Can Modern Orthodoxy Survive?

The culture wars have come to the Modern Orthodox movement. Is a schism on the horizon?

<em>A woman wearing t'filin.</em> Photo by Michal Fattal.
A woman wearing t'filin. Photo by Michal Fattal.
Aug. 3 2014
About the author

Jack Wertheimer is professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Most recently he co-authored Hearts and Minds: Israel in North American Jewish Day Schools, under the auspices of the Avi Chai Foundation.

On the current American Jewish scene, one group stands out for its seemingly successful integration of traditional religious behavior and belief with full participation in modern society.

Consider the landscape. On the liberal side of the religious spectrum, Conservative Judaism, until recently the largest of the denominations, identifies itself as traditional, but only a minority of its adherents strive to observe the dictates of Jewish law (halakhah). As for more liberal movements, most of their members make no claim to be exemplars of traditional Judaism but rather regard themselves as advocates of—to invoke the names of the best-known movements—reform, reconstruction, or renewal. Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the continuum, one finds Orthodox groups that, while punctiliously observant, self-consciously insulate themselves to one degree or another from Western culture or explicitly reject the assumptions of modernity.

This leaves the sector known as Modern Orthodoxy. Relatively small in number, making up just 3 percent of American Jewry as a whole—and by no means comprising all who identify themselves as Orthodox—it alone seems to have found the sweet spot: a synthesis of the modern with traditional Jewish observance. Recent surveys, including Pew’s Portrait of Jewish Americans, make clear just how well the Modern Orthodox have combined both parts of their name.


1. Who Are the Modern Orthodox?

Organizing their family lives far more traditionally than do their liberal counterparts, the Modern Orthodox tend to marry earlier and to maintain a fertility rate well above replacement level; only small percentages intermarry. In order to insure the transmission of their religious commitments, they enroll nearly all of their children in the most immersive forms of Jewish education. Their synagogues, unlike most of those in the Conservative or Reform orbit, are teeming with regular worshipers every day of the week. Many sizable ones offer multiple prayer services every morning, afternoon, and evening, accommodating the busy schedules of individual worshippers. They also report rising numbers of men and women participating in study classes, and even of teenagers seeking out opportunities to learn on Sabbath afternoons. In a reinforcing loop, as one rabbi notes, “more intensive learning has created greater levels of observance.”

Synagogue life is further reinforced by the life of school and summer camp. Day-school attendance from early childhood through high school has become de rigueur for Modern Orthodox families. According to Pew data, 90 percent of those between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine have attended a day school for at least four years—a much higher figure, incidentally, than the one for their parents or grandparents. The figures for summer camps are comparably impressive.

None of this would be feasible without financial resources. Nationally, according to Pew, 37 percent of Modern Orthodox households have incomes of over $150,000, a figure not matched by any other Jewish denomination. In the metropolitan New York area, home to the largest concentration of Orthodox Jews of all stripes, the Modern Orthodox contingent shows the largest proportion earning $100,000 or more and $150,000 or more.

This relative affluence makes it possible for some in the community to support key institutions with generous donations, including scholarship assistance for day-school families. It also means that a large majority are able to shoulder the costs of Jewish living. Only those with resources—and commitment—can afford to live within walking distance of synagogues, purchase kosher food products, pay membership dues and building-fund assessments to synagogues, and, most expensive of all, cover K-12 tuition costs in day schools and send their children to Orthodox summer camps. Despite this heavy financial burden, there is no evidence that significant numbers have opted for public schools—or decided to limit the size of their families.

Finally, none of this comes at the expense of active participation in American society. Just like their counterparts elsewhere in the Jewish community, the Modern Orthodox attend college and earn advanced degrees at far higher rates than most other Americans. Both men and women go on to work, as we have seen, in the more lucrative sectors of the American economy. Some rise to positions of great distinction in their fields of endeavor, including in American public life (e.g., Jack Lew, the current Secretary of the Treasury; Michael Mukasey, former U.S. Attorney General; and Joseph Lieberman, former Democratic nominee for the Vice Presidency).


In short, Modern Orthodoxy in America appears healthy and vibrant, with functioning communities not only in large metropolitan areas but in nearly every mid-size Jewish community and even some smaller cities like Indianapolis, New Orleans, Bangor, ME, and Worcester, MA. Given the movement’s successes—and the cachet of dynamism that attaches to it—one might expect its leaders to be in a mood to congratulate themselves.

And yet that is not the case. A close reading of what Modern Orthodox leaders are saying publicly, and even more bluntly in private, reveals a great deal of anxiety about current trends within their communities. (In what follows, I will be relying in part on interviews conducted on the understanding that quotations would not be attributed.)

The anxieties being voiced have partly to do with numbers. Although the majority of those raised Modern Orthodox remain in that camp, the community does suffer defections, leading to worries about the possibility of demographic decline. But it is not only the potential erosion of its population that agitates the movement. A battle now rages for its soul—a tug of war over both practices and ideas that is pitting rabbis against each other even as some lay people work to push their synagogues onto new paths. At bottom, this internal struggle is over nothing less than the foundational assumption of the movement: that it is indeed possible to combine fidelity to traditional Judaism with modern values and understandings.


2. Pressure from the Right

To grasp the dynamics of the current struggle, it is critical to understand that it is playing out against challenges from both the “traditional” and the “modern” side of the equation. (Specialists on Orthodoxy have sub-divided it into many more groupings than two, but these are the major ones.) I’ll begin with the traditionalist challenge, which derives from the increase and growing self-confidence of another sector within the larger Orthodox world itself. That sector comprises the haredim, often known in English as the “ultra-Orthodox.”

The haredi camp encompasses both a number of hasidic sects and the spiritual descendants of their no less pious historical antagonists: the mitnagdim, or opponents of Hasidism, since that movement’s emergence in the 18th century. In the metropolitan New York area, haredim tend to cluster in enclaves like Williamsburg, Boro Park, and Crown Heights in Brooklyn and certain neighborhoods of Queens, as well as Lakewood, New Jersey and a couple of upstate New York counties. Haredi communities also exist in such cities as Baltimore, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Wherever they are, the haredim have distinguished themselves not only by their aloofness from much of Western culture and learning, or by the wary distance they maintain in social interactions with Gentiles, but also by their self-segregation from their fellow Jews, emphatically including the Modern Orthodox—and precisely because of the latter’s accommodation of American mores, openness to the wisdom of the Gentiles, and willingness to interact with non-Orthodox Jews and their leaders.

Historical antecedents to the current stand-off between the modern and haredi sectors of Orthodoxy are not far to seek. During the mass migration of East European Jews at the turn of the 20th century, some rabbis strove to recreate the all-embracing religious culture of Eastern Europe in the New World setting. Jeffrey Gurock, the foremost historian of American Orthodoxy, labels these rabbis “resisters”—the main object of their resistance being the intrusion of American ways into their lives. Against them stood more moderate immigrant and native-born rabbis whom Gurock labels “accommodators.” Each group established its own rabbinic organization (or, in the case of the resisters, three separate organizations).

As the immigrant population adapted to America, the accommodating or Modern Orthodox position triumphed. Symptomatically, Modern Orthodox rabbis played an outsized role as chaplains during World War II; in the postwar era, the dominant face of American Orthodoxy was that of Yeshiva University-trained rabbis (and their counterparts at the Hebrew Theological College in Skokie, IL) who were joined together in the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA). The Modern Orthodox ideal was conveyed by the motto of YU, Torah u’madda, usually translated as Torah and secular knowledge or, more broadly, Western culture and learning. For second- and third-generation American Jews attracted to this synthetic ideal, the figure they looked to was Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who embodied the ideal through his mastery of rabbinic texts and his broad knowledge of and continuing engagement with Western philosophy.

But even as Modern Orthodoxy reached the peak of its influence, an influx of Holocaust-era refugees from both Nazism and Communism gave a powerful boost to the resisters’ cause. The newcomers came with an ideology of separatism that had developed in Europe and found institutional expression in the Agudath Israel movement established in the early part of the century. As the haredi Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg of Baltimore’s Ner Israel yeshiva put it: “there is an ‘otherness’ to us, a gulf of strangeness that cannot be bridged, separating us from our compatriots.”

During the second half of the 20th century, the key lines of division hardened. The resisters were intent on rejecting much of “enlightened” Western culture—whose bankruptcy, in their view, had been exposed in the depravity of the Holocaust—and no less bent on insulating themselves from what they saw as the corrupting morals of secular modernity. The accommodators, for their part, while recognizing that not everything condoned by modern fashion was in sync with traditional Judaism, were open to absorbing “the best that has been thought and said,” regardless of its source. They flocked to universities and entered the professions, working side by side with non-Jews. They also maintained connections with Jews who were not traditionally observant but with whom they were prepared to work toward common ends. The most noteworthy common end was Zionism, which they embraced despite its largely secular leadership—a step shunned by the resisters, many of whom remain staunchly non-Zionist to the present day.


In the face of withering criticism hurled at them by their critics among the resisters, Modern Orthodox Jews insisted on the legitimacy of their way of life—stressing, in addition to the embrace of Zionism, the value of what Jews can learn from Gentiles; full participation in the larger society (bounded only by strict adherence to Jewish ritual observance); and the provision to girls and women of the same kind of Jewish education received by boys and men (though not necessarily in mixed-sex settings). As we have seen, this insistence paid off handsomely.

Now, however, several developments have combined to give rise to a well-founded anxiety. One source of concern, alluded to above, is demography. Just a few decades ago, the modern sector constituted the large majority of Orthodox Jews; in our time, it has become vastly outnumbered by the Orthodox resisters and is on track to decline even further. As compared with the 3 percent of American Jews who (according to Pew) identify themselves as Modern Orthodox, 6 percent identify themselves as haredi. In absolute numbers this translates into an estimated 310,000 adult haredim compared with 168,000 adult Modern Orthodox.

The disparity only widens when we look at younger age cohorts. Whereas those raised Modern Orthodox constitute 18 percent of American Jews over sixty-five, they represent only 2.9 percent of those between eighteen and twenty-nine. Something closer to the reverse holds among those raised haredi, who constitute only 1.6 percent of Jews aged sixty-five and older but rise to 8 percent of the eighteen-to-twenty-nine-year-olds.

And then there are the children. A 2011 population study of Jews in the New York City area estimated the number of haredi children at 166,000, roughly four times the number of Modern Orthodox children. Marvin Schick, who used different categories in a 2009 national census of day schools, counted 125,000 children in haredi schools versus 47,000 in Modern Orthodox and so-called Centrist Orthodox schools. (The latter subgroup eschews coeducation in its middle schools and high schools.) Since then, by all accounts, the numbers of haredi children have only increased.

To be sure, this is not the only circumstance depleting the numbers of Modern Orthodox Jews in the United States. Another one, ironically, stems from the movement’s great success in imbuing its young with Zionist values. Precise numbers are lacking, but by some estimates as many as 20 percent of Modern Orthodox youngsters who spend a year or more in Israel during the “gap” between high school and college end up making their homes there for at least some period of time. Needless to say, settling in Israel is socially and religiously approved behavior within the Modern Orthodox world; but that does not diminish its demographic impact on the community as a whole.

Still another worrying sign is the not insignificant rate of defection to more liberal movements. Thus, among those between the ages of thirty and forty-nine who have been raised Modern Orthodox, fully 44 percent have moved religiously leftward; among those between eighteen and twenty-nine, 29 percent no longer identify as Orthodox. (The commentator Alan Brill may have been the first to coin the term “post-Orthodox” for this population.) True, as noted above, Modern Orthodoxy is much more successful than liberal denominations at retaining its members, and it continues to attract from them as many as it loses; but the losses hurt.


If the relatively static size of their community, and the sheer demographic heft of the haredim, afford grounds for worry about the long-term viability of the Modern Orthodox way of life, beyond this concern lies another, related one: what some Modern Orthodox rabbis describe as a crisis of confidence among their laity. A salient symptom of that crisis, visible even among some otherwise highly acculturated Modern Orthodox families, is the decision to gravitate rightward toward haredi or semi-haredi schools and synagogues. Such families are driven, contends one of their rabbis, by “religious insecurity and feelings of guilt about that insecurity.” This rabbi therefore sees his role as twofold: insisting on the validity of modern Orthodoxy even as he encourages his congregants to intensify their commitment and practice. As he admits, it is a difficult balance to negotiate, and for some it does not suffice. Another rabbi, voicing exasperation over the rightward drift in his community, musters sarcasm to describe his congregants’ perceptions: “If you are not [religiously] serious, you go to my shul; if you are more serious, you go to more right-wing shuls because there are communal advantages to being there.”

As it happens, the Pew data suggest that the movement rightward may be balanced by a movement of haredi Jews traveling in the opposite direction. Moreover, those joining “right-wing shuls” do not generally move into haredi communities. It would thus be more accurate to see the so-called “slide to the right” as a matter less of massive defections to the haredi camp than of a shift within Modern Orthodoxy, led in this instance by those inclined to adopt aspects of haredi life while remaining nominally Modern Orthodox.

In some cases, the “slide” takes merely symbolic or token form, as when men wear black hats during prayer and women adopt haredi-style head coverings while otherwise continuing to maintain their very modern style of life. More significant, and much more distressing to stalwarts of Modern Orthodox values, has been the assimilation—some would say infiltration—of a “neo-haredi” worldview into some of the movement’s key institutions.

Since the passing of Rabbi Soloveitchik from the scene some 30 years ago, the Yeshiva University world has lacked an authoritative figure who personifies for the broader public the synthesis proclaimed in YU’s motto of Torah u’madda. Meanwhile, a neo-haredi group of roshei yeshiva—the term, often translated as deans of talmudic academies, more accurately connotes advanced teachers of rabbinic texts—has planted its flag at YU’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Rabbinical Seminary (RIETS), which educates, ordains, and shapes the religious and halakhic worldview of Modern Orthodox rabbis. In addition, Modern Orthodox day schools often employ haredi teachers who likewise communicate their ideology to impressionable students and may encourage them after graduation to attend an Israeli yeshiva or girls’ seminary where neo-haredi perspectives predominate. Of late, some long-time Modern Orthodox synagogues have also taken to hiring haredi or neo-haredi rabbis to fill their pulpits. And the community as a whole has become dependent on haredim who fill certain ritually critical roles, including as scribes who write Torah scrolls and other religious documents, kosher slaughterers, and supervisors of kosher food production.

Most subversive of all has been the internalization of the idea that haredi Judaism represents the touchstone and arbiter of Orthodox authenticity, period. This has placed Modern Orthodoxy on the defensive, handcuffing it to a way of thinking at odds with its founding assumptions. Willy-nilly, by absorbing the resistant mindset, important sectors of the movement have thereby undermined Modern Orthodoxy’s accommodative ideology and, worse, have made it more difficult to help their members navigate as observant Jews who embrace modern culture.


3. Pressure from the Left

If the challenge represented by the haredim exerts pressure on modern Orthodoxy from one direction, another and equally great challenge makes itself felt from the opposite direction. To Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, speaking at a recent forum on the Pew study, Modern Orthodox Jews live “on the same [cultural] continuum” as their non-Orthodox counterparts, being no less “exposed to the attractions of modernity and the acids of skepticism/historical criticism/social mores,” and no less likely to succumb to those twin forces, both the “attractions” and the “acids,” than are Conservative, Reform, or for that matter non-affiliated and secular Jews. Rabbi Greenberg even attributes the “demographic decline” of the movement primarily to this factor.

Actually, as we have seen, the problem is not (or not yet) one of serious decline but rather of demographic stasis. But there can be no doubt that Modern Orthodox Jews have become at least as alert to the most controversial issues roiling their movement from the Left as from the Right. To adapt Jeffrey Gurock’s nomenclature of resisters versus accommodators, which he applied to the struggle within the larger Orthodox world between the haredim and the Modern Orthodox, we may say that Modern Orthodoxy itself is now beset by a no less bitter or momentous struggle: between its own internal resisters attracted by haredi Judaism and accommodators more willing to adapt Jewish law to 21st-century ethical sensibilities.

Undoubtedly, the most hotly debated set of issues concerns the status of Orthodox women. Sexual equality is now taken for granted in most Modern Orthodox homes, and holding males and females to different standards is increasingly unthinkable. Under the circumstances, why should it not occur to some girls that they too might don t’filin (phylacteries), traditionally the accoutrements of male worship? How much Torah and Talmud ought girls and women be encouraged to study? May women serve as synagogue presidents? May they conduct their own prayer services, lead parts of mixed services, or wear t’filin during public worship? And, drawing the greatest heat: what are rabbis prepared to do to release “chained” women (agunot), whose husbands have refused to grant them a proper writ of divorce?

Other debates center on the proper treatment of homosexuality and homosexuals in the Orthodox community; how the community should relate to non-Orthodox Jews; the authority exercised by the Israeli chief rabbinate in matters pertaining to American Orthodox Jews; the authority of congregational rabbis vis-à-vis that of roshei yeshiva; the latitude, if any, for interpreting the theological category of “Torah from Heaven”—i.e., the belief that the Torah was dictated verbatim by God to Moses; and more.

In short, the same culture wars that have engulfed non-Orthodox Jews, Catholics, and Protestants now rage in the modern-Orthodox world.

This is not the place to discuss the complex legal and theological arguments on these issues advanced by different rabbinic authorities. Suffice it to say there are deep differences over who is credentialed to issue legal rulings and how flexible is Jewish law. On one side, Modern Orthodox resisters argue they are constrained by halakhic precedent even when it comes to mitigating the suffering of agunot. On the other side, accommodators tend to interpret Jewish law as in some degree subject to historical circumstances; Blu Greenberg, the preeminent leader of Orthodox feminism, has encapsulated this view tersely, declaring that “where there’s a rabbinic will, there’s a halakhic way.” Many advocates of new thinking see the principal driver of change as the larger Orthodox community, with rabbis lagging behind.


While such disagreements on matters of Jewish law occupy the foreground, a series of cultural forces in the background are seen by all as shaping current debates.

Rabbinic authority is waning. Rabbis across the spectrum of Modern Orthodoxy, resisters and accommodators alike, point to a community that has absorbed American understandings of the sovereign self. “What rabbis say does not matter,” is a refrain I have heard repeatedly. “Authority is in retreat,” declares one rabbi; says another, “People like traditional davening (prayer) and singing; but when it comes to halakhah impinging on them, then they resist.” In one haredi school, the head of Jewish studies states without any prompting, “In today’s age, the model of rabbinic authority does not exist. We don’t live in ghettoes anymore, so you have to reach students where they are. Saying ‘because it is so’ no longer works.”

In private conversation, the same lament recurs regardless of ideological position, although some go on to lay the blame for the loss of rabbinic authority on their opponents. On the accommodative side, the prevailing sentiment is that hidebound rabbis have brought this situation on themselves because, when it comes to the demands of modernity, they are “oblivious and clueless.” From the resisters, one hears that the accommodative wing has undermined the authority of recognized legal decisors by running to peripheral figures who are only too willing to approve innovations. Many sense their loss of authority so keenly that they shy away from asserting their views on the major cultural issues of the day even when they personally feel strongly about them.

Accelerating these trends is the new reality of the Internet. Thanks to it, states one rabbi, “everybody has a right to have a position; everyone has a de’ah [opinion] about everything.” Educated Jews can look up answers to their own questions and choose from the answers available online. Many feel empowered in this role simply by dint of their day-school education and by the time they have spent studying in Israel, even as they are also encouraged by modern culture’s stress on individual autonomy to act according to the dictates of their conscience.


In this connection, day schools themselves are faulted by some for inadequately preparing their students to cope with the intellectual and moral challenges they encounter once they enter college. Rabbis on both sides agree that the failure lies in the deliberate neglect of questions of belief, theology, and the “why” of observance. From my own visits to Orthodox day schools, I question this critique. To me the problem seems more fundamental: there is no way fully to prepare Orthodox young people for the transition from their insular and homogeneous environment to the environment of the university, where the reigning values are so at odds with traditional Judaism. Be that as it may, however, efforts to remediate the situation are being made by rabbis in both the resistant and accommodative wings who are undertaking to teach their congregants about what is relevant and meaningful in Judaism rather than focusing solely on the study of texts. “I used to give heavy-duty classes on rishonim and aharonim,” one rabbi on the side of the resisters informed me, referring to classical rabbinic commentators. “Now I teach about derekh eretz [proper behavior], women and ritual observance, and tz’dakah [Jewish giving].”

One thing is certain: an estimated 70 percent of Modern Orthodox college students are enrolled in secular institutions of higher learning, and the impact of their experience there cannot be ignored. True, many of the parents and grandparents of current students also attended secular colleges, but it can be postulated that academic values and assumptions have changed since then, or that they are instilled far more explicitly than they were in the past, or both. On every campus today, incoming students are required to attend an intensive orientation program during which they are exposed to strongly formulated judgments about diversity, tolerance, and correct thinking. In this hothouse atmosphere, how is it possible for Orthodox students to argue in defense of the unequal treatment of women in the domain of religious observance? Can one conceivably emerge from a college experience today without having encountered attitudes toward sexual behavior at odds with traditional Orthodox beliefs?

Making it still harder to shelter today’s Modern Orthodox Jews is that they have strayed beyond the commuter colleges favored by an earlier generation. Once on campus, moreover, they are also less likely to shy away from courses on sexual roles, psychology, comparative religion—or modern biblical criticism—that will challenge views they absorbed during their day-school years and from their elders.


As with the challenge from the haredim, so with the challenge from “modernity,” one can trace the effects on the institutional level as well as the personal. Acknowledging the seriousness of both challenges, some among Modern Orthodoxy’s accommodative leaders and activists, male and female alike, have been pushing to reinvigorate and reinforce the movement’s founding ethos from within. To generalize, one might say that these efforts are aimed simultaneously at fending off the inroads of “haredization” and at incorporating, to some unspecified degree, the “open” ethos of modern liberal culture.

In 1996, an organization, Edah, was founded with that just that dual purpose in mind. Its leader, Rabbi Saul Berman, issued a pamphlet spelling out “a variety of Orthodox attitudes to selected ideological issues”—with the emphasis on “variety.” The issues ranged from the treatment of women in Jewish law to the meaning of Torah u’madda, from pluralism and tolerance within Orthodoxy to outreach aimed at non-Orthodox Jews. A year later, Edah was joined by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), whose declared mission is to advance “social change around gender issues in the Orthodox Jewish community.”

Although Edah folded after a decade, JOFA continues with its work. And in the meantime, a number of other institutions and initiatives have arisen, each dedicated to fostering change in the Modern Orthodox world. They include Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), an accommodative rabbinical seminary competing with YU’s RIETS, and Yeshivat Maharat, which styles itself as the “first institution to ordain Orthodox women as clergy”; both of these institutions are associated with a camp that has come to be called Open Orthodoxy. Allied with them is the International Rabbinical Fellowship, whose announced aim is to stand up for “the right, responsibility, and autonomy of individual rabbis to decide matters of halakhah for their communities.”

In the same orbit, if not necessarily of the same mind, are women-only prayer groups as well as “partnership minyanim” where men and women share the responsibility of leading different parts of the prayer services in a manner deemed acceptable to select rabbinic authorities. To disseminate new thinking, Modern Orthodox bloggers have been busy putting forth more “progressive” perspectives. One of them, the website, grapples with the findings and conclusions of modern biblical scholarship, long regarded as inherently inimical to the teachings of traditional Judaism.

It is not unusual for some Modern Orthodox Jews and their rabbis to pick and choose among these activities. Members of women’s prayer groups, for example, may confine themselves to that initiative alone. Some students at YCT may support partnership minyanim while others do not. Some students at YCT and Yeshivat Maharat decline to identify themselves personally with Open Orthodoxy. Interestingly, it has been estimated that as many as 40 rabbinical students at RIETS itself would participate in a partnership minyan even though several of the leading talmudists at that institution have unequivocally proscribed such prayer services.

In sum, it is problematic to assume that individuals, even if they share a willingness to stretch the boundaries of Orthodoxy, form part of a common accommodative camp. Nor is it possible to quantify the number of Modern Orthodox Jews sympathetic to any of these efforts, though most observers assume it is relatively small and limited to a few centers of liberal thinking in New York, Washington, Boston, and Los Angeles. Still, just as it means something that Modern Orthodox congregations in, for example, St. Louis and Kansas City have sought out women to serve in a quasi-rabbinic role, it seems safe to assume that the 85 or so rabbis ordained so far at YCT and now occupying positions on campuses, in day schools, in chaplaincies, and in pulpits all around the country have had an impact of their own. The same can be said for the ideas making their way into every corner of the Modern Orthodox community through the reach of the Internet.


4. Toward a New Synthesis?

The most basic consequence of these cumulative changes is an increased awareness that the ground is shifting. As one observer has put it, “everyone knows the lines are moving.” The same individual notes how, “in shuls, people talk about how far to the Right modern Orthodoxy has gone.” Meanwhile, for those opposed to Open Orthodoxy, the ground is similarly perceived to be shifting, albeit in a distinctly different if not heretical direction.

The discomfort has led some rabbis to speak of a widening chasm within the movement and the inevitability—if not the desirability—of a schism. On the resisters’ side, those insisting that lines must be drawn have mostly limited themselves to fighting against new practices rather than ostracizing people, although, in a few synagogues, men who participate in partnership minyanim have been banned from leading services in their home congregations, and there are concerted efforts to bar YCT graduates from being hired by major Modern Orthodox synagogues. Some resisters have also taken to dismissing their opponents as closet Conservative Jews; to one prominent rabbi, the Open Orthodox should be known as “the observant non-Orthodox.”

For their part, advocates of Open Orthodoxy have shown little hesitancy about castigating their traditionalist opponents as reactionaries. Resentment toward Yeshiva University boils over in statements that the institution has fallen under the sway of rabbis with no understanding of today’s world and has become intellectually bankrupt. By contrast, Open Orthodox rabbis pride themselves on their hospitality to those who are not Orthodox. “We create an open space and do not say ‘no,’” one leader declares. Another draws the distinctions differently: “YU is modernist; [its people] think they are right. They draw lines in the sand. YCT people are post-modern. We see no conflict between intellectual openness and using critical tools, even as we remain committed to halakhah.”

And then there are those in the middle who feel sympathy for both sides and want a peaceful resolution that will keep everyone in the same camp. At a celebration of recent RIETS ordainees, a keynote speaker emphasized a single theme: we at YU are open; we have always stood for openness. Was this a peace offering to the progressive side of the spectrum, another salvo in the battle over legitimacy, or perhaps both? Others watch in embarrassment as “the hotheads” denounce each other. In most quarters, there is a sense that the current situation is unsustainable.


Of course, it is possible to view the factionalism within Modern Orthodoxy as a sign of vitality. Thus, one might say that differences have arisen because those on each side, equally committed to the Jewish future, are alarmed by the unhelpful ideas or policies being promoted by their counterparts on the other side. One might even remark that, in the fastidiously “non-judgmental” climate prevalent today in the rest of the American Jewish community, it is refreshing to encounter Jews prepared to stake a claim to what they see as true, necessary, and obligatory.

Worth noting, in any event, is that the programs and institutions spawned by rival factions are stimulating a welcome spirit of creativity. As Yehuda Sarna, the rabbi of New York University’s Bronfman Center, has observed, “There are multiple Torah and college options, multiple rabbinical schools, multiple forms of Orthodox Zionism, multiple ways of engaging with modernity, multiple entry and exit points to the community.” One merely has to cite the range of Orthodox websites issuing commentaries on the weekly Torah portion, and compare those offerings with the paucity of non-Orthodox counterparts, to appreciate the dynamism. The same can be said about bloggers in all sectors of the Modern Orthodox community who address everything from matters of theology to preparing brides for their wedding night.

Moreover, despite conflicts over practices, Modern Orthodox Jews of all stripes observe the same religious common core—daily prayer, kosher food restrictions, laws of family purity, Sabbath and festival celebrations. In fact, one of the contentions of the accommodators is that they are in no danger of going the way of Conservative Judaism precisely because, whereas the Open Orthodox live and work in religiously observant communities, Conservative rabbis historically made legal decisions for communities that did not observe Jewish law. Open Orthodoxy can experiment with new ideas and interpretations, they contend, because the commitment to Jewish law will keep them and their followers in check.

In “The Rise of Social Orthodoxy,” a recent essay in Commentary, Jay Lefkowitz put this perspective succinctly: “I imagine [that] for many others like me, the key to Jewish living is not our religious beliefs but our commitment to a set of practices and values that foster community and continuity.” Assumed in this formulation is that practices and values will remain unaffected by changing beliefs. But is that right? In fact, as we have seen, a whole set of core Modern Orthodox assumptions is under assault both from forces outside Modern Orthodoxy and from the partisans of those forces within, and there is considerable evidence that some practices, and even some values, are changing as a result.

Thus far, the Modern Orthodox world has managed to flourish and persist by creating a community of practice and by focusing most of its intellectual energy on intensified Talmud study. This is not to be minimized. The movement’s vibrant communal life, high levels of observance, and serious engagement with traditional texts are monumental achievements. But, caught as Modern Orthodoxy is between the absolutism and insularity of haredi Judaism and the realities of an open and radically untraditional American society, are those achievements sufficient to retain a population well integrated into American life and profoundly influenced by its mores, assumptions, and values?

The urgent question for Modern Orthodoxy is which values can be accommodated without undermining religious commitment and distorting traditional Judaism beyond recognition—and, conversely, what losses will be sustained if Modern Orthodoxy should undertake more actively to resist the modern world in which its adherents spend most of their waking hours. The same urgent question, mutatis mutandis, has confronted other Jewish religious movements in the past, and has continued to haunt their rabbis and adherents long after they made their choice of a path forward. That is one reason why today’s unfolding culture wars within Modern Orthodoxy carry far-reaching implications not only for that movement but for the future of American Judaism as a whole.


NOTE: My thanks to the following rabbis who agreed to off-the-record interviews for this essay: Saul Berman, Avi Bossewitch, Yonatan Cohen,  Zev Farber, Jeffrey Fox,  Barry Freundel, Kenneth Hain, Yosef Kanefsky, Bob Kaplan, Dov Linzer, Yechiel Poupko, Steven Pruzansky,  J.J. Schacter, Uri Topolosky, Kalman Topp and Daniel Yolkut. I also interviewed Maharat Ruth Balinsky and Elana Stein Hain. And I benefited from conversations with Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, Professor Benjamin Gampel, Dr. Larry Grossman, Jay Lefkowitz, and Ruthie Simon. I’m very grateful to fellow participants in the Oxford Summer Institute in Modern and Contemporary Judaism, where an earlier draft of this essay was discussed. Special thanks to Steven M. Cohen, who ran copious data for me and helped me parse them.


  1. The Unresolved Dilemmas of Modern Orthodoxy by Jack Wertheimer
    Everyone agrees that the movement needs to rethink and revamp. Very few agree on how.
  2. Against Open Orthodoxy by Barry Freundel
    Being both “open” and Orthodox sounds to me like an excuse for anything goes.
  3. How to Rejuvenate Modern Orthodoxy by Asher Lopatin
    Modern Orthodoxy as it developed in mid-century America was dynamic, vibrant, challenging. Thanks to Open Orthodoxy, it will be again.
  4. Why Modern Orthodoxy Is in Crisis by Adam Ferziger
    A realignment is occurring in the Orthodox world; to flourish, the Modern Orthodox need to recover their sense of collective purpose.
  5. Let Us Now Praise Modern Orthodoxy by Sylvia Barack Fishman
    Against all odds, Modern Orthodoxy has successfully mixed serious religious engagement with modern life. Now it just has to retain the courage of its own convictions.
  6. Modern Orthodoxy, and Orthodoxy by Samuel Heilman
    How does Modern Orthodoxy fit into the greater Orthodox world?

More about: American Jewry, Halakhah, Jack Wertheimer, Modern Orthodoxy, Open Orthodoxy


Modern Orthodoxy, and Orthodoxy

How does Modern Orthodoxy fit into the greater Orthodox world?

<em>A Modern Orthodox boy reads Joseph B. Soloveitchik's </em>The Lonely Man of Faith<em> on the New York City subway.</em> Photo courtesy Ourit Ben-Haim.
A Modern Orthodox boy reads Joseph B. Soloveitchik's The Lonely Man of Faith on the New York City subway. Photo courtesy Ourit Ben-Haim.
Samuel Heilman
Aug. 10 2014

Jack Wertheimer’s excellent distillation of the current condition of Modern Orthodoxy in America captures the complex and fluid nature of this group of Jews. For those who once judged Orthodoxy in the post-Holocaust world to be on a fast path to extinction, a “residual category” populated by Jews living in a past beyond retrieval, the Modern Orthodox were the exception, and the best hope for the future of American Judaism.

But so, too, it turns out, were all sorts of Orthodox Jews.

Long before the recent Pew survey, anyone who studied or lived among observant Jewry would have recognized that, rather than hopelessly fading into the past, American Orthodoxy was thriving. Ironically, the movement whose members had been warned by their European leaders not to go to America—where, the rabbis cautioned, Jews might be saved but Judaism would not—discovered that this open society, with its expanding cultural tolerance, declining anti-Semitism, physical security, rapid economic growth, and robust welfare system was actually a perfect place in which Orthodoxy could thrive and grow. Indeed, in this new social environment, Orthodoxy not only threw off those of its number who were Orthodox only in name but not in observance; it also began turning toward more punctilious and haredi forms of Orthodoxy—“sliding to the right,” in the title of my book on this phenomenon—and, in the process, experienced unprecedented growth.

In reproducing itself, Orthodoxy evolved many cells, defined by varying behaviors and ideologies. Wertheimer has delineated some of these; others keep revealing themselves as Orthodox Jews search for ways to express their often nuanced differences. Modern Orthodox Jews combine their involvements in the contemporary world and secular culture with their contrapuntal commitments to an Orthodoxy that calls for ever more observance, more Torah study, more resistance to what are viewed as the insidious seductions of contemporary popular culture. Many Modern Orthodox Jews, especially those under thirty-five, turn to social media or Internet chat rooms to air the tensions arising from their not always harmonious choices, seeking the comfort and help of their peers in navigating between the Scylla and Charybdis of their contradictory and often double lives. All this variance is to be expected, for no expanding group can remain monolithic. As even haredi Jews are discovering, one size cannot fit all; there are many shades of black.

Within Modern Orthodoxy, one discovers sometimes exquisite feats of compartmentalization: people who are punctilious in religious observance or fervent in prayer but liberal to lax in their sexual behavior or when it comes to the laws of family purity; dedicated to regular Talmud study but captured by their careers and/or on the lookout for newer and more absorbing leisure activities; supportive of feminist goals but opposed to giving women a greater role in the synagogue or in public religious life; covering their heads in public but willing to catch the latest risqué movie or TV series. One could go on. There are even those who, though calling themselves Orthodox, are not ready to be bound by what they see as Orthodoxy’s ever rising behavioral demands and religious restrictions. As Wertheimer notes, they even have a new name: “Open Orthodox.”

In terms of religious leadership, Modern Orthodoxy certainly lags behind its haredi counterparts. In large measure, this is because, as I have noted elsewhere, it is in the nature of modernist movements to eschew clerical authority. As moderns, moreover, Modern Orthodox Jews have increasingly relegated the field of rabbinical activity to those on their religious right; the latter, for their part, gladly assume these roles—from pulpit rabbis to educators in day schools and yeshivas, from kashrut supervisors to scribes—in the confidence that by doing so they will re-orient Orthodoxy in their direction. And some have succeeded in that aim, although they have paradoxically also stimulated a backlash in the Modern Orthodox world, hailed by some as a welcome sign of that world’s revival and rejuvenation. Among other manifestations, Wertheimer mentions Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, and the champions of partnership minyanim.


Modern Orthodoxy is not only an American phenomenon. Its longstanding Israeli counterpart bears the label dati le’umi (national religious), thereby signaling its distinctive investment in Zionism and nationalism. To many, indeed, the Israeli option is appealing precisely because it offers a chance not only to be in society as an Orthodox Jew—that is possible in America as well—but to be fully engaged in all aspects of national life and, crucially, to help direct that life in the spirit of specifically Orthodox values and ideals. This is something that life in America or elsewhere in the Diaspora, where Jews exist in overwhelmingly non-Jewish societies, can never offer. In America, Orthodox Jews who have reached the heights of government power are expected to keep their specifically Jewish behavior and ideas safely enclosed in a private compartment of their lives. Who aside from the Orthodox themselves are mindful that Jack Lew, the Secretary of the Treasury, is Orthodox?

In Israel, Modern Orthodox Jews who look like Modern Orthodox Jews can aspire to the very highest levels of power and influence in government, the military, the courts, and even the media; the kippa on the head, beard on the face, or kerchief or wig in the case of women, are not barriers to engagement or leadership in ways they would be even in multicultural America, even in New York. But in Israel these modern Orthodox can also do more. They can bring their Orthodoxy, its behavior and beliefs, to the forefront, and seek to steer the state and its institutions accordingly. In a Jewish state, Orthodoxy can and does compete to define what is Jewish and how that should be expressed in the life of state and society.

This is hardly to say that Modern Orthodoxy in Israel is without problems of its own, some of which are similarly captured in the phrase “sliding to the right.” In the Israeli context, however, the term “Right” encompasses not only stricter religious behavior and haredi values or perspectives but also an aggressive political nationalism. The latter thrust within the dati le’umi world has turned the commandment to “settle the land”—that is, the biblical land promised by God and “miraculously” returned to the Jews by events seen to be messianic in their significance—into the most important commandment of all.

This emphasis on the religious imperative of settlement above all else, and the obsessive internal argument that has arisen over it, have had a distorting effect on Modern Orthodoxy both in Israel and among those in the Diaspora who vicariously define their Orthodoxy by reference to their counterparts in the Holy Land. An Israeli Modern Orthodoxy that once found creative new ways of observing halakhic Judaism while maintaining a Jewish state—how to keep a dairy farm running, or the electrical grid functioning, without transgressing the Sabbath; how to manage an army without compromising Jewish law; how to observe the biblically mandated sabbatical year without harming agricultural productivity; how to create a banking system that does not transgress the laws of usury; how to “nationalize” Passover in a Jewish society where the level of religious observance is mixed at best; and so on—that Orthodoxy has become fixated on the issue of settlements at the expense of its own religious development and its outreach to the modern world.

The preoccupation of the dati le’umi world with the settlement issue—with seeing God’s will in territorial terms—has paradoxically contributed to enhancing, even more powerfully in Israel than in the Diaspora, the influence of the haredim, whose concern with settlement as a religious obligation is negligible. Freed from the Modern Orthodox/dati le’umi settlement fixation, haredim have been able effectively to advance their own definition of how Orthodoxy can and should engage with the contemporary world. Even in the area of outreach both to other Jews and the larger society, once the most compelling aspect of Modern Orthodoxy, the edge now goes to Lubavitcher Hasidism.


That leads me to my final point. In their tolerance of modernity (uncharacteristic of haredi Jews in general) and their ability to negotiate with it, Lubavitcher hasidim have created institutions, from Chabad Houses on university campuses and in farflung places around the world to such unabashed displays of Jewishness as the “mitzvah mobile” and the outsized Hanukkah menorah in the public square, that can attract and raise the consciousness of Jews who might otherwise have found their way to the precincts (or at least the outskirts) of Modern Orthodoxy. Most supporters and fellow travelers of Lubavitch are neither Orthodox nor hasidic, nor likely to become so. And yet Chabad, and the driven young couples who run its outposts, create a uniquely welcoming environment for these Jews: a kind of flexible Orthodoxy-lite.

Paradoxically, it is these same Chabad shluhim who also provide a safe harbor for Modern Orthodox Jews, the cosmopolitans of the Orthodox world, wherever they may find themselves: a needed minyan, a kosher meal, a place to spend Shabbat far from home, a nursery school or some other Orthodox-like institution, often for free or at cost. They do this because, in addition to the desire to spread their ideas of messianism, Lubavitchers aim ultimately to make their way the new standard of observant Judaism: Orthodox and yet at home in the modern world. This unspoken but unmistakable goal means that Lubavitchers are, for Modern Orthodox Jews, the competition that never quits.


Samuel Heilman, professor of sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York, is the author of, among other books, Cosmopolitans and Parochials: Modern Orthodox Jews in America (with Steven M. Cohen), Defenders of the Faith: Inside Ultra-Orthodox Jewry, and The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson (with Menachem Friedman). 

More about: Chabad, Halacha, Jack Wertheimer, Judaism, Modern Orthodoxy


Let Us Now Praise Modern Orthodoxy

Against all odds, Modern Orthodoxy has successfully mixed serious religious engagement with modern life. Now it just has to retain the courage of its own convictions.

Sylvia Barack Fishman
Aug. 13 2014

According to Jack Wertheimer’s compelling article in Mosaic, Modern Orthodox Jews in America struggle between a rock and a hard place. “A whole set of core Modern Orthodox assumptions,” he asserts, is “under assault” simultaneously from haredi Orthodoxy on the Right and liberal American culture on the Left. As a result of these existential challenges—and even as Modern Orthodoxy remains notable for its “vibrant communal life,” “high levels of observance,” and “serious engagement with traditional texts”—there is, he concludes, “considerable evidence that some practices, and even some values, are changing.”

Wertheimer’s warning is timely. Although Modern Orthodox Jews are highly integrated into American workplaces and society, they—in common with their haredi co-religionists—make it a practice, for example, to avoid live music, recreational swimming, and festive occasions like weddings in the nine days leading up to Tisha b’Av: the annual day of fasting and prayer in memory of the destruction of the ancient Temples which this year fell in early August, coinciding serendipitously with the appearance of Wertheimer’s somewhat mournful essay. By contrast, most non-Orthodox American Jews are probably more aware of Ramadan than of the “nine days.” Wertheimer worries that if Modern Orthodox Jews tilt in that direction, surrendering to the temptations of “an open and radically untraditional American society,” they could end up “distort[ing] traditional Judaism beyond recognition.”

But what is the “traditional Judaism” against which Modern Orthodoxy is being measured, and what comprises “change” or “distortion”? Historically, Wertheimer suggests, traditional Judaism is “the all-embracing religious culture of [Jewish] Eastern Europe”—the same culture that American haredi rabbis, for their part, “strove to recreate” on these shores. In this understanding, haredi Orthodoxy replicates traditional Judaism, authentic and unchanged. 

In actuality, however, both “accommodative” Modern Orthodoxy and “resistive” haredi Orthodoxy (Wertheimer borrows the two terms from the historian Jeffrey Gurock) emerged as strategies for dealing with modernity, and both have implemented changes over the years, albeit in significantly different directions.

In traditionally religious European communities, for example, most men worked for a living; the numbers of talented boys pursuing lengthy yeshiva study were highly limited. Today, by contrast, in haredi communities in America and especially in Israel, “learning,” regardless of aptitude, has replaced working as a male adult norm. Consequently, normal rates of adult productivity are stifled, and haredi families comprise the poorest segments of the American and Israeli Jewish population. Is this “authentic” Judaism?

Fear of modernity has precipitated other haredi changes in Jewish tradition as well. Within contemporary haredi communities, separation of the sexes is exaggerated and demands for female “modesty” reach hysterical extremes: crowding women into the rear of buses, ripping photographs of female faces from documents, posters, and advertisements, and ruling (as one prominent Israeli rabbi has done) that women should wear only dark colors and clothing several sizes too large so that no female form is visible in profile. As one dismayed observer has exclaimed: “Silencing and blotting out is what Jews do to Haman—not to Jewish women!” By delegitimating other streams of Judaism and even the standards of many Orthodox rabbis in the areas of marriage, divorce, and conversion to Judaism, Israel’s haredi-controlled Chief Rabbinate has created unprecedented numbers of women barred from remarrying and long lists of illegitimate Jewish children—a shocking distortion that is certainly alien, if not anathema, to traditional Jewish values.


Of course, Modern Orthodox Jews have also changed, and they, too, believe that their changes bring Jews closer to Judaism. Many, for instance, are convinced that the shared-partnership model of marriage typical of today’s Modern Orthodox family strengthens traditional Jewish values. Modern Orthodox Jews have America’s highest rates of “spousal homogamy”: a sociological term for husbands and wives who have attained similar levels of educational and occupational achievement. In turn, they provide their approximately three children per family—double the fertility rate of non-Orthodox Jews—with extraordinarily high levels of Jewish education. Modern Orthodox girls and women pray regularly, and many engage in the study of biblical and rabbinic texts; outside home, school, and synagogue, both men and women devote significant amounts of time to all sorts of Jewish activities. Although Wertheimer notes “defection to more liberal movements,” Modern Orthodoxy’s retention rates have more than doubled since the 1960s, climbing even higher among younger adults.

The Pew Portrait of Jewish Americans, the rich national data set utilized by Wertheimer, posed attitudinal questions that allow us to compare the “values” held by those identifying themselves with different streams of American Judaism. Responding that “being Jewish” is “very important” in their lives were 89 percent of haredi, 89 percent of Modern Orthodox, 69 percent of Conservative, and 44 percent of Reform Jews. Asked about their “connection to the Jewish people,” 99 percent of haredi, 100 percent of Modern Orthodox, 92 percent of Conservative, and 78 percent of Reform Jews reported a “strong sense of belonging.” Modern Orthodox Jews scored dramatically higher than all others when asked whether they were “very” emotionally attached to Israel—77 percent versus 55 percent for haredi, 47 percent for Conservative, and 24 percent for Reform Jews. Similar disparities mark responses to the question, “How essential is caring about Israel to being Jewish?” 

Astonishingly, as Wertheimer notes, some have viewed this strong connection with Israel as evidence of weakness; the fact that numbers of Modern Orthodox American Jews emigrate to Israel can represent, they say, a kind of “commitment drain.” Actually, however, the human connections with children, parents, or cousins who have moved to Israel powerfully reinforce engagement and a sense of international responsibility. Modern Orthodox Jews care about Israel because they have a strong sense of peoplehood, and they have a strong sense of peoplehood because they care about Israel.


Modern Orthodox American Jewish life is not idyllic. Among other challenges, some parents feel compelled to abandon personally meaningful careers for higher-paying but less fulfilling positions that will enable them to afford day-school tuition. In some cases, economic pressure influences the decision to curtail family size. Some, unable to meet the material and psychological costs, find themselves alienated from the educational, occupational, and financial homogeneity of American Modern Orthodox communities.

But if complacency about the Modern Orthodox situation is not called for, neither is an inferiority complex. Wertheimer wonders what the consequences would be if, in order in order to minimize the “undermining” of the religious commitments of Modern Orthodox Jews, the movement “should undertake more actively to resist the modern world.” The answer is that such a strategy of isolationism would betray the movement’s signature intellectual and social values. Intellectually, modern science and culture are seen by Modern Orthodoxy as expressions of the Creator, calling not so much for accommodation as for embrace. Socially, active involvement in a broad spectrum of Jewish and civic enterprises has likewise been an important Modern Orthodox value.

Jay Lefkowitz’s much-discussed article, “The Rise of Social Orthodoxy” (Commentary, April 2014), highlights these communal connections: “In totality, the Modern Orthodox are by far the most engaged group of American Jews . . . [as measured by] significantly greater attachment to the State of Israel, . . . participation in Jewish organizations, Jewish community-center programs, Jewish museums and Jewish cultural events, [and] use of the Internet for Jewish purposes.”

In brief, influences from the Right are not necessarily authentic. Influences from the Left are not automatically distortions. By measuring themselves and their broad intellectual interests and social responsibilities against their movement’s own traditional values, Modern Orthodox Jews can continue to display the courage of their convictions.


Sylvia Barack Fishman, the Joseph and Esther Foster professor of Jewish and contemporary life at Brandeis University and co-director of the Hadassah Brandeis Institute, is the author of The Way into the Varieties of Jewishness. Her new book, Love, Marriage, and Jewish Families: Paradoxes of a Social Revolution, is forthcoming next year from Brandeis University Press.


Why Modern Orthodoxy Is in Crisis

A realignment is occurring in the Orthodox world; to flourish, the Modern Orthodox need to recover their sense of collective purpose.
<em>Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik ("The Rav"), preeminent leader of Modern Orthodoxy in America. </em>From Yeshiva University News.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik ("The Rav"), preeminent leader of Modern Orthodoxy in America. From Yeshiva University News.
Adam Ferziger
Aug. 17 2014

In his erudite and thoroughly researched assessment of American Modern Orthodoxy, Jack Wertheimer details the considerable strengths of this religious stream while also revealing the complex challenges it faces. In the past decade, controversies brewing since the 1980s have heated up and sharpened long-existing divisions, especially those related to the involvement of women in positions of ritual and community leadership. The rifts are serious enough to raise the specter of an imminent rupture of the historic alliance between Modern Orthodox “syncretists”—the sociologist Samuel Heilman’s term for those who fully “embrace the modern world”—and reluctant “tolerators” of that world’s cultural realities, not to mention the many who are somewhere in the middle.

In what follows, I mean to augment Wertheimer’s analysis by introducing a number of potent factors that seem to me critically relevant to the current situation. I will concentrate on three such factors, beginning with the influence of Israeli-style Orthodoxy on its American cousin.

Wertheimer notes the adoption of “haredi-like” attitudes and behaviors by some Modern Orthodox Jews. As others have observed, this often begins in the course of pre- or post-college stints in Israeli yeshivas and seminaries. By no means, however, does the process occur only in those yeshivas and seminaries that gravitate explicitly toward the haredi outlook; it can be observed as well in some religious-Zionist institutions that are ambivalent toward secular culture and encourage strict religious conformity.

All the more noteworthy, then, is the growing role played by such moderate Israeli institutions as Yeshivat Har Etzion (“Gush”) and Ohr Torah Stone. When American alumni of their programs decide to study for rabbinical ordination, most do so through these same Israeli institutions or at Yeshiva University in New York—which is to say, neither under haredi auspices nor under “Open Orthodox” auspices. No less significantly, each of these Israeli institutions has contributed in a major way to the dramatic expansion of advanced Torah study for women. Through their websites and publications, they also reinforce the intellectual inquisitiveness and religious commitment of thousands of American Orthodox Jews.

To be sure, Israeli religious life has also contributed several of the most far-reaching liberal innovations within American Modern Orthodoxy, of which the best known may be “partnership minyanim.” Yet it is questionable whether these innovations are as palatable to the broadest segment of Modern Orthodoxy as are the more restrained novelties authorized by representative figures of the moderate trend I’ve described above. Indeed, the future of an unabashedly modern Orthodoxy that does not alienate its more conservative members may depend on fortifying a coalition of like-minded American and Israeli institutions. Notable among the latter, in addition to Har Etzion and Ohr Torah Stone, are the Beit Hillel religious-leadership organization and the Matan and Nishmat Women’s Institutes; all of them count expatriate Americans among their leaders.


This brings me to my second factor: namely, fresh trends within American haredi Orthodoxy. It is true enough, as Wertheimer observes, that the haredi worldview does not value secular knowledge and culture in and of themselves. Today, however, practical involvement in the larger society is considerably more widespread and accepted than it was among the movement’s mid-20th-century founders. Far more haredi students attend college and even graduate school than in the past. In addition, as Chaim Waxman has demonstrated, and as data in the Pew Report amply confirm, a strong connection with Israel is no longer confined to the Modern Orthodox. Apart from a few avowedly anti-Zionist sects, most haredi Americans are unequivocal in their political support of the Jewish state and make up a sizable contingent of its current immigrants.

This points to an even more basic change within the formerly sectarian and inward-focused haredi ethos. By the late 20th century, as American haredi leaders gained confidence that their style of Orthodoxy was not threatened with extinction, they also became sensitive to the inroads of assimilation among their fellow Jews. Although this has not engendered a greater official tolerance of internal Orthodox diversity, it has led to a dramatically less confrontational attitude toward the non-Orthodox communities, including former arch-adversaries like the Reform and Conservative movements. This is true not only of Chabad Hasidism but of mainstream groups within Lithuanian-style Orthodoxy as well.

And that is not all. On the ground, there has also been a palpable narrowing of the gap between core components of the haredi community and some of the more conservative elements of Modern Orthodoxy. This trend has been generally referred to as the “haredization” of Modern Orthodoxy, but in reality it is a two-way street: central haredi factions, for their part, have adopted attitudes and modes of conduct once regarded as typifying the Modern Orthodox. In a forthcoming book, I show that a “realignment” is occurring in the Orthodox world, producing a more fluid spectrum than is captured in the familiar notion of a Modern Orthodox/haredi dichotomy. As certain once-hard distinctions fade away on the one side, while on the other side the internal bonds between Modern Orthodox “syncretists” and “tolerators” loosen, we may witness more sights like the provocative “Statement on Open Orthodoxy” signed by both Yeshiva University rabbis and alumni of haredi yeshivas.


Finally, I come to what may be the underlying source of Modern Orthodoxy’s existential crisis. The ongoing vitality of any religious movement depends upon its ability to sustain for its adherents a sense of collective purpose and meaning. The specific issues that preserve group identity can evolve over time; sometimes the focus may fall on positive principles, sometimes on opposition to rival factions or theologies. When the driving assumptions are clear and inspiring, internal differences can be overcome. But when ideological inertia sets in, differences tend to become inflated and to portend rupture.

For over two centuries, factions both in Europe and North America loosely assembled under the “modern” Orthodox rubric came together around three main principles. First, a full commitment to religious observance does not demand reclusion from the broader society or from secular knowledge. Second, while personal observance is the ideal and should be encouraged, it is not an unconditional requirement for individual membership in the Jewish collective. Third, neither Reform nor Conservative Judaism is a legitimate expression of Jewish religious teachings.

Historically, there were sharp internal debates about these principles as well as multiple interpretations of them. But there was also overwhelming consensus on the foundational synthesizing ideals that inspired Modern Orthodoxy and distinguished it both from liberal denominations and from alternative forms of Orthodoxy. Even after the model was well established in America, certain causes—a striking example being the activist campaign on behalf of Soviet Jewry, a movement in which the Modern Orthodox took a leading part in mobilizing the energies of the entire American Jewish community—continued to nurture a sense of shared and distinctive purpose.

Today, the lines are softening, at least to some extent. Pitched inter-denominational battles are rare, and even haredi circles increasingly accept higher education and cooperate with non-Orthodox denominations under the banner of combating assimilation. Still, the norms of haredi Judaism remain clear-cut and well defined, while the nuanced messages of Modern Orthodoxy become harder to detect. If, at the heart of today’s Modern Orthodoxy, one finds only a common “lifestyle”—what Jay Lefkowitz has dubbed “social Orthodoxy”—part of the reason may lie in the weakening hold of its foundational vision on the allegiances of syncretists and tolerators alike.

What themes continue to galvanize Modern Orthodoxy? Commitment to the state of Israel as a religious value is still an ideal that joins together the different factions and generates considerable enthusiasm. But, as Wertheimer notes, those most passionate about Israel tend to move there in order to contribute more directly to the society’s welfare as well as to experience a less bifurcated Jewish life, and this causes American Modern Orthodoxy to lose some of its most capable and inspired offspring.This brings us back to the evolving religious role of women: the one issue that continues to spark serious excitement among both those who campaign for expanding opportunities and those who oppose far-reaching changes. Whether equilibrium can be achieved on this issue, and can be accepted by the broadest part of the constituency, is unclear.

What is clear is that the ongoing vitality of American Modern Orthodoxy, and ultimately its survival, will depend upon the emergence of new causes or visions that generate pride and solidify a broad identification not just with the movement’s “lifestyle” but with its distinctive religious outlook.


Adam S. Ferziger, professor in the department of Jewish history and contemporary Judaism at Bar-Ilan University and co-convener of the Oxford Summer Institute for Modern and Contemporary Judaism, is the author of Exclusion and Hierarchy: Orthodoxy, Nonobservance, and the Emergence of Modern Jewish Identity (2005) and Beyond Sectarianism: The Realignment of American Orthodox Judaism, due out next year from Wayne State University Press. He thanks Joshua Berman, Ari Ferziger,and Jonathan Ferziger for their comments on an early draft of this essay.


How to Rejuvenate Modern Orthodoxy

Modern Orthodoxy as it developed in mid-century America was dynamic, vibrant, challenging. Thanks to Open Orthodoxy, it will be again.

<em>Rabbi Avi Weiss, author of the Open Orthodox Manifesto and founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, at a protest in 2002.</em> AP Photo/Evan Vucci.
Rabbi Avi Weiss, author of the Open Orthodox Manifesto and founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, at a protest in 2002. AP Photo/Evan Vucci.
Asher Lopatin
Aug. 19 2014

In his essay in Mosaic, Jack Wertheimer, building on the terminology of the historian Jeffrey Gurock, divides today’s Modern Orthodox world into “resisters [of modernity] attracted by haredi Judaism and accommodators more willing to adapt Jewish law to 21st-century ethical sensibilities.” Given my professional position, I guess I would be placed in the accommodators’ camp. But it is not the goal of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School to produce rabbis who accommodate Judaism to the Western world. Rather, our aim is to harness the gifts of modernity in enabling us to learn and understand more Torah and to live lives that better connect us to God, the Jewish people, and the world: the goal of Modern Orthodoxy in general.

Modern Orthodoxy as it developed in 20th-century America was dynamic, vibrant, challenging, and filled with new insights into Judaism. This was made possible not by taking in the values of modernity wholesale but by maintaining a positive attitude toward those values and not opposing them merely because they were foreign. At its best, Modern Orthodoxy represented an embrace of the idea that the world around us could help Jews, not just hurt them. It is this Modern Orthodoxy, willing to listen to voices from without and within, that we need to revitalize.

This is the very paradigm that was under siege twenty years ago when Rabbi Avi Weiss wrote his “Open Orthodox Manifesto.” Important and controversial Orthodox thinkers, including Rabbis Yitz Greenberg and David Hartman, were being shunned by the so-called Modern Orthodox establishment. Even Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the founder and former spiritual leader of New York’s Lincoln Square Synagogue, was not allowed to speak at Yeshiva University. There was a sense of despair that the Modern Orthodoxy of the 1950s and 1960s—an era in which Rabbis Emanuel Rackman, Yitz Greenberg, and Eliezer Berkovits, and (in Israel) the philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz, were household names—had been lost. Even as Rabbi Saul Berman’s Edah initiative, noted by Wertheimer, succeeded in restoring a certain pride in the name Modern Orthodox, there was legitimate concern that the movement was coming to represent an ossified and unimaginative type of Judaism, always looking fearfully over its right shoulder. Hence “Open Orthodoxy.”


Fortunately, we are in a different situation today. In certain circles, Modern Orthodoxy is returning to its roots and coming back to life. After decades of struggle and hard work by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, Aguna Inc., and many others, America now has an Orthodox rabbinical court dealing with the needs of women whose husbands have refused to give them a writ of Jewish divorce. Under the able leadership of Rabbi Simcha Krauss, the court is open to considering halakhic procedures of the past that have been lost to us in 21st-century America and Israel. Rabbis associated with the new International Rabbinic Fellowship and other Modern Orthodox organizations will undoubtedly support Rabbi Krauss’s rulings.

Similarly, Rabbi Marc Angel has established the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, bringing back the diversity of opinions, even the vibrancy inherent in a certain irreverence for authority, previously characteristic of Modern Orthodoxy. Through the institute’s journal Conversations, thousands of discussions have been sparked across America, and future Modern Orthodox leaders are being encouraged to appreciate and engage with challenging opinions through campus fellows’ programs. Yeshivat Maharat in the United States and at least three different programs in Israel train women to be teachers, halakhic thinkers, and decisors, and, in the case of Yeshivat Maharat, to go out and lead their own communities.

The Modern Orthodoxy of the past was not built solely upon controversy and irreverence for authority; it combined an awe of Judaism with an appreciation for what an engagement with modernity could do to make us better Jews and scholars of Torah. It is this balance that we need to retrieve. Indeed, there is even a great deal that the most open-minded and truly modern Orthodox Jew has to learn from the haredi world. Since the biblical prophet Isaiah bids the entire Jewish people to be “haredim,” shaking at the word of God, one thinker has even proposed adopting the term “Modern Haredi.” We need to be passionate about our Torah and our Yiddishkeit; we need to be in awe of the divine message and even more truly in awe of God. All this, while maintaining our engagement with the outside world and the diverse opinions that are a hallmark of our camp.

The exciting and courageous Modern Orthodoxy of yesteryear is back. It may still be most active under the surface, but the energy and potential are powerful. Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, the Novominsker Rebbe, was correct in pointing to the growing influence of the nearly 90 rabbis who have graduated from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah over the past ten years, most of whom work in Jewish communal life and fully 40 percent of whom occupy pulpits spanning the globe.


Now is indeed the time to reclaim Modern Orthodoxy as a vibrant, creative, and open movement. Accordingly, many of us no longer speak of Open Orthodoxy as a separate stream but rather of bringing back the real Modern Orthodoxy: the kind in which an Orthodox journal could print an article like Rabbi Norman Lamm’s “Faith and Doubt,” which claims doubt as part of our religion, or an article by Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits accompanied by a note stipulating that the content is not necessarily in consonance with editorial opinion.

Jack Wertheimer has laid down a challenge: can we rejuvenate the proud tradition of Modern Orthodoxy and connect it to our generation? From my vantage point, the answer is yes. With God’s help and with humility, awe, and the passion to explore the infinite depths of God’s Torah, we can revitalize Modern Orthodoxy.


Asher Lopatin is president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School in New York. Educated at Boston University and Oxford, he received rabbinic ordination at Yeshivas Brisk in Chicago and Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological School. He thanks Eric Elder for editorial assistance.


Against Open Orthodoxy

Being both “open” and Orthodox sounds to me like an excuse for anything goes.

<em>A gathering at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.</em> By Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, via Google Plus.
A gathering at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. By Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, via Google Plus.
Barry Freundel
Aug. 24 2014

Many thanks to Jack Wertheimer for his thorough analysis of modern Orthodoxy and for our interesting conversation as he was preparing the essay. I welcome the opportunity to be part of this crucial dialogue. 

During my almost 40 years as a pulpit rabbi, I have developed a reputation for liberal rulings on many issues, and for occasional critiques of haredi Judaism. It was therefore a surprise to many people when I came out as a vocal critic of Open Orthodoxy. I would like to explain my position here by focusing on an issue that Wertheimer touches on but does not treat in depth—in my view, perhaps the most critical issue of all.

To have a fruitful discussion about Modern Orthodoxy, we must first determine what defines it as a movement. Religious movements, and certainly Jewish religious movements, are not held together simply by particular common practices or even ideological stances. Neither a knit yarmulke nor a college degree defines Modern Orthodoxy, just as neither a black hat nor having attended this or that yeshiva defines haredi Judaism. I’m sure I’m not alone in knowing several self-identified haredim who have had robust secular educations and have not lobotomized the parts of their brains that contain what they learned in those precincts. Similarly, I know many solidly Modern Orthodox families who send their children to right-wing day schools to protect them against secularizing influences, or who do not feel themselves theologically connected to the state of Israel.

Such fuzzy and ill-defined accommodations exist across many ideological divides. Unless we are willing to multiply subcategories of Orthodoxy to the point of absurdity, we need to look elsewhere to delineate the boundaries of Modern Orthodoxy. The critical element lies in the guiding principles that form one’s worldview, from which doctrinal and practical judgments follow. When discussing Orthodox Judaism—and, to a lesser extent, other forms of Judaism as well—this usually boils down to fundamental attitudes toward the authority of halakhah (Jewish law). Once these guiding principles are established, any ensuing variations are of degree, not kind.


A look at the evolution of Reform and Conservative Judaism will illustrate my point. (I admit to grave oversimplification in the interest of brevity.) Early Reform leaders sought to make Judaism a matter of activity carried on in one’s private space, while in the public arena differences between Jew and Gentile were to be minimized. They then made decisions through the prism of this outlook. One temple might choose to celebrate the Sabbath on Sunday; another might stick with Saturday. But such differences did not really matter, and neither would any changes either might make to the liturgy. Regardless of their practical conclusions, so long as both congregations shared the same underlying ideology, both were Reform. 

These days, Reform speaks much about the principle of individual autonomy in making choices about Jewish practice and sees halakhah as not legally binding. One Reform Jew might choose to adhere to Orthodox standards of kashrut, another simply to refrain from pork, a third to keep “eco-friendly” kosher, a fourth to buy only from “ethical food purveyors,” a fifth not to observe kashrut at all. These five Jews may argue among themselves about which choice is most in line with “Jewish values,” but no one will doubt that they belong squarely within the Reform fold, since all are following the principle of autonomous choice. This may be a major reason why, at least for the time being, Reform is doing quite well: moral autonomy, rather than acceptance of authority, is a guiding principle of the cultural Zeitgeist.

Conservative Judaism, once the largest denomination, is not nearly so successful. Created largely by the children of East European immigrants to America, it sought to sustain the authority of halakhah while asserting that halakhah was more flexible than the Orthodox maintained. A rabbinical ruling that permitted driving to the synagogue on Shabbat is the most famous example. For Orthodox Jews, such permissiveness was unthinkable; for Reform Jews, ritual prohibitions were not relevant. Conservative authorities begged to differ with both.

And yet, as Daniel Gordis has cogently written, this ruling was so obviously based on convenience rather than sound jurisprudence that it succeeded in undermining the validity of Conservative Judaism itself. Many who were serious about halakhah gravitated to Orthodoxy; many more, seeking to abandon its burdens, didn’t need Conservative Judaism’s blessing. In later years, the movement’s loss of a coherent set of guiding principles would manifest itself in such confusing or contradictory stances as a continued emphasis on observance and day-school education combined with culturally “advanced” positions in such areas as women’s roles in the synagogue and, most recently, same-sex marriage.

By contrast, the haredi world, despite some recent cracks, draws its strength from the uncompromising clarity of its principles. Halakhah takes precedence over other considerations. For those of hasidic orientation, having a rebbe with putative special wisdom to guide one through the complexities of life is powerfully attractive; unsurprisingly, non-hasidic haredim have also adopted this model of rabbinic leadership. Confidence comes with knowing in precise detail what to do and how to do it in almost every situation. Recently, many have been drawn to the mystical idea that the performance of minor extra-halakhic customs has cosmic significance. This supplies a compelling rationale for blocking any sort of change, except for the reintroduction of otherwise forgotten customs. Fighting the devil of modernity, which certainly has claimed its victims, gives adherents a real sense of purpose.


What then of Modern Orthodoxy? As taught by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, as manifest in the writings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, and as based on ideas expounded by a number of authorities from Maimonides in the 12th century to Samson Raphael Hirsch in the 19th, it certainly shares some aspects of its fundamental worldview with that of the haredim. The fact that Orthodox is the noun and modern the modifier is telling. One starts with absolute fealty to halakhah, and from within its four walls actively engages with modernity.

Sometimes, that engagement will modify behavior. A useful example is the early adoption of English (rather than Yiddish) as the language of sermons. Although this departure from tradition was initially met with strong opposition, it never had to overcome any real halakhic roadblocks. Other, more recent cases—like permitting women to deliver sermons or answer halakhic questions—have raised genuine halakhic issues, yet Modern Orthodox rabbis have been able to draw on precedent and rabbinic jurisprudence to permit such practices (just as their haredi opponents drew on precedent and rabbinic jurisprudence to forbid them). In still other cases, accommodation is impossible: gay marriage, for instance, cannot be accepted. (This is a separate matter from treating homosexuals with basic respect and dignity, a firm and indisputable tenet of contemporary Modern Orthodoxy.)

Nonetheless, Modern Orthodoxy is not doing very well, because people are not living by its guiding principles. Even those who identify with the movement do not view the world through fealty to halakhah followed by modern modification. There are many indicators of this, and Jack Wertheimer does a good job of chronicling some of them.

Prominent among such indicators is the rise of Open Orthodoxy, which I oppose—despite taking permissive positions on women’s prayer groups and the possibility of women to serve as synagogue presidents, and despite having published the first article in an Orthodox venue to speak of the dignity of homosexuals. In each of these cases, I came to my conclusions after much reflection and careful consideration of authoritative texts. By contrast, being both “open” and Orthodox sounds to me, unfortunately, like an excuse for anything goes, so long as it can be given a veneer of legitimacy through a bit of superficial talmudic casuistry. I have asked leaders of this stream what its limits are, and have never received an answer. It is, therefore, no surprise that some of its leading younger lights have repudiated both the divine authorship of the Torah and belief in the messiah, and taken other theological and halakhic positions that go far beyond the historical limits of Orthodoxy. 

And why not? Open Orthodoxy seems to have no guiding principles to limit its innovations. So what will happen when the inclusion of women and homosexuals is no longer trendy, when the other innovations have run their course, and when the movement on the ground looks increasingly guided by the Reform principle of individual autonomy or the moral/halakhic balancing act of Conservative Judaism? And when the larger society’s ideological pendulum swings from today’s extreme cultural liberalism to a more socially conservative outlook, what then? It is all too likely that, as has happened before, the exciting and trendy will have served as another gateway out of Judaism.

But Open Orthodoxy is not the only problem. Another, significant one is the decline of intellectualism within Modern Orthodox circles. Who in the Orthodox community is engaging in original Jewish thought? While Christians have created a 21st-century academic discipline of religious thought, Jewish academics, including Modern Orthodox Jews in the field of Jewish studies, have conspicuously failed to follow suit. Yes, it’s a truism that, in general, people’s attention spans today seem not to allow for deeper and more nuanced modes of speculation. But Modern Orthodoxy needs intellectual vibrancy in order to flourish. In this connection, incidentally, I confess to being the rabbinic informant, cited anonymously by Wertheimer, who complained that today’s synagogue-goers are far less interested in the nuanced study of talmudic texts than in a superficial review of a few sources on a topic with direct relevance to their lives.

Can these and other problems affecting classical Modern Orthodoxy be fixed? Yes, with a lot of effort and resources. But that is another conversation.


Barry Freundel is the rabbi of Kesher Israel in Washington, DC, and assistant professor of rabbinic literature and history at Towson University. He is the author of Contemporary Orthodox Judaism’s Response to Modernity (2003) and Why We Pray What We Pray (2010).


The Unresolved Dilemmas of Modern Orthodoxy

Everyone agrees that the movement needs to rethink and revamp. Very few agree on how.

From Dreamstime.
From Dreamstime.
Aug. 27 2014
About the author

Jack Wertheimer is professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Most recently he co-authored Hearts and Minds: Israel in North American Jewish Day Schools, under the auspices of the Avi Chai Foundation.

My thanks to Professors Samuel Heilman, Sylvia Barack Fishman, and Adam Ferziger, and to Rabbis Asher Lopatin and Barry Freundel, for contributing richly to this conversation about the current condition of Modern Orthodoxy. Rather than addressing their responses seriatim, I will comment on three cross-cutting themes.


The Haredi Connection

Each of my respondents has devoted some attention to the haredim (“ultra-Orthodox”), a noteworthy indication of the place the latter hold in the Modern Orthodox imagination. All but one seem to regard the haredim as the “other” with whom Modern Orthodoxy must contend; by contrast, the more liberal Jewish denominations barely register in these responses.

Thus, Samuel Heilman focuses on the inordinate influence exerted by haredi rabbis over the Modern Orthodox, a power all too willingly ceded to them by the latter. Asher Lopatin implicitly agrees, lamenting the eclipse, until quite recently, of a more open-minded Orthodoxy. Adam Ferziger consoles his readers with the prospect of new cracks in haredi ranks. Sylvia Fishman is especially exercised by haredi mistreatment of women. (In this connection, incidentally. she misreads me as endorsing the view that “the all-embracing religious culture” of East European Jewry was the embodiment of “traditional Judaism.” That is the belief of haredi Jews, not mine.) All but one of my respondents are more concerned with the “haredization” of Modern Orthodoxy, to use Adam Ferziger’s term, than with the liberalizing dangers of halakhic innovation.

The exception is Barry Freundel who dwells upon the failings of Reform and especially Conservative Judaism. Not surprisingly, he is also considerably more alarmed than the others by the dead-end nature of a Judaism not grounded in the commitment to observe Jewish law, and correspondingly anxious to strengthen “the authority of halakhah.” His disapproval of the more liberal movements is of a piece with his battles against internal Orthodox foes who press for religious “openness.”

Both Freundel and Ferziger see evidence of recent shifts within the haredi population, and Ferziger goes so far as to suggest that a realignment is under way. He cites the growing numbers of haredi Jews who seek a college and professional education, engage in outreach to their non-Orthodox coreligionists, and support Israel politically.

These indeed do reflect important developments within the American haredi world. But do they represent an acceptance of Modern Orthodoxy’s founding premise that much of Western culture is compatible with Torah? Do they share Lopatin’s unreservedly warm embrace of “the gifts of modernity”? As Ferziger himself notes, “the haredi worldview does not value secular knowledge and culture in and of themselves.” Until it does, I submit, it is premature to speak of what might be described as an “Open Haredi Judaism.” There is a vast gulf between seeking a higher education for instrumental purposes—i.e., to learn new skills in order to make a better living—and finding inherent value in the wisdom of other cultures.


The Israeli Influence

Several of my respondents devote attention to the Israel dimension of the Modern Orthodox experience. Though they are too kind to say so directly, my essay scanted this topic—and intentionally so, because it is very hard to pin down. The role, for instance, of Israeli gap-year programs in shaping the worldviews of young Modern Orthodox Jews has been debated by researchers, with some claiming that study in an Israeli yeshiva or seminary causes widespread “flipping out” to haredi versions of Judaism and others dismissing that result as rare. Ferziger sees hope in “a coalition of like-minded American and Israeli institutions” working to create an “unabashedly modern Orthodoxy.” Heilman, for his part, laments that Israel’s religious Zionists have become captives of “settlement” nationalism, and Fishman is appalled at efforts by Israel’s chief rabbinate to delegitimize marriages and divorces overseen by some Modern Orthodox rabbis.

What these comments highlight is that American Modern Orthodoxy is indeed influenced, if not buffeted, by trends in Israel as ideas and practices flow back and forth between the two communities. Perhaps the only definitive thing to be said is that American Orthodox Jews of all stripes enjoy a far more dynamic and fructifying relationship with their Israeli counterparts than do Conservative, Reform, or secular Jews.

And yet, in some interesting ways, a gap is opening between Israeli and American versions of Orthodoxy. American haredim, for example, are far likelier than Israeli haredim to seek gainful employment and pursue degrees in higher education. In fact, haredi rabbis in Israel have disparaged this American trend, while American haredi leaders have given their tacit if not explicit approval.

If, on the other hand, Israeli haredim remain more fixed in their ways than their American counterparts, Modern Orthodox Jews in Israel seem far more open to innovation than do their counterparts. From Zion have come forth some remarkably ingenious solutions to 21st-century religious questions. Means have been found, for example, to magnify sound in synagogues without trespassing on Jewish laws forbidding the use of electricity on the Sabbath and holidays. The same approach is evident in motorized carts for incapacitated individuals who otherwise could not attend synagogue services on those days. Nor is the spirit of halakhic ingenuity limited to technology. It is hardly accidental that the two rabbinic responsa permitting “partnership minyanim”—religious services in which women lead some of the prayers—were issued by rabbis residing in Jerusalem. (Interestingly, one is originally from the U.S., the other from Wales.)

What has made such innovative thinking possible? For one thing, Israeli Orthodoxy, unlike the American brand, has never had to contend with strong Reform or Conservative movements. This has reduced pressure to respond to innovation with a reflexive negativity. Moreover, a sector of the religious Zionist rabbinate in Israel has been intent on bringing religious law into the realm of public policy in a Jewish state. To these rabbis, it is inconceivable that halakhah cannot or will not address the new circumstances created by modern Jewish sovereignty; their interpretive boldness has rarely been matched by Modern Orthodox rabbis in the United States.  


Rebuilding a Movement

Even taking into account differences in nuance, all five of my respondents agree on the need to revamp aspects of Modern Orthodoxy. Some seem more optimistic about the prospects, others more skeptical. Heilman suggests that competition from Chabad will necessitate a more nimble Modern Orthodox response. Fishman, even as she makes a strong case for the success of Modern Orthodoxy, warns against “complacency.” Ferziger looks to “the emergence of new causes or visions [to] generate pride and solidify” identification with Modern Orthodoxy’s “distinctive religious outlook.” Lopatin, though confident that Modern Orthodoxy is now at least on the right track, sees an ongoing need to reclaim it “as a vibrant, creative, and open movement.” Freundel, the most critical of Open Orthodoxy, nonetheless affirms his own participation in the project of renewing Modern Orthodoxy through, for instance, openness to women’s prayer groups and respect for gay and lesbian Jews.

As I contended in my essay, much has indeed gone right for Modern Orthodoxy, and even its divisions can be regarded as a sign of vitality. For their part, all of my respondents note the sense of well-being in many quarters of the community, and Sylvia Fishman offers a compelling explanation for it: “the Modern Orthodox are by far the most engaged group of American Jews.” Just so.

But lurking beneath the surface are several unresolved issues not so quickly dismissed. One of them, raised by Heilman, concerns the “contradictory and often double lives” of Modern Orthodox Jews, as exhibited in their often “exquisite feats of compartmentalization.” Indeed, this may be the only way Modern Orthodox Jews can make the two parts of their identity, the modern and the Orthodox, work. The late Charles Liebman, the most influential analyst of American Orthodoxy in the postwar era, once even held up the Orthodox tendency to compartmentalize as an ideal for other kinds of Jews to emulate. One of the most astute observers of Jewish life, Liebman no doubt understood how tall an order this was: for Modern Orthodox Jews, the blurred line between compartmentalization and hypocrisy can create intolerable tensions.

A second unresolved dilemma concerns the dearth of authoritative thinkers. Freundel tackles this challenge head-on, and both Heilman and Ferziger allude to it. “Who in the Orthodox community is engaging in original Jewish thought,” Freundel asks? Nearly three decades after Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik ceased functioning as a leader, he remains the totem invoked at every turn. To be sure, one can level the same criticism at the liberal Jewish denominations, which continue to offer ritual obeisance to Abraham Joshua Heschel, Mordecai Kaplan, and other mid-20th-century figures in justifying religious positions never imagined by them. But Freundel poses the right question: the failure of contemporary Modern Orthodox leaders to develop Jewish religious thought does indeed appear to be a symptom of theological uncertainty, if not malaise.

Finally, it is curious how little the culture wars within Modern Orthodoxy register in my respondents’ contributions. What do they make of the ease with which, in some quarters, the ideas of opponents are labeled as “heresy?” Or, in others, of the casual dismissal of leading rabbinic scholars as “out of touch” with the modern world? Or, in still others, of the palpable rage at Modern Orthodox rabbis who display tolerance for what Fishman characterizes as the “hysterical extremes” of haredi notions of female modesty?

It may be that a mechanism exists within the Modern Orthodox community to contain rising levels of anger and resentment. But it is not so easy to dismiss or wish away the fact that beneath its placid façade, Modern Orthodoxy will have to deal with them.


Jack Wertheimer is professor of American Jewish History at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Most recently he co-authored Hearts and Minds: Israel in North American Jewish Day Schools, under the auspices of the Avi Chai Foundation.