In August 2021 Mosaic published an essay by our new columnist Eli Spitzer about the direction of the Modern Orthodox movement and why it finds itself caught up in so many controversies. Eli’s article attracted significant attention and comment, so we thought we’d further the conversation, and also introduce him to you properly, by inviting Eli to discuss live the ideas in his essay. He spoke with another regular Mosaic writer, Sarah Rindner, who has plenty of ideas about Modern Orthodoxy herself, and answered questions from our readers and friends in the Mosaic community. We’re happy now to present a video of that live discussion, which took place on Tuesday, August 10, along with a lightly edited transcript below.
Our subject this afternoon is a column that Eli published in Mosaic one week ago in which he asks how Modern Orthodoxy can chart its course in the period after the leadership of the beloved and much missed Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. For those of you who are new to our Mosaic community, I’m especially pleased that you’re here with us for this conversation.
You may not know that we had the honor of publishing one of Rabbi Sacks’s very last essays before he passed away. It is an excerpt from the then-forthcoming book, Morality, focusing on how the family nurtures the moral life of parents and children no less than it does our civic life.
Sarah Rindner has written for First Things, Lehrhaus, the Jewish Review of Books, and of course for us at Mosaic. She’s taught literature to students at virtually every level, including college students. She also maintains the website bookofbooksblog.com. That’s where you can keep up with her and all of her reflections and doings. In the spring of 2020, Sarah moved her family to Israel, and you can read about her homecoming in a Mosaic piece entitled, “What Aliyah Looks Like (for My Family at Least) in 2020.”
Eli Spitzer learned English by arguing with late-night talk-show radio hosts at 2:00 AM, and he learned everything else by voluminous reading and study. He’s written for us about Chaim Grade, how to think about social media, and the survival of Yiddish, and he’s the author of “How Modern Orthodoxy Can Chart Its Course Without Jonathan Sacks.” Sarah, I hand over to you.
Thank you so much, Jon, and welcome everyone. It’s wonderful to be here. In Eli Spitzer’s recent column, he wrote a powerful and lucid description of some of the dynamics we’ve seen play out in the Modern Orthodox community from its inception. Modern Orthodoxy is commonly understood as a self-conscious attempt to reconcile religious Torah Judaism with the values and the assumptions of the secular or Christian Western world. This definition inherently involves crisis. And from the very beginning of it as a self-aware movement, we’ve seen fault lines in the development of Modern Orthodoxy. This is part of what Eli explores in his article, which I hope he’ll share with us.
From the very beginning, we have an inherent tension between those groups of the Modern Orthodox movement that are more cautious and more resistant to synthesizing with or inviting change from the Western world and those groups that are little bit more open to it. And that crisis, even if the players change over time, is to a certain extent always there. And what I find really important and powerful about Eli’s article is that he shows us another way of looking at Modern Orthodoxy, through the prism of its great leaders, one that offers a chance to transcend that conflict. So, I would love to just hear more about your take on Modern Orthodoxy, Eli.
I want to start by making a couple of points. The first will be about the very term, Modern Orthodoxy. I think pretty much anyone who has been involved with or knows people in the Modern Orthodox community will know how hated and disliked this term is across the board for a number of different reasons, and in fact, even Rabbi Sacks was on the record many times saying how overrated the term Modern Orthodoxy is and how he really, really disliked the term. So I do not want anyone to get stuck on this specific branding. I think it’s enough to say that we are referring to a community that is not ḥaredi and is at the same time committed to halakhic observance outside of Israel. Within Modern Orthodoxy there’s the more right-wing of Modern Orthodoxy. There’s the Open Orthodoxy movement, and maybe we’ll get into a little bit more of that later. But let’s not get too obsessed with the phrase Modern Orthodoxy, and let’s not have an argument about that. As long as we all know what we’re referring to.
There’s also something which is important to recognize. I am not a member of the Modern Orthodox community. I am a member of the ḥaredi community. I come from a ḥasidic background. I have had my own personal interactions with the Modern Orthodox world. Professionally, as an educator, I got to know many colleagues in the field who are from the Modern Orthodox community and through various other interactions, and also by consuming a vast amount of literature from and about the Modern Orthodox world.
It’s also very important, before we discuss any potential weaknesses of the movement, to understand its very basic and remarkable strengths. Modern Orthodoxy has set out to achieve something incredibly ambitious, the ability to reconcile modernity with traditional Judaism, and to a large extent, it has succeeded. If you look at the most recent Pew survey, published earlier this year, and the one before that from 2013, you will see that Modern Orthodoxy has maintained its numbers despite a significant decline in non-Orthodox movements. The ḥaredi community is by far the fastest-growing sector of the Jewish community throughout the world, and a large part of that is thanks to its high replacement levels in terms of birth rates. The Modern Orthodox world does not have an above-replacement-level birth rate, it’s at replacement level, but it also has a decent retention rate.
It does have a lot of defection though, from people who grew up in the Modern Orthodox world and then became more ḥaredi, more right-wing. There’s also a section that spends some time in Israel and ends up staying there, and then eventually joins either the dati l’umi community or the ḥard-al community, somewhere in between, or ḥaredi, and there’s also a proportion of people who just leave Orthodoxy and observant Judaism altogether. And despite all of that, Modern Orthodoxy is still here. If you look at the old publications in the 1950s and the 60s, the American Jewish Yearbook, there are all sorts of doomsday predictions of Modern Orthodoxy no longer existing by the turn of the century, and they’ve all been proven wrong. Modern Orthodoxy is still here. It is still vibrant and ultimately it is successful in achieving its goals.
At the same time, it does have this atmosphere, a certain feeling. The impression one gets is that there is a lot of tension within Modern Orthodoxy and there’s sort of this perpetual crisis. In the piece, I responded to a specific controversy in England around the London School of Jewish Studies, which is an academic institution where the British chief rabbi is the president of the institution. There was a teacher in the London School of Jewish Studies who obtained s’mikhah, rabbinical ordination, from an Open Orthodox institution in New York, the Yeshivat Maharat. And as a result, the college said that she can no longer keep her teaching duties and she would lose her fellowship because her ordination is beyond the bounds of Orthodoxy, and it goes against the ethos of the institution. In response, all hell broke loose. The Jewish press was up in arms, and there was even a Modern Orthodox rabbi in quite a prominent community in England who resigned his own position in LSJS in response. And in the end, the LSJS made a big U-turn and reappointed this teacher.
For now, this is blown over. But I use it as a catalyst to open up this conversation about what is going on within the Modern Orthodox world. Now, I drew a comparison to the origins of the synthesis idea. I’ve been challenged by various people who said that, no, this is not a direct continuity. The American Modern Orthodox community today is not a direct descendant of the German Neo-Orthodox movement that I described in the piece. But I don’t think it matters that much because the idea is fundamentally the same. The founders of the advocates of synthesis, Rabbis Samson Raphael Hirsch and Azriel Hildesheimer, while maintaining commitment to halakhah, to Orthodoxy, set out to achieve similar goals right from the beginning, but they had profound differences. For example, Rabbi Hirsch believed strongly in the idea that Judaism is itself a tradition that is highly advanced and has a lot to offer and teach the rest of the world. It is just due to hundreds of years of persecution and other factors that have meant that there are some customs and practices that we have to reform, but fundamentally Judaism doesn’t have to change anything because it is highly sophisticated in terms of its moral teachings, its philosophical positions, and therefore Judaism should actually be this idea of or la-goyim; the light unto the nations. It shall sanctify the profane.
His contemporary, Rabbi Hildesheimer, was in a way more traditional in terms of rabbinic decisions, and in his writing you don’t see this language of the importance of being an or la-goyim. He understood that you need to keep up with the spirit of progress. He had a completely different view. He was perfectly comfortable with collaborating with non-Orthodox movements, for example, as long as it didn’t involve giving them halakhic legitimacy. So, those various differences that you see there, in my opinion, continue to play out in Modern Orthodoxy today.
I then went on to argue that the way to resolve these crises in Modern Orthodoxy is not by coming up with up new compromises to satisfy the more accommodative wing without alienating the more resistant wing, but actually to find a way of transcending these arguments, to try to offer a vision of Modern Orthodoxy that gives its followers a feeling of pride, a way of not being made to feel like their tradition is not something that can stand up to public scrutiny, that it needs to have figures to be proud of. I use Rabbi Sacks as a perfect example. When people saw that Rabbi Sacks could sit down with Richard Dawkins in a debate and not make a fool of himself, that for them made them feel proud and also made them feel that, you know what, the modern climate is not necessarily in sync with everything that I believe and with our tradition, but I’m not made to feel like a caveman because of that, and that is very important.
Just to clarify and return to the two visions of Modern Orthodoxy laid out by Rabbi Hirsch and Rabbi Hildesheimer, would it be correct to say that Rabbi Hirsch’s vision of Modern Orthodoxy is outward looking? Ironically, because he would be the more religiously conservative figure, but his vision is that he’s thinking about how Judaism can transform the world and that’s his emphasis. Judaism is not lacking, but the world needs Judaism. Conversely, Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer’s emphasis, even though again, counter-intuitively, he’s the more open-minded one, is much more inward-looking and thinking about what changes need to happen to Judaism for it to keep up with modern times.
Right. I think that’s fair. I think when you read the writings of Rabbi Hirsch, I think there’s a strong urge for, what I called in the article, Judaizing modernity. He would do battle with Christian theologians in Germany, and that was something that took up a lot of his time. But if you look at Rabbi Hildesheimer, I think he had more of a Burkean approach of reforming in order to conserve. He just wanted to find an Orthodoxy that is sustainable and that could withstand the pressures of modernity. I haven’t seen much from Rabbi Hildesheimer that suggests that he saw Judaism as a voice in the conversation about humankind in general. I think for him it was very much about Judaism, about halakhic commitment, but at the same time about making sure that it’s sustainable.
Another interesting point you made in your article is that both of those camps, while discernible and clear and in some ways still existing today, ultimately became incorporated in other streams of Judaism. So, for Hirsch, it’s called Torah im derekh erets, outward-looking Judaizing of the world, ultimately became part and parcel of the larger ḥaredi community, and you yourself are an example of that. You mentioned that you have some Hirschean roots. Rabbi Hildesheimer’s spiritual descendant, Mordechai Kaplan, ultimately was very influential in the liberal pluralistic Judaism that’s practiced in the U.S., and that specific model ended up evaporating in a way in the larger pluralistic Jewish context.
That doesn’t mean that those points of view don’t continue to exist, somehow in each generation they arise, but you don’t have this clear-cut genealogy of Modern Orthodoxy where one teacher teaches his student a certain theology and that’s transmitted to the next generation directly. You see this even in the characters of Rabbi Soloveitchik and Rabbi Sacks, who themselves were influenced by this German Jewish context and very much aware of it, but it wasn’t actually their specific heritage. Rabbi Soloveitchik is coming out of the Brisker, Lithuanian Yeshiva world and Rabbi Sacks himself was the son of Polish-Jewish immigrants in England. So I also found that somewhat interesting. The degree to which the messages of Modern Orthodoxy are essential and inescapable, and somehow they arise in new places all the time, so one can imagine the next great voice of Modern Orthodoxy coming potentially even from the ḥaredi world.
Look, I think you’re right in pointing out that the movement’s survived despite its followers changing origins, if you like. So, I think if you want to, you divide it into three camps, where you’ve got the Ḥaredim, you’ve got Modern Orthodoxy or centrist Orthodoxy, and you’ve got non-Orthodox movements. Essentially there are three options. One option was to say, look, modernity is too scary, it’s too much of a threat. We’re not risking this. We’re just going to build a big wall and just stay behind that wall and take all the risks that come with that, pay the price it demands, but we just don’t want to risk any of this. This is the cost that the Ḥaredim chose. You then have the non-Orthodox movements, which have decided that they’re not going to allow traditional Judaism to limit their ability to shape Judaism in whatever way they believe it should look like. And then you’ve got Modern Orthodoxy in the middle, which as I said earlier, have set themselves this Herculean task of saying we are going to do both.
Now, Ḥaredim have been remarkably successful in replenishing their numbers after the devastating losses of the Holocaust. And they are, as I said before, the fastest growing section of the Jewish community, and also have the highest retention rate. Non-Orthodoxy is in a very difficult position in terms of its future prospects. If you read the latest Pew survey, they are struggling to retain future generations. Followers of Reform or even Conservative Judaism nowadays struggle to pass on their own vision and their own practice of Judaism to the next generation. Modern Orthodoxy is very successful in passing it on to the future generations.
Each of those sections has its challenges. You can argue that the price the ḥaredi community has paid is, first and foremost, a heavy economic price with many of its members not being able to access meaningful, successful careers, and therefore have a higher likelihood of living in poverty. Again, that’s arguable, but that is an argument that people have made. In Modern Orthodoxy, funnily enough, the opposite is true. I’ve heard some people say that Modern Orthodoxy has sort of a barrier for people from a blue-collar background, who feel like it is a bit elitist. It’s a wealthy, well-off movement, partly because actually to be a member of the Modern Orthodox community you need to be quite well off. Just the lifestyle is incredibly expensive—it can cost upwards of $30,000 or $40,000 a year to send one child to a Modern Orthodox day school, and that’s before you take summer camps and tutoring and all of that into account.
So, it is fascinating to see how Modern Orthodoxy will continue to deal with the challenges that they’re facing. As someone who, as I said in the piece, is a sympathetic observer, I think it would be very interesting to see how Modern Orthodoxy moves forward, because I think sooner or later the ḥaredi community will also have to confront those challenges. Modern Orthodoxy, in a way, is the vanguard of dealing with those challenges and further down the line, I think the ḥaredi community will have to confront them as well.
So that’s a very interesting and important point about what is really at stake when we talk about Modern Orthodoxy. In terms of numbers, it’s not huge. It has nothing on the ḥaredi community in terms of demographics and growth. At the same time, its unique positioning makes it a kind of petri dish or a microcosm of some of the challenges that inevitably are going to face the entire Jewish world, and that’s why its internal debates, which may not seem relevant to all at all times, may have a particular importance.
Something I would also love to discuss is your thoughts about Modern Orthodoxy in Israel, which goes by the term dati l’umi or religious Zionist. I think there’s a strong Zionist education in the American Modern Orthodox community, which often encourages people to move to Israel and make aliyah. And you definitely see a lot of movement from the Modern Orthodox community toward Israel. I’m guessing it’s a significantly higher percentage than the ḥaredi world or the liberal Jewish world. And many Modern Orthodox olim, immigrants to Israel, find that when they get there, to their surprise, Modern Orthodoxy as they know it doesn’t really exist in Israel except in immigrant enclaves, and it’s something very interesting. There are a lot of differences; sociologically, ideologically, between the religious-Zionist community in Israel and the Modern Orthodox community in America. I’m curious if you have some thoughts about it.
To be honest, I simply don’t know enough about the different demographics in Israel beyond the ḥaredi community to speak with any confidence about this. It’s certainly the case, that anyone would be foolish to draw any parallels between the Israeli scene and what’s going on outside of Israel. But of course, in a book that you have reviewed for the Jewish Review of Books by Moshe Koppel, where he speaks really about the modern Jewish condition, the book is called Judaism Straight-Up, and what he says in the book is the modern state of Israel allows its citizens to live a Jewish life without having to be ḥaredi, or what he says, without even being committed to halakhic observance. I think that dynamic is very important, because to a large extent halakhic observance outside of Israel determines how Jewish you are. Wherever a movement has abandoned halakhic observance, it is only a matter of time until they struggle with retention of future generations.
But in Israel, that doesn’t seem to be the case. I think in Israel you have this phenomenon of non-observant Orthodoxy, where entire swathes of the country see themselves as traditional. They see Judaism as Orthodox, even though they are not observant. So in that sense, I think the dynamics are very different, but it is certainly the case that what we know as Modern Orthodoxy outside of Israel, by the time you come to Israel, as you may come here eventually, if not in the first generation by the second generation, that definitely disappears. And interestingly enough, I don’t know the numbers, but like I said before some will become part of the religious Zionist camp, but some will also become part of the ḥaredi camp.
And I think something else that you have baked into religious Zionism, and it’s exactly what you argue for in your essay is this sense of holistic vision and meaning. One of the differences between Modern Orthodoxy in Israel and in America or in the Diaspora is that in Israel the purpose for the message that Judaism has in its context is clear, right? It’s about building a society. It’s about building a Jewish country and state that can improve and rectify the world. And that in a way has ḥasidic roots also in terms of the theology of Rabbi Kook. I think there is plenty of overlap with the vision of Judaizing the world that you see in the work of Rabbi Sacks and Rabbi Soloveitchik and Rabbi Hirsch, but perhaps in the Israeli context, its widespread acceptance and its sympathetic surroundings give it the opportunity to flourish in a way that can’t exactly happen in the diaspora without strong leaders.
Like I said, I do not feel that I know enough about the Israeli scene to speak with confidence about this, but my instincts are the same as yours. And I think that’s what we’re seeing in Israel, the conditions of living in the state of Israel. I think there was a piece in Mosaic by Martin Kramer recently that challenged the whole idea that Israel was founded as a secular state. But even if constitutionally it was a secular state, it was always incredibly accommodative of Jewish practice and religion, but also in its very DNA it is Jewish and therefore being Jewish in Israel, regardless of where you are on levels of observance, I don’t think there’s this dissonance that when you go out to the world you have to feel like I’ve got two identities. As Winston Churchill said, when his wife told him to “Be yourself,” he said, “Yes, but which self should I be?” I don’t think you experience that when you are in Israel.
Okay, you know ladies and gentlemen that you’re in the company of Mosaic writers when the ḥaredi educator is quoting Winston Churchill to you. Let me invite your questions now. While you’re gathering your thoughts and preparing your questions, let me just take the liberty, Eli, of asking one that I have myself. I think that the analysis you and Sarah brought out now actually contains within it a kind of puzzle that I want to see if you can unravel or solve for us.
On the one hand, it seems to me correct that just by looking at the demographic data that is presented to us, halakhic fidelity is essential for the long-term endurance of a movement. And again, like you, let’s not get obsessed about this term movement, et cetera. It is obsessed for a community of Jews. It is necessary for a community of Jews. On the other hand, your recommendation to this particular movement of Jews seems to be to explain itself in a way that marginalizes halakhic questions and instead emphasizes or accentuates a kind of identity or a vision of the self that I think, as you put it in the piece at one point, allows its adherents to not feel like cavemen. And so I wonder if there’s a marginalizing of the halakhic consciousness, at the same time that you also think that halakha has to remain central, and how you see those two things relating to one another.
Right. So it’s a good question, but I don’t think that they are mutually exclusive. The function of halakhic adherence is that it creates a community of practice, and a community of practice has shown to be the only guarantee for continuity as opposed to theology and ideas. Now, at the same time, the code of conduct is not necessarily what makes it cool, what makes it something that you can sell to the wider world. It’s something that you need to be committed to. And by the way, even the compromises that I say in the piece shouldn’t be the focus, they need to happen.
But I think the mistake is if you think that by making compromises, by continuing to draw lines in the sand, that that is what’s going to guarantee the vitality and the future of the community. That is the necessary business that needs to take place, but what it needs in order to inspire and satisfy its adherents is something which rises above the nitty-gritty, which rises above the legal arguments. And by the way, I do believe that those arguments occupy and obsesses the elite more than it does the rank-and-file anyway.
I think a lot of people, a lot of followers of Orthodox movements and especially of Modern Orthodoxy, know instinctively and they feel that what the right thing for them to do and for their children to do and for their families to do is to stick to traditional Judaism, warts and all. But at the same time, they don’t want to feel like the price that they have to pay is not being able to mingle in polite society and maintain their dignity. Rabbi Sacks said in a famous interview at Yeshiva University that his regular appearances on the BBC, those in which he was speaking to a non-Jewish audience, they went the furthest in terms of getting through to his own Jewish community, because he felt like the Jews would always think, well, if the goyim like it, then there must be something right about it. And I think there’s something very powerful there, which is that I don’t think people who engage with modernity expect or demand from Orthodoxy to solve every contradiction.
But I think it wanted to be able to present itself as an intellectual movement and as something that can stand up to scrutiny, that can engage with the world in secular terms, in modern terms, in a modern vocabulary and survive without compromising its dignity. And that by the way, can be broken down at different levels, that is at the very top, engaging in the academic world but also when it comes to high school, making sure that teenagers feel like this isn’t something that you have to be embarrassed about and finding a way of selling this.
There were so many people who said that, thanks to Jonathan Sacks, they were able to walk around the streets of London wearing a kippah, wearing a yarmulke. Now that’s not because Jonathan Sacks advocated to harness the approach of in-your-face Judaism—we don’t care, like us or hate us, that’s who we are. That’s because he embodied an ideal of someone who genuinely lives this synthesis between modernity and Orthodoxy and that’s why it was successful.
Okay. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time for your questions. You can ask a question by raising your hand or typing a question into the Q-and-A function on the bottom of your screen. Please keep your questions succinct so we can get to as many people as possible. And state your question in the form of a question. The first goes to Simon Golden. Could we elevate Simon so he can ask his question?
Thank you. And it’s been absolutely fascinating. My question is quite simple. Eli, Rabbi Hirsch was a candidate for chief rabbi of Great Britain at that time. Had he been successful, how do you think Anglo Jewry would have developed up until today?
Thank you. I didn’t know that. And maybe that’s embarrassing and maybe I should have known that. But I don’t know what effect it would have had on Anglo Jewry, and I don’t know of the teachings of Rabbi Hirsch here because what Rabbi Hirsch did wasn’t institution building. I think Rabbi Hirsch’s teachings have traveled beyond borders. So it’s difficult to say what direct effect he would have had in shaping and building a particular community.
England is a unique case in the sense that Modern Orthodoxy, what we refer to today as Modern Orthodoxy, is the default establishment institution. So whereas in America for many decades now, Reform dominated, and then for a brief period the Conservative movement dominated, Modern Orthodoxy never really came anywhere near that level of prominence. In England, Modern Orthodoxy, traditional Judaism, was always the dominant feature. I’m not sure if by your question, what you mean is that Rabbi Hirsch would have enabled it to go further and to be stronger and win more people over. I’m not entirely sure. That is the short answer.
David Levy, your turn next.
Thank you. I’m calling from London and again, thank you for the fascinating discussion. I was wondering whether we can learn anything from Jewish history about the prospects for both Modern Orthodoxy and indeed ḥaredi Judaism. In other words, was it a game changer at the end of the 18th century when we had the Enlightenment and Jews were let out of the ghetto and were able to mix to a greater extent with the outside world? Or indeed were there golden periods in Jewish history in places like Babylon or Spain where Jews may have had the same dilemmas that we have now? My own impression, for what it’s worth, is that we didn’t have this dichotomy in those eras between those who wanted to engage with outside society and those who wanted to keep themselves wrapped up in cotton wool. So, I just wondered if the panel would like to say anything about that.
Personally, I think these are eternal challenges that the Jewish people face. The question of, to what extent should we follow our mission as given to us in the Garden of Eden, to conquer the world and get out there and make an impact. And the reason it needs to be explicitly stated is that it’s not a given, right? There’s always a tension between cultivating your own, protecting your own, staying within your borders, and also reaching out and making a larger impact on the world. What I think is also inherent in Judaism and Jewish tradition is the fact that those things don’t need to be in conflict. Those things are reconcilable and ultimately can support one another. That’s my opinion, but I think the tension plays out throughout Jewish thought and throughout the development of halakhah, to go back to Jonathan’s earlier question. Meaning, the challenges that we see in the Modern Orthodox community are in my view, eternal challenges that are part of the Jewish experience and Judaism itself.
I would say, David, that there is an important point in history where, in my opinion, this whole discussion starts. For me, Orthodoxy is a phenomenon that developed in the last 200 years as a response to emancipation. Because don’t forget that up until the late 18th century, it was the non-Jews who kept Jews together in the ghetto behind certain walls. And therefore, there were always obviously plenty of arguments, but there wasn’t much room for expressions of different forms of Judaism, because it was very much a strong hierarchy backed up by governments where the rabbinic establishment and the lay establishment had significant powers to keep everyone in line.
It was only post-emancipation, when the ghetto walls came down, that there was this mass defection, this hemorrhage of constant losses from traditional Judaism to all sorts of different movements in Germany, first to reform and then to complete assimilation, and in Eastern Europe to socialism, and then secular Zionism as away of going away from traditional Judaism and all of that. For me, when I speak of Orthodoxy, I think it is only in terms of it being formed as a defense mechanism to protect traditional Judaism.
Now, you asked early in your question, David, if there are any lessons that we can take both for the ḥaredi community and for the Modern Orthodox community. And this is something that is a little bit of an obsession of mine, but there was a very brief period at the beginning of the 20th century when there was this remarkable collaboration between neo-Orthodox or Modern Orthodox leaders and well, let’s say ultra-Orthodox, ḥaredi leaders. Obviously those terms didn’t exist pre-war, but if you look at the most successful institutions such as Agudat Israel—which was a remarkable institution, a powerful political force in Polish politics, and created networks of hundreds of boys and girls schools—none of this would have been possible in Poland without the help and support from German administrators.
So what we would call today ḥaredi Judaism and Modern Orthodoxy worked closely together. Austrian and German neo-Orthodox rabbis and lay leaders came to the support and the need of a Polish Jewry that really needed them. And it could count on them. And I think, well, I dream of a day when the ḥaredi community will be able to confront its challenges by counting on the support from the most sophisticated, better connected, and more experienced Modern Orthodox leaders.
I’m going to try to bring together questions that are appearing in the question-answer function of the application. A number of people are asking questions that I think are related to one another. Eli, in your recommendation that Modern Orthodoxy’s path in the future involve an essential embrace of an identity, which would really be the leading force of collecting people into a shared identity, more than particular rabbinic and halakhic disputes, that sounds, or could sound to a certain ear, like Open Orthodoxy or social Orthodoxy. And doubtless that’s not what you have in mind, but you could explain why that’s so.
I’m going to be careful because I don’t want to dismiss things that perhaps I haven’t looked into closely enough. But I have a feeling, and I could be wrong and I’ll be happy to be corrected, but the impression that I get is that movements like Open Orthodoxy, or at least from some people I’ve met who advocate for the vision of Open Orthodoxy, what they seem to be suggesting to me at least is not that Orthodoxy finds that elusive synthesis that could make their followers happy, but actually that it complies with a demand of modern politics, and there is a fundamental difference between making reforms and compromises because you believe that they’re for the benefit, for the sustainability of your own movement, and between making reforms and compromises to appease external activism and pressure.
I haven’t seen any data that suggest that there’s a great grassroots demand for female rabbis. I have seen a big argument among the elite about it. It’s a bit like how we say that the whole who-is-a-Jew argument is not really arguing about who is a Jew; it’s about who is a rabbi. But on the ground, there doesn’t seem to be a demand for it. If you look at girls’ education and the history of girls’ education in Orthodoxy, there was a time, the turn of the century in 1890, when it was unheard of. Traditional communities would say, what are you talking about? This was a relatively new phenomenon in Europe, even in non-Jewish communities, for girls to be educated. The place of the girl was at home, and education was out of the question.
But then what happened in 1890 is that there was a massive problem with young girls either running away to join Christian convents in Kracow or being traded in the Argentinian sex trade. So then there’s this great demand, this grassroots demand led by Sarah Schenirer, who said that we need to have formalized education for girls. And what followed was the rabbinic establishment falling into line. And eventually what followed was this remarkable Bais Ya’akov movement.
I think eventually there are all sorts of challenges that will need to be confronted, including the role of women, the inclusion of members of the LGBT community, but changes in my view should happen because there’s a genuine demand from within, and also because it is necessary in order to protect the movement for its own good, and not as a way of sacrificing the movement in order to placate and appease external pressure, which actually doesn’t care about Modern Orthodoxy’s future at all. And therefore, I think that’s the strong distinction of advocating for whatever change or whatever needs are necessary, but from a position of let’s do what’s right for us. Not because let’s do something because some left-wing activist has said because that’s the only way you won’t be canceled.
Jonathan Passner has been waiting. Jonathan, it’s your turn to ask a question.
My question was brought to mind by an essay that Eliezer Berkovits wrote about Jewish education in view of the upheavals of the 1960s, where he said that previously, the outside world was an authentic competitor, while following the 60s, it was fundamentally changed. How much do you think that the modern world that Modern Orthodoxy is facing has evolved considerably? My pitch is, is it worth engaging the modern world at this point in time? How much is it that Modern Orthodox Jews felt like cavemen versus now the outside world devolving into cavemen?
I think it’s very interesting that you mentioned that because there is another strand of Modern Orthodoxy that Eli did not mention in the article, and that didn’t really come up in the conversation and I think it illustrates Jonathan’s point. And that’s classic, high culture, Torah u-madda, which is what Yeshiva University is founded on. The idea is that the best of Judaism and the best of Western civilization should be in debate, in dialogue, and that’s also something we see in the writing and work of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, a very influential American-Israeli rabbi, who recently also passed away. I still find those kinds of conversations relevant, but that model of synthesis of taking the best of the Western world and debating it and incorporating it into Judaism, that is something that these days is not as popular.
I think that those conversations are still taking place in certain communities, but our sense of what’s important in the surrounding culture and what the prevailing ideas of the day are has changed. That doesn’t mean every conception of Modern Orthodoxy needs to engage with the world as it is. And there’s a lot of value to it, but I do think that this high-culture model of Modern Orthodoxy has a different importance these days. That’s been my impression. I don’t know if others have the same impression.
Jonathan, I think what I would say is, first of all, none of the leading advocates of Modern Orthodox movements have ever said that the test for whether you accommodate modernity or engage with modernity is whether you will win approval from the latest progressive, activist movement. I think it was always, as Sarah referred to, about the best that has been thought and said, and it was always about only pursuing those aspects of modernity that are genuinely in alignment with traditional Judaism and don’t contradict it.
And look, there is a risk, Jonathan, that the way that the spirit of progress has accelerated is that, at one point, it will no longer be possible to show your face as an Orthodox Jew and still be accepted. I don’t know. I don’t think we’re too far off. Sh’ḥitah, animal slaughter, being seen as a completely barbaric exercise and banned—you only have to look at certain European countries where that’s already happening. I think circumcision is likely to be another big battle in future decades. And you would like to think that we would still be able to stand our ground and defend it and articulate it in a way that the wider society would accept. I’m not sure there’s a guarantee for it, but I don’t think that we are there today. And I think we need to rediscover that ability that some Modern Orthodox leaders have had brilliantly of being able to transcend those arguments and win over the skeptics.
Ladies and gentlemen, we’re running short on time and I want to bring us to a close soon. Again, I’m grouping together a number of different questions that I see written here. Let me put to you two final questions. One of the final questions I want to ask has to do with the distinctions between the American and the British communities and the way that this synthesis has held together differently in each place, which would suggest that there’s something about the ambient culture outside of the Jewish community that has a different influence or puts different kinds of pressures onto the Jewish community there. And maybe you could speculate about that difference.
These are two gigantic questions. The second one has to do with, this one is phrased by a participant, an audience member named Perry Dane, who writes that “your arguments seem instrumental in the following way. You frame your arguments in terms of,” Perry Dane says, “the sustainability of Jewish communities, but the impetus of various changes regarding the role of women, LGBTQ issues, et cetera, are driven by ethical concerns. And so, one question that you face is whether there are non-instrumental, ethical concerns that observant Jews should pursue, regardless of the instrumental consequences of that pursuit.” Two gigantic questions. Let’s hear what you have to say.
Okay. On the first question about the difference between Britain and America, and perhaps on the influence of the surrounding conditions, what effect it has. I think Modern Orthodoxy in America is something that really started flourishing in the 1930s and the 1940s, with very clear preeminent leaders who set out a very clear vision and were been able to galvanize around them the community who bought into that vision, and they have built remarkable institutions. I think Yeshiva University as the flagship of those institutions is the perfect example. Whereas in Britain, I can’t point either to those preeminent figures as founding members or those flagship institutions around which the community was built. I think what we call now Modern Orthodoxy in Britain has slowly, gradually evolved into what it is over a period of probably 200 to 300 years. And I think in that sense, that’s probably the biggest difference. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of how the society around each of the communities would have influenced that. I’m sure there is something there, but not off the top of my head.
As for the second question, the purpose of this, for me, it’s not for me to say what someone should or shouldn’t do when it comes to pursuing the morals of his convictions. I think we are discussing here various questions that certain people are not in a position to influence one way or another. Inevitably, adhering to Orthodoxy involves a certain submission, involves a certain placing of yourself under and accepting authority. And when you accept authority, inevitably, in a way you’re abdicating your right, to some extent. to make your own decisions.
Now, to some extent that also abdicates responsibility. I’m not responsible for the fact that women can’t be witnesses at a wedding. I think someone in the comments of my article pointed out, how can you defend the community when even Ruth Bader Ginsburg wouldn’t have been able to be a witness at an Orthodox wedding. Well, that’s true, but I don’t make the rules. What I mean by that is, I don’t make the rules and I have submitted to a higher system of halakhah. I can advocate for change, but I’m not responsible for it. And therefore, I’m not sure it should have this ethic, though I don’t know. It’s not something that has plagued me, but maybe that’s no surprise.