Some people see a split occurring within Modern Orthodox Judaism between those who adopt a more lenient religious interpretation and those who are stricter. I think they have it wrong. Yes, a split is happening, but it is not primarily about beliefs or stringency in practice. It is about temperament, how we view the world, whether we are happy. I know full-blown heretics, people who reject basic Jewish beliefs, who side with the right wing. And I know faithful, traditional Jews who side with the left. This is not a split about religious fundamentals; it is a split between liberals and conservatives.
Let me clarify my terms. In American politics, liberalism is often associated with expanding government programs and protecting the rights of minorities, conservatism with shrinking the government and maximizing freedom. You can argue with these brief definitions of those ambiguous terms, but that is beside the point. Political liberalism is not really relevant. There are good reasons why religious conservatives may be political liberals. We are speaking here of religion and community, not politics and country.
Both religious liberals and conservatives are optimistic, only about different things. Conservatives believe the religious status quo is pretty good; our community has things just about right. While everyone carries with him/her a mental list of the areas in which the community has room for improvement, religious conservatives don’t want to rock the boat too much because, more or less, they have a formula that works. Yes, a few things need tinkering, and some people are unnecessarily and tragically disenfranchised. But overall, Orthodox Judaism today brings us close to God and allows for a successful and fulfilling life. Modern Orthodoxy is really quite amazing, and thriving communities are testament to the hard work of our predecessors. Let’s not mess it up.
Liberals also carry with them a list of changes they want. But rather than being happy with the present, they are optimistic about the future. They believe that we have the tools and plans to fix what is wrong, to correct the communal direction. We are on the verge of better times, when our problems will be solved. Even if we are not sure how to cure a communal ill, we have to experiment until we find the right mixture because ultimately good will prevail.
Consider the example of calling women to the Torah. Let us set aside issues of text and authority, even though I consider them primary and, in this case, insurmountable. Let us discuss here merely issues of public policy that even those not entirely committed to traditional practice can appreciate. The liberal side argues that women should not be subject to discrimination–certainly an important moral argument. Rewording the claim, [some] liberals argue that Orthodox Judaism as currently practiced is immoral and must be fixed. Conservatives respond that we cannot change the different religious gender roles to which we are accustomed without risking the delicate balance of our communities. Complete egalitarianism will significantly change daily religious life as we experience it. Will it hurt the community? Will synagogue participation decrease? Will it feel authentic or will it drive away our most committed members? And will people happy with a non-traditional religious experience want to enact even more changes? If we wish to successfully transmit Judaism to our children, we must ensure that it is recognizable across the generations.
Both liberal and conservative approaches share feelings of inspiration, conservatives about the present and liberals about the future. And both feel uncomfortable, conservatives about the dangers of change and liberals about maintaining the status quo. Religious liberals today seem more energized, I suspect because of the power of new media. They are invigorated by the culture of youth and cynicism cultivated by the Internet. Liberalism is deeply cynical about the current situation. What does the Internet foster more than cynicism and anti-authoritarian mistrust?
You do not need to believe in God or the Talmudic traditions to recognize that we are custodians of a way of life dating back many years and we are charged with maintaining it. To someone of the conservative bent, communal imperfection must be worked on, but only cautiously, with great care not to overturn the cart. We have too much to lose to act hastily. Change can be good, and each case should be evaluated on its own merits. But change as a guiding principle is a dangerous force for instability, threatening the delicate balance that is Modern Orthodoxy.
The conservatives see themselves as the responsible adults in the room. They see that being religiously observant in the open, welcoming Western society means constantly navigating a tight line between belonging and remaining apart. And they see too many people who fail that balancing act and either leave the observant life or join a more insular community. When a small number of activists loudly demands change, conservatives, in their caution, wonder what they really want. Are they honestly calling for small, symbolic change or attempting to dramatically alter Jewish life?
The Conservative movement of Judaism began making small changes under the guidance of eminent Talmudic scholars. Now it allows driving on Shabbos, gay marriage, and much more. Is today’s spirit of liberal confidence any different? A little over a year ago, a disgruntled Conservative rabbi told me over dinner that he believes that today’s Modern Orthodox liberals have learned the mistakes of the Conservative movement and will not repeat them. I find this exaggerated self-confidence to be precisely the problem. Well-meaning people lacking a healthy sense of awe and humility can destroy a community. We can’t take that risk.
Rabbi Gil Student writes frequently on Jewish issues and is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com. Raised in Teaneck, he is a graduate of Solomon Schechter, Frisch, and Yeshiva University.
By Gil Student