In a recent Times of Israel post, Eitan Gross boldly pointed out what he sees as a “glaring hypocrisy and internal contradiction” within the Modern Orthodox community. After pointing out several challenges which the Modern Orthodox community currently faces, Gross offered two suggestions of his own to “help Modern Orthodoxy strengthen its status as a Halakhic movement that inspires teenagers to appreciate, enjoy and be proud of living a Torah-true Jewish life”: 1) Modern Orthodoxy should place an emphasis on the truth of the tenets of Judaism while also taking on an inspirational educational approach that creates a desire to be closer to Hashem; and 2) schools and parents should be on the same wavelength when it comes to teaching children right and wrong. This involves parents taking steps to filter out aspects of “secular culture which indoctrinate youth with views that are antithetical to Jewish values”.
It is true that Modern Orthodoxy is currently fighting an internal war between Jewish and secular values. It is also true that the secular values are winning the day in many cases. Placing a greater emphasis on Judaism’s truth claims and encouraging parents to take greater steps to show their children a consistently Halakhic lifestyle will no doubt help to turn the tides of those battles. I would like to add to the discussion by drafting a methodology to help Modern Orthodoxy inspire young adults to appreciate, enjoy and be proud of living a Torah-true Jewish life.
When people are asked to define their Modern Orthodoxy, they will often give two types of responses. The first is to say, “I’m Orthodox, but…” I’m Orthodox, but I eat dairy out of the house; I’m Orthodox, but I watch Game of Thrones; I’m Orthodox, but I go out to college parties; etc. These types of responses imply an irreconcilable contradiction between the actions taken and the otherwise Orthodox lifestyle that the person in question may want to lead. Despite this contradiction, they may take part in the activities anyway and justify it by saying, “It’s okay because I’m Modern Orthodox and Modern Orthodox people do modern things like this, even if it’s not so Orthodox.” It seems to be this type of response that categorizes many of the people Gross had in mind when writing his piece and certainly characterizes many whom I have met throughout my secular college experience.
The second type of response that people will often give is, “I’m Orthodox, and…” I’m Orthodox, and I learn secular subjects; I’m Orthodox, and I read contemporary literature; I’m Orthodox, and I watch certain television shows; etc. This type of response sees Orthodoxy and secular culture not as inherently at odds with each other but as complementary. Secular culture is not inherently evil and will not always lead good Modern Orthodox children off the derekh. In fact, there are many positives that can only be brought into a Jewish lifestyle by working in partnership with the surrounding secular culture. It is this type of response which has been characterized by famous Modern Orthodox thinkers such as Rabbi Norman Lamm, shlita and Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, z’tl. It is also this “Orthodox, and” approach that I firmly believe will lead to a resurgence of a vibrant Modern Orthodoxy that is able to inspire its adherents to appreciate, enjoy and be proud of living a life of Torah.
Of course, an “Orthodox, and” approach does not give Modern Orthodox high school and college students free reign. To quote Rabbi Yitzchak Blau, shlita, in the context of Modern Orthodox Jews and television usage, “even the most ardent Modern Orthodox thinker presumably finds some aspects of the outside world not worthy of encountering…we can relinquish some openness and adopt a bit of insularity in the quest for preserving our most central values…”
While there are certainly aspects of secular culture which do not belong in an Orthodox context, ignoring said aspects entirely will not make them go away. Neither will rejecting those aspects without providing a sufficiently compelling reason to do so. If Modern Orthodoxy is to continue to be a movement that is, to quote Rabbi Lamm, “Halachically legitimate, philosophically persuasive, religiously inspiring, and personally convincing,” it must define itself and make use of its love of nuance and intellectual honesty when interacting with secular culture. If there are aspects of secular culture which benefit Modern Orthodoxy, we must know why. If there are aspects of secular culture that are alien to Modern Orthodoxy, rather than pretending they don’t exist and hoping that Modern Orthodox individuals will never discover them, we must outline why those aspects of culture have no place in the value system that Modern Orthodoxy holds dear.
If Modern Orthodoxy cannot take an honest look at the world around it and say, “This is good, let’s use it,” or, “This is bad, here’s exactly why we should not make use of it,” then there is no hope left. As Rabbi Norman Lamm said, “because of our ideological self-confidence- we must be ready to confront, firmly but respectfully, any challenges to our position[!]” Ignoring the challenges which face Modern Orthodoxy or rejecting those challenges without providing a compelling reason for the community to do so neither demonstrates strength nor properly confronts the challenge at hand. Modern Orthodoxy has never been known for being afraid of the dark, so why start now? Modern Orthodox Jews should take pride in the fact that we are Orthodox and Modern, not Orthodox but Modern.