Where Modern Orthodoxy Came from, and Where It Might Be Going

Oct. 11 2018

In Modern Orthodox Judaism: A Documentary History, Zev Eleff for the first time has collected the source materials necessary to understand the development of a denomination that, although its adherents account for under 10 percent of affiliated American Jewry, now plays a disproportionate role in American Jewish life. Daniel Ross Goodman praises the book, while noting some serious gaps:

The history of self-consciously “modern” Orthodoxy is inseparable from the history of Yeshiva University, which is a product of the early 20th century. Eleff covers Yeshiva University’s birth, development, and evolution. . . . Of course, the book also contains several key statements from Modern Orthodoxy’s most outstanding spokesmen: the great halakhist and thinker Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, [the movement’s most prominent rabbi until his death in 1993], and Rabbi Norman Lamm, who served as the president of Yeshiva University from 1976 to 2003. . . .

Although Rabbi Lamm has been a central figure of inestimable importance to Modern Orthodoxy for nearly seven decades, graduates of Yeshiva University, and anyone even tangentially connected to the institution, are well aware of the fact that it has not been Lamm but rather Yeshiva University’s rashey yeshivah—authoritative halakhists and brilliant talmudists like Hershel Schachter, Mordechai Willig, [and others]—who have, arguably, had a more direct impact on the lives of thousands upon thousands of American Modern Orthodox Jews. It is surprising then, that a volume that features so many texts related to Yeshiva University all but completely excludes figures who can be said to have been the university’s most influential rabbis.

When it comes to Modern Orthodoxy’s present challenges, Goodman finds Eleff better attuned:

The ideology of Modern Orthodoxy, undergirded by Soloveitchik’s distinctive blend of existentialism and neo-Kantianism, is a difficult one to grasp. Most people prefer clear lines and black-and-white differentiations to living with complexity, and it doesn’t help matters that even many of those rabbinic leaders who understand Soloveitchik’s philosophy and embody its values, like Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, do not identify themselves as Modern Orthodox.

This, combined with growing pressure from its right and left flanks, the prohibitive cost of Modern Orthodox life, widespread theological uncertainty, and a continuous “brain drain” in which many of the most committed American Modern Orthodox Jews leave for Israel—Modern Orthodox Jews have the highest rates of aliyah among all American Jews—means that the movement’s future will likely be as ambiguous and complicated as its complex, tension-filled philosophy.

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More about: American Judaism, Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Modern Orthodoxy, Norman Lamm, Religion & Holidays, Yeshiva University

Hizballah Is in Venezuela to Stay

Feb. 21 2019

In a recent interview, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo mentioned the presence of Hizballah cells in Venezuela as further evidence of the growing unrest in that country. The Iran-backed group has operated in Venezuela for years, engaging in narcotics trafficking and money laundering to fund its activities in the Middle East, and likely using the country as a base for planning terrorist attacks. If Juan Guaido, now Venezuela’s internationally recognized leader, is able to gain control of the government, he will probably seek to alter this situation. But, writes Colin Clarke, his options may be limited.

A government led by Guaido would almost certainly be more active in opposing Hizballah’s presence on Venezuelan soil, not just nominally but in more aggressively seeking to curtail the group’s criminal network and, by extension, the influence of Iran. As part of a quid pro quo for its support, Washington would likely seek to lean on Guaido to crack down on Iran-linked activities throughout the region.

But there is a major difference between will and capability. . . . Hizballah is backed by a regime in Tehran that provides it with upward of $700 million annually, according to some estimates. Venezuela serves as Iran’s entry point into Latin America, a foothold the Iranians are unlikely to cede without putting up a fight. Moreover, Russia retains a vested interest in propping up [the incumbent] Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro and keeping him in power, given the longstanding relationship between the two countries. . . . Further, after cooperating closely in Syria, Hizballah is now a known quantity to the Kremlin and an organization that President Vladimir Putin could view as an asset that, at the very least, will not interfere with Russia’s designs to extend its influence in the Western hemisphere.

If the Maduro regime is ultimately ousted from power, that will likely have a negative impact on Hizballah in Venezuela. . . . Yet, on balance, Hizballah has deep roots in Venezuela, and completely expelling the group—no matter how high a priority for the Trump administration—remains unlikely. The best-case scenario for Washington could be an ascendant Guaido administration that agrees to combat Hizballah’s influence—if the new government is willing to accept a U.S. presence in the country to begin training Venezuelan forces in the skills necessary to counter terrorism and transnational criminal networks with strong ties to Venezuelan society. But that scenario, of course, is dependent on the United States offering such assistance in the first place.

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More about: Hizballah, Iran, Mike Pompeo, Politics & Current Affairs, U.S. Foreign policy, Venezuela