A bridge too far: The challenge of modern orthodoxy

The erosion of Modern Orthodoxy will have a negative impact on the majority of the identifying Jewish world.

A panel titled “Modern Orthodox Education in 21st Century Israel and America,” held at Heichal Shlomo (photo credit: Courtesy)
A panel titled “Modern Orthodox Education in 21st Century Israel and America,” held at Heichal Shlomo
(photo credit: Courtesy)
AMONG THE many conclusions drawn from the Pew survey of American Jewry released earlier this year is one that indicates that relatively few Jews who consider themselves Orthodox label themselves as “modern Orthodox.”
Other studies, as well as strong anecdotal evidence, further suggest that “modern- Orthodox youth frequently choose to adopt either ultra-Orthodox or non-Orthodox identities, rather than synthesize the world of modernity with a world of religious service” (Moshe Krakowski, “Modern Orthodoxy in Crisis: Synthesizing Religion and the 21st Century Identity,” TOI, September 11, 2017).
In the US, the phenomenon of youth leaving Modern Orthodoxy for a secular lifestyle is known rather patronizingly as going “off the derekh” (OTD – Off the “path”), a label better suited to an out-of-town restaurant in Israel!
But whatever it is called, many reasons have been suggested for the phenomenon, including those from a 2016 survey by Nishma Research (US), part of which focuses on “journeys, practices, beliefs, identity, community and relationships within the modern-Orthodox segment.”
The two most oft-stated reasons in this survey were the intellectual examination of religion and the role and status of women. They were followed by general doubts and loss of faith, lack of openness, judgmentalism, sexual orientation, lack of spirituality, community hypocrisy, corrupt leaders, sexual or physical abuse, and, only last, exposure to the non-Orthodox and the outside world.
Rabbi Shimon Russel, for more than ten years the clinical director of Our Place, a drop-in center for OTD youth in Brooklyn, believes the most common causes are all manner of abuse – including spiritual – and either a true learning disability or a de facto learning disability, which hindered their ability to achieve in a yeshiva setting, their sense of failure leading them to opt out. These were, according to many, “pushouts” rather than “drop-outs.”
Further research reveals a train of thought that places the “fault” with the parents, a position pushed by Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen, who posits, “A child’s spiritual health depends on his parents’ spiritual health, their shalom bayis and the love and acceptance they show their child... lack of shalom bayis destroys the next generation.”
Confronted with so many different conclusions and approaches, I am not convinced that they tell the whole story. As a self-identifying modern-Orthodox woman (the closest Israeli equivalent would be National- Religious), I know that the dilution of religious observance, or discarding it altogether, is a matter of increasing concern among my peers.
Furthermore, it has far-reaching consequences for the Jewish people both in Israel and communities abroad. The erosion of Modern Orthodoxy will have a negative impact on the majority of the identifying Jewish world, which has long considered the modern-Orthodox cohort as providing access to Judaism, a so-called “bridge” between non-observant Jews and the more fundamentalist streams of Orthodoxy.
I found my own answer to this vexing conundrum close to home.
Most Thursday mornings I enjoy a learning session with a dear friend during which we study a Bible text in depth. Our sessions often conclude with a chat before we return to our busy lives.
After one such session, we found ourselves discussing the differences between the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) and the modern- Orthodox ways of life, and my friend, who has a foot in each camp, ventured that the modern-Orthodox approach to religious observance seemed to her to lack passion.
I have often since thought about that conversation and the complex and challenging issues it raised, particularly regarding how we and those in our social circles demonstrate our private and public religious observances.
I reached the disturbing conclusion that my friend was absolutely right – we are not transmitting passion for our way of life to our (collective) children and the result has been that they are losing interest. The problem, as I see it, is that Modern Orthodoxy, in trying to synthesize its belief system with the best aspects of a modern, secular world, has lost something along the way. Modern Orthodoxy, I submit, is based intrinsically on a rationalist approach to belief and practice and many of its adherents feel vaguely uncomfortable showing their passion for their religion in too public a way.
Those of our young people who crave more emotional expressions of their religion are drawn to the more Hasidic sectors of the Haredi world.
That is not to say that we are not passionate about our enjoyment of Shabbat and the holy days; that we don’t carry out the many laws that propel us along the path of an ethical, charitable and moral way of life with joy; that we don’t shed tears during a particularly moving rendition of the Kol Nidrei prayer or some of the heart-wrenching prayers during the Rosh Hashana and Day of Atonement services. We do that, and more.
We are just not so good at showing our passion openly and we are paying a high price for that omission.