The flagship needs to right its course.
Modern Orthodoxy has a problem and a blessing: it is the belief that one can be both Modern and Orthodox. The problem is that when one changes, the other must, too, for if we are truly to be both Modern and Orthodox, then as modern world changes, our Orthodoxy must change, too. And that must start with conversations about if, and how, modernity and Orthodoxy should interact.
That is happening everywhere except for Yeshiva University, which, at its founding, was the hallmark institution of Torah u-Mada, Torah and [Secular] Knowledge.
Last week, The Jewish Week reported that YU would withhold rabbinic ordination from a final-year rabbinical student (who has, to date, already completed all of the requirements for ordination) after they discovered that he held a partnership minyan, where women are allowed to lead certain parts of the prayer service, in his home. Such prayer services were prohibited by Rabbi Hershel Schachter, who also took a strong stance against women donning tefillin.
This highlights a growing problem with the “Modern Orthodox” world today. Instead of embracing modernity, and having constructive dialogue about the changing society in which we live — conversations about the inclusion of women and LGBTQ members of the community are two of the most visible examples a la Rabbi Schachter — many Modern Orthodox Jews are, instead, seeking to shut themselves off entirely from the outside world since it is changing in ways that run contrary to the Orthodoxy in which they grew up. And, in so doing, the modernity that Modern Orthodoxy is supposed to cherish, is being lost in the desire to become increasingly reclusive.
Part of this, as sociologist Samuel Heilman suggests, is that there is a perception that the “ulta-Orthodox” community holds the right to religious ritual, and that we, as the less-than-“ultra-Orthodox” are now somehow striving toward achieving the level of piety that they have achieved. This came into play during the debate over the Israeli Rabbinate. And this perception must be corrected.
One of the larger, more systemic problems that plays into this more immediate problem is that too many Modern Orthodox Jews see themselves as “Orthodox lite.” Modern Orthodoxy, then, should be separated from Orthodoxy by the modifier before it: it is Modern. And it must be proud of that, and it must be able to connect the rich tradition (and it is rich, to be sure) of their Orthodox heritage and the progressive and evolving values of (post-) modernity. And, so, they must be confident in its own abilities to not be “Orthodox lite,” but, instead, to be its own strand of Judaism, one which is unafraid of engaging with the wider world.
Instead, Modern Orthodoxy and its primary institution for producing Jewish professional leaders — especially rabbis — is turning away from the mission which it set out to fulfill. It is becoming the Judaism of Cross-Currents, which runs articles (by Jewish educators, no less) that attack even the notion of inclusion of LGBTQ members into society, not to mention the very Modern Orthodoxy that YU was founded to represent. They are not the ones who are propagating what Modern Orthodoxy was, and what it should aspire to be. By moving toward the religious right and away from modernity, by rejecting these conversations outright, and not trying to engage with them in a meaningful and constructive way, Modern Orthodoxy is moving away from modernity. It is not doing this, however, out of dialogue. It is doing this out of guilt.
That, ultimately, is what driving young people, like myself, away from Modern Orthodoxy, and this is the same problem that Conservative Judaism is facing today, as well. Modern Orthodoxy will soon be trying to hold on to the center in the same way that Conservative Judaism is trying to hold its own center — the only difference is which center they are trying to hold.
Modern Orthodoxy is realigning in the same way that Conservative Judaism is realigning. It is time for Modern Orthodoxy to check its values and its vision for its constituents. It needs to stop aspiring for the supposed greatness that is “ultra-Orthodoxy” and stake its own claim in the world of traditional observant Judaism. Otherwise, it will be too late.
Many of us have already left Orthodoxy because we have become disillusioned with the notion that the greatness to which we should aspire is Orthodoxy proper, not Modern Orthodoxy; we cannot envision a Judaism in which we must check our modernity when kissing the mezuzah on our way into the synagogue, then check our religious practices and values upon kissing that same mezuzah on our way out.
YU’s problem now is more than just the pervasiveness of partnership minyanim and women donning tefillin. This is a process that is already happening, and is not one that even Rabbi Schachter can stop, as YU’s own Professor Aaron Koller has pointed out. This rift is symbolic of a far greater problem in the way that many Modern Orthodox Jews see their Judaism and their practice—beyond looking deeper into its actions, Modern Orthodoxy needs to realign its entire self-perception. It must be modern not only because its constituents don’t live in self-imposed ghettos, but also because it actively engages with modernity and its realities. This shift will require a reevaluation of all of its interactions with modernity, including constructing a new dialogue about Israel, as several students at Ramaz tried, and failed, to do. Otherwise, it is going to continue losing its constituents who are picking up on its inconsistencies, and resolving them by leaving.
By Amram Altzman