How Modern Orthodoxy survives

Much of American Jewish sociology is a study of failure. The most socially and economically successful community in Jewish history has failed culturally and religiously. Many of the descendants of the Jewish immigrants to the U.S. have been unable to hand on their Jewish identity to subsequent generations. In their turn, the fourth and fifth generations of the remaining American Jews are often losing their children to intermarriage. These children may feel connected to the Jewish homeland, Israel, but their link to the Jewish people (Am Yisrael) is increasingly faint.

Nothing illustrates the shallowness of American Jewish life better than the recent Pew Research Center report “A Portrait of Jewish Americans.” Pew claims that 94% of American Jews are proud to be Jewish. However, they are not proud nor engaged enough to perpetuate themselves as Jews, as their 61% intermarriage rate shows. Nor are they proud enough to keep the most basic aspects of Jewish practice. Only 23% go to some form of religious service more than once or twice a month (and under half of these attend at least every week). Still, there was some good news. Pew states that 42% of American Jews regard having a good sense of humour as essential to being Jewish. American Jews may not have Jewish grandchildren, but there will be another Seinfeld.

It was therefore a pleasure to read Prof. Jack Wertheimer’s important recent articles on American Orthodox Jews, whose survival as a group was one of the surprises of the second half of the twentieth century. Wertheimer has written a profile of the Haredim in Commentary and a similar portrait of the Modern Orthodox in the U.S. for Mosaic Magazine. In both cases, he provided a sympathetic view that was fair to all sides of the argument. These articles were a notable contrast to how some American Jewish publications write about the Orthodox and how the Haredim discuss the Modern Orthodox. Although Wertheimer only dealt with Ashkenazim, the Sephardim are to an extent affected by similar issues, although they are more closely tied to Israel.

Writing in Mosaic Magazine, Wertheimer identifies the tensions inside American Modern Orthodoxy that make it dynamic and that could destroy it as a religious movement. He argues that Modern Orthodoxy is being eclipsed demographically by the Haredim and that Modern Orthodox Jews’ insufficient confidence leads some to adopt Haredi norms (which they believe stand for authenticity). Most importantly, there is a “culture war” within Modern Orthodoxy. The forces of tradition and modernity, he writes, are pulling Modern Orthodoxy apart:

“At bottom, this internal struggle is over nothing less than the foundational assumption of the movement: that it is indeed possible to combine fidelity to traditional Judaism with modern values and understandings.”

Forces of Modern Orthodox cohesion

While Wertheimer’s caution about Modern Orthodoxy’s unity in the U.S. is appropriate, there are three social forces keeping the movement intact that deserve more attention: Israel, daat torah, and the American Modern Orthodox public. What could destroy Modern Orthodoxy, however, is its rabbinate.


The State of Israel unites the Modern Orthodox and creates a distance from the Haredim and the non-Orthodox. Orthodox Jews, and Modern Orthodox Jews even more so, have a different relationship to Israel than most of the non-Orthodox. For some non-Orthodox Jews, Israel is an advocacy issue, a foreign country to which they have a significant connection. Others are strongly attached to the Jewish homeland. Many of these non-Orthodox Jews advocate for Israel and support Israel with money. They have friends, and sometimes family, in Israel.

The difference between the majority of Israel-connected non-Orthodox and most Orthodox Jews is the impact of halacha (Jewish law). Most Jews who conduct their lives according to religious law cannot avoid the fact that much of contemporary halacha emanates from Israel. Decisions by Israeli rabbis have a significant influence on the lives of many Orthodox Jews, in particular Sephardim and many Haredim. What has happened is that Ahad Ha’am’s notion of the Land of Israel functioning as a cultural center to revive the Diaspora has been realized—not in secular but in Orthodox terms.

With regard to the Haredim, the critical issue for the Modern Orthodox is the attitude to service in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). The Modern Orthodox are openly contemptuous of the Haredi refusal to join the IDF and the outright hostility of the Haredim to the Israeli armed forces. Along with secular Israelis, the Modern Orthodox, and their Dati Leumi (National Religious) brethren in Israel, resent the Haredim mocking the uniforms that guard them while they sleep. The anger at the Haredim is sharpened by the sense that the Datim Leumim (and by extension their American Modern Orthodox counterparts) are a Jewish and Zionist vanguard.

The return of the Datim Leumim to the Israeli government, notably through Naftali Bennett’s HaBeit HaYehudi party, and the exclusion of the Haredim, have added to these tensions. Indeed, the Datim Leumim are now politically more influential than they have been for many years and are represented in multiple political parties in the Knesset. They have already used their stronger position to press the Haredim on military service and, less successfully, to reform the Chief Rabbinate.

Daat torah

Wertheimer does not directly mention daat torah, the concept of obedience to rabbinic authority that runs through Haredi Judaism. The Haredim assure us that daat torah, which is difficult to define, is an ancient concept. By contrast, Rabbi José Faur, who opposes what he sees as a coercive and authoritarian approach to Judaism, argues that daat torah is of Christian origin.

Wertheimer is correct that there are parts of the Modern Orthodox world that ape the rabbinic attitudes of the Haredim. There is ample evidence that some Modern Orthodox are copying Haredi attitudes—as shown by the controversy over partnership minyanim, suggestions of greater segregation of the sexes at Yeshiva University, the reaction to women wearing tefillin, and restrictions on girls singing at day schools. As one Modern Orthodox rabbi remarked to me, graduates of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) at Yeshiva University are discouraged from making novel or noteworthy halachic rulings without referring back to their roshei yeshiva. Ordination from RIETS means that a rabbi is a local representative who cannot make any significant decision (for example about women laying on tefillin) without calling the head office.

However, this flirtation with Haredi norms is not the same as actually becoming Haredi and dividing Modern Orthodoxy. Some of what is happening is a “cultural cringe,” a feeling among some Ashkenazi Modern Orthodox that those to the right of them religiously are somehow superior in their devotion to Torah. The humra (stringent) mentality, that to be extra stringent is meritorious, is widespread throughout Modern Orthodoxy, including in Open Orthodoxy. It has even affected the Sephardim. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef zt”l mocked the Ashkenazim who piled humra upon humra, even as his own followers became ever more Haredi in practice and disconnected from Sephardi traditions.

In addition to understanding the difference between imitation and affiliation, we should also not overestimate the success and resilience of the Haredim. Sociological success is not ideological validation. Wertheimer is correct that Haredim “self-consciously insulate themselves to one degree or another from Western culture or explicitly reject the assumptions of modernity.” Put otherwise, Haredim have an incoherent approach to a world that they are necessitated to believe God created. Haredim accept the modern era à la carte. They want the benefits of modernity without the science. It is as if the Flat Earth Society were to take a round the world cruise.

This approach failed for a very long time. It remains intellectually bankrupt. Sociologically, it seems to work at present because Israeli government money subsidizes the Haredi lifestyle. The extent of subsidy is more limited in the U.S. where, as Wertheimer has argued, the Haredim have built a remarkable mutual support system. Many American Haredim are active and successful participants in the economy. This is one of the few instances in Jewish life where Americans are ahead of Israelis.

The Haredi model in Israel is now confronting a serious political and social challenge. The remarkable national unity among Israeli Jews during Operation Protective Edge will influence how Israeli society deals with the issues of Haredi military service and economic inclusion. Although some Haredi rabbis made the usual comments that were hostile to the state, some Hassidic groups made a point of supporting the soldiers. A very small number of Haredim have even sought to volunteer for the army.

The American Modern Orthodox public

The final, and underestimated, factor in keeping Modern Orthodoxy intact is the American Modern Orthodox public. Thanks to its independent-minded approach to rabbinic authority, the Modern Orthodox public exercises an important restraining influence. Such a wariness of religious authority runs through the Jewish tradition.

The manner in which the Modern Orthodox public draws boundaries affects relations with the non-Orthodox. Modern Orthodox Jews share a religious continuum with all other Orthodox Jews. They will pray in other Orthodox synagogues (except Neturei Karta, if they have one). For all their openness to non-Orthodox Jews, the Modern Orthodox generally do not pray in non-Orthodox synagogues. They may walk to a Conservative synagogue to attend a bar or bat mitzvah, but they will rarely be part of the congregation for prayers.

Within Orthodoxy, the Modern Orthodox want their rabbis’ marriages, divorces, and conversions to be recognized, whether in the U.S. or Israel. This creates opposition to Haredi influence over the Chief Rabbinate in Israel and a desire to avoid a split inside Modern Orthodoxy.

We can see the influence of the Modern Orthodox public on the manner in which their rabbis have stepped back from the brink of schism. The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) has been sorely tempted, and much provoked, into considering the expulsion of some Open Orthodox rabbis. Yet the RCA has refrained from taking this ultimate sanction. It has even, if grudgingly, supported the Open Orthodox in a dispute with the Chief Rabbinate in Israel. There is more to this than the RCA not wanting Rabbi Avi Weiss, the leader of Open Orthodoxy, chaining himself to the railings outside its offices. It is because the RCA’s Modern Orthodox constituency wants to be able to attend services at Ahavat Torah in Englewood, an RCA stalwart synagogue, and Rabbi Weiss’ Hebrew Institute of Riverdale—even as they may shake their heads in disapproval.

There is also a similar restraining effect on Open Orthodoxy, despite its desire to test the boundaries of Orthodoxy. Contrary to its critics’ claims, Open Orthodoxy is elementally different to Conservative Judaism. If the two were genuinely similar, then Ohev Sholom-The National Synagogue in Washington D.C. would be swapping congregants with Tifereth Israel, the Conservative synagogue across the road. Instead, both communities are growing. Moreover, Ohev Sholom holds Orthodox services with a mechitzah (in conformity with Orthodox practice), has a Maharat (a female member of the “clergy,” of which the RCA disapproves), and refuses to host a partnership minyan (two thumbs up from the RCA). It is also worth noting that the RCA sided with the Israeli Chief Rabbinate on the issue of conversion and adopted a modern bureaucratic approach. The Open Orthodox, however, argued for maintaining the traditional autonomy of the local Orthodox rabbi.

The rabbinic threat

The difficulty facing the Modern Orthodox public is that its rabbis have shown poor judgment and a lack of leadership. There is a danger that rabbinic miscalculation could lead to an irrevocable split in the movement.

The argument over women in Orthodoxy in the summer of 2013 demonstrated the rabbis’ failings. Two separate Modern Orthodox institutions certified women to perform very similar religious functions. In June 2013, Yeshivat Maharat, an Open Orthodox institution founded by Rabbi Weiss, had its first graduation of three women with the title “Maharat.” In August 2013, five women graduated with the title of “Yoetzet Halacha” from the U.S. program of Nishmat, an Israeli women’s yeshiva. A centrist Modern Orthodox body, Nishmat had already given the title to 80 women in Israel. Both graduations symbolized American Modern Orthodoxy’s recognition that women can make an important halachic contribution to their communities.

Instead of celebrating the common approach and the advance of women, Modern Orthodox rabbis resorted to the kind of rhetoric that they routinely denounce from the pulpit. The RCA condemned Yeshivat Maharat’s planned “ordination” of women as “clergy.” Ignoring that “ordination” and “clergy” are terms of dubious meaning in Orthodoxy (itself a difficult notion), the RCA called the move “a violation of our mesorah (tradition) and regrets that the leadership of the school has chosen a path that contradicts the norms of our community.” The RCA seems to have felt that Rabbi Weiss had reneged on his apparent 2011 promise not to ordain any more women as rabbis. Yet this apparently grave infraction elicited no response beyond encouraging discord within Modern Orthodoxy. The RCA managed simultaneously to assuage and aggravate the concerns of the Modern Orthodox public. One of the odder contributions was from Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, a former RCA vice president. Rabbi Pruzansky echoed the Haredi critique of the Open Orthodox by calling them “neo-cons,” before then gratuitously mocking Kurdish Jews.

Open Orthodoxy was happy to respond to these unhelpful pronouncements. Rabbi Weiss repeatedly described the Maharats as clergy and spoke of “ordination.” However, he later undermined his own point by explaining that all ordination meant was being able to make halachic decisions. Zelda R. Stern, the donor funding the post of the Maharat at Ohev Sholom in Washington D.C., also lit the touch paper. She described her background in Conservative Judaism, proclaimed that the Maharats were rabbis, and announced that “Money makes change.”

These overwrought statements about women’s role in Orthodoxy were largely theoretical. In practice, the Maharats may act as assistants to rabbis, and may even be referred to privately as assistant rabbis, but they do not function as equals to rabbis. Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld at Ohev Sholom stated that his synagogue is “not egalitarian” despite having a Maharat. Similarly, the women with the title Yoetzet Halacha may not have “ordination” or claim to be members of the “clergy,” as the Maharats do, but they are displacing rabbis as the people whom women approach to discuss personal halachic issues.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the controversy was that both sides overlooked the women pioneers in Torah study and halacha. Neither side acknowledged the many women whose devotion to Jewish learning had allowed them to perform the functions now taken on by the Maharats and the Yoatzot Halacha.


Modern Orthodoxy remains an ideological and social force in American Jewish life. The sometimes raucous debate within the movement is to an extent the product of weak leadership. The Modern Orthodox constituency prizes unity over rabbinic demagoguery, thereby partially compensating for the frailty at the top. However, the Modern Orthodox public cannot anticipate its rabbis’ follies. The rabbis may one day take their arguments too far. What may split Modern Orthodoxy in the end may not be a culture war, but a simple rabbinic mistake.

(The author thanks Prof. Jack Wertheimer for his comments on an earlier draft of this article).

About the Author
Andrew Apostolou is a historian based in Washington D.C. He has a D.Phil. in history from Oxford University and has worked on human rights campaigns in the Middle East.
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