Modern Orthodoxies

I recently wrote an article for the JOFA Blog in which I argued that the shared definition of mesorah used by both JOFA’s panelists and the Orthodox Union’s rabbinic panel can be used to unite Modern Orthodoxy  and open a door to future dialogue and unification. This article, rather than focusing on that which unites Modern Orthodoxy, seeks to examine that which divides it.

There have recently been many debates raging within the Modern Orthodox community about issues such as feminism, LGBTQ acceptance, interfaith acceptance, and acceptance of academic scholarship. While all of those debates are incredibly important, they have been discussed ad nauseam on Facebook and various blogs. Rather than beating a dead horse by focusing on one of those specific issues, this article seeks to examine one of the underlying differences in ideology that leads to these debates in the first place.

Beneath the technical issues of each current debate lies an underlying ideological argument about the role that Orthodox Judaism is supposed to play within the context of modernity. Should Orthodoxy  complement modernity and allow it to flourish, or should it tame modernity and ensure that only certain aspects of it are allowed to find a place within the contemporary application of Jewish law and theology? In other words, is Modern Orthodoxy supposed to be progressive or conservative at its core?

If Modern Orthodoxy is supposed to be progressive, then it is obviously the responsibility of its leaders and adherents to make modern life, as well as the socio-cultural and academic environment that comes with it, as easily integrated into Judaism as possible. After all, it’s called MODERN Orthodoxy precisely because it is able to change and evolve along with the world around it. As one Facebook commenter put it, “It is the job of the rabbis to see what people are doing and permit it if possible. When they do this effectively, while also inspiring people through the elevated way they live their lives, Halakhic Judaism survives and thrives.” This approach claims that it is the primary job of communal leaders to see what their constituency is doing and seek out a way to halakhically permit it, allowing their community’s practice of Judaism to change while minimizing conflict with the surrounding society as much as possible.

This progressive mindset seems to be shared by Rabbi Dov Linzer, Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, who writes that “Should we be bending the halakhah to conform to our modern notions of egalitarianism?’ is a reasonable question to ask and a hard one to answer. An honest answer requires finding within the Talmud voices that articulate those same values that are driving us. If such voices truly exist, we can maintain our fidelity not just to the forms of the system, but to its values as well.” While acknowledging that there is only justification for that which is expressed within the Jewish tradition, this approach involves searching the tradition for the voices that agree with the conclusions of contemporary culture, even if other voices may also exist within the tradition that contradict them. It ultimately involves knowing the destination  that one wants to arrive at before beginning the journey.

If Modern Orthodoxy is supposed to be conservative, it falls on the communal leaders and adherents to be counter-cultural and to actively fight against any innovation that is influenced entirely by contemporary society or that does not find a clear voice within the Jewish tradition. This idea was stated by Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman, president of Yeshiva University, at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary’s 2017 Chag HaSemikha;

“As rabbis, you will need to develop a deep understanding of the broader world and modern reality. You will need to speak directly to the hopes and concerns of this generation… and directly relate to the specific challenges and opportunities of our times. This may sometimes require you to challenge some elements of contemporary culture.”

While Rabbi Dr. Berman acknowledged the role that contemporary culture plays in the lives of Modern Orthodox Jews, he is clear that there are aspects of it which are not friendly to Judaism. Any rabbi who wishes to serve the Modern Orthodox community, according to Rabbi Dr. Berman, must be well-versed in the reality that they are serving as well as what the Torah teaches and how to apply it. This is true even if that application comes across as counter-cultural and against the very society that they are trying to serve. The idea of Modern Orthodoxy being meant to conserve traditional values and be counter-cultural at times is also shared by Rabbi Natan Slifkin, who wrote that “there is a difference between the natural, organic evolution of Judaism, and the cavalier dismissal of millennia of tradition and blatant rewriting of Judaism to make it conform with the contemporary liberal left-wing zeitgeist….to reduce Judaism to certain left-wing liberal views of the first decades of the 21st century is no less dishonest (and perhaps quite a bit more so) than defining Judaism as charedism or as rationalism.”

In JOFA’s recent blogcast, Rabbi Aryeh Klapper wrote that he saw the relationship between contemporary culture and Judaism’s textual tradition as being “an ongoing dance in which each recognizes the necessity of partnering, although they may disagree as to who gets to lead.” It is the disagreement about who the leader of the dance is that has lead to nearly every debate that is currently being argued. Those within the progressive camp feel very strongly that Modern Orthodox Judaism needs to change with the times if it is to remain meaningful and attractive to its current and future adherents. For them, it is culture that leads the dance. At the same time, those within the more conservative camp feel that Modern Orthodoxy must be a voice to stem the tide of contemporary culture and keep its adherents closely tied to the traditional values that unrestricted interaction with modernity threatens to cut off. For them, the tradition must lead the dance.

It is important to acknowledge that, to quote a previous article of mine, both the progressive and conservative mindsets stem from an “Orthodox, and” approach to Judaism. Both camps see themselves as being Orthodox Jews first and neither of them see dissonance between the positions that they take and their Jewish identities. To the contrary, they believe that their mentality is ideal for the survival of Orthodoxy. It must also be kept in mind that both sides view themselves as acting firmly l’shem Shamayim.

Unfortunately, it is precisely because of this that the progressive and conservative approaches to Modern Orthodoxy are diametrically opposed to one another. The passion of both ideologies keeps them moving farther and farther apart. Since the practice of Judaism comes from not only its written laws, but also the values that are used to guide their application, it seems as though it is only a matter of time before these two approaches split off from each other entirely.

As the two extremes become more and more polarized, where does this leave those in the center, who want to maintain one unified Modern Orthodox community? Rabbi Dr. Berman continued his speech by saying the following:

“To be an effective and respected counter-cultural voice, as opposed to one who is written off as simply out of touch with reality,  you need to acquire a deep familiarity with the intellectual and cultural metzius of our day. In applying Torah to reality, there are two requirements in order for one to speak with hokhma. 1. To know the Torah and 2. To know reality.”

In my earlier article, I wrote that in order for Modern Orthodoxy to remain relevant and compelling, it must be able to define itself with nuance. It must be able to provide intellectually compelling reasons for why those within it’s communities should live the way that they do. It cannot afford to run and hide from the challenges of contemporary society. It cannot afford to simply say “everyone around us is doing this, so it must be good” or “everyone around us is doing this, so it must be bad.”

As Rabbi Dr. Berman stated so powerfully, Modern Orthodoxy must be able to know what the reality around it is saying as well as what the Torah says back to that reality. Having a firm grasp of both of those is the only way to truly put Orthodoxy and modernity into conversation with each other. Sometimes, it may be that modern values do find powerful expression within the Jewish texts and tradition. Other times, it may be that those values are alien to Judaism and must be rejected. If Modern Orthodoxy is to continue as a force to be reckoned with within the Halakhically-observant world, it must keep all of this in mind. While Torah can always trump the contemporary socio-cultural climate, that climate can never and should never trump Torah.

About the Author
Steven Gotlib is a recent graduate of Rutgers University, where he studied Communication and Jewish Studies. He is now pursuing rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University's Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.
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