Haredi-Modern Orthodox tug-of-war in 20th century US

In the years following World War II, approximately 140,000 Jewish refugees arrived in the United States, many of whom were Orthodox, and belonged to various hassidic groups.

When US Orthodoxy leaned right (photo credit: REUTERS)
When US Orthodoxy leaned right
(photo credit: REUTERS)
One of the most trenchant observers of the American Jewish scene, Professor Chaim I. Waxman, the distinguished sociologist, has written a wide-ranging, engaging and comprehensive analysis that examines changes in conduct as well as halachic behavior in Orthodox Judaism in America, from a social and psychological perspective. Waxman, Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Jewish Studies at Rutgers University, has lived in Israel since 2006, and currently serves as chair of the Department of Behavioral Sciences at Hadassah Academic College.
Waxman first introduces readers to the two main groupings by which Orthodox Jews in America are usually categorized – ultra-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox Jews – and traces the practice of Judaism in the United States until the end of the 19th century.
In 1902, the Agudat HaRabanim, the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada, was formed, which represented the ultra-Orthodox sector of the community. Around the same time, writes Waxman, the seeds of Modern Orthodoxy began to sprout, with the founding of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, the rabbinical seminary of Yeshiva University. Any analysis of the development of Modern Orthodoxy in America, he adds, must consider the importance of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who was the movement’s intellectual and spiritual leader. Waxman discusses how his reputation grew through his Talmud lectures and classes at Yeshiva University, as well as to the general public, and via his articles, notably “Confrontation,” which was published in 1964, and “The Lonely Man of Faith,” which appeared in 1965. 
Waxman cites several other key events which were significant in the development of Orthodox Judaism in the United States in the 20th century – the arrival of Rabbi Aharon Kotler from Europe in 1941, who founded Beth Medrash Govohah in Lakewood, New Jersey, the arrival of Rabbi Yitzchak Schneerson, the sixth rabbi of the Chabad movement one year earlier, who was succeeded by his son-in-law, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson in 1950, and the founding of Torah Umesorah, the national day school movement, in 1944, by Rabbi Kotler and Rabbi Feivel Mendelowitz.
In the years following World War II, approximately 140,000 Jewish refugees arrived in the United States, many of whom were Orthodox, and belonged to various hassidic groups. “The hasidim,” writes Waxman, “perhaps even more than the others, were determined to retain their traditional way of life, even within the modern metropolis, and they were largely successful in achieving that goal.” At that time, Modern Orthodoxy was widely viewed as the wave of the future in American Orthodox life. Today, he writes, the situation has changed dramatically, as the ultra-Orthodox comprise the majority of the American Orthodox population, with the Modern Orthodox numbering less than one third.
Waxman notes that during the first half of the 20th century, Orthodox Jews in America tended to be more supportive of Modern Orthodox belief and reaching an accommodation with modernity. Yeshiva University, which combines secular studies with religious studies, “was widely hailed among American Orthodox Jews.” However, by the 1970s, a pattern had emerged that Waxman calls ‘the haredization’ of American Orthodox Jewry. Waxman posits that this pattern emerged due to a number of factors, among them the higher birth rate among the ultra-Orthodox population, the more organized character of their communities, and the weaker institutional base of Modern Orthodoxy. The change in Orthodox Jewish behavior in the United States, writes Waxman,  also reflected a pattern in the wider world, of a broader turn to the right and the rise of fundamentalism in a variety of different countries and continents.
The turn to the right in Orthodox Jewish behavior in America, Waxman explains, was accompanied by a growing self-confidence that manifested itself in different ways. Religious outreach, for example, which heretofore had been the province of the Modern Orthodox and later of Chabad, became an area of interest to right-wing Orthodoxy, which became actively involved in organizations such as NCSY and the National Jewish Outreach Program. Agudath Israel became active in the public sphere with increased lobbying efforts, and English-language Orthodox publishing was popularized by Artscroll. 
Waxman writes that the most conspicuous indicator of the ‘haredization’ of American Orthodox Jewry is “a greater punctiliousness, perceived by many to be excessive.” He traces the history of adoption of accepting additional stringencies in Jewish law, citing different authorities throughout the ages, including some medieval authorities who were opposed to this type of behavior. Waxman distinguishes between the type of stringencies practiced in medieval Ashkenaz and those of today, expressing the idea that “today, there is a conscious, almost ideological drive to be highly discriminating in certain areas of Halacha.” He posits that the world of the yeshiva, which has grown significantly in the United States over the past 50 years, has played a significant role in the shift to the right within Orthodoxy. Whereas in the past, writes Waxman, the tradition of the family and the local community played a central role in setting the standard of behavior within the religious realm, today the rosh yeshiva (head of the yeshiva) plays a far greater and more influential role. 
Waxman explains some of the reasons why Modern Orthodoxy has ceded control to the ultra-Orthodox from a sociological standpoint.
“The very fact that Modern Orthodoxy is more open than ultra-Orthodoxy severely limits its attractiveness for most people,” he writes. “Most people prefer black and white concepts that can easily be differentiated from others.”
One of the most sensitive issues within Modern Orthodoxy today – the role of women – is discussed by the author in a chapter entitled ‘Tensions within Modern Orthodoxy’. Waxman provides a history of women’s tefila groups, partnership minyanim, and women’s Talmud study, and he discusses opposition to these movements within American Orthodoxy today. In discussing the role of Israel within modern Orthodoxy, he notes that Israeli Orthodoxy is more open and tolerant of diversity than American Orthodoxy.
Social Change and Halakhic Evolution in American Orthodoxy, well-written, thought-provoking and engaging, is a valuable addition to anyone interested in understanding the past, present, and future directions of Orthodox Judaism in America.
By Chaim I. Waxman
The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization in association with Liverpool University Press
234 pages; $29.95