When I was a non-religious teenager exploring Orthodoxy, I was looking for something different. I had no need for a religion that supported the values I had absorbed from popular culture because I could get that elsewhere. However, I was not going to join a religion from another planet. I needed to be able to relate to a new community in order to join it. This common experience presents an outreach challenge to the Orthodox Jewish community. In recent decades, society’s values have moved in radical directions, sharply diverging from Torah values. How can a community actively attract newcomers while retaining its integrity?
We desperately need to teach our children traditional values, to impart to them the ageless wisdom of the Torah. Yet, values contradictory to the Torah seep into our lives from all directions. This difficulty is compounded because we believe that sometimes we can learn important lessons from secular society. When do we fight the influence and when do we embrace it? We constantly walk this tight line, praying that our children maintain the balance and continue this tradition into the next generation. The vexing problem of our day is ensuring that continuity. Part of the solution—the way I entered the Orthodox community—is through Jews on the fringes of Orthodoxy.
Some people on the fringes of Orthodoxy accept the new values of general society but observe traditional Judaism and believe its basic truth claims. They remain upstanding members of the Orthodox community yet look at the world through what I, on the right, see as secular eyes. Despite the non-traditional aspects of their value system, these Jews play an important sociological role in the Orthodox community.
A quarter century ago, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks offered a precise description of this group on the fringes. In his 1991 book “Arguments for the Sake of Heaven” (pp. 195-199), he refers to Modern Orthodoxy in a narrow sense, which he proceeds to describe and reject. If Lord Sacks rejects it, this cannot be what most people today call Modern Orthodoxy since he is widely considered one of Modern Orthodoxy’s current thought leaders. Rather, it is a movement whose “major spokesmen have been Emanuel Rackman and Eliezer Berkovits, and, more recently, Shlomo Riskin and David Hartman; more radically still, Irving Greenberg.” These thinkers “attempt to locate modern consciousness within tradition.”
Rabbi Sacks discusses the reasons he rejects this approach: “Judaism, I believe, is far less compatible with modern consciousness than [this group] has suggested. Nor is Halacha as open to change as some statements within the tradition might lead one to conclude. There is a difference between the wide powers theoretically available to a Jewish court of law and the much narrower precedent of how those powers have actually been used. Nor can it be taken for granted that everything that can halachically be permitted, ought halachically to be permitted.” Rabbi Sacks proceeds to elaborate this last point at greater length.
However, he sees an important role for this group on the fringes of Orthodoxy. It “provides a bridge between Orthodoxy itself and Conservative and Reform Judaism and Secular Zionism. Such a bridge must be found if Orthodoxy is once again to become the faith of the entire Jewish people.”
When most Jews accept the values of general society, mainstream Orthodox Jews have difficulty engaging with them intellectually. Our starting points are so different from theirs, our basic judgments of right and wrong so dissimilar, that meaningful conversation often ends before it begins. When we express concerns over abortion or assume that marriage must be between a man and a woman, we speak from a place so far from the average American that we struggle to communicate. While we can still reach many, as evidenced by the success of outreach professionals, we cannot reach those who automatically tune us out for the sin of being politically incorrect.
Orthodox Jews on the fringes serve as a bridge. They can convey the beauty of Shabbos without turning people off on issues of basic values. They can bring people to a kosher Pesach seder without awkwardly sidestepping conversations on the burning political and social issues of the day. Many non-Orthodox Jews will feel more comfortable engaging with a Jew who does not seem primitive for rejecting what they believe is the consensus of decent, educated people.
This rings true to me. In my youth, I initially bonded with Orthodox teenagers on the fringes of observance because we had much in common. At the beginning of my journey, they broke down a barrier for me, allowing me to look more closely at a world that I would otherwise have dismissed as completely unrelatable. Additionally, the bridge goes in the other direction. Mainstream Orthodox Jews engaged in a spiritual struggle can find something of a safe harbor in the fringe groups without fully leaving a life of Torah observance.
Yet a bridge must stand firmly on both sides of the river. In 1991, Rabbi Sacks could refer to the group now called Open Orthodoxy as a force for outreach. However, as he points out, in order to belong to the community of Orthodox conversation, you have to accept the broadly defined revelation of Torah, the sanctity of the Bible and Talmud. Lately, a variety of vocal members of Open Orthodoxy have denied aspects of this revelation, whether by embracing Biblical criticism or extensive Talmudic criticism or by rejecting the halachic process emerging from the Talmud. Additionally, Open Orthodoxy is starting to sharply diverge in practice from mainstream Orthodoxy. In particular, egalitarian prayer services of various types and employment of women rabbis serve as a growing behavioral barrier between Open Orthodoxy and the mainstream.
Furthermore, for a number of years, Open Orthodoxy has been challenging mainstream Orthodoxy on its core values and beliefs. Transmitting those traditions is the primary challenge Orthodox Jews encounter in these difficult times, when we face the seemingly insurmountable obstacle of popular culture. Rather than a group on the fringes of Orthodoxy, Open Orthodoxy has become part of the greatest hurdle the mainstream must overcome. In return, mainstream Orthodoxy has attacked Open Orthodoxy, further distancing the divergent group.
Mainstream Orthodoxy needs its critics and independent thinkers. It also needs a liberal wing on the fringes that deep down speaks the language of secular society. But that wing, in addition to accepting the same belief system, has to respect the core group and recognize, without attacking, the different values each side embraces.
For decades, a great compromise kept a polite lid on disagreements. We believed we agreed on fundamental beliefs and, when it came to divergent values, we avoided discussing the issue and tried hard not to antagonize each other, despite the occasional ugly incident on both sides. In this way, the fringe did not pose a challenge to the mainstream’s values.
Is it possible to return to a time when the right wing briefly grumbled at left wing innovations and moved on; and when the left sometimes held back in order to maintain its ties to the mainstream? When an innovative synagogue program was intentionally kept out of the media to avoid highlighting areas of conflict? When a radical initiative was rejected because it might cause division in other communities? When we did not mischievously read rabbis’ weekly Torah insights seeking non-traditional teachings for which to criticize them?
I don’t know. Orthodoxy needs a liberal wing. At a time when Jews are assimilating in disturbing numbers, Orthodoxy needs a bridge to non-Orthodox Jews and secular society. But it also needs to face its own formidable challenge of transmitting its beliefs and values to the next generation.
By Rabbi Gil Student