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

 

Zionists Can, and Do, Criticize Israel. Are Anti-Zionists Capable of Criticizing Anti-Semitism?

Dec. 12 2018

Last week, the New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg defended the newly elected anti-Israel congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, ostensibly arguing that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism aren’t identical. Abe Greenwald comments:

Tlaib . . . has tweeted and retweeted her enthusiasm for terrorists such as Rasmea Odeh, who murdered two American students in a Jerusalem supermarket in 1969. If Tlaib’s anti-Zionism is of the Jew-loving kind, she has a funny way of showing it.

Ilhan Omar, for her part, once tweeted, “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.” And wouldn’t you know it, just because she believes that Zionist hypnotists have cast global spells masking Israeli evil, some people think she’s anti-Semitic! Go figure! . . .

Goldberg spends the bulk of her column trying very hard to uncouple American Jewishness from Israel. To do that, she enumerates Israel’s sins, as she sees them. . . . [But] her basic premise is at odds with reality. Zionists aren’t afraid of finding fault with Israel and don’t need to embrace anti-Zionism in order to [do so]. A poll conducted in October by the Jewish Electorate Institute found that a majority of Americans Jews have no problem both supporting Israel and criticizing it. And unlike Goldberg, they have no problem criticizing anti-Semitism, either.

Goldberg gives the game away entirely when she discusses the discomfort that liberal American Jews have felt in “defending multi-ethnic pluralism here, where they’re in the minority, while treating it as unspeakable in Israel, where Jews are the majority.” She adds: “American white nationalists, some of whom liken their project to Zionism, love to poke at this contradiction.” Read that again. She thinks the white nationalists have a point. Because, really, what anti-Semite doesn’t?

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More about: Anti-Semitism, Israel & Zionism, New York Times