An open letter to Modern Orthodoxy

Dear Modern Orthodoxy,

Since starting this blog, I have been seeking to answer two primary questions. What are you, and why are you so important as to justify so much argument? 

In an attempt to find those answers, I read through many works of Jewish Thought, including Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm’s “Torah UMadda: The Encounter of Religious Learning and Worldly Knowledge in the Jewish Tradition.” By the end, Rabbi Dr. Lamm located six models in support of “the synthesis of Torah learning and western culture… or the study of sacred Jewish texts along with the secular wisdom of the world at large.”I ultimately came out of the book convinced that Maimonidean Rationalists, Hirshian Culturists, Kookian Mystics, Yeshivish Instrumentalists, Mitnagdish Inclusionists, and Hasidim each possess a coherent justification to study all that this world has to offer while remaining true to Jewish law and Tradition. 

While I gained a greater appreciation for Torah UMadda as a religious philosophy, I lost a great deal of appreciation for the Modern Orthodox community as lived. By and large, the community today is not striving to be learned in science and the humanities while also being talmidei hakhamim (and hakhamot). Rather, being Modern Orthodox seems to be about being able to get into the latest trends in television, sports, etc while making as much money as is humanly possible. Much (though admittedly not all) of which is in stark contrast with the values that Torah UMadda is supposed to imbue and strengthen within our neshamot. As a result of this, the Modern Orthodox community all too often seems to end up looking at Orthodoxy through the lens of modernity rather than looking at modernity through the lens of Orthodoxy. In my own language, the community has a lot of “Orthodox, but” mentalities , though precious little “Orthodox, and” mentalities. 

Modern Orthodoxy, what have you to say for yourself? What can we do to help you succeed?

In “Beyond Sectarianism: The Realignment of American Orthodox Judaism,” Adam Ferziger pointed out that the Modern Orthodox community has gradually been moving closer to our Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) co-religionists, while the formerly sectarian Haredim have been becoming more open to certain aspects of modernity. Ferziger based his argument on several points including the growing feeling of religious success in America and desire for outreach amongst Haredim, the social and financial need for greater women’s involvement within acceptable halakhic bounds, and particular figures within the Modern Orthodox world “advancing a hybrid Orthodoxy that is heavily influenced by Haredi ideals but remains situated within a Modern Orthodox milieu that accepts core positions staked out by [Rav Joseph B.] Soloveitchik.” 

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein once pointed out that “what we [The Modern Orthodox Community] share with the Rightist [Haredi] community far, far outweighs whatever divides us—although, in the nature of things, the focus within the community is upon the divisive element.” Those points of division were having confidence in general culture, the ability to recognize the complexity of human experience, the ability to possess literary, psychological, and historical sensitivity, and having a positive orientation towards Zionism. 

Of course, much has changed since Rav Lichtenstein penned his essay. Even at the time of his writing, it was acknowledged that his confidence in general culture was beginning to wane due to high culture being less cherished than in previous generations and the unfortunate fact that “contemporary culture has moved perceptibly away from our own mores, becoming increasingly vulgarized and inundated by permissiveness, hedonism, eroticism and violence.” Those factors, combined with an increasing openness on the part of Haredim towards receiving a general education and supporting the State of Israel, lead one to conclude that the membrane which once separated the center from the right is now more permeable than ever before. 

Modern Orthodoxy, what if your push to the right isn’t a bad thing after all? It is, after all, something that many within our community have been actively demanding from the bottom-up in an effort to foster a passionate, lay-educated Judaism that is unafraid to participate in the world while looking at it through the critical lens of Torah. This is something that can perhaps best be facilitated by the blurring of lines between the Modern Orthodox and Haredi worlds. 

The slide to the right in Modern Orthodoxy has lead many to become more passionate about their Judaism and more fervent in their Torah learning endeavors, but has also led to a certain Haredi aesthetic preference, a de-emphasis on cultural participation, and a desire to limit individual religious creativity. We need to allow inside of each of us the passion of our Haredi brothers and sisters while staying true to our dedication to live lives of Torah and Mitzvot within this world, making use of each tool that we are given therein. Sliding to the right and taking on certain Haredi-esque qualities may be a good way to imbue ourselves with that kind of passion, but will we be able to take on the “Authentic Haredi” identity that Rav Shagar suggested was so needed to improve his Israeli Religious Zionist community? Can we cultivate a “religious outlook that succeeds in positioning itself as a hard, unconditional truth… in order to create a profound and meaningful religious world that [is confident enough in itself to] coexist with other worlds” and that is “able to persist without losing its soul to rigid dogmatism or self deception”? 

Every day it seems like more and more people who are full of religious passion and not finding it in the Modern Orthodox community either abandon traditional interpretations of halakha and hashkafa entirely or join the Haredi world to abandon the good of secular culture/knowledge along with the bad. Modern Orthodoxy, don’t you see that there is another way?

We can bring the religious passion and love for learning of the Haredi world into our modern lives. We can look at the world through the lens of halakha, understanding what is and is not acceptable while allowing the acceptable to flourish within appropriate fences. We must approach reality with the Torah firmly in our hands and understand, as the Halakhic Man does, that “there is no phenomenon, entity, or object in this concrete world which the a priori halakha does not approach with its ideal standard.”

Rav Lichtenstein concluded his aforementioned essay by stating that our community are in an ideal position “only when the concern for Torah remains passionate and profound.”  The centrist position of Modern Orthodoxy allows us to “reject the kind of simplistic, black-and-white solutions so appealing to others” and to develop “a sense of complexity and integration” in all that we do. However, “the lack of either passion or spirituality is no accident, but the inevitable result of interest in the cultural and political orders… Almost inevitably, diffusion does entail some measure of dilution.” Therefore, we need to take great care in all of our endeavors. 

The most frequent feedback that my other essays on this subject have received is that I do not suggest any concrete solutions to the problems facing the Modern Orthodox community. Now I am offering one: For the Modern Orthodox community to remain “Halachically legitimate, philosophically persuasive, religiously inspiring, and personally convincing” it must embrace certain facets of the Haredi experience that have so far been ignored or labeled as insufficiently modern.

Rav Lichtenstein, in a different essay, formulated the intuitive notion that “the extent to which a person is committed to Torah is very much a function of his commitment to God, and therefore it is related to the place of avodat Hashem and yirat Shamayim (fear of Heaven) within his [or her] life generally.” We need to develop in all of our sons, daughters, siblings, and peers the love of learning, passion for prayer, and commitment to kiruv that is so commonly found outside of our community. We must become Haredim ourselves and learn how to “tremble” (חרד) before the words of God inside and outside of the bet midrash. As comfortable as we are within contemporary culture, we must remember not to get too comfortable, for we will always be strangers in a strange land. 

You may call yourself Modern Orthodoxy, and you may unapologetically believe in and fight for a Torah UMadda hashkafa, but must that prevent you from also being Haredi?  

About the Author
Steven Gotlib is a rabbinical student at Yeshiva University's Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, where he is is also pursuing a Certificate in Mental Health Counseling in partnership with the Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology. He previously studied Communication and Jewish Studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
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