Is Modern Orthodox Outreach Possible?

“…Everyone knows that Am Yisrael is in grave danger. There is danger of assimilation, danger of mixed marriages, danger of people losing their way, danger of being cut off from roots and values. Can it be that only you can’t see it? As if this information is hidden somewhere? Is there any difficulty involved in obtaining the statistics on Jewish education in Israel and in the diaspora? Someone who cares enough can get his hands on the figures: sixty percent of Jews in the diaspora are being lost!

…If you understand the situation – and there is no reason or excuse not to – then you hear the cry that emanates from every part of the country, from every corner of the globe, expressed in the spiritual dangers surrounding us and threatening us on every side. Someone who cares knows what is going on, and once he knows he must ask himself: What significance does this knowledge have for me? To what extent does it cause me pain? To what extent do I identify with world Jewry, in fasting and prayer? To what extent is my spiritual world structured such that Knesset Yisrael and its dangers are on one side and I, with my considerations and private plans, am on the other?”
Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, Zt”l.

In Pirkei Avot, Hillel the Elder said that one should love every human being and strive to bring them closer to Torah. Similarly, Maimonides stated in his Mishneh Torah that there is an obligation for every Jew who sees their fellow walking down an improper path to attempt to correct their behavior. He goes so far as to say that one who has the opportunity to do this but fails to is equally responsible for that person’s sins.

Based on these and other sources, it can be compellingly argued that every Torah-observant Jew has an obligation to attempt to bring their non-observant peers closer to a positive and productive relationship with Torah and Mitzvot. This involves individually reaching out to as many of those peers as possible in an active way and demonstrating how Torah-observant Judaism can speak to them on an intellectual, emotional, and cultural level. Of course, such an attempt requires utilizing the wide spectrum of Torah Values and practices that exist within the observant community in order to locate that which best resonates with the individual needs of today’s secular or otherwise unidentifying Jews.

Under these assumptions, the “Modern Orthodox” community seems to find itself in the best possible situation to take on this challenge. No other branch of Judaism appears to be so firmly rooted in Torah and Mitzvot while simultaneously being fully participatory in contemporary culture. Many “distant” Jews should then be able to strongly connect to Modern Orthodox Judaism and find an ideological home within the Modern Orthodox community if such an option were to be presented properly to them. After all, being exposed to such a Judaism would demonstrate that it is possible to make religious a primary part of one’s life while not giving up on the most important aspects of their own cultural identity.

Despite this fairly obvious assumption, much of the kiruv (roughly translated as “outreach”) world[1] seems to be dominated by those representing various shades of American Haredi (roughly translated as “Ultra-Orthodox”) Judaism, including organizations such as Chabad,[2] Aish HaTorah, Chazaq, and more.

This article will not attempt to explain the factors which attract Haredim to professional kiruv[3] but will instead discuss several reasons why Modern Orthodox individuals, particularly those with rabbinical training from Modern Orthodox institutions,[4] often choose to devote their professional time and skills to those who are already situated within the Orthodox world rather than putting themselves into environments which are not already Orthodox-dominated.[5]

While those who choose to stay within the Modern Orthodox community would likely argue that they are doing their own form of kiruv by inspiring those who are already in Orthodox environments to be more religiously inspired, this is not the same as going into professional kiruv or working in otherwise non-Orthodox spaces. Kiruv, as used here, means reaching out to those who are not within the Orthodox community and attempting to grow a positive relationship between them and a life of Torah and Mitzvot.[6] It is that which I am pushing for in this article and which is in tremendous need of legitimate Modern Orthodox representation.

One of the biggest issues that prevents Modern Orthodox kiruv from being successful is that Modern Orthodoxy tends to be perceived as unattractive to those who are searching for a legitimate religious outlet. One need only to look at the traction of Eitan Gross’ now infamous Times of Israel blog post where he argues that the Modern Orthodox world is full of “glaring hypocrisy and internal contradiction.” Similarly, according to Noah Feldman:

“For many [Modern Orthodox Jews], the consilience of faith and modernity that sometimes appears within the reach of modern Orthodoxy is a tantalizing prospect. But it can be undermined by the fragile fault lines between the moral substructures of the two worldviews, which can widen into deep ruptures on important matters of life and love.”

Whether true or not, Modern Orthodoxy is often viewed as representing a life full of conflict, contradictions, and compromise without providing any ideal solutions. While various thinkers have addressed the dilemma of living a life of Torah U’Madda, very few of those approaches have been particularly popular or easy to understand among lay people. For that matter, such attempts very rarely even agree on the full parameters of such a hashkafa. To an outsider, Modern Orthodoxy then looks like a perpetual game of trying to have one’s cake and eat it too. Even if such a Modern Orthodox hashkafa can be developed, it is unclear how attractive it would be since many people likely prefer not to engage in such an intellectual balancing act to begin with.[7]

Additionally, Modern Orthodox individuals tend to be so intellectually and professionally driven that they often lack religious passion. Many people go through the motions of religious life but are not themselves passionate enough about living a Torah life and bringing others closer to it. How can the Modern Orthodox community then justify wanting to bring others closer to Torah and Mitzvot when its own adherents are so far away and often view the Haredi  world as more religiously equipped than themselves? Rabbi Asher Lopatin, then president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, noticed this and asked, “Do we as Modern Orthodox Jews have… religious rigor in our lives? Do we have…  passion? I think we see it in the Haredi and Yeshivish world, but we need to see it in our world.”

Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, a prominent Conservative Rabbi, hit the nail on the head when commenting on the success of Chabad on the American Jewish scene:

“Come as you are, do whatever you want to do in your private sphere, but when you walk into a Chabad house, we promise you it will be brimming with authenticity. Chabad knows that this world is full of… people who want to make their own choices in the private sphere, but when they do access religious living, they want it to be Torah-true. Chabad dresses the part, they claim to be the real deal, their theology is oblivious to the last 200 years of Western Thought and they make no judgments about who you are and where you came from. And you know what? Surprise surprise, they are the fastest growing segment of American Jewish life” (Emphasis added).

People ultimately want their religious experience to feel legitimate. Legitimacy in this context involves feeling consistent and not as if everything is a constant battle with no clear winner. It also inolves religious passion being consistantly demonstrated by its own membership. In order for Modern Orthodoxy to feel this way, it must be firmly and unapologetically defined and internalized in the hearts and minds of its adherents.

Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm himself articulated this during his time as president and Rosh Ha-Yeshiva of Yeshiva University:

“Merely to describe what we are is not a sufficiently convincing reason for being what we are or for persuading others to acknowledge our rightness and join our ranks. The greatest problem of modern American Orthodoxy is that it has failed to interpret itself to itself. This failure, which reveals itself in many ways, derives from a remarkable intellectual timidity which we should have long outgrown.”[8]

In order for Modern Orthodoxy to succeed as a vibrant and attractive group within Judaism, its own adherents first need to understand why it is a valid path and how it is at least as religiously legitimate its Haredi counterpart.

Exactly this issue recently came up on the pages of The Lehrhaus, when Rabbi David Stein argued that

“Modern Orthodoxy isn’t about compromise – it’s about embracing dynamic tension and attempting meaningful harmonization. And, if we are to survive, we must build educational institutions that can inspire our students to engage in that process. To do so, we must think carefully about whether the structures in our school are designed to communicate these tensions, how our curricula provide students with the tools to navigate conflict, and whether we are sufficiently empowering them to find their own voices within these essential conversations.”

Stein’s article recently met with a response from Rabbi Herschel Grossman, who claimed that the ideal style of Modern Orthodox education should be based on the traditional yeshiva model rather than attempting to intentionally create an innovative or original style:

“In his haste to distinguish the Torah study of Modern Orthodoxy from the traditional yeshivot, Rabbi Stein does the community a disservice, for everything he is looking for is right there: project-based learning, and owning the material…Why should an emphasis on synthesis focus on adjusting the traditional methods of Talmud study, the fulcrum and foundation of Torah commitment, and not the STEM studies, sociology, or English literature?”

…Assuming that many of the traditional yeshivot are successfully transmitting Torah in an authentic form… why should Modern Orthodox students be denied access to the same? Let Torah be studied on its own terms. Let the students connect with the Tree of Life and let it define their essence. Once incorporated, its eternal light will naturally guide their study of madda, derekh eretz, activities, and investigations, thus achieving a true integration of the highest order.”

This discussion about the ideal style of education in day schools is but one contemporary example of the debate raging within the Modern Orthodox community about the path to be taken and how to properly relate to the Haredi world to our immediate right. Is the Modern Orthodox community capable of developing its own unique educational model, or can we only survive by replicating the model of the Haredi community and hoping that our students can somehow learn to remain part of general culture at the same time? This is not the time or place for me to weigh in on this particular question, but the fact that it is being asked is illustrative of the Modern Orthodox community’s current indentity crisis and lack of ideological self-confidence.

On the other hand, one thing that the Modern Orthodox community is certain about is its desire to be intellectually rigorous. A high premium is placed on literacy and fluency within rabbinic texts and most rabbis who are ordained within Modern Orthodoxy come out wanting and being prepared to teach Talmud at the highest possible level rather than introducing beginners to fundamental Jewish concepts.[9] Thus, someone who was raised without a mastery of Hebrew or Aramaic would have a very hard time benefiting from such an educational approach. This is especially true when the rabbis involved with teaching in mainstream institutions often have no interest in slowing their pace or “dumbing down” their material for the benefit of those who need to catch-up to their peers.

Furthermore, many of those who were raised within Modern Orthodoxy and intend to have careers within the rabbinate were likely raised with a certain level of comfort. They may have never lived in a community without an eruv, easy access to kosher food, several available minyanim at any time of day, and a strong group of Orthodox peers.[10]  All of these are comforts that many in the kiruv business choose to give up for the sake of reaching out to those who otherwise have no hope of being in conversation with a religiosity centered around Torah and Mitzvot. [11]

Even when rabbis raised in such communities do decide to venture out of their comfort zone and attain positions on college campuses, they often do this through the auspices of The Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus. While JLIC is a wonderful and much needed organization, it exists primarily in order to provide access to kosher food, minyanim, shiurim, and social events for an already-Orthodox constituency. It is not uncommon for students who were not raised religious to come to JLIC events and feel out-of-place. JLIC, then, is kiruv in the same way that teaching in any already-Orthodox institution is. Though a necessity on secular campuses, and a truly important job for Modern Orthodox rabbis to be involved in, it is not what I am pushing for in this article as it does not necessarily involve outreach to non-Orthodox students.[12]

In order to be successful in kiruv as well as inspire its own adherents, the Modern Orthodox community has to answer Rabbi Lamm’s generations old challenge once and for all by firmly defining itself in a manner that is “Halachically legitimate, philosophically persuasive, religiously inspiring, and personally convincing.”[13] What does Modern Orthodoxy believe in? What does it view as being beyond the pale? How can some level of diversity in practice and thinking be tolerated while still drawing lines? Only when the Modern Orthodox community is able to confidently articulate what it means to be Modern Orthodox will it be able to confidently and competently attract people to Torah and Mitzvot.

Such a definition, if internalized within the Modern Orthodox community, would put its adherents on a footing of certainty equal to their Haredi counterparts and allow them to go into the world of kiruv confident in themselves as well as in the holiness of their mission. They would not feel the need to have to prove themselves as legitimate to those on their left, those on their right, or to themselves. In my opinion, such a definition should take into account the words of Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg (Shagar) in the context of describing an “authentic Haredi” approach that could help sinspire the Israeli Dati Leumi community to  confidently be able to

“…choose itself without rejecting or delegitimizing other cultures, and without becoming rigid. Such a [religiosity] will excel at creating gaps between various frames of reference in a manner that retains the truth of each, and prevents the distortions that arise from attempted syntheses, while rigorously empowering and maintaining the boundaries of its own truth.”[14]

Unfortunately no such definition of Modern Orthodoxy has been offered and agreed upon as of yet. The community remains a mix of many different hashkafot, none of which fully agree or disagree with each other.

Once a clear definition is popularized, the Modern Orthodox community can comfortably join our Haredi siblings on the “front-lines” of professional kiruv. This can be by applying for jobs within established kiruv organizations, or by creating new organizations in order to develop a distinctly Modern Orthodox style of outreach that its adherents are uniquely qualified to participate in.[15]

While Modern Orthodox kiruv need not look like the Haredi variety, it must be approached with the same level of confidence in its ability to inspire and demonstrate an ideal way of interacting with the world around us. If it is important for Modern Orthodoxy to play an active role in kiruv, it is then equally important for Modern Orthodoxy to fully articulate what it stands for to itself as well as to others. Such a definition will not only help attempts to bring Jews closer to Torah and Mitzvot, but also to connect with those who are already within the Modern Orthodox community without truly knowing what that means.

!כי קרוב אליך הדבר מאד בפיך ובלבבך לעשותו

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[1] One notable exception is the Manhattan Jewish Experience, lead by Rabbi Mark Wildes. This organization performs kiruv with a firm Modern Orthodox flavor, though is limited mostly to Manhattan. In future articles, Rabbi Wildes’ model may be presented as a basis for expansion into a larger theoretical network of Modern Orthodox kiruv.

[2] It should be noted that Chabad specifically rejects the term “Orthodox” in favor of espousing a Judaism that is one big spectrum consisting simply of those who are more or less observant of Torah and Mitzvot.

[3] For extended discussion on this topic, see Adam Ferziger’s Beyond Sectarianism: The Realignment of American Orthodox Judaism as well as the various articles cited below.

[4] Particularly Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.

[5]Those who devote time to NCSY while in college are not included as kiruv professionals in this article. NCSY advising is a fantastic kiruv opportunity and should continue to be encouraged within the community, but hardly counts as a professional rabbinic career. I have been told that those who do devote their professional lives to NCSY are often not from Modern Orthodox backgrounds (either themselves baalei teshuva who were sinpired by NCSY or moderate Haredim). It should also be said that in many regions, NCSY is more “inreach” than outreach, catering mostly to those who are already situated within the observant world. This was, in fact, my own experience with New Jersey NCSY from 2011-2014.

[6] Though and ideal end-goal of this would be to develop full Torah observance, this does not have to be the case. In my mind, emphasis should be placed on the person’s relationship with Judaism and not necessarily the practices that they ultimately take on.

[7] It should be noted that the Post-Kollel “Working Yeshivish” model recently advocated by Rabbi Ahron Lopiansky in his new book, Orchos Chaim: Ben Torah for Life, can appear very similar to an “ideal” Modern Orthodox way of life, but without dealing the philosophical jumping jacks of Torah U’Madda. R. Lopiansky writes that pursuit of an occupation can and should be seen as “doing something useful and positive for the world at large… engaging in a mitzvah, refining our character, and engendering tikkunim on the way to bringing the geulah shleimah.”

[8] Taken from Zev Eleff’s “Modern Orthodox Judaism: A Documentary History

[9] Adam Ferziger, in his aforementioned book, writes that RIETS focuses on educating those who are already within the Orthodox fold by specifically training rabbis to match

“…the particular needs of a contemporary Orthodox constituency. That is, when dealing with congregants who are already halakhically observant and Jewishly knowledgeable, expertise in these subjects offers the rabbi the opportunity to present a more sophisticated, culturally contoured side of Judaism. This enables him to better communicate with the many academically educated and highly accomplished Modern Orthodox members of his congregation.

… it has become clear that over the last few decades servicing the broader Jewish community has been relegated to a low position within its list of priorities.”

[10] This is true even of those who attended a secular college such as the University of Maryland, Queens College, Rutgers University, Brandeis University, Columbia University, etc. rather than Orthodox institutions like Yeshiva University or Landers College for Men/Women.

[11] Certainly, many in the Ultra-Orthodox community also prefer having a certain level of comfort in their lives. However, they tend to be more passionate about the mission of kiruv and generally more secure in their religiosity than their Modern Orthodox peers, and have fewer employment opportunities, which better equips and incentivizes them for a life in kiruv. For various reasons, those within the Yeshivish world have even been choosing to pursue careers in kiruv over other options. For more information, see Ferziger’s article “From Lubavitch to Lakewood: The Chabadization of American Orthodoxy.”

[12] With that said, JLIC couples are often responsible for reaching out to students who grew up in Orthodox communities but have drifted away from traditional observance. The extent to which JLIC couples will actively reach out to those on the fringe of their community varies from campus to campus, but is certainly akin to the type of kiruv that I am otherwise pushing for, albeit still primarily within an Orthodox context. If JLIC were to start to prioritize kiruv in the way that I am writing about, as opposed to just passively accepting and assisting recent baalei teshuva who seek them out, it would paint a nearly perfect picture of my ideal.

[13] See Footnote 5.

[14] Faith Shattered and Restored: Judaism in the Postmodern Age, “Religious Life in the Modern Age.”

[15] What this style of kiruv may look like will hopefully be the topic of a future article.

About the Author
Steven Gotlib is a rabbinical student at Yeshiva University's Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, where is is also pursuing a Certificate in Mental Health Counseling in partnsership 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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