Modern Orthodoxy Should Be a Noble Synthesis, Not a Lukewarm Compromise

January 28, 2022 | Jeffrey Saks
About the author: Jeffrey Saks, the director of ATID and its program, is the director of research at Jerusalem’s Agnon House and the series editor of the S.Y. Agnon Library at Toby Press.

Although he was one of the leading figures of Modern Orthodoxy in our times, the late Rabbi Norman Lamm declared in 1969 that he was “uncomfortable” with the term, but could not find a better one. And although three years later he would say of Modern Orthodoxy, “I write about it, I advocate it, I defend it, I preach it,” he would in the same breath express his “worries” about its health. Lamm, as Jeffrey Saks explains, criticized the movement both for its lack of religious zeal, on the one hand, and its insularity, on the other.

The problem, of course, identified early on by Rabbi Lamm, was that too many would-be devotees of Modern Orthodoxy gave the impression that it is a pareve form of [religious piety] instead of an ennobling synthesis. He earnestly countered, this “is not a case of ideological wimpishness.” “The main idea is that Torah must be embraced together with that which is noblest and most compatible in the prevalent culture, and that the Jew, totally committed to Torah, must utilize his spiritual powers to inhere in Torah in order to fructify and sanctify all the rest of human endeavor. . . . Whereas we in fact accept this ideology, . . . we have been too apologetic in explaining and interpreting ourselves to the outside world.”

Lamm eventually came to hold up as his ideal the Maimonidean (and Aristotelian) virtue of moderation and the pursuit of the Golden Mean, but he saw this virtue as anything but wimpish:

For Maimonides, and by extension Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Lamm, “the key to character . . . is not the mean as such, but the weighing and measuring and directing, the conscious use of reason rather than passively following nature blindly and supinely. In other words, the process of arriving at a determination of one’s own life and character is more important than the results.” . . . [Lamm] saw the ability to navigate the Maimonidean path as “the halakhic implementation of moderationism.” . . . While Rabbi Lamm reminded us that moderation is not a “mindless application of arithmetic averages,” he understood why some were tempted by that easier path of an imagined calculator crunching the numbers and pointing toward a position.

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