Whither Modern Orthodoxy?

    The utter shrillness of the response to my “Rabbinical News” of last week evoked these conclusions:

1)      Liberals, Voltaire should have said, will defend to the death your right to agree with them. The dismissive contempt found in certain “Modern” Orthodox circles for any person  – certainly Rabbi – who doesn’t toe the official or progressive line should give us all pause. That triggers a…

2)      Defensiveness in which closed minds refuse to re-consider or look again at anything. This is not that uncommon; a piece I wrote a few months ago critical of aspects of Haredi society garnered me some Haredi criticism – and praise as well. See : https://rabbipruzansky.com/2009/08/26/haredi-follies/

3)      Many people are confused about the notion of Mesora. Bet Shammai’s opinions were certainly part of the Mesora, although we generally don’t pasken like them. To cite, therefore, individual opinions (some rejected long ago) as support for innovations today is tacky, and outside the framework of halachic methodology. Let us not conflate creativity and cleverness. One can certainly find individual opinions – creatively interpreted – to support almost any desire that a person has, but desires should not fuel the halachic process. For example, given a few minutes, I could “justify” eating milk right after meat; cheating on taxes; reinstituting pilagshim (concubines – and alleviate the singles’ problem somewhat), venerating a dead Messiah and a host of other practices that would sound bizarre and are outside the four ells of halacha and the norms of Jewish life. And I am neither Houdini nor his Rabbi-father. But it is not scholarship to pick your target and draw a bulls’ eye around it, nor is that a legitimate part of the Mesora.

4)      The labeling of Jews by Jews is abhorrent, and the open distaste – even anger – that some “Modern” Orthodox feel for some Haredim/Yeshivish Jews (and vice versa) is worse. That is why I refuse to label myself, or the community in which I live and work, and prefer to keep learning Torah and having an open mind about issues. I cringe when Modern Orthodox Jews are criticized, and when Haredim are criticized.

5)      I ran to the archives and dug up an article I wrote for our shul (CBY) bulletin in July 2000, more than nine years ago. It is remarkably consistent with what I wrote last week (to detractors, clearly I have shown no “growth” in nine years!), and I re-print here as it remains timely.  It was entitled: “Whither Modern Orthodoxy,” and it was written while I was leading a tour of Spain, hence the Spanish Jewry reference at the end.


     “Is it not time to call halt to these wars (between the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform) and learn to live with one another in peace and respect, even if we have profound differences? Now that centuries have passed since the formation of these divisions, perhaps we can come to terms with reality and a way to at least tolerate one another for the sake of the continuation of Judaism”.

     “My sense of what is happening in the Jewish world tells me that there are signs of such a change. Reform has begun to learn a new respect for aspects of tradition it formally rejected. Modern Orthodox circles have closer to the understanding of development within Judaism that has characterized Conservative Judaism.”

       “The willingness of the Israeli government with the agreement of at least one chief rabbi and the silence of the other, to give the Masorti movement a place at the Kotel for prayer is a sign of progress. More and more Modern Orthodox circles are beginning to see that they are not so far from the Conservative movement – both are based on halacha, although they arrive at different conclusions.” (Italics mine)

     So writes Reuven Hammer, one of the leaders of the Masorti (Conservative) movement, in a June edition of the Jerusalem Post. To be sure, his declaration that Conservative Judaism is faithful to halacha is an old canard, demonstrably false, and quite unremarkable. It is his assertion that Modern Orthodoxy is moving closer to the methodology of Conservatism and even is “not so far from the Conservative movement” that is cause for analysis, if not outright alarm. Regardless whether or not his claim is true, why would he think such a thing? What is happening in our world that would lead a Conservative spokesman to rejoice in the blurred distinction between “Modern” Orthodoxy and Conservative Judaism, long recognized by all shades of Orthodoxy as deviationist, non-halachic “stream” of Judaism?

      Conservative “psak” deviates from traditional Judaism in a number of essential ways (including a new “interpretation” of the mesorah from Sinai), but primarily in its focus – in the first instance – on a particular, desired result. Traditionally, halacha is process oriented, not result-oriented. The decisor analyzes the question, determines the central point at issue, and investigates the halachic precedents. The result emerges only after the process has been faithfully completed.

     The Conservatives begin the process with a desired result in mind (abolishing the mechitza, permitting cohanim to marry divorcees, counting women in the minyan, etc.) They are quite adept at manipulating the halacha to achieve that result, twisting and turning the words of our sages until they are “saying” what the Conservatives want them to say. And where that is impossible – even distortion has its limits – the Conservatives will simply assert that “times have changed, “the Rabbis were biased or insensitive”, or they are “irrelevant in these progressive times”.

      Apparently, Reuven Hammer perceives that a certain segment of Modern Orthodoxy, a left-wing fringe, has adopted a halachic methodology similar to that of his own movement. “Solutions” to halachic or social problems are demanded, even if halachic process is thrown to the wind. “A user-friendly halacha is desired, anything not explicitly prohibited (and even some things which are) is permitted, and there is often a palpable discomfort with tradition. Individuals who flout halachic convention are labeled brave or courageous, rather than exposed as charlatans. And halacha never stands in the way of good time.

      Thus, there are “modern” orthodox communities where swimming and organized athletic competitions for adults are acceptable Shabbat activities. The wearing of tzizit by adult males is shunned, and tzniut generally takes a back-sear to the latest fashions. Liberties are taken with kashrut outside the home, and Talmud Torah often becomes a treasure – hunt for leniencies.

     Pandering to the spirit of the times, women’s “grievances” against the halacha have taken center stage. New forms of worship have been created, oblivious to its trivialization of halacha and potential harm to the community. Flippant “solutions” to the ancient and vexing agunah problem have been extolled as reflecting greatness and creativity, despite their dubiousness. The question, “when will the Rabbis free agunot?” recurs with increasing passion, and sometimes disrespect, an approach that would never surface with another professional question, such as, “when will the doctors cure cancer?”

      The whole notion of asking a she’elah (halachic question) has been undermined, as questioners seek out Rabbis who have been pre-selected to tell them what expect to hear. It is no wonder that I am unable to think of even one book of responsa produced in the 100 years of American Modern Orthodoxy.

       In a recent book by a self-described Orthodox feminist, the author writes why she chose to remain Orthodox despite the “problems”: “It is what I inherited and it belongs to me. I am committed to the ennobling elements of the religion: a vast, rich literature, a dramatic history and strong collective memory, a serious concern for ethics and justice, a dignified framework for daily living and an overriding sense of community. I have been enriched by constructing a Jewish identity, developing a Jewish consciousness, and sharing codes and languages with Jews around the world.”

     What is missing from this eloquent account of her Torah commitment? That the Torah is true, that it is G-d’s word, and that halacha is the reflection of His will. These basic foundations of Torah life are unstated, and thus the author reserves for herself the right to change the halacha wherever and whenever she finds “inequity” or aspects of Torah life that are not “ennobling” to her. What is lacking is the surrender of the heart and mind to G-d’s will, which is at the core of the Torah personality and the essence of Kabbalat Ol Malchut Shamayim (acceptance of the yoke of G-d’s kingship).

      Rather than learn what the Torah has to say, the fringe element tries to get the Torah to say what it wants to hear. Thus the expressed discontent with the roshei Yeshiva at so-called Modern Orthodox institutions when their decisions do not conform to the “popular” will. A colloquy I recently overheard: Someone asserted that “the Roshei Yeshiva are out of touch with the masses”, to which the (proper) response was: “perhaps the masses are out-of-touch with the Torah”.

       To be sure, most Modern Orthodox Jews do not subscribe to this distortion of their ideology at all and would recoil in horror at the suggestion that they are casually being lumped together with non-halachic streams. This group carries on the Modern Orthodoxy of prior generations on other continents: confronting and engaging modernity without fully embracing it. In doing so, they remain faithful to Halacha inside and outside the home, conduct themselves as Bnai and Bnot Torah, ask she’elot and genuinely seek Torah guidance. Their Shabbat is sacred and not a prelude to (or pale imitation of) Sunday, and their Torah study is genuine, sincere and spirited. They honor and appreciate Rabbis and Roshei Yeshiva, The women revel and excel in their Torah-designated roles, and are fulfilled and content with Torah and life itself, And this group – proud bearers of banner of Modern Orthodoxy – are perceived as obstacles to the “development” of Modern Orthodoxy by the fringe elements whose cause is championed by the secular “Jewish” media.

      Reuven Hammer has unwittingly sent a wake-up call to all of Modern Orthodoxy, and exposed the path of which many have chosen to tread – a path littered with thorns and thistles and which leads toward an abyss. Is he wrong? Has he overstated his case to rationalize his own heresies? Is his comparison of Conservatism and Modern Orthodoxy wishful thinking on his part? Or has he touched a raw nerve that should inspire all of us to gaze into our heart and minds, uncover our true inner world and open our souls to the truth of Torah?

      Spanish Jewry, perhaps the first Modern Orthodox Jews, became fully integrated in the culture and society of medieval Spain. They foundered and eventually disintegrated in a wave laxity of observance, forced and unforced conversions, massacres and expulsions. Only we can determine whether we will behold a similar decline, or tenaciously grasp the tree of life in the way which has sustained the Jewish people until today.     END

     Again, that was written in July 2000. The more things change, the more they remain they same. And what will be of Torah, and the Jewish people ?

One response to “Whither Modern Orthodoxy?

  1. The IRf will hopefully finally lead to a split between the YU RWMO and the YCT LWMO.
    This is necessary as the continued contention by YCT that they are MO just like the YU crowd is blur wht Modern Orthodoxy really is and should be.
    Ultimately, titles aren’t patented. The Conservatives can say they are halachic or traditional and no one can sue them for false advertising. The YCT’s can “push the envelope” and continue to call themselves Orthodox and there’s no recourse.
    But with a split there will ultimately be a reckoning and ultimately they will be forced to stop using the word Orthodox when it becomes too obvious they no longer are.