Can Orthodoxy get back on track?

As a rabbi who has found my specific place to be within Modern Orthodoxy, I find religious life particularly powerful and meaningful. Balancing the modern and the timeless presents its challenges, but the beauty of Modern Orthodoxy is that it provided me with the critical life framework I needed to flourish and serve as I strive to navigate a complex world. Indeed, it is the only way I know how to live.

Yet, for the all the wonder and joy I experience in celebrating the observant Jewish way of life, I feel that we must be honest: Orthodoxy — like any denomination or ideological group — is laden with multitudinous challenges that must be addressed honestly, openly, and with a candor that allows us to grow as individuals and as a community. Leaders of every faith and denomination have a sacred responsibility not only to support their community but also to foster a culture of internal critique and avoid defensive arrogance.

I love Orthodoxy but it is in crisis.

Some advocates of following the demanding rigors of Orthodox life tell others who perform outreach that Orthodoxy — as a construct — has the essentials of perfection, a contemporary panacea. In this view, there are certain strictures of Orthodoxy that are sacrosanct, specifically that this strain of Judaism holds the absolute truth, that everyone who enters the movement becomes happy, and that Orthodox religious life is a stress-free pathway to overall contentment. Indeed, many, including myself, find deep meaning, connection, and community in Orthodox life; yet sadly, the idealized form of a perfect Judaism does not match reality. This is a big part of why so many have physically remained but spiritually disengaged or just left altogether.

While there are unparalleled acts of chesed (kindness) within Orthodoxy, the Orthodox fighting is similarly un-paralleled for its personal vituperation towards others in the community. I suspect that there is no Jewish denomination that regularly uses as much toxic rhetoric and aggressive vindictiveness as we see within Orthodoxy, especially on internet chat boards and comment sections. What causes all this meanness eludes me, but it is profoundly disturbing. The existential crisis of Orthodox Judaism today is not that we have cultural divisions and a plethora of problems that we disagree on how to resolve. On the contrary, it is often productive to have different ideologies and serious disagreement. Our real problem is that our frequent hostility and arrogance are destroying us as a community.

This is obvious in a number of areas: the brewing crisis regarding women’s leadership and the extent to which women are invited to demonstrate leadership in the community; the integrity of the kashrut system’s ethical standards has been called into question; our broken conversion system that continues to leave countless converts and people in the process of converting in the shame of unnecessary exclusion; we have not yet cleaned up the heart-rending problem of agunot, those many women chained in marriages against their will; and so many of our Orthodox day schools, which are in financial and pedagogical crises. We also need to grapple with serious problems of poverty, lack of secular education, cultural isolation, and health (an Ultra-Orthodox Jew in Israel, for example, is seven times more likely to be obese than a secular Israeli Jew). These are but a few of the challenges that Orthodoxy faces. They themselves are not the existential threat, but rather the toxic discourse surrounding them threatens implosion. There are vast numbers of people in the community who are either apathetic to these challenges or who are stubbornly opposed to any discussion of them. We betray the community when we don’t courageously collaborate due to tangential ideological disagreements.

Many of our fears get channeled into petty wars driven by fear-based leadership, while a shortage of emotional intelligence and behavioral discipline prevent us from engaging in civil discourse and respectful disagreement. It is as if our house is all aflame and everyone is arguing about what color the carpet should be. Who among our Orthodox leaders today is soaring above the politics and addressing our profound problems in a respectful way that brings more light than heat? Who is modeling our cherished mussar tradition of working on oneself and collaboratively and humbly solving problems across divides before blaming another ideological camp for their faults?

To be sure this is not a new problem. Rav Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel, was so hated by some camps that some poured garbage on his head when he walked the streets of Jerusalem. Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the spiritual leader of Modern Orthodoxy and Yeshiva University, was so disrespected by some Orthodox leaders that they refused to call him ‘Rabbi’.

We cannot continue merely to tweak the marketing of Orthodoxy when our product itself is breaking. Our community is unable to avoid political differences that make it impossible to fulfill our larger collective goal of avodat Hashem through Torat Yisrael, Am Yisrael, and Eretz Yisrael.

If the vast numbers of people refuse to discuss the basic causes that underlie these issues, then the vitality so essential to transmitting religious intellectual life from one generation to the next is at risk of becoming only a footnote of history. Like all of us, I desperately want to avoid this.

For me, Orthodox Judaism is the apex of merging ritual, philosophy, action, and love of my fellow human being. I cannot imagine leaving this community. Its commitment to a Divine Torah and Jewish law is unswerving, and its diligence for prayer and Torah study astounds me while the piety of humble Torah scholars inspires me.

For all that is right and meaningful with the community, we must be honest and admit that Orthodoxy is now facing an urgent existential crisis that affects us at our core. Those of us who care about the community need to muster the courage to meet these challenges openly, even if it means feeling the caustic sting of our colleagues and peers. If that is what needs to happen, then so be it. We should call for greater humility in the Orthodox community and commit ourselves to face its problems while checking our defensiveness, territorial instincts, and triumphant illusions at the door.

There is no shame in publicly admitting that we are struggling. Only by overcoming our communal fears can we engage with and display greater tolerance toward those who disagree with us.

This would be a modest, but crucial, first step.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of nine books on Jewish ethics.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of ten books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews.
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