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.