American Orthodoxy Has Grown More Stringent in Some Ways, More Liberal in Others

September 15, 2023 | Zev Eleff
About the author:

Since the beginning of the century, observers of Orthodox Judaism in America have commented on what one sociologist labeled a “shift to the right.” This shift isn’t a political one, but rather a move toward more stringent observance and a tendency for the Modern Orthodox to grow closer to Ḥaredim in certain respects. Zev Eleff argues that Orthodoxy is indeed changing, but not in a way that can be explained in such simple directional terms:

Take, for instance, the gray areas of Jewish jurisprudence, as I have argued, from the rise and fall of peanut oil in Ashkenazi-practicing homes on Passover, [now considered a forbidden legume product], to the emergence of bat mitzvah ceremonies in Orthodox spaces. Peanut oil was “the Passover oil” in the immediate postwar period, approved by all kosher certification agencies . . . until the 1960s. Bat mitzvah, on the other hand, was a decidedly Conservative Jewish practice in the 1950s and rarely done in Orthodox circles.

In the case of peanut oil, the Orthodox community banned it and moved to the “right,” while in the latter instance, bat-mitzvah rituals, we have moved very far to the “left.” Factor in consumerism (Passover vacations, boutique toys, and other Orthodox products), dating practices, and women in the workforce, and you will further bollix notions of linear movements to one direction or another.

[Moreover], the tenets of Modern Orthodoxy are no longer all that distinguishable from the yeshiva [i.e., non-ḥasidic ḥaredi] world. The latter has softened its stance on Israel; the erstwhile anti-Zionists (save for Satmar) are by and large non-Zionists. The yeshiva world visits Israel, champions it, and votes for American politicians who they believe best serve Israel’s interests. In addition, the Modern Orthodox and [the more stringently] Orthodox are much more closely aligned in terms of higher education. The yeshiva world has developed partnerships with universities to help their children earn degrees in “practical” fields such as accounting and the health sciences. Their children enroll in top medical schools and elite law schools.

Read more on Jewish Ideas and Ideals: