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The Delicate Power of Modern Orthodox Judaism

What will the future hold for this decentralized but tight-knit community?

Illustration by Ellen Weinstein

By Shuli Taubes

A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But here, in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy. You may ask, “Why do we stay up there if it’s so dangerous?” We stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: Tradition!

Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka, we have traditions for everything: how to sleep, how to eat, how to work, how to wear our clothes . . . And because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do.

—Tevya, Fiddler on the Roof

Orthodox Jews comprise 10 percent of American Jewry (which is only 2 percent of the overall American population). The Orthodox are further divided between the 7 percent who identify as ultra-Orthodox and the 3 percent who identify as Modern Orthodox (MO). And so it may seem odd, and is honestly quite humbling, to be writing an article on such a small religious group. But it can be argued that there are indeed many religious communities in the United States struggling with the same questions that animate MO life and culture: How can a traditional religious community, committed to maintaining its religious heritage and practice, find a way to integrate into modern American society (a particular goal of MO Jews, as opposed to the ultra-Orthodox)? How does one take the best elements of world culture without compromising religious principles and without falling prey to societal trends that are antithetical to the ways of life that MO Jews find so dear and that give existence so much meaning? And how does a member of this community commit to a life regulated by a religious law that has been in development for more than 2,000 years?

In Orthodox Judaism, there are prescriptions for what and how to eat; one’s day is broken up by the obligation to pray regularly; and adherents are guided by rituals and laws surrounding birth, circumcision, education, marriage, sex, raising families, business, death, burial, and mourning. In short, halakhah, broadly defined as the corpus of Jewish religious requirements, has something to say about every aspect of life. Many MO Jews therefore tend to make life choices that allow them to enhance their religious commitments by staying within the community, by choosing educational institutions that promote their particular practices, beliefs, and values. And while MO Jews are not intrinsically isolationists—and, indeed, embrace much of American culture and values—in the realm of religious study, MO Jews overwhelmingly attend their own establishments. It is thus not surprising that on many occasions throughout my three-year tenure at HDS, my parents had to answer the question, “What is a nice Orthodox Jewish girl doing at Harvard Divinity School?”

My father, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi with a synagogue and a teaching position at Yeshiva University, had arranged for me to meet with Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein, of blessed memory, prior to my deciding to attend. “Rav Aharon,” as he is lovingly known by his students and the larger Modern Orthodox Jewish community, was then the preeminent theologian of this community, appreciated for his keen and creative mind, the breadth of his knowledge of Jewish texts and law, and his extraordinary kindness and personal piety. He also held a PhD in English literature from Harvard and frequently quoted from classic literary works and essays, and my father thought that perhaps it would be best for me to talk through my rather unusual life path decision with someone who could understand both my emotional and spiritual drive and my intellectual impulse. Rav Aharon helped me to articulate my rather muddled thoughts and examine both the opportunities and the challenges I would face as a young Modern Orthodox woman at HDS. My father was present at the meeting and my parents were ultimately my greatest supporters, so when the question came up, they were (mostly) ready.

But once I arrived, how would I be able to convey the gravity and import of this reality, and the foundational questions and struggles that came along with it, to my fellow HDS students? In my first year “Arts of Ministry” course, I was privileged to have Professor Dudley Rose as my section leader. Over the span of the first couple of weeks of school, we each had to present our “spiritual autobiography” before the class. This was a particular challenge for me, as I was then only first being introduced to the wider understanding of the concepts of “ministry,” “calling,” and “discernment”—distinctly Christian terms—and I was not quite comfortable sharing my inner life of faith. I was not sure it would be possible without a shared premise or even vocabulary.

My first thought was to use a metaphor from Fiddler on the Roof. Modern Orthodoxy is about living a life of intricate, and at times fragile, balance, trying to create something enlightened and beautiful while walking on the tightrope of tradition. But the notion of a fiddler poised dangerously atop a roof seemed a bit outdated, and so instead I decided to convey the delicacy and power of this life through a medium that I could more easily demonstrate: a tap dance (I had been tapping since I was 8).

I will never forget having the class move into the Braun Room, where I could find some good wood flooring as I tapped a somewhat intricate dance to a piece of music. And then, intentionally, I got off beat. Some of my classmates could hear it—something was off. Others could not. But I knew. And I had to figure out how best to get back on beat. Do I simply pause and wait until I can get hold of the music again? Do I skip some steps to move forward more quickly? Or should I just keep up the charade and hope that no one else really notices? Or perhaps just quit altogether—after all, I am out of breath and this is hard!?! I think the message was clear.

 

While “modern” Orthodoxy is a distinctly American Jewish denomination, many of its early leaders claimed its roots in nineteenth-century Europe, specifically Germany. There, two leading rabbis—Samson Raphael Hirsch and Azriel Hildesheimer—argued that Jews could no longer seclude themselves behind the shtetl walls but instead had to engage with the secular world and embrace modernity, at least to an extent. They wanted to reconcile the secular and the religious without forsaking one or the other. For Rabbi Hirsch, whose writing has a generally universalist tone, there is a singular notion of “truth and justice” to which Jews could contribute thought and counsel relevant to all. He argued that Orthodox Jews must embrace all that is “good and noble in the European culture,” which assumes both that this culture indeed offers that which is good and noble and that it may require some sifting and extraction. Rabbi Hirsch felt that pursuing these forms of culture was necessary for Jews to fulfill their religious mission and was thus, in a sense, a religious act. Rabbi Hildesheimer’s academy, the first formal Orthodox rabbinical seminary, located in Berlin, was the only institution under Orthodox auspices in which students were required to have a significant secular education before they were admitted. In addition to training rabbis, he hoped the seminary would serve as the center of an Orthodox intelligentsia.

In 1928, Yeshiva College opened its doors in New York City to foster, in the words of its founder, Rabbi Dr. Bernard Revel, “a harmonious growth in which the bases of modern knowledge and culture in the fields of art, science, and service are blended with the bases of Jewish culture.” In 1946, Yeshiva University adopted the slogan Torah U’madda—loosely translated as “Torah and General Knowledge”—as its seal and ideological symbol, though no precise definition of the term was given, nor was the idea publicly discussed for several years. Eventually, Orthodox Jewish high schools (besides Yeshiva University’s own) began to offer “General Studies” courses as well as religious training. By the mid-1950s, there was an increasingly clearer parting of the ways between the American Orthodox and Conservative movements (the latter of which advanced halakhic and theological interpretations in certain religious areas not accepted by the Orthodox), which had a lasting impact. Many leaders of the Orthodox community in America, even if ideologically in favor of some sort of engagement with modernity, feared that any kind of “Modern” Orthodoxy was too close to Conservative Judaism and thus ought to be avoided or considered with suspicion. Leaders of Yeshiva University and others who identified with Modern Orthodoxy were thus anxiously looking over their right and left shoulders as they strove to carve out an identity that was religiously approved by the more right-wing elements of the community but that could converse on a high intellectual and secular level with those on the left.

When Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm became president of Yeshiva University in 1976, he inspired a revival of Modern Orthodoxy as a movement. In his position, first as rabbi of one of the largest synagogues in Manhattan and then as university president, Rabbi Lamm was a vocal and idealistic proponent of the notion that all knowledge was godly, and therefore the serious study of the humanities and sciences was an ideal that God desired of Orthodox Jews. He thus advocated a full commitment to Torah tradition and proper observance of Orthodox halakhah synthesized with an openness to the wider culture. And, he wanted it to be clear that intentional and intense study of all disciplines at the highest levels was to be pursued, not purely for vocational or social reasons, but because they had inherent value. In an essay titled “A Modern Orthodox Movement” (1969), he writes: “The challenge to our intellectual leadership is clear: to formulate the worldview of ‘modern Orthodoxy’ in a manner that is halakhically legitimate, philosophically persuasive, religiously inspiring, and personally convincing.”

 

When one wants to truly understand a religion or a denomination thereof, one must distinguish between the “Statement of Principles”—the ideal theological-ideological values and prescriptive elements toward which it strives—on the one hand, and the “Lived Religion”—the real social-cultural values and descriptive elements which it reflects practically—on the other. All religions and religious denominations have aspirations, but the lived reality does not always match those ideals or may manifest in ways that complicate and at times redefine the ideals.

All religions and religious denominations have aspirations, but the lived reality does not always match those ideals or may manifest in ways that complicate and at times redefine the ideals.

If there was one person who came to represent the ideals of Modern Orthodoxy, a human pillar of the community, it was Rabbi Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903–93), of blessed memory, who was rosh yeshiva, or head rabbinical authority, of the seminary at Yeshiva University and who ultimately ordained close to 2,000 rabbis there. He was an exceptionally brilliant Talmudist, philosopher, and theologian, the scion of a most prominent rabbinic dynasty, and he held a PhD in philosophy from the University of Berlin. A multitalented original thinker, master teacher, and writer, his penetrating and analytic Jewish expositions, thought, and lessons were punctuated and animated by tremendous philosophical and theological depth. After his death in the early 1990s, it is no exaggeration to say that, for Modern Orthodox Jews, “WWJBSD?” (“What would Joseph B. Soloveitchik do?”) became a very real question in the realm of Jewish law. Rabbi Soloveitchik embodied the spiritual tenacity and intellectual rigor at least theoretically demanded by Modern Orthodoxy, as he utilized the best of secular philosophy and literature in the service of religion. He knew the Torah, the Talmud, and the codes of Jewish law completely and thoroughly, but could reference Kierkegaard with the same level of ease. His personal religious behavior was firmly anchored in the classical traditions of Orthodox Judaism, which he often explained and defended and encouraged his students to likewise adhere to with precision, but he clearly appreciated the value of all knowledge and of what the “outside world” could offer.

In one of his most influential theological works, The Lonely Man of Faith, Rabbi Soloveitchik argues that the two creation stories found in chapters one and two of the book of Genesis represent two sides of the human personality. He writes: “In every one of us abide two personae—the creative, majestic Adam the first, and the submissive, humble Adam the second. . . . Yet, no matter how far-reaching the cleavage, each of us must willy-nilly identify himself with the whole of an all-inclusive human personality, charged with responsibility as both a majestic and a covenantal being. G-d created two Adams and sanctioned both. Rejection of either aspect of humanity would be tantamount to an act of disapproval of the divine scheme of creation. . . .” In this seminal piece, Rabbi Soloveitchik essentially reads the ideals of MO Judaism—being involved in the creation and betterment of the larger world and humanity, and posturing oneself in a position of submission before God—as an essential part of the creation story, as a foundational basis of the world. Through this piece, Rabbi Soloveitchik not only sets out the ideals of Modern Orthodoxy but presents a response to biblical criticism (which he acknowledges and dismisses), to the ultra-Orthodox and to secular Jews. Rabbi Soloveitchik uses a lot of universalist language, and thus he creates an argument about faith that is applicable and relatable to people of a variety of religious traditions.

At the start of the twenty-first century, Rabbi Saul Berman, a Modern Orthodox rabbi with a JD from New York University, wrote a significant article, “The Ideology of Modern Orthodoxy,” in which he defines the contours of Modern Orthodoxy and what separates it from its sister denomination, so-called ultra-Orthodoxy. While basically agreeing on fealty to the system of halakhah, the two, he argues, are “two separate experiments” attempting to address how a traditional religion can persevere and thrive in the midst of modernity. Rabbi Berman lists and discusses nine central distinctions, four of which I would like to mention here. First, Modern Orthodoxy values secular knowledge and a relationship with ambient culture. Second, it respects the integrity and certain approaches of the “other”—nonreligious Jews and gentiles. Third, it is fully engaged with issues of women’s leadership and roles in ritual. And fourth, it identifies with and supports the modern state of Israel. Each of these issues is controversial and complicated, raising new challenges at every turn, but even engagement with and response to the issues by the Modern Orthodox community sets it apart from the ultra-Orthodox community.

While the distinctions between the ultra-Orthodox and the MO seemed pretty clear, by the 1990s sociologists studying the MO community were already distinguishing between “ideological” MO Jews and “behavioral” MO Jews. There seemed to be a growing divide between some of the leaders and the rank-and-file practitioners. Not everyone was capable of or interested in reading Plato, Milton, or Kant and incorporating their ideas into a consistent religious worldview. There is no canon of high culture, and in universities the notion that such a concept even exists was coming into question. It was hard to keep community members consistently engaged in the sorts of issues that the intellectual elite (the overwhelming number of “rabbi doctors”) in the first few decades seemed preoccupied with thinking about. And it seemed increasingly clear that the religious passion of the leadership was not always to be found in the lay community. Questions thus came up: Is MO about compartmentalization or synthesis? Are the ideals of MO too elitist and ambitious? Is meticulous observance of halakhah in the MO community in fact a given in practice? Does—or should—any of this matter to the average MO individual who wants simply to accept halakhah in the general sense but still live, work, and play in the modern world?

The sociological trends indicated a community that seemed to be fracturing. Individuals began to question whether modern American culture had any values whatsoever to contribute to Orthodox Jewish life or whether its values had become largely antithetical to those of Orthodox Judaism, such that it might indeed be better to be more cautious and isolationist after all. Moreover, many who identified with the MO community were seen as practicing “Orthodoxy-light”: they observed the basics of halakhah—Sabbath and holidays, kosher laws, daily prayer—but were laxer concerning those laws at odds with modern society from a social perspective, i.e., laws relating to modesty and dress, standards of keeping kosher at business meetings, accessing media with explicit sexual content.

It seems that the trends that were observed in the 1990s (and, in truth, earlier as well) persist until today. Certain MO individuals may be said to be living a life that has been described as “observant secularism,” a life largely motivated by secular values but regulated, at least to some extent, by religious norms. And more recently, some have begun to question whether or not MO is engaged enough in the moral issues of modernity and whether rabbinic authorities are responding at a quick enough pace to ethical concerns of our time, such as gender and sexual equality, feminism, racism, and interfaith work. There is also tension over who exactly has the authority to decide when and how traditional law can transform and adapt and when it must dig its heels in the sand and remain committed to prior tradition. At this time, there is no centralized or authoritative leadership in the community. There are numerous synagogues, educational institutions, community outreach and support programs, and rabbinical schools, each with their own leadership. And, they often disagree with one another on practice, beliefs, and values. It is indeed difficult to know what the future will hold.

The central challenge for MO today is determining whether, because of the ideological complexities and expectations of community members, its core values are sustainable and transmittable. As indicated above, there is presently a diversity of practice and a fluidity of ideals. That in itself may not be a bad thing—as long as the community can work on civil discourse and avoid the same pitfalls that plague and create schisms in contemporary American politics. The following is a brief description of some of the key issues facing the MO Jewish world today.

The community is struggling with the results of what some think of as the “over-intellectualization” of the religion, or the mental aristocracy, which does not appeal to many young people who do not feel religiously motivated and inspired by navigating a page of Talmud or discussing Aristotle’s influence on Maimonides (though there are certainly many who do). A sophisticated and nuanced approach to studying Torah, with an expectation that community members will engage in “high culture” but weed out negative values and avoid anything that could potentially be a harmful influence, requires a lot of work and some want no part of it. As a high school teacher, one of my greatest concerns is the generally high level of apathy among our youth. To even engage in a discussion about ideals, significant knowledge and high-level thinking is needed, and some students simply do not buy into it. Many find the rituals and obligations too demanding and are not moved by the discourse. On the flip side, there has also been a rise in spirituality movements (so-called neo-Hasidism, for example) that seek to bring a more emotional connection to Judaism through singing, poetry, and dance. There is, though, a clear sense that the MO community is not reaching all of its young people in a meaningful way, leading to an attrition rate not previously seen in this movement.

There is also a struggle around navigating the conflict between traditional Jewish law and modern ethics. As mentioned above, considering the traditional positions on gender equality and LGBTQ rights in light of contemporary values has been trying for many. Without broadly recognized religious authorities and with the extreme defensiveness of the most outspoken on both sides of the issue, the conversation has been fraught with difficulty. Other areas which can lead to a conflict between traditional Jewish thought and modern values are: universalism versus particularism and the doctrine of Jewish “chosenness,” policies on intermarriage and conversion, and what it means to be loyal to and critical of the state of Israel. Theological challenges continue to be found in the question of how to evaluate American mores and their influence in the realms of sex, dress, leisure activities, and in terms of general exposure.

The community’s “need” to have schools that provide all the top-notch educational opportunities . . . has proven complicated for those who struggle financially.

Finally, the MO community is struggling with its economic status and the implications of material culture. Because of the tremendous communal emphasis on education (65 percent of Modern Orthodox Jews are college graduates, compared to 29 percent of the US public) and the desire to socially immerse the youth in the culture, values, and practices of Modern Orthodoxy, the majority of MO Jews send their children to Jewish private schools (and to Jewish summer camps). These schools provide both rigorous courses and cocurricular activities (sports leagues, academic teams) and are competitive with some of the best secular private schools in the country. Yeshivot, or “day schools,” as they are called, offer a dual curriculum, featuring intensive Judaic studies in addition to the regular scholastic curriculum. This education is extremely expensive (some high schools cost more than $30,000 a year, and thus there is often communal talk of a “tuition crisis”). The community’s “need” to have schools that provide all the top-notch educational opportunities along with academic, emotional, and college guidance and a variety of student services and programs has proven complicated for those who struggle financially.

On top of the cost of education, the costs of obtaining kosher food and creating a Sabbath or holiday experience with delicious, elaborate, home-cooked meals, and lots of guests, as well as the expectation of having special new clothing to celebrate the holidays, all place a monetary burden on the community. MO Jews often have geographic limitations on housing because they want to live within walking distance of a synagogue (as most MO Jews will not drive or ride in a car on the Sabbath), and they tend to have larger than average families (with an average of four children). MO communities have also created unbelievable infrastructures to support chronically ill children, people with disabilities, and women who have been abused in marriage, just to name a few, and these institutions, like the local synagogue and schools, require donations and generous giving. The bottom line is that the MO lifestyle is expensive, and being able to afford all of this means making an income that can provide. That in turn often results in certain sacrifices, including pressure to abandon certain professions or life passions, and a perpetuation of the cycle because of some of the expectations (home size, luxury cars, exotic vacations) that come with being in the upper economic classes in the United States.

 

I was privileged, growing up, to have many role models. My mother and grandmothers were strong, educated women with successful careers, who were involved in the Jewish community and who also cooked and hosted meals with many guests around the table. They built homes where warmth, kindness, and serious discussion were part and parcel of daily life. I was encouraged to learn Torah and to take my secular studies seriously. I had chavrutahs (study partnerships) with both of my grandfathers, studying Talmud and Maimonides with one and Milton and Shakespeare with the other. I grew up in a home where religious obligations were taken very seriously but where, as my family came together around a Sabbath meal, no meaningful conversation topic, from sex to politics to personal beliefs, was taboo, and passion and being activists for good was encouraged.

All the same, there were times when the obligations felt fraught and heavy. I will never forget breaking down while in college and sitting on the floor of my family living room in New Jersey, crying to my father about how difficult I was finding it to live in the “gray.” Every choice I made, from a career path to what movie to watch with friends, felt like a “big decision,” like a giant weight on my shoulders that reflected the extent to which I had embraced the ideals of our religion. I did not simply want to walk the walk, I wanted to live the life that Rabbi Soloveitchik modeled. I wanted to keep up all my religious commitments but be totally open to knowledge, culture, the experiences of my non-Jewish friends, of people I had never met. I wanted to feel connected to God and my community and to American culture and values at the same time. I just had moments where it did not seem possible.

As I continue to develop my teaching career, engage in my work at a variety of MO synagogues where I give sermons and lecture from the pulpit (including being a “community scholar,” a non-ordained educator and leader), and build my own family (I married another MO Jew who attended HDS!), I have come to really love and appreciate Modern Orthodox Judaism. I believe that it has given me the tools to lead a meaningful, happy, driven life. The idealism about the possibilities of human potential, in which both intellectualism and giving to others are prized, is paramount to the way I want to live my life. My time at HDS and my deep friendships with people outside my faith community have provided me with additional language to develop as a religious person, giving particular expression to a committed relationship with God.

While the challenges facing our MO community are real, I do not take for granted being part of such a tight-knit and supportive group; one truly never celebrates or mourns alone. And I appreciate being part of a denomination that is self-critical, that debates our shortcomings and flaws out in the open—from the pulpit, in news outlets, in study halls, in university bulletins—but that does not self-destruct when we disagree, when modern values conflict with traditional ones. We do not knock down the house every time a brick seems out of place. This is the message I want my students to embrace: to be part of culture and yet counter-cultural at the same time. I want them to appreciate what it means to be members of a community in which they can find a beat that works with the music in their own heads and hearts but to know that they can ultimately come together as a unified ensemble.

 

Shuli Taubes, MDiv ’09, teaches Judaic studies and chairs the Jewish philosophy department at SAR, a Modern Orthodox Jewish High School in New York City. She lectures on biblical theology, Jewish thought, and contemporary issues in Orthodox Judaism in synagogues across North America.

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