My friend Peter Beinart has eloquently opened an important conversation, using as his lens the Modern Orthodox upbringing of Jared Kushner, now a senior advisor to his father-in-law, President Donald Trump.
The inherent and explicit failings of the Modern Orthodox establishment reach much wider than one individual, and anyway we can know very little about Mr. Kushner’s individual psyche and moral choices. These failings and contradictions have been inherent and apparent in our community for years, before Kushner ever attended New Jersey’s Frisch School.
As a branch of traditional Judaism, Modern Orthodoxy faces the Sisyphean task of reconciling — and in many cases reviving — Torah traditions within a modern reality and outlook. Complicating this further are such historically recent phenomena as the State of Israel, the post-Enlightenment shift to personal autonomy and voluntary philanthropy, and the post-War influx of Old World yeshiva righteousness into the American Jewish landscape.
In the past two decades, the post-Oslo polarization between true believers in a two-state solution and those who support increased settlements across the West Bank has found Modern Orthodoxy in a contradictory position. Its Israeli adherents are pushing the envelope on women’s participation and other progressive religious causes, while mostly advocating a right-wing pro-settler ideology within Israeli politics.
American Orthodox voices, including Modern Orthodox and even “Open Orthodox” leaders, are openly sympathetic to the settler narrative. And a significant portion of Modern Orthodox American youth spend a year or more studying Torah in West Bank yeshivas and seminaries. Even those staking out the progressive moral high ground here in the United States are often excusing or justifying the reactionary nationalist policies of Israel’s current right-wing government. Many do so enthusiastically and as an article of faith.
The Holocaust, which Kushner’s grandparents famously survived, has been invoked repeatedly by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and many of his Modern Orthodox admirers to defend right-wing policies that seemingly betray the fundamental imperatives of justice and peace.
Even our claim (and I include myself) of a Modern Orthodox “movement” is at least an exaggeration, if not disingenuous. Despite some new progressive Orthodox initiatives, including Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and the Uri l’Tzedek social justice campaign, Modern Orthodox sensibilities are still framed mostly by Haredi-oriented rabbis within Yeshiva University (YU) and the Orthodox Union (OU). When YU’s faculty voted “no confidence” in the university’s president, it was purely out of concern for their own careers amid financial mismanagement — with no mention of systemic sexual harassment and abuse within YU’s in-house high school.
In practice, it appears righteousness and accountability are not basic tenets of Orthodox or even Modern Orthodox culture. Whether or not the right-leaning OU — which also grievously enabled and elevated serial abuser Baruch Lanner as a dynamo for Jewish continuity — qualifies as part of the Modern Orthodox community, little has been done to avert subsequent or future abuses. As the executive who was supposed to reform that organization was being pushed out, one of the OU’s leaders unapologetically declared, “The post-Lanner era is over.” Or, as Kushner’s father-in-law would say, it was time “to move on.”
As an example of Modern Orthodoxy’s pervasive and permissive environment, it happens that Frisch itself had for years employed and touted Lanner as a teacher and administrator.
Given his unexceptional high school record, Kushner’s acceptance by Harvard highlights another iron-clad reality: the power of money, in Jewish as well as secular American life. With the understandable need to recruit and retain major donors to underwrite our economically unsustainable network of institutions, especially yeshivas and day schools, compromises are both inevitable and ubiquitous.
After Ivan Boesky was convicted of fraud back in the 1980s, the prominent arbitrageur and philanthropist asked that his name be removed from the new library of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the flagship academy of Judaism’s more progressive Conservative movement. Despite the more glaring and outrageous behavior of Kushner’s father Charles, who also served time in federal prison, a self-described “Modern Orthodox” (and presumably more devout) yeshiva still proudly carries the family name with no hint of stigma.
Perhaps a sense of shame is simply reserved for the “less religious” and not considered a requisite for Modern Orthodox society. Very few if any schools within the Orthodox or Modern Orthodox community don’t pay deference and reverence to their major donors, regardless of the frequent legal or moral entanglements. What message does this send to children of privilege, or to the children of parents like Peter or myself, who are expected to venerate such philanthropists?
Personally, I aspire to remain within the Modern Orthodox parameters, no matter how loosely drawn or poorly represented. But I have few illusions as to the purity of our enterprise. And I no longer pretend to myself that the problems are confined to a few self-important elite families or the occasional corrupt rabbi.
Sadly, any complaints against Jared Kushner’s adherence to “Modern Orthodox” values could be equally applied to hundreds of his peers. The institutions they support will continue to extol their virtues. And the rest of us will continue to write checks and to entrust our children. What other options do we have?
As Peter implies, we should not expect any serious “after action” reports, which in any case — based on past experience — would lead to no lasting improvements. We should draw the lessons for ourselves, both obvious and elusive. We should model the values we desire our children to embody. But let’s stop dignifying mediocrity and ivory-tower rabbinics by calling this a movement. At best, we are in stasis.