Harry Maryles

Whither Modern Orthodoxy

One of my not so happy predictions about the future of Judaism in America is that Modern Orthodoxy will become so overwhelmed by the rise of Charedi Judaism, that it is in danger of becoming a mere footnote in history.  If it survives at any level it will become an insignificant Hashkafa compared to the overwhelming numbers of Charedim whose population size has been increasing in far greater numbers than the population of Modern Orthodox Jews. Exponentially over generations!

At the same time I have also said that Charedim cannot survive without moderating some of their more right wing ideologies. Like the increasing tendency to look down at working fathers and instead encouraging them to stay longer in Kollel. This follows the Israeli ideal.

Even though there has been a significant increase in day schools and high schools that push this Hashkafa to the extent of not offering any secular studies — the reality is that most Charedi schools still offer secular studies. Furthermore the typical American Charedi man is quite mainstream in how he supports his family. Many have gotten a higher education and have attended professional schools.

This has resulted in jobs that are not significantly different than Modern Orthodox Jews. You can for example find just as many lawyers and accountants in Charedi circles as you can in Modern Orthodox circles. Which makes these two observant constituencies live similar lifestyles. I have called this new mainstream the New Centrists. Which are defined not by ideology (Hashkafa) but by sociology (lifestyle).  However, the greater number of Charedim means that the prevailing Hashkafos of the New Centrists will be more or less Charedi.

The question is, though, will the Modern Orthodox Hashkafa survive in a New Centrist culture composed primarily of these moderate Charedim?

I used to think it would eventually be so overwhelmed by it that it would not survive. At some point in the future the Modern Orthodox Hashkafa would become obsolete. But I no longer think that’s true. As long as there are institutions like Yeshiva University and the many Modern Orthodox elementary schools and high schools across the country — there will always be a critical mass of Modern Orhtodox Jews who will retain their Hashkafos despite their decreased proportion of the mainstream Orthodox world.

Which raises another question. What will the Modern Orthodoxy of the future look like?

Lila Sarick discusses these issues in the Canadian Jewish News from the perspective of a Canadian. Canadian Jews have the same issues we American Jews have albeit in somewhat of a microcosm since their numbers are significantly smaller than the numbers in the Untied States.

There is a vigorous and even contentious debate on how exactly to define the concept of Modern Orthodoxy. There are basically two disparate factions: Centrists and Liberals (also referred to as Open Orthodox) – each claiming the Modern Orthodox mantle and defining it as it’s future.

There are Centrists like me, that believe that Modern Orthodoxy is primarily defined by the supremacy of Torah study; the positive value we place on both worldly knowledge and engagement with the general culture; and a positive view on the modern State of Israel. Otherwise we are not that different than Charedim in the sense of theology, observing Halacha, and following tradition.

Liberal Modern Orthodox Jews follow Halacha and have the same positive view of Israel as Centrists. But in many cases they have departed from both basic Orthodox theology by (a) embracing or at least tolerating arguments made by the modern scholarship of the Torah — and (b) their rejection of tradition that contradicts modern concepts of ethical behavior.

These departures have caused a serious rift in Modern Orthodoxy that I am not sure can ever be mended. These Liberal Orthodox ideals have produced situations that are unacceptable to those of us that believe that our theology cannot be modified to fit modern interpretations of the Torah.  Nor is it acceptable to us to break away from tradition if it doesn’t fit modern ethical norms.

The following are excerpts from the CJN article that should surely give us food for thought:

 CJN columnist Norma Joseph, associate director of the Azrieli Institute of Israel Studies at Concordia University (said) Montreal is an anomaly – it has relatively few liberal synagogues and its Orthodox shuls attract people who may not practise an Orthodox lifestyle. This diversity has given her the freedom to pursue a professional career and be a feminist…


As modern Orthodox women are beginning to be ordained (often taking the title of maharat or rabba), the movement is still working out what role women will play in religious leadership. While some congregations have been willing to hire the newly ordained women, others have decided they are not ready.


The problem of biblical criticism, different ways of understanding the Torah, has also generated controversy in the United States, rabbis say. At the heart of the debate is whether the Torah, which Orthodoxy defines as the divine word of God given directly to Moses, is identical to the Torah we have today, Rabbi (Martin) Lockshin said.


“I think modern Orthodoxy in Canada is strong, but facing serious challenges,” Rabbi Torczyner said…


As an example, he points to what once were called “alternative lifestyles.”


“In the space of just a few years, we’ve seen a radical change in the way the western world looks at those relationships,” he said. “And while there are messages that could be consistent with themes within Judaism, the reality is you’re thinking about one change and already the next one has come along. Modern Orthodoxy ends up being behind the times in terms of how to deal with the new reality.”

Who will win the day? What will the Modern Orthodoxy of the future look like? Will it evolve into a something so liberal that it will become unrecognizable? Or will traditional beliefs and traditional practice rule the day? I have to believe that what has kept us viable in the past will continue to keep us viable in the future. Which for me means not veering away from traditional  beliefs and practices in order to fit the times. Those that say we must evolve right along with modernity if we do not want to left behind and become obsolete, have in my view not learned the lessons of history.

What about the hard right of Charedi Judaism? How much a part of the future will they determine? For example, will the practice of not publishing any pictures of women become the norm? It’s hard to tell but  I sure hope not. Which leads me to the final paragraph of the CJN article (quoting CJN columnist Norma Joseph) to which I am very sympathetic. And I too will close with it:

One of the challenges [for modern Orthodoxy] is separating from the ultra-right Orthodox, who have seemed to have marketed themselves as the only true Orthodoxy,” she said. “We need to bring back the centre and own it, and to market it with a pleasure and passion and not leave it just to the chassidic or haredi movement.

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.