Is American Modern Orthodoxy Facing a Schism?

Recent survey data indicate that Modern Orthodoxy (MO) is indeed moving toward a possible schism, but it may well be our attitudes as much as the differences among us that will determine whether that occurs.

There has been a perception in recent years of growing – and worsening – polarization across Modern Orthodoxy. The 2017 Nishma Research Profile of American Modern Orthodox Jews did in fact confirm that those on the right have, over the past 10 years, shifted strongly further to the right, while those on the left have shifted further left.

However, questions regarding the extent of polarization are complicated, worthy of future research, and require some clarification.

Modern Orthodoxy Comes in a Lot of Varieties

Surveys of the MO community have generally viewed (or, at least, classified) the community homogeneously. But we wanted to explore how Jews position themselves across a spectrum of “sub-denominations” (for simplicity, we will refer to these as groups) within Modern Orthodoxy; and we wanted to explore differences among these groups. (We already introduced our concept of the five groups in the chart above.)

We labeled five groups, from left to right (based on what we heard in a series of interviews and guidance from the study’s advisory group), as follows: Open Orthodox, Liberal Modern Orthodox, Modern Orthodox, Centrist Orthodox and “Right-wing” Centrist Orthodox (e.g., tending toward Yeshivish).

Interestingly, 93% of respondents were able to identify themselves as ”belonging to” one of the five delineated groups, and so it is clear that MO Jews have a sense of where they fit across the spectrum.

One thing the overall survey findings revealed is that MO Jews are very far from homogeneous, and this applies to almost all of their beliefs, religious observances and attitudes as well as their demographic characteristics. Indeed, the variations within MO are arguably broader than those within the Chareidi world, or within Conservative or Reform Jewry.

Is Polarization Increasing?

While we see that there is currently much variation across Modern Orthodoxy, we do not know statistically how the relative percentages comprising the various groups have changed over time, and thus we do not have empirical trend data based on this question to state that fragmentation is growing.

We do know that the Open Orthodox movement, which has spurred and has given an ideological voice to the MO left, came into existence only twenty years ago, and we also know from the survey data that Modern Orthodoxy overall has become more observant over the past decade. These factors – the emergence of an Open Orthodox movement as a vibrant option on the left, the overall shift to the right, and at the same time (and perhaps as a result of the two trends) the growing and public debates about issues such as the role of women – support the thesis of a widening rift, albeit not verifiable by statistical trend data (over time).

Returning to the original finding above (that those on the right have shifted further right, while those on the left have shifted further left), what we do know is that those now on the right have more often shifted to the right and those now on the left have more often shifted to the left. This makes sense, since people’s past shifts have played a role in where they currently see themselves. Just saying the current left has shifted left and the current right has shifted right might be overstating the extent of polarization. We need to explore this further.

Where is the Next Generation Heading?

A key question is, will today’s right continue to shift further to the right, at the same time that today’s left continues to shift further left? Some data to help us think ahead on this issue is found in how survey respondents described their children’s observance (we asked specifically about the oldest child age 14+), i.e., are their children more or less observant than they are? Overall, we saw a “status quo”: one-third (33%) said their children are less observant than they are and one-third (33%) said their children are more observant than they are.

But how does this play out among the left-to-right groups within Modern Orthodoxy? To some extent, if there are variations among the groups, this might give us a sense of how the religious landscape could change over the next generation. The following chart is similar to the one shown above, but instead of exploring respondents’ personal changes in observance, we are now looking at how their children’s level of observance differs from their own.

If we were to “fast-forward” 35 years or so (the median current age of the oldest child), this could give us some sense of the direction toward which the future religious landscape is moving. The children of today’s right-most group are currently a bit more to the right of their parents and most will likely continue to define themselves as right-wing Modern Orthodox (although the verbatim responses explaining how they are more observant did indicate that some may move to the Chareidi world). The children of today’s Liberal Modern Orthodox are a bit more to the left of their parents and most will likely continue to define themselves as left-wing Modern Orthodox. But the children of today’s Open Orthodox are substantially to the left of their parents. Some may leave Orthodoxy, but those who continue to define themselves as Modern Orthodox will be further left than today’s Open Orthodox, and this could stretch the fabric of Modern Orthodoxy.

So Where Does This Leave Us?

An observation in the survey report is worth repeating: “The wide range of identities, beliefs and practices challenges perceptions relating to the extent of uniformity (or close to it) in normative compliance. This wide range may ultimately affect the viability of there being a single camp known as Modern Orthodox. In the future, some Orthodox-identifying individuals may well stay within this camp, or they may seek a place in an adjacent ‘tradition-leaning’ community.”

We need to also remember the survey finding that it is the sense of community that gives MO Jews the most satisfaction, joy or meaning to their Jewish life. Across the spectrum, there is much love of being a member of the Modern Orthodox community – despite complaints and quibbles.

Will there be a schism? It’s really going to be attitudinal. We Modern Orthodox Jews have never been homogeneous in our beliefs, practices and attitudes, and we have long recognized and lived with diversity among us. If we continue to recognize and accept our diversity and our differences, our tent will be larger and stronger, and we will might even have opportunities to learn from each other.

About the Author
Mark Trencher is president of Nishma Research, a sociological and market research firm focused on the Jewish world. He was the lead researcher on two recent ground-breaking quantitative studies, the 2016 study of people who have left Orthodoxy (the "OTD study") and the 2017 study of the Modern Orthodox community.