There Is No Schism… Yet: A Response to Moshe Kurtz

Last Friday, Moshe Kurtz wrote an article entitled “There is No Schism: “Modern Orthodoxy” has Two Fundamentally Separate Sects.” His general thesis suggested that “Right-Wing Modern Orthodoxy [RWMO] and Left-Wing Modern Orthodoxy [LWMO] are fundamentally two diametrically opposed ideologies that merely give the appearance of forming a spectrum…”

Before expressing my opinion on this important issue, I should state that Moshe and I have far more in common than what divides us. We are students at the same institution and both firmly identify within the “mainstream” or “centrist” Modern Orthodox community, which we both actively try to better. Were there to be a formal split within our community, I have little doubt that we would happily find each other on the same side.

Unlike my friend and colleague, however, I do not believe that Modern Orthodoxy has reached the point of schism. RWMO and LWMO happily daven at the same synagogues, attend the same day schools and summer camps, and work in the same organizations. Additionally, there are also many students at one rabbinic institution that can easily fit in at another. Despite outliers on each extreme calling for a formal separation, the middle ground is largely fluid. If schism were to be announced tomorrow, I see no indication of any of that changing. 

That being said, our community is dangerously close to a breaking point. My opinions on this matter were already expressed in an article that I wrote earlier this year, where I stated 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.” In other words, RWMO and LWMO are united in that they have the same fundamental starting point of a Divine Torah and binding halacha, but their underlying ideologies pull them in opposite directions.

As I quoted in my previous article, Rabbi Aryeh Klapper wrote in a JOFA Blogcast that the relationship between Jewish tradition and contemporary culture is “an ongoing dance in which each recognizes the necessity of partnering, although they may disagree as to who gets to lead.” Since neither side can agree on which gets to take the lead most often, it is no wonder that the greater community is being pulled farther and farther apart to the point of nearly shattering!

I believe that it is only through compromise that a truly diverse Modern Orthodoxy community can be saved. If a “big-tent” Modern Orthodoxy is to survive, each side needs to appreciate the strengths that the other brings to the table. To quote one of my own rebbeim, “If there is a split within Modern Orthodoxy; the Right will lose much of its moral compass and the Left will lose much of its Torah scholarship.” An ideal Modern Orthodoxy is one that is constantly looking for ways to be accepting, open, and thoughtful while never compromising on the Torah values that guide it.

Ultimately, it falls on those who are vocal within the LWMO community to say that enough is enough. LWMO has to realize that there is simply a point that is too far to ever be accepted from a Torah perspective. Sometimes things simply cannot be pushed any farther than they have already been. At some point, LWMO’s “progressive” values will move it so far to the left that it runs the risk of no longer being considered Orthodox at all. Rabbi Ysoscher Katz, often associated with LWMO, even admitted to this when he wrote (to the disappointment of many of his Facebook followers) regarding women’s issues that “Halakha has been stretched to its outer progressive limits; it cannot become more progressive than it already is.” If only this could be admitted so easily on every issue![1]

At the same time, it falls on RWMO to maintain morality and openness in the face of modern challenges. The worry of LWMO sliding down a slippery slope is no excuse for RWMO to lose track of the nuance and thoughtfulness that should be used in dialogue with any modern issue. RWMO cannot become so dissatisfied with modernity that it is thrown away entirely. As Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman stated, “our goal is not simply to sit, study and live in some ivory tower but that we must be fully engaged in the world and responsible to the world.”

If both sides work constructively, Modern Orthodoxy has a bright future ahead of it. If neither of these happen, I only hope that we can collectively pick up the pieces and, as Moshe wrote, “interact professionally and cordially while both [RWMO and LWMO] remain clear and resolute in their respective identities.”

I close this piece with a powerful quote from one of the Roshei Yeshiva of Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, Rabbi Jeremy Wieder:

“Motivations, reflecting the people who harbor them, are complex. We live in a complex environment, with many competing values and needs – all of which need to be reconciled in some way to allow us to function as a traditional community in a very untraditional world. Judging people’s motivations too often entails misjudging them. On the other side, there are those who dismiss opponents of change as reactionary or worse… ignorance of, or failure to understand, the far-reaching nature of social changes, as misogynists or as troglodytes. But the concern of holding the community together, keeping it connected with previous generations and traditions, and maintaining its fealty to halakha is very real, and has animated and informed the halakhic decisions of poskim for generations. The wrong kind of change has the potential to tear our community apart and rip it from the traditional moorings that anchor us. Reasonable people may disagree in some of the details, but as a community we would benefit greatly from learning how to disagree agreeably.”

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[1] It is important to note that I personally disagree with R. Katz’s fundamental approach tremendously. To paraphrase one friend of mine, “Halacha is not a rubberband to stretch and risk breaking; it is a forest to be mapped in the safest and most efficient way possible.” While I do not think that it is correct to envision halacha as something to be stretched in order to reach certain (often progressive) conclusions, I think people who see it that way can still find a place within the mainstream community as long as they know when to stop stretching and adhere to the authority of accepted communal poskim.

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Thank you to Moshe Kurtz for allowing me to respond to your article and for reviewing many drafts prior to submission. It is a pleasure to engage in this dialogue with you, which I’m sure will continue within our beis medrash come Ellul Zman.

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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