April 16, 2024
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April 16, 2024
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Modern Orthodoxy Derailed—Time to Return to the Station

The train has derailed, but no one knows why. Far too much time and effort have been invested trying to hoist the railcars back up and onto the tracks, but it is not really helping.

The train is called Modern Orthodoxy, and it is clear that it has partially derailed. Disaffected and disillusioned constituents, confused messages, significant and frequent “defection” to “Traditional Orthodoxy” or to non-Orthodoxy, and overall lack of palpable inspiration on the part of many of Modern Orthodoxy’s adherents have prompted interesting solutions to get back on track: Carlebach minyanim, independent minyanim, Neo-Chassidus, Tikkun Olam–centered Orthodoxy, liberal intellectual Orthodoxy, Zionist-based Orthodoxy (Orthodoxy that is presented as a function of Zionism), NeoCon Orthodoxy (Orthodoxy that is presented as a function of political or ideological conservatism) and yes, even Centrist Orthodoxy as a creed and a theology—you name it. These are all to a large degree responses to core problems in and around Modern Orthodoxy, with each solution seeking to salvage, redirect or recharge a somewhat floundering and faltering venture.

The specific causes for the partial derailment of Modern Orthodoxy seem to be the often sterile and uninspiring environment in some of Modern Orthodoxy’s religious institutions, as well as Modern Orthodoxy’s deep immersion in secular culture, whose allure and appeal are certain to compromise the spiritual identities of those lacking proper preparation and fortification. Hence do Modern Orthodox high school and college students often decrease their commitment to Torah observance or abandon observance altogether? (http://www.jewishpress.com/blogs/haemtza/modern-orthodox-drop-outs/2012/10/24/), Others among Modern Orthodoxy’s youth gravitate to yeshivish settings, where they find the spiritual verve and religious dynamism that they could not locate in Modern Orthodoxy. (Although the “OTD” phenomenon affects the entire spectrum of Orthodoxy to varying degrees, as does the “migrating between Orthodoxies” situation, their prevalence (http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/184233/shabbat-phones) is considered to be far greater in Modern Orthodoxy.)

The “year in Israel” has become another solution (a very crucial and necessary one!) to the Modern Orthodox malaise, such that Modern Orthodox educators rely quite heavily on the post-high school year spent in Israeli Torah institutions to provide the necessary religious excitement and motivation to masses of students who sorely lack it and did not absorb it during their many years in American Modern Orthodox day schools and shuls. However, to place all of one’s eggs in this short-term basket has proven to be less than perfect as a surefire solution. Furthermore, reliance on one year of Israeli Torah education to counteract or compensate for over a dozen years of American Torah education does not speak well at all about the specific American Torah education system in which these students were enrolled.

Rather than fish around and invent more possible permutations of Modern Orthodoxy, let’s return to the station and see how the journey was originally envisioned.

When considering the genesis of what later became Modern Orthodoxy, we must go back to the founding of Yeshiva College and its first president, Rabbi Dr. Bernard Revel. Upon reading Dr. Revel’s vision and efforts to create and build Yeshiva College, one is dumbstruck: Here is a man who learned in the original Telshe Yeshiva and elsewhere, at the feet of some of the greatest Torah luminaries of the time, and whose primary focus, orientation, attitude and gestalt were those of a traditional “yeshiva man.” But he was a yeshiva man who also deeply valued secular knowledge and who foresaw the need for Orthodoxy to attain a grasp and mastery of American intellectual and communal life in order to perpetuate Torah on these shores. Dr. Revel was staunch and unwavering with regard to both Torah observance standards as well as the primacy of Talmud Torah (Torah learning), speaking out against mixed-seating congregations and refusing to allow non-Orthodox Jews to serve on the board of Yeshiva College. I recall one of Dr. Revel’s students relating that Dr. Revel used to go about the beis medrash at RIETS and ask the talmidim, “How’s the yiras shamayim (fear of heaven)?” Profound piety and the fire of Torah were at Dr. Revel’s core. And at the same time, he founded and ran an institution that featured secular greatness and accomplishment. Such a personage clashes with many contemporary notions of Modern Orthodoxy and is an enigma. Yet there was a deep logic to it all, as we shall see.

The other American organs of what is now Modern Orthodoxy had similar beginnings. The common denominator was a quest to preserve and perpetuate Torah life in America, usually by harnessing the tools and media of American society. Secular knowledge, support for political Zionism and general social engagement were present, but pure and traditional Torah understanding and observance were at the forefront. Yes, Yeshiva College and the other institutions that set the stage for Modern Orthodoxy were quite controversial in some circles, but the leading personalities of these institutions, as well as the messages emanating from them, were nearly identical in terms of their Torah element to those of the more “right wing.”

This somewhat rare duality, in which a clear and unabashed commitment to Torah and mitzvos is harbored along with an appreciation and interface with refined chol (secular knowledge and endeavors), is what Rabbi Yosef B. Soloveitchik denoted Ramasayim Tzofim: The tradition and purity of Torah stands apart from chol, as while chol is highly valued and utilized,
it remains separate and does not impact upon or even temper the towering commitment, tight embrace and uncompromising attitude toward Torah. That is why the phrase “Modern Orthodoxy” was never used by the founders or leaders of the above proto-Modern Orthodox organs and the institutions that were their fruit, as there was no new, modified Orthodoxy. There was plain, classic Orthodoxy, plus the often serious pursuit of chol, all to varying degrees and for varying purposes. (The concept of synthesis described by YU president Rabbi Dr. Samuel Belkin reflected a synthesis of knowledge within the individual—such that the Orthodox Jew should be learned both in Torah and in worldly studies—and did not in any way represent a synthesized pedagogy or theology. (See Belkin, Essays in Traditional Jewish Thought, p. 17.) It is thus notable that Dr. Belkin, under whose leadership YU was incorporated as a university, hired the largest number of roshei yeshiva/rebbeim in the history of the yeshiva, and that those rebbeim were for the most part decidedly not pursuers of chol—yet that was not an issue, as there was no such thing as a Modern Orthodox theology or religious hashkafa that needed to be promoted.

This stands in stark contrast with some of the recent expressions of Modern Orthodoxy, in which the purity and passion, and perhaps the fundamentalism (if one may use that term and disassociate it from evil people and agendas), are occasionally replaced by muted fervor (sometimes positively labeled or spun as “nuance and moderation”), external elements and a toning down of Torah. Whereas Torah study and tefilla in a Modern Orthodox day school or shul should be substantively indistinguishable from Torah study and tefillah in a “Charedi” yeshiva or shul (not that there are never problems in the latter), the truth is often that the former embodies less knowledge, seriousness and inspiration than the latter.

(Although this essay does not purport to reflect Centrist Orthodoxy as articulated by Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm—nor does the essay reflect any form of Orthodoxy with a modifier—I was present when Dr. Lamm orally introduced the concept of Centrist Orthodoxy in a public presentation, whereupon someone in the audience posed the question, “Does that mean that a person should always take a middle-ground approach?” to which Dr. Lamm replied that every situation requires its own approach and must be dealt with uniquely—the approach sometimes needs to be strict and sometimes lenient—but the aggregate should end up somewhere in the middle. In other words, moderation per se was not being preached, for each issue must be considered and decided on its own, as opposed to taking an across-the-board “party line” approach to everything.)

Perhaps it is time for what is known as Modern Orthodoxy to return to its roots and be a descriptor of people (those who are modern and are Orthodox) or of pursuits (adhering to Orthodoxy and positively engaging modernity) rather than of theology. The passion and enthusiasm for Torah and mitzvos in Modern Orthodoxy, as well as the undiluted Torah perspective/hashkafa, would and should be identical to those of the “yeshiva world,” the only difference being that the people involved in the former would also have a more developed appreciation for chol and would therefore engage in it with more comfort and adroitness. Although this would obviously be a long-term endeavor, it is a meaningful goal (even if it is not fully achieved), and it can save much of what is currently known as Modern Orthodoxy and engender a blossoming of Torah Judaism that is constructively involved with the “outside world.”

Rather than continue to experiment and concoct, let Modern Orthodoxy return to the original vision. It was not a vision of a new form of Orthodoxy, but rather one of classical and traditional Orthodoxy, manifesting passionate and unyielding avodas Hashem (service of God), alongside an appreciation and engagement with broader society and its offerings.

Pushing the train back onto unstable tracks will not work; returning to the station and instead using the tracks of those masters who laid the original rail is what is needed.

By Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer

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