Contemporary Modern Orthodoxy situates itself on two perplexing contradictions. Social changes in the modern world have greatly challenged our relationship towards secularism and its pervasive notions of tolerance and acceptance, whilst simultaneously, calls to reaffirm traditionalist ideals within more conservative sects of the community continuously grow. Yet, the very institutions we as a people tend to look towards for guidance during these important times, have failed considerably in modelling the appropriate means of respectful dialogue, necessary communication, and an understanding of opposing viewpoints.
Throughout the past few years, an increasing phenomenon throughout American universities, the same ones many of my friends hope to attend, has been an ideological illiberal resurrection of sorts. This homogeneous mentality has taken fold due to the passivity of all too many of us on college campuses. In an infamous viral video last year, Yale university students, in demanding safe spaces on University grounds, held that college not be about “creating an intellectual space, rather creating a comfortable home for us all.” Unfortunately, this assertion is increasingly commonplace in the Orthodox world.
Last year, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, (JOFA) the leading left-wing orthodox organization dedicated to the empowerment of women within a supposed halachic framework held its triennial conference. Almost comically, on the same day, at the same time, only a few blocks away, the Orthodox Union, the religious and political arm of the American Modern Orthodox community, held a groundbreaking Yom Iyun/Day of Learning. The symbolic timing of both respected groups represents the inability, and frankly, unwillingness to engage with viewpoints either foreign or unwelcome.
I, fortunately, was able to attend both.
As someone who grew up in a traditional shul of Beth Abraham in Teaneck, only to now attend Rav Avi Weiss’s Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and become well acquainted with Yeshivat Chovevei Torah as well as Yeshivat Maharat, I think my unique experience can help shed light on the growing chasm inside this religious denomination. Indeed, throughout my High School and experience, there existed a deep-seated resentment between those on the left and right of the religious spectrum, causing tension and unnecessary (and often permanent) division of friends. For example, although my High School allowed for the creation of a Women’s Minyan with girls donning tzitzit and tefillan, creating a strictly Orthodox minyan adhering to halacha proved a more challenging attempt, with significant and public resistance running high from students and faculty alike. In fact, at that very same JOFA conference, when I asked one of the noted speakers a question concerning the opening this traditional Minyan, she quickly affirmed the “inherent sexism” of such a Minyan.
At the same time however, there exists a stubborn refusal by the Orthodox Union to properly express sympathy and appreciation that some women don’t enjoy being relegated to the back of the shul on a consistent basis. Although the OU has created a Department of Women’s Initiatives, it has been, at best, excruciatingly slow at addressing the real concerns women from more open Orthodox communities have expressed.
These two respected institutions are a microcosm of a larger religious and bitter divide that I feel exists between Jews; those to the left or the right, those who are observant and those less so, those more demanding of change, and those accepting of the status quo. We as a Jewish people can not sustain ourselves on such growing divides and simultaneously have leading organizations that refuse to acknowledge the other one’s legitimate concerns.
The issues we as a people face today are of enormous magnitude, but it will be virtually impossible to address these problems if our own leaders of the American Jewish community can’t or won’t talk to one and other. That, to be quite clear, is the greatest problem facing us today. So I conclude by demanding that we hear the arguments put forth by whom we disagree in order to expand our Avodas Hashem and show rational thinking. Our institutions and organizations, as well as ourselves, must explore ideas, challenge accepted notions and learn to empathize, argue, and process negative emotions all for the purpose of creating a more united Orthodoxy.