the community as a whole has become dependent on haredim who fill certain ritually critical roles, including as scribes who write Torah scrolls and other religious documents, kosher slaughterers, and supervisors of kosher food production.
 
Most subversive of all has been the internalization of the idea that haredi Judaism represents the touchstone and arbiter of Orthodox authenticity, period. This has placed Modern Orthodoxy on the defensive, handcuffing it to a way of thinking at odds with its founding assumptions. Willy-nilly, by absorbing the resistant mindset, important sectors of the movement have thereby undermined Modern Orthodoxy’s accommodative ideology and, worse, have made it more difficult to help their members navigate as observant Jews who embrace modern culture.
 

From the left, progressive ideologies, especially feminist ones, are inspiring new institutions that are meeting resistance from longer-established Modern Orthodox institutions. Why the change?

 [D]ay schools themselves are faulted by some for inadequately preparing their students to cope with the intellectual and moral challenges they encounter once they enter college. Rabbis on both sides agree that the failure lies in the deliberate neglect of questions of belief, theology, and the “why” of observance. From my own visits to Orthodox day schools, I question this critique. To me the problem seems more fundamental: there is no way fully to prepare Orthodox young people for the transition from their insular and homogeneous environment to the environment of the university, where the reigning values are so at odds with traditional Judaism. Be that as it may, however, efforts to remediate the situation are being made by rabbis in both the resistant and accommodative wings who are undertaking to teach their congregants about what is relevant and meaningful in Judaism rather than focusing solely on the study of texts. “I used to give heavy-duty classes on rishonim andaharonim,” one rabbi on the side of the resisters informed me, referring to classical rabbinic commentators. “Now I teach about derekh eretz [proper behavior], women and ritual observance, and tz’dakah [Jewish giving].”
 
One thing is certain: an estimated 70 percent of Modern Orthodox college students are enrolled in secular institutions of higher learning, and the impact of their experience there cannot be ignored. True, many of the parents and grandparents of current students also attended secular colleges, but it can be postulated that academic values and assumptions have changed since then, or that they are instilled far more explicitly than they were in the past, or both. On every campus today, incoming students are required to attend an intensive orientation program during which they are exposed to strongly formulated judgments about diversity, tolerance, and correct thinking. In this hothouse atmosphere, how is it possible for Orthodox students to argue in defense of the unequal treatment of women in the domain of religious observance? Can one conceivably emerge from a college experience today without having encountered attitudes toward sexual behavior at odds with traditional Orthodox beliefs?
 
Making it still harder to shelter today’s Modern Orthodox Jews is that they have strayed beyond the commuter colleges favored by an earlier generation. Once on campus, moreover, they are also less likely to shy away from courses on sexual roles, psychology, comparative religion—or modern biblical criticism—that will challenge views they absorbed during their day-school years and from their elders.
 

Do all these changes mean schism or synthesis? Wertheimer doesn’t take a position, but he does frame the debate:

Thus far, the Modern Orthodox world has managed to flourish and persist by creating a community of practice and by focusing most of its intellectual energy on intensified Talmud study. This is not to be minimized. The movement’s vibrant communal life, high levels of observance, and serious engagement with traditional texts are monumental achievements. But, caught as Modern Orthodoxy is between the absolutism and insularity of haredi Judaism and the realities of an open and radically untraditional American society, are those achievements sufficient to retain a population well integrated into American life and profoundly influenced by its mores, assumptions, and values?
 
The urgent question for Modern Orthodoxy is which values can be accommodated without undermining religious commitment and distorting traditional Judaism beyond recognition—and, conversely, what losses will be sustained if Modern Orthodoxy should undertake more actively to resist the modern world in which its adherents spend most of their waking hours. The same urgent question, mutatis mutandis, has confronted other Jewish religious movements in the past, and has continued to haunt their rabbis and adherents long after they made their choice of a path forward. That is one reason why today’s unfolding culture wars within Modern Orthodoxy carry far-reaching implications not only for that movement but for the future of American Judaism as a whole.

More about: The American Jewish Experience