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What Does Modern Orthodoxy Stand For?

Being Modern Orthodox is more than just being “frum enough” or “frum but not too frum.” Some people don’t like the term Modern Orthodox or use different names for various sub-groups. Be that as it may, a group has to stand for something or its existence is meaningless and its future doomed. That is why, for decades, Modern Orthodox leaders have been explaining its ideology. A friend sent me a few classic articles on the subject and I’d like to highlight some key quotes that help me define, at least partially, what Modern Orthodoxy means to me.

R. Norman Lamm wrote in “Modern Orthodoxy at the Brink of a New Century” (L’Eyla, April 1999) that: “Modern Orthodoxy shares with the Charedi world a total commitment to Halakhah, and melds this with a critical openness to the rest of the world.” In his view, being Modern Orthodox requires being a fully committed Jew. You have to go to minyan three times a day, keep (full) Shabbos and observe all the other laws. Modern Orthodoxy is not about halachic shortcuts or half measures.

Modern Orthodoxy adds to this committed life an openness to the world. We embrace science, literature, politics, and all the wondrous developments in culture. As R. Lamm adds in that article: “This is the way Judaism was meant to be lived–in the fullness of life, not only in a ghetto.” In an article three decades earlier, “Modern Orthodoxy’s Identity Crisis” (Jewish Life, May-June 1969), R. Lamm wrote: “[I]t is our religious duty, our sacred obligation, to live the whole Torah tradition in the world, instead of retreating from a world in which there is literally no longer any place left to retreat to.”

But note his limitation in the first quote above: “a critical openness.” We have to carefully evaluate everything in life and particularly the elements of general culture we wish to embrace. We have great tools for evaluation–the Torah and tradition we have received through the generations. Only those elements of the general world that are halachically and hashkafically acceptable should be embraced. We cannot allow our minds and our lives to be diluted by filth or misguided values.

R. Shlomo Riskin wrote in “Where Modern Orthodoxy Is At–And Where It Is Going” (Jewish Life, Spring 1976): “Our challenge must be to insure the fact that our youth derive its axiological standards from the Torah, and to adequately prepare them to extract the religious principles from the secular studies they pursue.” Yes, we engage in the world, in society. We allow general culture into our homes but we have to make sure that our hearts and minds are guided by Torah. We can and must take the good from the world, but we have to filter out the bad ideas and attitudes, protecting ourselves and our children.

The Vilna Gaon is quoted as explaining that the surprising statement of Mishlei (31:30): “Sheker ha-chein ve-hevel ha-yofi, Grace is deceitful, and beauty is vain.” Is a woman’s beauty really meaningless and misleading? It need not be a primary value but that does not make it worthless. No, he explained, beauty is only vain if it is built on a weak foundation. Beauty is shallow if it has nothing underneath it. But if it is added on top of the fear of G-d, as the rest of the verse imples, then it enhances and glorifies a woman.

Similarly, the beauty found in general culture only ennobles a Jew if it is added to a firm foundation in Torah practice and values. A Jew becomes more complete through science, literature and the best the world has to offer. But only when he is completely committed to Torah and mitzvos. I believe that this is a, but not the only, primary principle of Modern Orthodoxy.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not calling for schools to scale back their literature or music courses to fit my personal comfort level. I am not asking them to rip pages out of their textbooks or black out disagreeable passages. I am suggesting that we, as individuals, think carefully about the influence we allow general culture to have on us. We must think about our attitudes to–for example–pleasure, sexuality, authority and community, and constantly measure how successful we have been at deriving our values, wherever we find them, in the spirit of Torah.

R. Riskin wrote in the above-quoted article: “Torah Judaism draws its strength from Mitzvos Ma’asiyos, from action imperatives. But these actions must be supported by Mitzvos She’b’lev, Torah attitudes which give meaning to our behavior. America has spawned inverted Marranoes: Jews who act out the rituals, but have the inner responses of the secularist.” We must remain independent in our fundamental beliefs about Torah, the world and our lives. Torah must be the spirit of our lives. Everything else can add to our understanding and enjoyment of the world but must not supplant any Torah values.

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 Rabbi Gil Student

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