Jewish Journal


March 2, 2010

What’s “modern” about Modern Orthodoxy?


Over the last few days, two thoughtful writers and teachers articulated a blunt truth about Modern Orthodoxy. They each pointed out that most of us who identify ouselves as Modern Orthodox, are not meaningfully living up to the challenge that this noble term implies. We seem not to undestand what we’ve committed ourselves to. And as a result of this failure, both authors conclude, Modern Orthodoxy – as well at its cousin, Religious Zionism -  have had precious little to offer the Jewish people in the way of visionary national leadership.

Rabbi Danny Gordis, writing about Religious Zionism, penned the following,
“… Religious Zionism has long since had very little of importance to say to Israel at large…It hasn’t produced any creative religious thinkers of the likes of Abraham Joshua Heschel, Abraham Isaac Kook or Joseph Dov Soloveitchik,… For religious Zionism to really matter, it must produce the next generation of religious leaders for Israel, people who must have something to say not only to the yeshiva world, but to the Jewish, democratic society that is Israel.”

Rabbi Donniel Hartman similarly noted that,
“… the centrist or modern Orthodox and the religious Zionist communities, have chosen a third path, a path which lives in the modern world, learns from it and tries to engage in a dialogue between the world and our ancient tradition. .. Alas, while religious Zionists and even the modern and centrist Orthodox have chosen clearly to delineate themselves from the ultra-Orthodox, they have failed to create the ideological foundation to justify this distinction.”

We need to ask ourselves, “What is at the root of our failure to ideologically thrive? What dimension of the Modern Orthodox concept are we failing to vigorously engage, and how is this failure holding us back from our appointment with Jewish destiny?”  Fortunately, we need not dig very deep to discover what’s wrong. It’s right before our eyes.  It’s what Hartman refers to as “the elephant in the room”. We are a community that identifies itself as “Modern Orthodox”, but doesn’t actually understand what the term “modern” refers to in this construct.

Several years ago, a terrible New York Times article about the Five Towns (NY), characterized Modern Orthodoxy as the seamless blending of halachik observance and indulgent materialism. The article was about eating at Glatt kosher restaurants that one’s non-Jewish clients can’t believe are kosher. Or taking the early train home on a winter Friday in order to celebrate Shabbat in one’s million dollar colonial home. About laying tefillin at 6:00, and then pumping iron at the gym at 7:00. Unfortunately, our brethren who were interviewed for the article did noting to dispel the author’s notion that “Modern” referred to nothing more than an all out pursuit of the American dream. Sadly, there is of course much truth to the article’s characterization. And it is little wonder then, that we have not made our mark as a community that “has something to say” to the Jewish people or beyond.

Our Religious Zionist community, in Israel and here, also tends to understand the term “Modern” in a superficial and utilitarian way, rather than in a way that generates a philosophically sophisticated modern vision of Judaism. In Religious Zionist terms, “Modern” refers merely to an embrace of the rebirth of Am Yisrael as a nation-state in our land, and a recognition of the validity of the modern political and military instruments that brought the State of Israel into being.  (This in contrast to the “non-Modern”, who await the Messiah as a pre-condition of emergence of such a State.)

Here again though, “modern” has nothing to do with what the “modern” in “Modern Orthodox” is actually about. What it’s actually about is the quest to articulate a religious vision that speaks to, and has the capacity to bring positive change to the modern world - a world whose notion of morality is rooted in a commitment to the equality of all human beings and to universal human rights, a world whose idea of religious responsibility entails not the building of self-encasing walls, but the building of bridges to communities who are “other”, a world in which people seek a relationship with God that does not require them to jettison rational thought or common sense. Articulating this kind religious vision, and understanding and living our halachik commitments so that they support – not contradict – this vision, is the objective that puts the “modern” in “Modern Orthodox”. This is the work that will render us historically important, and religiously relevant. It’s work that’s underway here and there if you look for it. It is work that needs many many more hands.

To close, with Gordis’ words,
“Gone are the days when religious leaders can conceive of themselves as offering spiritual insight and guidance to people only in their own narrowly defined religious community.” The epic challenge of “modernity” is to give Orthodoxy a voice that truly matters.


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