What is Modern Orthodoxy?

This is one of those instances where I have to say, ‘You’re both right’. But not entirely. I’m talking about a recent article by Rabbi Yitz Greenberg  in the Jewish Week — and Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer’s response to it in Cross Currents.

Rabbi Greenberg, who is certainly in the most left wing of Modern Orthodoxy, has written a rather lengthy lament about what has happened to Modern Orthodoxy in the last 50 years or so. It has moved to the right. And in some cases, lamentably so. I agree with him.

Just to mention examples cited or alluded to by Rabbi Greenberg: The fact that mixed seating at weddings is becoming harder to find; the ArtScroll phenomenon that puts a decidedly Charedi spin on biographies and history; the fact that a lot of MO schools have turned to Charedi rabbis as their mechanchim (for lack of finding enough Modern Orthodox mechanchim); and the fact that many of the ‘gap year’ yeshivos in Israel that are Charedi recruit in MO yeshivos.

This has indeed resulted in many young people raised in Modern Orthodox homes to become Charedi themselves — sending their own children to Charedi schools where they are taught values that are anathema to most Modern Orthodox Jews. Like the very negative view they take of the State of Israel, its leaders and founders; the view that Herzl is looked at as a rasha instead of an instrument God used to return the land of Israel into Jewish hands after 2,000 years of exile; the view that the Israeli army is a cauldron of anti religious assimilation instead of viewing it as Israel’s defense system;  the increasing devaluation of  secular studies and values; and the idea that insularity is the lifestyle of choice in order to avoid being influenced by those values. I could go on. But I think I have made my point.

Where I part company with Rabbi Greenberg is exactly the same place that Rabbi Gordimer does. Rabbi Greenberg believes that an important feature of Modern Orthodoxy should be to embrace the spirit of the times at the expense of traditional Orthodox values. Instead of lamenting the things I mentioned and trying to restore them as the legitimate values in Orthodoxy, he suggests that we return to a system that tolerated violations of Halacha as a means of retaining nominally Orthodox Jews that were not observant.

He further suggests we embrace innovations based on the spirit of the times in order to retain observant Jews that might seek membership elsewhere if their views are not incorporated in to the system.

This includes acceptance of organizations like PORAT that question the Divine authorship of the Torah. This is not Modern Orthodoxy. This is revisionist Judaism and not Orthodoxy — not all that different than the origins of the Conservative movement. It seems that Rabbi Greenberg’s motives are the same as the founders of that movement. He  wants to ‘conserve’ Judaism. But you can’t conserve something by changing it into something unrecognizable.

Modern Orthodoxy — like Charedi Orthodoxy is not some sort of malleable religion  where traditions can be discarded and its values re-shaped to fit the times. Trying to incorporate ideologies that contradict Jewish norms is not the way to conserve Judaism. It is the way to turn it into something unrecognizable. Embracing the conclusions of modern scholarship of the bible is a break from the fundamental tenets of Judaism. If Rabbi Greenberg wants to know where acceptance of his view will lead- let him look at the Conservative Movement. They —  like Rabbi Greenberg had good intentions. They wanted to conserve Judaism, too.

There is one thing that Rabbi Greenberg seems to misstate, that Rabbi Gordimer catches: that Rav Soloveitchik’s successors have not followed in his footsteps.  That is not true. Yes, it seems that Rav Soloveitchik (the Rav) placed a much greater emphasis on secular studies and culture than his successors at Yeshiva University seem to. And it is also true that the majority of the members of the RCA have taken a more right-wing stance on certain issues.

It is true that the RCA has turned rightward in the sense that they embrace a more traditional worldview which is closer to the Charedi worldview of their predecessors. But they have not rejected the values I lamented above – which have changed.

What about the Rav’s positive attitude about secular studies which Rabbi Greenberg’s says is no longer the case in the revised version of Modern Orthodoxy which he labels Charedi lite? Let us look at one of the Rav’s greatest students, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, zt”l. I hardly think Rav Lichtenstein’s PhD from Harvard in English Literature and his clear embrace of what he studied there shows any less appreciation for it than Rav Soloveitchik’s.

If one wants to truly define Modern Orthodoxy they should read the works of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, zt”l and Yibadel L’Chaim, Rav Aharon Rakeffet. These two great students of the Rav knew him best. And their values reflect his.

At the end of the day, there are three things that seem pretty clear to me:

One: The Rav would have never embraced the values Rabbi Greenberg is promoting here.

Two: Expanding the boundaries of Orthodoxy in order to save it will ultimately have the same effect it did when the Conservative Movement did it.

Three: An Orthodoxy that embraces both modernity and tradition is the Modern Orthodoxy of the future. If it even has a future.

About the Author
My worldview is based on the philosophy of my teacher, Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik , and the writings of Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitcihk , Norman Lamm, and Dr. Eliezer Berkovits from whom I developed an appreciation for philosophy. I attended Telshe Yeshiva and the Hebrew Theological College where I was ordained. I also attended Roosevelt University where I received my degree in Psychology.
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