June 18, 2024
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Modern Orthodoxy: The One-Percent Solution

This article first appeared on his blog, The Book of Doctrines and Opinions

I just finished reading the Mosaic e-zine series on Modern Orthodoxy. It was well done, especially the initial essay of Jack Wertheimer, “Can Modern Orthodoxy Survive?” I have been asked for my comments by various friends. My comments here are based on his initial essay and none of the subsequent posts substantively change my concerns. I am not arguing for any side, so do not over read.

Basically, we are talking about a very small number of Jews. According to Jack Wertheimer’s reading of the Pew Study, there are only 168,000 adult Modern Orthodox Jews, most of them baby boomers and senior citizens. (Prior studies placed the number at 300, 000) Based on the Pew study, at best, we have 30,000- 35,000, maybe much less, in the bracket of college age through millennial. In addition, Wertheimer notes that among those between the ages of 30 and 49 who have been raised Modern Orthodox, fully 44 percent have moved religiously leftward; among those between 18 and 29, 29 percent no longer identify as Orthodox.

Most of the discussion was about ideological issues; however ideological debates are generally a sign of vitality. Almost any intellectual circle of the last 200 years involved thousands – and not more. But to ask a question about survival, the key issues are probably demographic.

Are there enough younger Modern Orthodox Jews for endogamy only among themselves? If not, which community are their spouses coming from? Are they marrying those who grew up in a liberal movement willing to keep a kosher home or are they marrying those raised in a yeshivish home that are willing to be a bit more modern? The original Breuer’s community dissipated its ideology through marriage and residence patterns. Can such a small number as Modern Orthodoxy keep out broader influences?

When discussing survival, are there enough members to maintain the current Modern Orthodox institutions? We know from Protestants groups that those that own property and institutions survive better than those who do not. But which groups in this small number hold the money and the institutions? Those arguing for a split: have they already calculated who is going to pay the bills? If you look at those on the boards of the Modern Orthodox institutions, which side on they are?

Conversely, and more importantly, there needs to be institutions to cater to the millennial and younger. Do they have the institutions that they need? You read every week about the likes and dislikes of millennials, hipsters, gen y and gen z. Are the institutions still catering to the baby boomers and gen x and ignoring those in their twenties?

Are there enough institutions and leadership in the neighborhoods that younger Modern Orthodox Jews are moving to? Much of the demographic loss of the Conservative movement was the demographic movement out of the Northeast and out of working class neighborhoods towards the South and West and the decline of the Northeast neighborhoods. For those Modern Orthodox who are moving back home to where they were raised, are there enough institutions in the new areas? For example, the hottest neighborhood for young Jewish couples is Brownstone Brooklyn and it distinctly does not have a strong enough Modern Orthodox presence compared to the Upper West Side, leading to attrition from Modern orthodoxy. (However, as I type this, Rabbi Ysoscher Katz of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah will now be a pulpit rabbi in Park Slope. This is more significant for demographics than just one pulpit). In general, there is a return back to the gentrified cities from suburbia. Will there be Modern Orthodox resources?

Looking at it from the other direction, many of the Modern Orthodox congregations in less affluent neighborhoods became more Yeshivish in the 1990’s. As I have noted before, the Pew statistics show that currently the median income for Modern Orthodoxy to be in the top 6-7% of American income. What will become of the less affluent Modern Orthodox suburban neighborhoods and those who move out of affluent Modern Orthodoxy for financial reasons, where are they going? Modern Orthodoxy in the South and West deserve their own discussion, most of those discussing the community are New York-centered or Boston- to DC- centered. The migrations from OU career fairs encouraging people to move away from New York, will have unintended consequences.

Then there are many other significant factors that will shape the community in the future. To take a small example, Norman Lamm molded the new heroic Modern Orthodox Centrism through the unacknowledged affirmative action for YU students to be accepted into Albert Einstein College of Medicine (AECOM), creating a strong core of Modern Orthodox physicians. Now, Touro has acquired a medical school and is quietly embarking on the same process, while YU has probably lost tight control of AECOM. In the 1980’s philosophic discussions by the Modern Orthodox authors in the pages of Tradition gave way to medical ethics as a response to the entrance of Orthodoxy into medicine. What are the conceptual responses to the new fields of the 21st century?

Most of the discussion only looked at internal ideological issues. No one mentioned the vast influence of popular culture on contemporary Modern Orthodox, especially the rabbis who show the relevance of Orthodoxy by gilding it with television, sports watching, and movies. This may likely be an ideological divide of the future from those who see this pop-culture Orthodoxy as lacking Torah.

Where will those looking for healing spirituality, zumba, yoga, and popular psychology find their Orthodox community? What about the influence on Modern Orthodoxy of the decline and changes of Evangelical religion? On the other hand, what about those who feel overwhelmed by their secular lives and want purity before God by a form of Haredi Neo-Hasidut?

The ideological debates in Modern Orthodoxy were framed by the articles as internal to the US. What is the current role of Israeli religious ideas? Are the liberal writings of the New Religious Zionists changing American Modern Orthodox Jews? Will the widespread use of Rabbi Eliezer Melamed’s halachic works lead to the adoption of his ideology also?

Prof. Wertheimer got the data absolutely correct that the break in the community does not run between two institutions, that of YU and YCT. Rather the division is within each institution. A solid percentage of RIETS graduate are quite liberal (we can argue if it is closer 20% or 35%), while not everyone at YCT is liberal or even in favor of partnership minyanim. The ideological divide is greater than the given institutions. The vast majority of International Rabbinical Fellowship (IRF) members are YU graduates; those involved in the tefillin controversy and the smicha student at a partnership minyan was at YU. YU actually has greater number of graduates – due to the miniscule graduate rate of YCT – that are very liberal, are GLBT rights advocates, or push for an open agenda. This topic should not be pigeonholed into institutions. Whereas Wertheimer got it correct that the division is within the schools, social media likes clean boxes and places everything on the handful of people at YCT and not YU. Yet, the majority of those on both sides of the debate share the same synagogues, day schools, summer camps, and gap year programs in Israel. This is not two echo chambers, rather two sides of one organization.

More importantly, there is wide spread grassroots support for the idea of an Open Orthodoxy. A solid plurality of the younger elements of the Modern Orthodox world would want to be Open Orthodox as a vote of protest. Among the many things they want are included social inclusion, social justice, aesthetics, spirituality, academics, or just the same but without the judgmental attitude and provincialism. People who have never met anyone from YCT or IRF are calling themselves Open Orthodoxy. It is becoming a catch-all for college students who want to separate themselves from their parents and older siblings, for social Orthodox, as well as for empty nesters who are leading more expansive lives.

Now to the major point, there is not a single partnership minyan affiliated with any Orthodox synagogue, either connected with YU or YCT. It is laity driven. Many of the partnership minyanim post on their websites that they are open-Orthodox but these minyanim are not sanctioned by anyone in YU or YCT. The practice of the laity is not based on statements from YCT or their advocating for partnership minyanim. The laity is stretching its practice without concern for either side of the ideological debates.

The 40% of Modern Orthodoxy college students who have attended a partnership minyan are not looking to either side for a blessing or permission. Even at the height of the debates at the start of 2014, I was invited by email to two local private partnership minyanim in Teaneck, neither had any rabbinic blessing, and I received notice of two new out of town partnership minyanim that were just formed by the laity in reaction to the debates. Just like the widespread appreciation for the recent idea of Social Orthodoxy, or the Half Shabbos awakening from three years ago, these are laity driven.

A recent sociological study of Modern Orthodox college students found that being “Orthodox” largely consisted of growing up in an Orthodox community, participating in the Orthodox social network, and continuing to affiliate with the Orthodox denomination and ideology. Orthodox practice was, interestingly, not a prime concern. Thus, identification with the Orthodox community and engagement in Orthodox practice were divorced concepts. The students themselves use an idea of people being in “different places” in their religious journeys to allow a “live and let live” philosophy on campus.

In the early 1990’s the newspapers started writing that Modern Orthodox meant lax in mizvot, Chaim Waxman and others responded by stating clearly that philosophic modern Orthodox is rigorous in observance and should not be lumped with sociological modern Orthodox. The clarification was quickly accepted. Yet, currently there is no clarification about the differences between laity driven Open Orthodox and the IRF vision. If the IRF wrote such a clarification, it would also be quickly welcomed.

I have had people tell me, including, or especially, some of the new modern Yeshivish bloggers, that they thought YCT, the Jewish Oorthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) and Torah.com are one, that they thought that they are teaching Biblical criticism at YCT, and that YCT is an advocacy group for women wearing tefillin and partnership minyanim. They honestly do not know that YCT is just Gemara and shiurim in halachah culminating in Yoreh Deah. They neither sponsor the liberal innovations as an institution, and they do not have academic courses in the critical study of Bible or Talmud, as YU does. Those who went on to gain notoriety in their advocacy of critical study had their graduate degrees from elsewhere.

In general, there is too much talk of ideology and too many assumptions about the role of ideology in social dynamics. I invite people to read the articles in the Jewish journals from 1960-1963, when they were filled with speculations about whether the Conservative movement could survive a split. They pointed out how in their minds, the Conservative movement survived by having both flanks, Orthodox Halachic scholars on one side and Reconstructionists on the other side. Without the unity, it was going to kill the movement. Then when both extremes broke in 1962, few of the laity were even aware of the break and it did not play a role in the immense growth of the Conservative movement in the late 1960’s and 1970’s to become 60% of American Jewry. (Orthodoxy rapidly declined from 60% in 1950 to 22% in 1960 and then further declined to 9% in 1970; now we trumpet growths back up to 11% as world-changing). The decisions in the field by pulpit rabbis played a bigger role than any real or imagined ideological decision.

There is a bigger issue that was correctly noted by some of the articles, which is the lack of leadership and the lack of a leader that everyone could rally around. The debates of August 2013-April 2014 on women wearing tefillin and partnership minyanim show that there are different leadership models out there.

Many of the baby-boomers educated before the gap-year phenomena do not look to roshei yeshiva or feel beholden to them. They look to pulpit rabbis. Those whose spiritual formation occurred in Israel and then their formation continued with their Rosh Yeshiva upon return cannot see any other place to look for authority. Many of those below a certain age, now feel alienated from the worldview of these same Roshei Yeshiva and also do not look to them. During the controversies, what emerged were two clear opposing views of leadership. Those two positions consisted of those that deferred to roshei yeshiva and those who did not.

Avery Dulles in his book Model of the Church discusses the Catholic approaches to religious leadership, and his analysis can be applied with some modifications to other hierarchical traditional groups such as Orthodox Judaism. One side clearly put their trust in roshei yeshiva and looked to them for legitimation, guidance, and authority. They emphasize hierarchy, correct beliefs and practices and authority.

Those who were on the other side of these debates had three of Dulles’ other categories. Some saw Jewish leadership as community based with a pulpit rabbi in charge who can lead the community and respond to their needs. Judaism is defined by the community. This group values the activism and flexibility of pulpit rabbis over roshei yeshiva. A claim about who has mastered more of the sacred texts does not matter if your question is who is responding to the community. Much of the laity determines their practice based on a knowledgeable person they are personally close to or use as a community role model.

Others invoked Hasidic texts about the infinity of Torah and our need to respond to the personal call of the Divine. Torah is not in the community leaders of whatever variety, but in our souls. They sought individualism and an experiential approach to Orthodoxy.

Another important element in the community argued for a democratic community of lay learners who make their own decisions based on their own education. They consult with rabbis as teachers and resource people, not for authority or decisions.

Lastly, there was a small minority that saw the rabbi as servant looking to help the common people, as in the older neo-Hasidic tales.

One major observation of the rhetoric of this past year was the binary split in which one side argued for submission and the other side argued for openness. Prior forms of Modern Orthodoxy from 1800 and onward always sought to take the best of culture to display to oneself and others that if one has a reasonable faith then one needs to combine the best of both cultures.

Modern Orthodoxy accommodates by reinterpreting tradition in light of contemporary values, understanding contemporary values in light of tradition, or it compartmentalizes. On a deeper level, there is dialectic, oscillation or synthesis between revelation and reason, revelation and man’s conscious, of authority and human feeling, reason, and morals. Modern Orthodoxy seeks to always be located in a conceptual middle. (Even if Modern Orthodoxy is actually only a few percent of the Jewish population, there is a self-perception of occupying a middle position). In order to claim to have the best of both worlds then one has to display to the world and at least convince the Modern Orthodox community that it is moral, tolerant, enlightened, modernist, sophisticated, educated, or any other modern value seen as positive.

However, much of the public fight over the last half year has been one side asking for submission and obedience and the other side arguing for openness. Neither side is using the classic Modern Orthodox formula of synthesis, dialectic, or tension.

Finally, the essays seemed to be Baby Boomers defending their view of Modern Orthodoxy against the Gen X’s Centrist vision of Modern Orthodoxy. One gets a feeling that the Gen X may be blinded by fighting against the baby boomers for the rest of their lives, leaving them unable to see the 20-somethings younger than they. Or to frame it by decades, just as certain Baby Boomer Modern Orthodoxy authors still define Modern Orthodoxy as the liberal early 1970’s and therefore proclaimed the death of Modern Orthodoxy since 1983, I fear that certain younger authors will always be cheering for the more Yeshivish turn around in the late 1990s, despite further changes in the community.

The entire ideological debate may have much less relevance to those under 35. I can think of several up and coming Jewish writers under the age of 35 who may frame the whole discussion entirely differently, without a reference to these older debates.

Will Modern Orthodoxy Survive? Modern Orthodoxy is both terminable and interminable. All constructions of Modern Orthodoxy are culturally situated and ever bound to a specific time. Even a single version consists of many trends, sub-movements, and cultural shifts. All varieties of modern Orthodoxies have commonalities based on ideology, people, institutions, and texts, yet they are all terminable in that the resources, concerns, needs, and connections to other movements are all tied to a specific era. In our modern age, these constructions change regularly and rapidly, not that there is any specific need to respond to change, to assume any agency to change, or even to accept the changes.

One can personally continue to argue for a given ideology, but often one finds that it is hard to hold back time. There will no longer be a mass migration of near-illiterate peasant Russian Jews, nor will there likely be a need again for a response to the high modernism of Kant, Freud, or Existentialism; however, the need for articulate ideologies will remain an interminable need for religious communities. Modernism and mid-20th century modern Orthodoxy may be gone, but, we can see that each era with their own ideology offers the needed construction for its community.

Rabbi Dr. Alan Brill, Cooperman/Ross Endowed Professor at Seton Hall University. His blog is “The Book of Doctrines and Opinions” http://kavvanah.wordpress.com. The paperback edition of his book Judaism and Other Religions will be out in November.

By Alan Brill

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