How Modern Orthodoxy Can Chart Its Course Without Jonathan Sacks

More than most, Modern Orthodoxy is a movement constantly ensnared by ideological disputes. Here’s how it can survive.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, right, congratulates Ephraim Mirvis, his successor as chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the UK and the Commonwealth, during a ceremony at the St. John’s Wood Synagogue in north London on September 1, 2013. STEFAN ROUSSEAU/AFP via Getty Images.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, right, congratulates Ephraim Mirvis, his successor as chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the UK and the Commonwealth, during a ceremony at the St. John’s Wood Synagogue in north London on September 1, 2013. STEFAN ROUSSEAU/AFP via Getty Images.

Eli Spitzer
COLUMN
Aug. 3 2021
About Eli

Eli Spitzer is a Mosaic columnist and the headmaster of a hasidic boys’ school in London. He blogs and hosts a podcast at elispitzer.com.

All religious denominations are subject to the forces of schism and disharmony, with parties uniting and dividing around controversies of belief and observance. Among Jewish denominations, Modern Orthodoxy in particular is marked out by a high frequency of ideological disputes that tear at its fabric. The latest Modern Orthodox controversy erupted last June, when the London School of Jewish Studies, an Orthodox-affiliated college, announced that one of its teachers would no longer serve there after she completed a s’mikhah (rabbinical ordination) course in the U.S. The basis for this decision was a ruling made a few years earlier by Ephraim Mirvis, the UK’s chief rabbi, that rabbinic ordination for women was a practice that lay outside the boundaries of Orthodoxy. In response to the LSJS’s decision, a wave of denunciations followed, accusing the college and the chief rabbi of marginalizing women and alienating them from Judaism. And in response to that, the college rescinded its decision, not giving any clear reason beyond having had time to “re-examine what it means to be dually a religious institution guided by the chief rabbi and also an academic institution, upholding its academic freedom.” Thus the teacher was reinstated, and the dispute finally blown over.

It is safe to say, however, that this will not be the last in a long line of conflicts within Modern Orthodoxy over the status and role of women. Similar disputes about conversion, about the place of gay and lesbian Jews in the community, or about biblical criticism look, just as intractable, with each recurrence layering on déjà vu like some strange lasagna. The never-ending crisis of Modern Orthodoxy calls for explanation that goes beyond observing the paradox inherent in trying to reconcile modernity with a revelation received in the bronze age. As a sympathetic observer of Modern Orthodoxy, I want to frame the problem in a way that I hope points towards, if not quite resolution, a more sustainable model of conflict management.

 

Objectively speaking, Modern Orthodoxy is a small movement comprising a tiny fraction of the Jewish people. But it punches well above its weight in the global Jewish conversation for a number of reasons. Not only are Modern Orthodox Jews, pound for pound, more interested in Jewish observance and practice than most other Jewish groups, they also combine it with an unusual interest in Jewish theory and ideas that underlie that practice. Secondly, Modern Orthodox thinkers and writers tend to represent the voice of Orthodoxy as a whole, at least in English-language debate, because the more numerous Ḥaredim are not interested in doing so and have an extreme paucity of individuals who could take up such a role in any case. Thirdly, Modern Orthodoxy speaks on behalf of a larger body of Jews who neither accept its core theology nor accede to its demands for halakhic observance, but nevertheless identify with Modern Orthodoxy as the denomination that provides them with their need for communal worship and religious fulfillment. This happens to be especially the case in England, where the Orthodox United Synagogue has for more than a century maintained institutional dominance as the sole provider of prayers, burials, and other religious services in most Jewish communities, meaning that for median Jews, the shul they went to on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and their son’s bar mitzvah was Modern Orthodox.

One might think that its small numbers of adherents would protect Modern Orthodoxy from schism. That is not at all the case. From its very beginnings in the mid-19th century Modern Orthodoxy has been two movements in one. One movement was founded by Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer of Eisenstadt and then Berlin, whose rabbinical seminary was the intellectual center of German Orthodoxy from its founding in 1873 to its closure at the hands of the Nazis in 1938. Hildesheimer’s Cultured Orthodox movement (a term he coined for the 1868 Hungarian Jewish Congress) was defined, in his own words, by “faithful adherence to traditional teachings combined with an effective effort to keep in touch with the spirit of progress.” His task, as he saw it, was to prevent the masses otherwise drawn to the Hungarian Neolog and German Reform movements from slipping away from Orthodoxy by modernizing Judaism; this was combined with an absolute insistence that any modernization must be done within the boundaries of halakhah (Jewish law) and with absolute fidelity to established theological dogma. The spirit of progress has, of course, gone in directions Hildesheimer never conceived, but the same template he laid out applies to today, with a range of latitude about what kind of halakhic innovations are acceptable in implementing this vision.

At the same time, however, as Hildesheimer was establishing his trailblazing yeshiva in Berlin where a high standard of secular education was not merely an aspiration but a strict entry requirement, in Frankfurt, his contemporary Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch was articulating a vision, known as Neo-Orthodoxy, with subtle but profound differences. Like Hildesheimer, Hirsch was troubled by the gap that had opened up between traditional Judaism and a quickly evolving European civilization. For Hirsch, though, Judaism is defined precisely by certain timeless principles that European civilization was belatedly groping towards, a definition under which the concept of modernizing made little sense. Instead, Hirsch saw the duty of the Jew who would leave the ghetto as one of mastering the tools of progress so as to Judaize modernity. Instead of embodying his vision in an institution, Hirsch propagated it through his voluminous writings, in particular his commentary on the Torah, published in 1867-68 and still widely studied today in English or Hebrew translation.

There were many differences between Hildesheimer’s program and that of Hirsch. Hildesheimer, while denying Reform movements any legitimacy, was still willing to collaborate with them on charitable projects, while Hirsch advocated complete separatism and non-cooperation. Hildesheimer worked enthusiastically with proto-Zionist movements, while Hirsch rejected them wholesale and pioneered the arguments that would later be used by ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionists. On the other hand, Hildesheimer did not share Hirsch’s belief in the ethical necessity of engaging with German high culture, instead seeing it as a permitted pleasure bearing no particular religious value. Hildesheimer wrote many traditional works in rabbinic Hebrew and was in many ways more rooted in traditional European culture than the philosopher Hirsch, who wrote almost exclusively in the style and format of a 19th-century German man of letters.

For our purposes now, the key difference between the Modern Orthodoxy that evolved in the late 19th and early 20th century out of Hildesheimer’s movement and Hirsch’s Neo-Orthodoxy involves changing halakhah to accommodate Judaism to modernity. For Hildesheimer’s followers, halakhic innovation always has to be carefully considered, firmly rooted in traditional sources, and only done where necessary, but it is in principle legitimate. Hirsch, for his part, was eager to update non-halakhic customs that he believed were rooted in medieval culture and impeded the implementation of the spiritual and ethical program of Judaism. What he did not believe in, however, was making changes to codified halakhah. For Hirsch, European civilization was progressing towards an ideal already revealed at Mount Sinai 3,000 years earlier; the concept of updating halakhah to make it fit with modernity was therefore nonsensical. Indeed, Hirsch, who in his writings displayed little interest in practical halakhic questions, most closely resembled the most extreme exponents of Hungarian ultra-Orthodoxy in his emphasis on an unchanging law existing outside of history. Hirsch’s followers became known for their punctilious observance of every jot and tittle of the Shulḥan Arukh (a 16th-century legal code) and its traditional commentaries, in contrast to other Orthodox movements further to the east, which were much more willing to make halakhic innovations based on the study of primary talmudic or kabbalistic sources, or to employ strategically placed leniencies that would enable them to achieve wider ideological goals.

While, in the mid-19th century, the practical implications of the difference between Hildesheimerian and Hirschian principles were not large enough to impede the growth of the movement, nearly two centuries of the “spirit of progress” has thrown up a steady succession of wedge issues that has exposed their inherent contradictions. It is not merely the case that Modern Orthodoxy contains a variety of opinions about what kind of changes are urgent or desirable, and what standards of halakhic precedent are required to implement them. The contradiction at the heart of Modern Orthodoxy is more profound than that, for it includes not just those who set a high burden of proof on halakhic innovation but those who reject the concept in principle.  It is one thing to combine in one movement both those who believe female rabbis are an urgent priority and those who think they lack sufficient halakhic precedent; it is another also to reconcile with those who regard the concept as an ontological impossibility.

Yet resolving their differences amicably through divorce is not an option for the two streams within Modern Orthodoxy, as an outsider might think. Apart from the simple issue of numbers, every time either side has tried to go it alone, it has ended up being subsumed into other movements to the left or right. The strict Hirschians led by Rabbi Shimon Schwab, who broke with Modern Orthodoxy in the United States after the World War II, quickly became for all intents and purposes a part of the broader ḥaredi coalition. Indeed, in the ḥaredi world there are many descendants of the Neo-Orthodox Hirschians, known for their austere severity and disapproving attitude toward those who don’t share it. On the other side, one need look no further than Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan for what happens when Modern Orthodoxy is not held back by its Hirschians. Originally the rising star of Modern Orthodoxy in America, Kaplan’s frustration with the lack of progress in Orthodoxy, led him to establish the Society for the Advancement of Judaism in 1922, where he held the country’s first bat-mitzvah celebration. This movement eventually became Reconstructionist Judaism, known for pushing boundaries where even non-Orthodox denominations fear to tread.

What, in practice, Modern Orthodoxy does, then, is meet each new development of Western progress with a series of compromises worked out to accommodate, as much as possible, those who demand innovation and those who say they can have none at all. Inevitably, these compromises are drawn with the primary intention of minimizing the number of people on the right and left who storm out in disgust, which means they cannot survive too much in the way of critical intellectual probing. Thus, those who are drawn into defending these provisional compromises as if they were expressions of lasting principle do so at their peril. It is all too easy for critics on either side to find points of inconsistency to attack, and even if those placed on the defensive have the mental agility and dexterity to put all the pieces of the puzzle together, they only make it harder for themselves when the compromise package inevitably changes and they have to defend it again.

This can be seen quite clearly in the recent conflict in the UK. Many defenders of the chief rabbi have pointed out that far from being a benighted scourge on women in Judaism, his office had only a few years earlier launched a detailed new reform program promoting female leadership and education, one that went further than any before. This may be true, but such a defense misses the psychological nature of reform, which is that each new concession only makes it harder—logically and emotionally—to refuse the next one. This is true generically of battles between conservatives and reformers in every age and culture, but there is an even more profound dynamic at work in Modern Orthodoxy, engendered by its attempt to combine the new not just with the old, but with the eternal.

 

Judged as a simple aggregate of the many individual decisions made in its history about how to reconcile liberal modernity and halakhah, Modern Orthodoxy looks weak, open to such attack and counterattack on every front. But it is not actually a weak movement. Far from it. And here appears Modern Orthodoxy’s underrecognized strength: that it so often finds a way to transcend the ever-recurring details of tit and tat and tap into its adherents’ desire for a holistic religious ideal that makes the thorny problems of modernity recede into the background.

Modern Orthodoxy has attracted and produced many great thinkers and scholars, but two figures stand out for their ability to rise above and beyond the never-ending crisis of reconciling Orthodoxy and progress: Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. At first sight, the pair seem to have little in common. Soloveitchik was a scion of the distinguished Brisk rabbinical dynasty, practicing a wide range of personal halakhic stringencies based on its unique methodology of talmudic study. He developed an elaborate and dour philosophy of Jewish observance derived from different schools of German philosophy. Sacks, who studied philosophy at Cambridge before embarking in rabbinic studies, became known, by contrast, for his ability to draw from a wide range of cultural reference points to illuminate and frame many different issues without ever attempting a systematic project of unifying his observations.

What was most important about both figures, however, was not their specific conclusions. Very few people are or were ever committed followers of a Soloveitchikian or Sacksian ideology, but myriads were inspired by them to deepen their commitment to practicing Judaism and felt proud in doing so. What they provided, ironically given their literary achievements, was something that perhaps cannot be expressed precisely in words.

Most of those who are threatening to bolt Modern Orthodoxy over questions of gender are not looking for opportunities for female talmudic study (which they already have) or even leadership (which they have more of than ever before, and which few, by definition of the word leadership, will ever exercise). Nor are they looking for a resolution to theological problems thrown up by science or the ones of biblical criticism that plague rare sensitive souls. What they want is something more visceral: on the one hand a community of people committed to a life revolving around Jewish ritual and mitzvot and, on the other hand, a communal identification that doesn’t make them feel like cavemen in the midst of a wider society more or less tolerant of religion but contemptuous, at best, of social conservatism. From the logical standpoint, the simplest way of doing this is to have female rabbis, homosexual ḥuppahs, and whatever else is on the spirit of progress’s agenda nowadays. But that path is blocked by insurmountable halakhic obstacles. What Sacks and Soloveitchik showed, however, is that the same need can be provided in another way, by elucidating a vision that can inspire Jews in such a way that the ineradicable tensions of Modern Orthodoxy lose grip on their attention.

Of course, one might comment here that no community can hope to survive indefinitely by relying on the inherently unpredictable phenomenon of human genius. That is too glum a conclusion. For if we look at the career of Jonathan Sacks we find that his qualities as a religious leader were not given to him through some mysterious process, but were developed through conscious effort. Less well-known around the world, but well-remembered by older generations of English Jews, is that in the earlier stages of his career as a public intellectual, Jonathan Sacks (by his own account not a natural public speaker) made numerous missteps that had him condemned from the right and the left. His ability to rise above and present a vision of Modern Orthodoxy that satisfied the need of its followers for respectability was something he learned through trial and error. Not everyone can fill his shoes, but some will be able to if they understand what they are aiming for. Energy expended on detailed compromises between halakhah and liberal modernity is energy spent in vain. What Modern Orthodoxy requires, rather, is the vision that can transcend such conflicts and satisfy the spiritual and emotional needs of the 21st-century Jew who wants to live in this world and yet not be quite of it. The movement’s most urgent priority is therefore to draw on its resources as the beating intellectual heart of contemporary Judaism, and, as far as possible, ensure a steady supply of the figures who can supply that vision.

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More about: Halakhah, History & Ideas, Modern Orthodoxy, Religion & Holidays