On modern Orthodoxy

I have found that students are confused about Modern Orthodoxy and perceive it as some sort of ‘Diet Orthodoxy’.

‘TO BE involved in the modern world, ipso facto means to live a life of constant compromising of Orthodoxy’s rigorous norms.’ (photo credit: TNS)
‘TO BE involved in the modern world, ipso facto means to live a life of constant compromising of Orthodoxy’s rigorous norms.’
(photo credit: TNS)
In 1979, Prof. Lawrence Kaplan, quoting the distinguished sociologist Prof. Samuel Heilman, defined the Modern Orthodox Jew as “one who desires to adhere faithfully to the beliefs, principles and traditions of Jewish law and observance without being either remote from or untouched by life in the contemporary world and who recognizes the mutual demands of traditional Judaism and of modernity.” Kaplan differentiates the Modern Orthodox Jew from “his traditional counterpart who is relatively more isolated from contemporary secular society and who sees such aspects of reality as secular education, English language or occupation outside the Jewish community as infringements upon his life.”
Kaplan then questions whether there is in fact such a thing as a Modern Orthodox Jew in the first place? He writes: “But is the Orthodoxy of the Modern Orthodox Jew, itself, in some sense modern? Does it reflect, in some significant manner, the impact of modernity? Or is his orthodoxy identical, in all essential respects with the orthodoxy of his traditional Orthodox brother? Perhaps the Modern Orthodox Jew simply embodies a traditional orthodoxy co-existing uneasily with a wholly unrelated commitment to modernity. To put the question semantically, does the word modern in ‘Modern Orthodox Jew’ modify the adjective ‘Orthodox’ or the noun ‘Jew’? Granted that the Modern Orthodox Jew exists and even flourishes, is there such an entity as Modern Orthodoxy?”
Four decades have gone by and yet Kaplan’s question is still relevant. Modern Orthodox Jews struggle to identify what Modern Orthodoxy is. Most Modern Orthodox Jews still define themselves by what they “don’t do.” Many of the so-called Modern Orthodox gap-year programs in Israel don’t teach anything about Modern Orthodoxy. There seems to be this assumption that a program is Modern Orthodox because they either explicitly or implicitly encourage their students to get a university degree, preferably at Yeshiva University, as it is perceived as safest.
AFTER MORE than 15 years of teaching in the Modern Orthodox yeshivot and seminaries in Israel, I have found that the students themselves are confused about Modern Orthodoxy and perceive it as some sort of “diet orthodoxy,” same great beliefs, but fewer observances. To quote Kaplan yet again, who is in turn citing Heilman, the Modern Orthodox Jew sees himself as a criminal. He is “in theory committed to meeting the demands of both modernity and Orthodoxy; however, insofar as he perceives these demands as being inherently contradictory, his commitment to the demands of modernity results in his selectively violating or, at the very least, not wholly living up to the full range of the demands that Orthodoxy makes upon him. To be involved in the modern world, ipso facto means to live a life that involves the constant compromising of the rigorous norms of Orthodoxy, norms whose legitimacy the Modern Orthodox Jew fully recognizes; in a word, it means to live a criminal existence.” Often my students will report having spent Shabbat with their “really religious cousins.” When I ask them what they mean by that, they usually explain that they are haredi (ultra-Orthodox). As if there is this understanding that haredi Jews are the ones who are “really religious” while what we do as Modern Orthodox Jews falls short of the real thing.
Heilman sees Modern Orthodoxy as a compromise and views a Modern Orthodox Jew’s visit to a synagogue as a temporary shedding of his modernity to be enveloped by the bastion of real Judaism. But that is not Modern Orthodoxy. Modern Orthodoxy is an embrace of the world through the lens of Torah. It understands that God created us as human beings and human beings we remain, even after our acceptance of the covenant. Torah becomes the prism through which we understand ourselves and the world around us. It is a vehicle to actualize the covenantal relationship we have with God. Being a human and being a Jew complement one another. Even if that means that sometimes we must practice cognitive dissonance.
When asked to define orthodoxy 90 years ago, Rabbi Leo Jung explained that the word “orthodox” was insufficient to explain the nature of Orthodox Judaism as the word itself expressed nothing that was positive about the Jewish faith.
He instead defined orthodoxy as the “genuine historical faith of Israel, based on the revelation of Sinai, the Torah, the bible, the teaching of the rabbis. Orthodoxy is the Jewish expression of Judaism. Orthodoxy embraces worship and charity, public righteousness and private devotion, social service and individual purity.” He defined orthodoxy as “Torah-true” Judaism.
But that is not the entire story, nor can we rely on definitions that are almost a century old. While Orthodox Judaism sees itself as the oldest form of Judaism, the truth is that is simply not the case. Hillel and Rabban Gamliel, Rashi and Maimonides, Rabbi Yosef Karo and Rabbi Moshe Isserles were not Orthodox Jews. To claim differently would not only be an anachronism, but simply incorrect, as there are quite a few differences between what one would consider Orthodox and some of the views and practices of the great rabbis of the past. It would be more correct to define orthodoxy as the most authentic form of Judaism. It is an attempt to preserve the Judaism of the past as it was practiced before the Enlightenment. How that preservation should happen in the 21st century is what defines the differences between modern and haredi Judaism as both struggle to maintain their faith, observances and identity in the global village.
The writer holds a doctorate in Jewish philosophy and teaches in post-high-school yeshivot and midrashot in Jerusalem.