Thursday, December 08, 2022

In the September 27, 2022 edition of The Jewish Link, Rabbi Chaim Strauchler shared a letter he wrote to his two 12th grade children before their departure to learn in Israel (“Modern Orthodoxy Is Judaism”). Although I agree with the title of his op-ed (whether he wrote it or an editor did), and its substance (with one possible exception), and it’s not my place to tell anyone how to raise their children or communicate with them because the subject matter (defending Modern Orthodoxy) is an important one, I felt the need to respond.

Rabbi Strauchler says that “if the Rambam were alive, he would daven with us.” I’m sure his shul is great, and he may be right (although I’m not sure Rambam would be comfortable in a shul that proclaimed unequivocally that the State of Israel is “the beginning of the sprouting of our redemption.” Nevertheless, two things struck me as I read this line. First of all, even if Rambam would agree with the theological underpinnings of Modern Orthodoxy (and I believe he would), would he still be comfortable davening in a Modern Orthodox synagogue? Secondly, why position it as just the Rambam, as if he was an outlier among the Rishonim? If Rashi, the Tosafists, Rashba, Ritva, et al., would not “daven with us,” is it fair to consider Modern Orthodoxy an expression of mainstream traditional Judaism? And if they would, why single Rambam out, since he was (correctly or incorrectly) considered more of a maverick?

When it comes to the core issue of Modern Orthodoxy and whether it needs defending, I think my first question—would Rambam (and, by extension, the other Rishonim) choose a Modern Orthodox synagogue, assuming of course they did not have their own—leads us to the key issue that bring about Modern Orthodoxy’s self-reflection. After all, Judaism is both a religious movement and a social movement; choosing which theology to subscribe to should be a function of the former, while choosing which shul to daven in is usually a function of the latter. (I will acknowledge that Rambam would make both choices based on his religious values, but because most do not, his choice of where to daven would be strongly impacted by the choices made by others.)

In my experience, there is a large divide between the theology (and actions) of the clergy of many Modern Orthodox synagogues and those of its congregants. Of course there are exceptions, but since conversations like these are forced to deal in generalities, this is my general impression. I don’t think it would be helpful to suggest examples of the differences between what the clergy thinks/does/doesn’t do and what members think/do/don’t do, but there is a world of difference between engaging with the world because it will help us better understand the Creator and His Torah, and associating with Modern Orthodoxy because it justifies engaging with the world. One is the product of Judaism functioning as a religious movement, and an approach Rambam would likely agree with, while the other is a by-product of Judaism functioning as a social movement, and something he might not be as comfortable being associated with.

Dov Kramer
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