David S. Zinberg
David S. Zinberg

Restating the fundamentals of Modern Orthodoxy

Not very long ago, Modern Orthodox Judaism was confident and largely cohesive.

There was much for which to be proud. In the decades following the Second World War, Modern Orthodoxy in the United States — based loosely on European models, but uniquely American in character — achieved what was once unimaginable: an uncompromisingly traditional, professionally successful, and culturally integrated American Jewish community. For members of this branch of traditional Judaism, the future seemed bright.

But in recent years, self-assurance has given way to nagging self-doubt and disillusionment. Many who once identified with Modern Orthodoxy, especially to the right and left of its center, have broken ranks. Like many ideological expatriates, they believe the movement has lost its way and that they alone remain true to its vision. Some have come to reject the vision altogether.

The result is a variety of nascent sub-Orthodoxies.

In place of the Orthodoxy formerly known as “Modern,” we now have Open Orthodoxy, Neo-Chasidism, Centrist Orthodoxy, and Right-Wing Modern Orthodoxy. No doubt, others will follow. For the most part, the splintering is driven by a general identification with Modern Orthodoxy’s mission, but deep disagreement over its practical implementation and philosophical direction.

Some are predicting an imminent schism between the left and right wings of the community. A series of measures and counter-measures (or counter-attacks) by rabbinic groups may represent the beginnings of a permanent rift. There are leaders on both sides who appear to welcome it.

But many of us who were raised in Modern Orthodox communities question the need for a split or even a major course correction. I and many of my generation have not given up on the beliefs and practices of our youth. We believe that Modern Orthodoxy lies on solid ground and requires no apologies. We also believe that its center can hold.

I am not advocating a bourgeois complacency that champions “mesorah” (tradition) above all else. The Modern Orthodox mandate, by definition, is to partner with humanity in its intellectual, scientific, and social progress; we believe this is a moral and religious obligation. True centrists recognize not only the need, but the value of adapting to contemporary reality (see, especially, items 1 and 12 below).

Instead of a breakup, our community would be better served by a renewal of vows. These are confusing times — a restatement of core values could help us all remember what brought us together in the first place.

What, then, are the defining principles of classic Modern Orthodoxy?

Below are twelve positions — necessarily broad and oversimplified — that I believe represent the essential values of the Modern Orthodox community. The list is illustrative, not exhaustive. But this is a minimum standard. These fundamentals could be — really, they already are — the basis of a renewed, center-oriented Modern Orthodox platform.

This is the Modern Orthodoxy that many of us call home and have no plans to abandon.

1. Halakhah
While anchored in the Torah, Talmud, and rabbinic tradition, Halakhah is shaped by, and responds to historical and cultural circumstances.

2. Ethics
Halakhah demands adherence to the highest moral standards. Proper behavior is dictated by traditional Jewish values and modern ethical norms.

3. Torah Study
Torah study is a primary Jewish value. Such study should almost always be pursued in conjunction with self-sustaining employment. Full-time Torah students are not automatically entitled to financial support by the Jewish community.

4. Work
Work is an ennobling pursuit. Work should not be viewed as a necessary evil whose purpose is limited to earning a living.

5. Secular Knowledge and Culture
The best of secular learning and culture has inherent value beyond any economic benefit.

6. Science, Creation, Evolution
The earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old. Evolution is the best scientific explanation for the development of life on earth. The account of creation in the Book of Genesis is religious, rather than scientific. Since the Torah is not a scientific work, scientific fact and theory neither conflict with nor confirm the Torah.

7. Theodicy
Theological justifications of evil — e.g., the Holocaust was God’s punishment for Jewish assimilation — are wrong and offensive.

8. Zionism and Israel
Both secular and religious Zionism are legitimate ideologies. The State of Israel is the fulfillment of religious and secular aspirations for an independent Jewish homeland in the Land of Israel.

9. Non-Jews
All human beings are created equally in the image of God. The Jewish community must work in fellowship with its non-Jewish neighbors towards the betterment of society.

10. Non-Orthodox Jews
There is one Jewish people. We share a common destiny and many religious values with non-Orthodox denominations and we must cooperate on issues of mutual interest.

11. Dress
Dress is a matter of individual taste, within the bounds of propriety determined by local custom.

12. Women
Women are free to pursue careers of their choice. They may attain the highest levels of Torah scholarship and assume leadership roles within the Jewish community.

About the Author
David Zinberg lives in Teaneck, NJ with his wife and three sons and works in financial services.
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