Judah Kerbel
Judah Kerbel

Why I am a Modern Orthodox Rabbi

In a recent, thought-provoking article, Rav Efrem Goldberg declared that he is not a Modern Orthodox rabbi. Rabbi Goldberg admirably does not want to be boxed into a certain ideological camp, but would rather be part of a “post-ideological, broad and diverse Torah community.” There is something noble about being able to learn from different parts of Klal Yisrael and to transcend differences to serve Hashem holistically.

Yet, I feel it is important to clearly articulate why – although I share much of Rabbi Goldberg’s aspirations in this regard – I still think it is important to unabashedly consider myself a Modern Orthodox rabbi. My goal is not to critique Rabbi Goldberg — first, because I respect him and benefit from his Torah, and over the years he has been gracious to me with his time. Second, because who am I to tell someone how to label or categorize themselves? It is not for me to tell someone to use a label that does not work for them. My goal is just to present a different side of the conversation.

However, ultimately, I think it is important for rabbis leading Jews who identify as Modern Orthodox to stand for our convictions. Although these discussions have gone on for generations (perhaps ad nauseam), we must continue to state and articulate our values.

Before explaining why I think it is important that I am in fact a Modern Orthodox rabbi, I want to state that I do not see this label as being kodesh kodashim. The term was never defined ab initio to include any core principles. It seems the term has always been descriptive of certain ideological and sociological factors, but as far as I am aware, none of the great gedolim and rabbinic leaders of “Modern Orthodoxy” ever truly set out to create a “Modern Orthodox movement” with certain “Modern Orthodox values.” In fact, there has been great disagreement over the past century as to what Modern Orthodoxy really is (see Dr. Zev Eleff’s book Modern Orthodox Judaism). In recent years, some have attempted to reshape what it means to be Modern Orthodox in ways with which I do not agree for halachic and hashkafic reasons. My opinions are not shaped by a desire to conform with or defined by what it means to be “Modern Orthodox,” but rather I find that in certain situations, I believe Modern Orthodoxy is best equipped to respond to the needs of the generation.

Furthermore, the term comes with baggage. When someone describes someone as being “very modern,” it’s often a pejorative way of saying they are not so serious about their observance. Modern Orthodoxy is often seen as being not serious compared to the passion and commitment of the yeshivish world. Rav Moshe Taragin once said that “everyone should be ultra-Orthodox in their avodat Hashem.” Indeed, I strive to be “ultra-Orthodox” in that regard.

Finally, is it Modern or Centrist Orthodoxy? Frankly, the hair-splitting distinctions are of little significance for me. Splintering into those categories seems unuseful inasmuch as they are not clearly defined and there is likely great overlap. I especially have no use for “Modern Orthodox machmir” vs “Modern Orthodox Liberal” — I once used the former when I had to, but I’m not sure what chumrot qualified me for that quality – it seemed better than a tepid “middle of the road.”

Despite the unclarity and baggage that comes with the term “Modern Orthodox,” I still identify with it. It is precisely because it is a broad ideological and sociological descriptor that I use it as a default that people understand and sufficiently describes where I am. It is not the label that is important to me, but the convictions that are most likely to be associated with it.

What are these values that I stand for that make me more or less Modern Orthodox? Modern Orthodoxy does not have a monopoly on any of these by any means, and not all Modern Orthodox rabbis will agree with the way I present every issue. However, when put together, they may come to describe the ideological convictions of much of the Modern Orthodox community:

  • Commitment to excellence in avodat Hashem and lifelong pursuit of Torah and mitzvot. Certainly this is an aspiration of all stripes of Torah observant Jewry, but we obviously cannot lose sight of this in defining values. Torah comes first, Torah guides our way of life, and Torah must be the starting point of any other convictions that we stand for. Learning Torah is a mitzvah I take seriously Modern Orthodoxy is a means towards the ends of yirat shamayim, just as any other Torah community desires.
  • Our relationship with non-Jews is one of respect and favor. While we can never let our guard down on the issue of antisemitism, and while ultimately an Orthodox lifestyle requires considerable insularity, our view of non-Jews is not inherently negative. They have a lot to teach us, and their contributions to society are relevant to us, and most importantly, have a tzelem Elokim like us. While certain secular values and lifestyles are not to be emulated, we can maintain our distinction without denigrating those who are not us.
  • We value contributing to and learning from broader society. We are partners with God in creation every day, so we contribute to that endeavor, which also requires us to learn from the best of what human beings are producing.
    • This means that there are many professions and that are noble in their own right if they advance the well being of humanity.
    • This means that attaining worldly knowledge in various forms is a worthy pursuit, although not at the expense of learning Torah. When integrated properly, this wisdom can ennoble one’s personality and enhance their avodat Hashem and can especially advance a rabbi’s ability to communicate important ideas.
    • It is not insignificant in this fashion that we see science as the study of Hashem’s creation, and we trust that scientists attempt to understand and explain natural phenomena in good faith. While many gedolim on the right were very strong in their COVID-19 guidance, I was extremely troubled by the callousness towards medical guidance that we saw in some segments of the Torah community.
    • This means we are fundamentally committed to working towards social justice and the well-being of minorities beyond the Jewish community. This does not mean that all manifestations of the pursuit of social justice align with our beliefs or communal concerns, but we envision a society where people are treated fairly and equitably.
  • While halacha does not change, society does, and we cannot ignore the influences that society has on our communities. This means that in dealing with hot-button issues that affect people’s real lives, we cannot take a dismissive approach.
    • The role of women has changed and continues to change. Some have persistently for decades avoided acknowledging anything positive about these changes when it comes to dealing with them. However, in an effort to advance the ahavat Hashem and yirat shamayim of women, teaching Talmud rigorously is and will continue to be important. Many young women are attending a variety of seminaries that teach Talmud. Yeshiva University’s GPATS program is a blessing to our community and, if anything, should be expanded. Similarly, the Yoetzet Halacha initiative is indispensable in helping many women and men keep taharat ha-mishpacha successfully without unnecessary struggle. Although some proposed advances for women’s roles may be halachically complicated, a Modern Orthodox approach looks for the positive road in helping women maximize their ability to serve God.
    • We see people who identify as LGBTQ and wish to support them however we can. While there can be great halachic difficulty in including this segment of our community to the fullest extent that some may desire, we are willing to struggle with them and help them find a meaningful place in the Orthodox community.
  • Perhaps what underlies many of these issues is that the Modern Orthodoxy I believe in recognizes the world as being a complex place, and even if we tried to escape some of the complexities of 21st-century life, we could not avoid the fact that life is complex. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l once said that for “Four years I studied at Harvard. I learned that the world is complex & people are complex.” Fascinatingly, while surely there is complexity in Torah as well, he attributed this to his secular education. But it is indeed Rav Lichtenstein’s modeling of seeing the world through the lens of complexity that has guided generations of Modern Orthodox educators to lead with sensitivity. While the complexity of Modern Orthodox ideology might make it unpopular and less appealing, it allows for an important level of balance and steadiness.

Of course, I strive to learn from and appreciate various sectors of Torah Judaism. I have quoted Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, and the Slonimer Rebbe in my derashot and Rav Asher Weiss, Rav Shimon Schwab, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe in my shiurim. The music that lights my soul on fire comes primarily from the yeshivish and chassidish worlds. My identifying as Modern Orthodox need not contradict my taking avodat Hashem seriously like I am “ultra-Orthodox.” I, too, do not want to be entirely boxed in as if I can’t take from the best of Judaism.

But even if I absorb Torah and values from a variety of sources, I still think it is important to define who I am and what I stand for. These convictions are not inconsequential for the present and future of Orthodox Judaism. Rav Norman Lamm and Rav Lichtenstein surely gained from and celebrated other forms of Torah Judaism. Yet, they apparently felt it was worthwhile to assume the labels of Modern or Centrist Orthodoxy and define their differences from the Chareidi worlds in which they were educated. While we do not always need to and should not focus on those differences, we also cannot avoid them.

I could try to eschew the label “Modern Orthodox” for a number of reasons, but at the end of the day, who am I kidding? When considering principles important to me, am I really not more or less a Modern Orthodox rabbi?

About the Author
Judah Kerbel is the rabbi of Queens Jewish Center and teaches middle school Judaic Studies at Ramaz. He received his rabbinic ordination from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and an MA in medieval Jewish history from the Bernard Revel Graduate School.
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