Modern Orthodox Imbalance

In preparing a talk I recently gave on Redefining Modern Orthodoxy in Israel, I had occasion to revisit Prof. Jack Wertheimer‘s superb essay, ‘Can Modern Orthodoxy Survive?’ and the responses thereto. The article and the responses (save one) provided trenchant and fascinating food for thought about the present and future of the Modern Orthodox experiment both in the Diaspora and here in Israel.

In summarizing the responses to his essay, Wertheimer noted that the primary concern that was expressed was the perceived threat posed to Modern Orthodoxy by Haredi Judaism (especially via the latter’s influence upon putative Modern Orthodox institutions, such as Yeshiva University and the Orthodox Union). This is a remarkable, and extremely problematic position for any portion of a community that defines itself as Orthodox.

To begin with, we must parse the nature of the Haredi ‘threat.’ If this is represented by moves to erase women from the media and the community; by the ceding of authority in critical areas to Haredi rabbis, then the concern is certainly real and must be addressed by both rabbis and laypersons. The Modern Orthodox Community must stand up for the advancement of women within and without its ranks (to the degree the Torah credibly allows, of course). The unparalleled and unjustified extremes to which the Laws of Modesty have gone must be rejected. The inequalities and perversions of justice that occur in the realm of divorce must be ameliorated. A credible model for conversion (which is more an Israeli than a Diaspora issue) must be adopted, and so on.

However, all too often ‘Haredization’ (aka ‘Sliding to the Right’) is identified with intensification of piety, increased Torah Study, along with greater precision and punctiliousness in the observance of God’s commandments. Here, no community that strives to uphold Orthodox Tradition can but endorse such developments (never mind distance itself therefrom). The fact that ritual and moral piety were not always the hallmarks of the Modern Community (as represented in the US by the so-called ‘Young Israel type,’ which parallels the Israel Mizrohnik) is not an excuse. Indeed, this type of spiritually shallow and ritually deficient type of behavior were precisely the reason that Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik זצ”ל never self-identified as a Modern Orthodox Jew (while his son in law, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein זצ”ל adopted the Centrist moniker). I understand that the increase in observance, which often calls into question the integrity of previous generations, is uncomfortable and people like to do what they like to do. In addition, Freedom of Will is certainly given to all. However, to bemoan such trends officially is indefensible.

On the other hand, it was still stunning (though not all that surprising) to read Wertheimer’s observation that ‘All but one seem to regard the haredim as the “other” with whom Modern Orthodoxy must contend; by contrast, the more liberal Jewish denominations barely register in these responses.’

In my experience, there are two reasons for this. To start with, Orthodoxy has defied all of the predictions of its demise. Few can believe today that only fifty years ago, Marshall Sklare, the preeminent sociologist of American Jewry dismissed Orthodoxy as a fossil. Or that when Charles Liebman published his prescient study of Orthodoxy and its future resurgence, his colleagues thought his predictions risible. Today, the non-Orthodox denominations are at a serious cross roads, as they try to deal with the trends unveiled by the PEW Report of 2013. So, from a formal, institutional vantage point, Non-Orthodox denominations do not really constitute a threat to Orthodox continuity.

However, it remains stunning and instructive, that none of the respondents questioned (or even expressed some measure of discomfort) the challenge posed to Orthodox Judaism by the (Post)Modern World with which Modern Orthodoxy purports to interact. This omission, which Prof. Wertheimer does not note in his summary, is fraught with serious consequences. Contemporary Western Culture, which denies advocates values and actions that cannot be squared with any form of credible Orthodoxy, does threaten Modern Orthodoxy with corrosion from within. This, however, depends upon the model on cultural interaction that one chooses.

If one assumes that (Post)Modernity must be coterminous with Judaism, along the lines that Medieval Jewish Philosophers posited (v. R. Sa’adiah’s Introduction to the Emunot ve-De’ot or Guide to the Perplexed I, 71), then one eventually subjugates Judaism to the former and one often finds oneself using various tools, disciplines and arguments to adapt the Torah to a (Post)Modernity which is all too often uncritically embraced.

The result of such an orientation, is extremely problematic. As I wrote a number of years ago:

Making Judaism dependent upon external systems of thought and values, denies its integrity and, effectively, eviscerates it. The Torah, at this point, becomes a mere function of transient intellectual and cultural fashion; nothing more than a Jewish decoration (as it were) upon another culture. Anything that was originally part of Judaism that does not align itself with current norms will simply be dispensed with. Ultimately, the Torah itself is easily dispensed with. After all, if one’s central values lie outside of Judaism, why make the effort to maintain it, since sentiment alone is hardly strong enough to withstand the pull of a larger culture? The inevitable result, then, is assimilation, which is simply the exchange of one identity and value system for another.

In many cases, this is precisely the model that is advocated by Liberal Modern Orthodox rabbis and leaders. This model of Orthodoxy is deeply out of balance, tilting away from itself. Here, the example of the Non-Orthodox denominations does represent a plausible foil. For it was precisely this model that underlay Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionism. So, while the other streams might not pose an institutional challenge, their example should be a warning to those who wish to march Orthodoxy down that path.

It is my conviction that a healthier, and more responsible, approach to cultural interaction assumes a judicious encounter of Judaism, which possesses its own integrity, with outside culture. Ideas and challenges, insights and questions, models and possibilities posed by the later can and should be explored and judged as to their appropriateness and possible adaptability to Torah and the worship of God. However, God and the words of the Torah have the final say and that say may well be ‘No’ or ‘Partially Yes.’

As I noted in the above essay, which addressed the issue from the point of view of Rav Soloveitchik’s epistemology:

At the same time, he definitely did not advocate a blind, ‘know nothing’ or fundamentalist stance toward the outside world and its culture, and their relationship to Torah. His epistemological model, which was beautifully mapped out by my teacher, Prof. Yitzhak Twersky z’l, assumed that one should courageously enlist the full panoply of Western culture for the explication and enhancement of Judaism. Judaism, in the Rav’s model, creatively engages and interacts with other systems of thought and value. It is enriched and our appreciation of it deepened by that interaction. It does not, however, subordinate itself to them, or makes its validity contingent thereupon.The core values and institutions of Judaism, rooted in the Talmud and its literature, control and balance the manner in which outside forces and ideas impact upon (and stimulate) it.                                                         

Of course, this approach will likely be seen to be an anathema to many who are immersed of Western Thought today as it presumes Faith in God, Deference to His Will as expressed in the Written and Oral Law (although subject to a fair degree of responsible interpretation), Belief in Absolute Truth and a degree of Essentialism (which is, by the way, making a comeback of late.) In addition, it is truer to the way that great sages and halakhists, leaders and thinkers have comported themselves in the past.

The future Modern Orthodoxy in the Exile (even as we, in Israel, strive to create a native Israeli version thereof) will be determined by the choice of model of interaction that its people choose.

About the Author
Jeffrey Woolf is an Associate Professor in the Talmud Department at Bar Ilan University. He is both a Medieval and Renaissance Jewish Historian, and an Orthodox Rabbi who is a long time advocate of the creation of a uniquely Israeli form of Modern Orthodoxy.