This was an article in the Nishma Introspection Journal out of Toronto from 2007, and is not the final edit, as you can see from the internal notes, but in light of the recent events in the MO world (the "gay" forum at YU, "Rabbah" Hurwitz and interfaith prayers services [See Obama]), I think it's a great suggestion for the MO velt. R’ Dr. Michael J. Schweitzer's blog can be found here.
For some, Modern Orthodoxy is a movement with a problem. It lacks a definitive identity which has caused many of its facets to suffer. Many of its schools are populated with Torah teachers that do not reflect its specific values because the movement does not seem to produce a sufficient body of educators for its institutions. Its adherents are dwindling in numbers as its children and young adults migrate to the left and, even more so, to the right. Its influence in the general Jewish community and in the general Orthodox community is waning; its voice is not heard. The intent of this article is to approach the subject of Modern Orthodoxy and its difficulties from a point of view different than that found in the mainstream literature. I will examine the various definitions of Modern Orthodoxy, summarize what distinguishes it from Chareidi Orthodoxy, note the concerns with its viability and suggest solutions to help the movement continue forward until such time as Hashem sees fit to reveal his Moshiach and return us to our homeland in Israel.
It is with great caution and trepidation that I express my views in this article for I am not an expert or even well-read, and am not fit to even be in the presence of many of the great rabbonim of the Torah world whose opinion on this subject is far more authoritative than mine. The Mishnah in Avos tells us that a wise man does not speak in the presence of those who are greater than he in wisdom but it also notes that “where there are no men, strive to be a man”. It is with this intent, with the help of Hashem that I try to add my voice to the discussion in the hopes of adding something constructive to it.
Please note that this article will specifically limit its discussion to the situation regarding Modern Orthodoxy in North America. The status of the movement in Israel and its relationship with Religious Zionism (Mizrachi), although connected and of significance within this discussion, will not be fully explored due to the extended complexity of the issue.
In order to address any questions about Modern Orthodoxy, it is important to first define it. The main problem with that undertaking is the variety of levels of belief and observance found within the movement. Chaim Waxman maintains that the Modern Orthodox can be roughly divided into two groups: “behaviourally modern” and “ideologically modern.” The former are those who lead their lives as they wish when it comes to work, family, and social interaction. They do this “by ignoring those aspects of halachah which they find most cumbersome or onerous and/or by a process of compartmentalization in which they apply Jewish law to some but not to other aspects of their lives.” The latter, a much smaller group, tries to reconcile strict adherence to halachah with the standards of Western culture.
The approach of the behavioural group poses some great difficulties in assessing the movement as a whole. The nigh-irresistible pressures placed on the Jew choosing to lead such a lifestyle can lead to compromises that might not be sound from a halachic point of view. One author has called this an approach which is “half pagan, half halachic”. Chaim Waxman notes that “the behaviourally Modern Orthodox…are not deeply concerned with philosophical ideas about either modernity or religious Zionism. By and large, they define themselves as Modern Orthodox in the sense that they are not meticulously observant.”
There are still statements found within Modern Orthodox literature that attempt to give some sense of value to the behavioural group. For example, R’ Avi Weiss notes regarding halachah that “while bordered by a system that is external to humankind – the G-d-given law, Torah miSinai, to which Jews are subservient – it also includes laws derived by the Rabbis, concerning which there may be more than one view. It therefore follows that halachah is a living structure that operates within absolute guidelines, yet one which is broad enough to allow significant latitude for the posek to take into account the individual and his or her circumstances.” In truth, this definition does not actually apply to the behavioural group which isn’t particularly interested in the flexibility of halachah, especially when faced with situations where no interest in observing it actually exists. What this statement, though, does still present is a value in the personal drives and desires of the individual. If Halacha is flexible, the result is that it can be seen as possibly giving value to one’s personal interests. The oft-quoted remark that “if there is a Halachic will, there is a Halachic way” offers the behavioural Orthodox the defence that the only reason that their desired action is not yet permitted is because the rabbis haven’t figured out the solution, yet – with fault being placed on the rabbis for not embracing this new perspective and the necessary work to define the theoretical Halachic allowance.
The result is that, far from standing for something, this defines the group in the negative. It is not unusual to hear Modern Orthodox Jews, specifically of the behavioural group, define their level of observance as “Of course I won’t do that. I’m not Reform, you know!” When confronted with practices that contravene halachah, the standard answer given is “I’m not like that. I’m not chareidi!” This lack of positive ideology excludes them from discussions regarding the essential religious and philosophical nature of Modern Orthodoxy.
Helmreich and Shinnar define the ideological group as “a movement that seeks to harmonize the secular and the religious in ways that are compatible with both.” They posit that what defines Modern Orthodoxy as a movement is that it tries to respond to the challenge of living in the modern world within the guidelines set by Torah. How is this to be done? They contend that Modern Orthodoxy’s approach is “a belief that one can and should be a full member of modern society, accepting the risk to remaining observant, because the benefits outweigh those risks. What it means is that a Jew can study the writings of Christian philosophy, learn any scientific therapy he or she wants to, attend a concert at which women sing (accepting the view of some halachic authorities that this is permitted), interact with non-Jews on multiple levels, and do pretty much what others do in their own societies, even while leading a fully observant life.” To fully understand the depth and challenge inherent in this statement, it is necessary, though, to consider the roots of the movement.
THE ROOTS OF MODERN ORTHODOXY
In order to better analyze Modern Orthodoxy, it is important to briefly review its historical development. The movement can trace its existence to two schools of thought that developed in Germany approximately 100-150 years ago. The current forms of Modern Orthodoxy developed from these two schools, the Frankfurt School and the Berlin School.
The Frankfurt School was created by R’ Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, zt”l (5568-5648) around the year 5611 (1851 AD) when he became the head rav of the Israelite Religious Society, a group of Orthodox Jews opposed to the spread of Reform Judaism in Germany. He organized the local teaching institutions as well as writing copious materials to support his view of Torah and refute Reform’s heretical opinions.
The main theme of his writings was Torah Im Derech Eretz, Torah with secular knowledge. As opposed to classical Chareidi teaching which disdained any learning of non-religious (i.e. non-Torah) subjects and minimized the importance of gainful employment in order to better focus on the intense study of Torah, the Torah Im Derech Eretz approach developed by R’ Hirsch proposed that working for a living, the learning of secular subjects and the embracing of certain aspects of general culture, could be used to develop one’s understanding of Torah and enhance one’s Orthodox lifestyle. However, R’ Hirsch’s approach was still to affirm the primacy of Torah over the study of secular subjects and working for a living. Secular knowledge was important for a better understanding of Torah concepts and working served the function of allowing people to be able to afford the costs of education and living a Jewish lifestyle but they were seen as fully subservient to the role of Torah in the Jew’s life, never to be allowed to challenge the centrality of the Holy Writ or influence its practical observance. Furthermore, R’ Hirsch was selective in choosing his sources. He strongly felt that all things in the world were the creation of G-d and therefore had a promise of eventual benefit in them. Secular knowledge, behaviour and appreciation of the natural world was useless, though, unless it inspired religiously; but if it did, it was obligatory to use it to enhance one’s practice and understanding of Torah. Of importance to note is that, even and especially when analyzing Torah subjects, he and his followers generally ignored non-traditional scholars and the scholarly techniques in use at German universities of the day.
Although Rav Hirsch was not the first Jewish authority to propose the concept of Torah Im Derech Eretz (the concept is specifically mentioned in Avos 2:2 and again in a different fashion in 3:20), he was the first to create a formal structure for it that would allow for a response to the challenges of modernity and Reform. In other words, R’ Hirsch developed Torah Im Derech Eretz into a philosophy that would encompass a Jew’s entire worldview, allowing him to move comfortably as a Torah-observant Jew throughout the surrounding society without giving up his level of observance.
While Rav Hirsch’s Frankfurt School of thought did produce Jews who were strictly observant and able to move within secular society without compromising on their Torah beliefs, it failed to produce, in any significant number, Gedolim like the Litvish yeshivah world with its exclusive focus on Torah study. On the other hand, Rav Hirsch’s approach conferred a tremendous advantage to its students in their day-to-day lives. Many Litvish scholars who came in contact with the secular world were often overwhelmed by it and were unable to respond to its challenges while those schooled in Torah Im Derech Eretz were able to overcome the challenges.
The Berlin School was founded by R’ Azriel Hildesheimer (5580-5659). R’ Hildesheimer was extensively educated not only in Torah subjects but in classical secular studies as well. His Berlin Rabbinical Seminary was unique in that it demanded that its students have a high level of achievement in secular studies to be admitted to its program. They were also expected to continue with a concurrent university program during their time in the Seminary. His goal was to create a centre for Jewish intelligentsia, not merely a school for producing rabbis.
Given this objective, it should not be surprising to hear that the Berlin school’s approach towards secular knowledge was even more welcoming than the Frankfort’s school’s approach. In contrast to R’ Hirsch’s limitation on the interaction with secular studies when there was a deep contrast with Torah-observant sources, the Berlin school approached Torah with the scholarly approach commonly used in non-Jewish universities of the time. R’ Hildesheimer’s successor, R’ David Tzi Hoffman and one of his prominent lecturers, Samuel Grünberg, encouraged an approach that would produce students who would be able to confront the intellectual attacks on Judaism that were coming from the schools of Biblical Criticism and the Reform movement. Indeed, the Reform Movement saw the Berlin Rabbinical Seminary as a tremendous threat specifically because its students could refute its heretical assertions on scholarly grounds.
The major disadvantage of this approach was that the study of Judaism by the Berlin school became more scholarly and scientific, and less passionate. R’ Hirsch’s critical response to the approach seems particularly apt: “Has the ‘Science of Judaism’ interested our contemporary generations in drinking deeply, and on their own, from the wellsprings of Judaism in order to enlighten their minds, warm their hearts, and gain sufficient energy and courage for vital, active, personal involvement in the pulsating life of our present day?”
Another difference between the Frankfurt and Berlin schools was the level of interaction between the students of each school and the surrounding Jewish community. R’ Hirsch’s school avoided any attempts at cooperation with those elements of the community that did not adhere to Orthodoxy, even in matters important to the Jewish population in general. In contrast, the Berlin school initially chose to allow a degree of cooperation with non-religious scholars, albeit not in sacred matters. Because of their emphasis on an academic, scholarly technique in Torah study, it was logical that they should hold discussions with other people who shared a similar approach. However, this eventually expanded so that after a generation, the Berlin Rabbinical Seminary was conversing with the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, both non-Torah-observant institutions. This is something that R’ Hirsch’s school would never have done. It is even questionable whether or not the Berlin school’s founder, R’ Hildesheimer, would have approved of such a high level of interaction.
Modern Orthodoxy, to a large extent, in its current form seems to owe more to the Berlin school than the Frankfurt school, even though many people who identify themselves as Modern Orthodox often point to R’ Hirsch as the first rav of their movement. Clearly the current emphasis within the Modern Orthodox movement of Torah U’Maddah is a direct successor to R’ Hildesheimer’s philosophy and less an inheritor of R’ Hirsch’s Torah Im Derech Eretz which helped to found the Agudat Yisrael organization and to this day sees itself as a part of it. In actuality, the Frankfurt school, to a certain extent, eventually connected with the Charedi world which yields some of the problems in attempting to understand Modern Orthodoxy.
THEY’RE MODERN TOO
Given the above realization, the very name of the movement presents a problem. Modern Orthodoxy is, as defined above, a philosophy that halachic living can and should be reconciled with the demands of the modern world. However, if one looks at the Chareidi world, one can find a great deal of appreciation of modernity within it. Whether it is engaging in professions such as medicine and accounting, or accessing current technology such as the Internet, Chareidi Jews are as much a part of the surrounding world as Modern Orthodox Jews. Even the ultimate stereotype of the Chareidi rejection of the outside world, the Neturei Karta, have a website! Thus, the concept of reconciling halachah and modern society is not a problem unique to the Modern Orthodox, nor are they the only Torah-observant group trying to solve the dilemma such juxtaposition causes. This is actually the legacy of the Frankfurt school which effectively integrated into the Charedi world. (A discussion of how the Charedi world, in turn, may have affected Rabbi Hirsch’s original concept and the Frankfurt school over time, while of interest, is beyond the parameters of this article.)
In terms of education, as such, many Chareidi Jews are also quite knowledgeable about various secular fields. One can find Chareidi physicians and surgeons, scientists, mathematicians and physicists. Rav Adin Steinsaltz is renowned not just for his encyclopaedic knowledge of Torah but also for his expertise in physics, history and philosophy. Rav Yonasan Rosenblem, a personal acquaintance and the director of Am Echad, a Chareidi media resource centre in Israel, is knowledgeable about numerous classic and contemporary literary works and has extensive legal training as well. Rav Dovid Gottleib of Ohr Someach in Jerusalem has a Ph.D. in philosophy and is a recognized expert in the field. To therefore state that a difference between Modern Orthodoxy and Chareidi Orthodoxy is simply the level of interaction with the secular world, would be a fallacy. Beyond an analysis of the distinction between the Berlin School and the Frankfurt School, what is demanded is a more thorough investigation into the essence of this distinction.
CONTRASTS WITH THE ULTRA-ORTHODOX
Historically, Judaism has been a religion/nationality in which personal behaviours and observance link the individual to the surrounding community. As a result, the religious leadership of the Jewish nation and sense of community have always been important. “All Jews are responsible for each other” goes the popular saying from the Talmud. Classical Judaism demands a loyalty to Torah and the community that upholds it, with those demands very thoroughly defined. The downside of this concept is that when the individual’s needs are not addressed by the community, this can lead to a tension between the collective and that individual.
In addressing this tension, the Chareidi community has chosen to emphasize the collective over the individual. As a rule, Chareidim are very much subordinate to their communities, affording tremendous power to their rabbinical leaders and enforcing standards on all their members, hence the strong role the Gadol plays in their circles. It is not a mere coincidence that members of a particular Chasidic clan will all wear identical suits and speak in similar ways, or that students of a particular yeshivah will all hold the same opinions as their Rosh Yeshivah. Within the current chareidi community there is a great consensus on what chumros are considered mandatory and what standards people should uphold if they wish to join the group. Much of this is due to a sense of central authority, be it through the various Councils of Sages in Israel or the Agudas Yisrael in the United States and Israel.
On the other hand, within the Modern Orthodox world there is no real functioning central authority. There is Yeshiva University which is the leading centre of Modern Orthodox learning, but unlike Ponevezh or Gur, there are few leaders within that institution who either have the authority or the inclination to issue decrees on the entire Modern Orthodox world and expect that people will follow their instructions obediently.
Instead of conformity, ideological Modern Orthodoxy has chosen to emphasize the individual through the exercise of personal autonomy. Rather than accept the group-think mentality that dominates the Chareidi world, Modern Orthodox Jews demand their independence in thought and action. A rabbi in a Modern Orthodox community is expected to pasken with far more authority than a Chareidi one who might more commonly seek out the opinion of his Gedolei HaDor and defer to that. The tremendous advantage of this approach is that the local rabbi often understands the unique composition and needs of his community and can therefore handle halachic inquiries with a greater sense of relevancy to the questioner.
However, there is a significant negative to this emphasis of the individual over the collective. A Modern Orthodox Jew often keeps those minhagim he or she relates to or can rationalize, dresses as he or she wants to, and interacts with modern society to the degree that he or she thinks best. The result makes it quite problematic to actually describe what a Modern Orthodox Jew is. When a person describes himself as Chareidi, many assumptions in terms of level of observance, standards of kashrus, etc. are automatically defined. This is not the case when a person describes himself as Modern Orthodox. One Modern Orthodox Jew’s definition of kosher may be far too lenient for another Modern Orthodox Jew to rely on. Spending Shabbos together may be difficult. Due to the conflict between the concept of personal autonomy and the need to conform to the greater collective, even important philosophical beliefs may be completely different until the only thing the two individuals have in common is their not belonging either to the secular or very religious segments of the Jewish people.
This lack of uniformity and passion is also robbing Modern Orthodoxy of much of its next generation. Most people are familiar with the concept of students spending a year in Israel following the completion of their high school studies and before beginning university. What is becoming more noticeable is the number of Modern Orthodox youth who return from the year (assuming they don’t succumb to the temptation to stay “a little longer”) looking for a more intense and passionate way to practice their Judaism while eschewing their Modern Orthodox background and its traditions to which they feel little connection. This happens for the most obvious of reasons. At that stage in their lives, children are becoming young adults and their sense of identity is still in flux. They naturally seek out groups to belong to and ideologies to adopt so they can feel that they are part of a greater whole. A Modern Orthodox setting will give them choices. A Chareidi setting will provide opinions, make their choices for them and give them a uniform so they can become part of a group.
SO MUCH TO LEARN, SO LITTLE TIME
Our Sages tell us that the Torah is as endless as the waters of the ocean. No one person can learn all that is incumbent upon him and yet we are not allowed to desist from the effort. If one compares the Chareidi and the Modern Orthodox approach to learning, a few differences immediately present themselves as well.
a) Importance of ongoing Torah study – The concept of Torah Lishmah and ongoing intensive Torah study defines Chareidi learning circles. It is not uncommon to walk into a Litvish yeshivah and see two masmidim arguing over whose ox gored whose first and is therefore responsible for the damages even though neither person has probably ever seen an ox or would recognize one if it attacked him in the street. In addition, within the Chareidi world only Torah-based information is generally permitted in a discussion. One may wish to argue over an event that occurred in the history of the Babylonian Jewish community but bringing in archaeological or non-Orthodox sources to bolster one’s proof would generally be avoided. The words of Chazal are supreme and not to be contradicted. In the Modern Orthodox world, by contrast, the importance of Torah scholarship has a less exclusive prominence and as a result, a certain amount of external knowledge is generally encouraged. As a result, when an average chareidi and certain types of Modern Orthodox Jews debate a position, the chareidi is far more likely to justify his position in purely Jewish terms because of his total reliance on his learning, while the Modern Orthodox Jew may bring in “outside” references to bolster his position. Additionally, in Chareidi yeshivos and learning groups, it is generally the rav who teaches the shiur or leads the discussion and has the final word in disputes. In Modern Orthodox circles, it is not unusual to find Ph.D’s or other “qualified” individuals teaching shiurim to others and in topics that, strictly speaking, aren’t Torah study such as Biblical criticism or archaeological discoveries. This is not to disparage the level of knowledge the individual may have but it does diminish the leading role of the Rav found in more traditional groups, reducing him to the level of one expert among many while giving the outside subjects the same perceived value as true limud Torah.
b) Approach to halachah – amongst the chareidim, there is a controversial concept of daas Torah, loosely defined as “the views of their rabbinic leaders must be followed without question even in non-halachic areas.” Daas Torah nowadays seems to function as a trump card in halachic matters, ending the discussion with a decision even though the “losing” side might have definite opinions to back it up. Within Modern Orthodoxy, there is a much more scientific approach to halachah where variant positions are judged based on the evidence that supports them within Jewish legal literature. “Halachah is a rational discipline operating in the empirical world, open to argument and counter-argument and the development of consensus.” This approach often leads to a more intelligent approach to the subject in question but yields far less definitive answers as, almost by definition, any approach which has support in the literature retains its legitimacy.
c) Passion - When a chareidi Jew prays or learns, he sways back and forth. He may be reading t’hillim, or he may be slogging through a particularly dry sugya in gemara, but he does it with a tune and with emphasis. There is a love and liveliness to his practice. In the Modern Orthodox world, things are much more emotionally sterile. As noted above, the Modern Orthodox community can be divided into the behavioural and ideological. The behaviourally Modern Orthodox community does not seek too much depth in Torah and generally looks for its excitement out in the secular world. They may enjoy their Purim parties but an inspirational drasha doesn’t terribly excite them. On the other hand, the ideological Modern Orthodox approach Torah and halachah from a very intellectual point of view. As a result, halachic dispute and discussion contain all the excitement of a debate on the physics of quantum mechanics. For those intelligent enough to understand the varying positions it can be enthralling and involving but only a very few can function at this level. Furthermore, the emphasis on empiricism precludes strong emotional attachment to one’s view and eliminates true passion from the debate. As a result, “the ability of Modern Orthodoxy to attract a large following and become a movement is inherently inhibited by the fact that it is highly rational and intellectual. This alone would limit its attraction since it has built-in tensions and frequently requires consciously living with inconsistency.”
It is for these two reasons that it can be argued that Modern Orthodoxy falls short in its dispute with the Chareidi world. First, in not emphasizing and grounding itself firmly and positively in Torah and halachah in the broadest sense, and, second, in not offering a sense of unity in approach, is there any wonder that it is losing ground in influence throughout the Jewish world?
WHY DO YOU BELIEVE WHAT YOU DO?
Some articles on Modern Orthodoxy do attempt to expound some positions the movement maintains from a positive perspective. Rav Avi Weiss’ well-known article “Open Orthodoxy! A Modern Orthodox Rabbi’s Creed” he lists several items, including the use of secular knowledge to better understand Torah, a feeling of community with non-religious Jewish groups, a support of the State of Israel and the equality of women in Jewish ritual observance. Other writers go further, adding such matters such as participating in civil society, valuing secular knowledge for its own sake and making the helping of the non-Jewish disadvantaged a priority. The following questions must be asked: Is this a proper expression of what Modern Orthodoxy stands for? what core beliefs lead them to these conclusions? Why do they believe what they do?
Rav David Hartmann, speaking in Toronto in the fall of 1991 on the subject of interactions and dialogue between different religious groups, made a simple but memorable point: “A single question cannot have two contradictory answers which are both correct.” For example, if Muhammed, y”sh is indeed the last prophet and Hashem, going by the name Allah, did instruct him in the principles of the new “true” religion, Islam, Judaism and Christianity are false faiths and it is wrong to observe them. If Muhammed made the whole story up, then Islam is based on a falsehood despite having a billion adherents. It is intellectually dishonest to justify both Judaism and Islam by the pathetic phrase “Well, that may be what you believe and I guess we’ll just have to disagree while respecting each other’s opinion.”
Rav S. R. Hirsch, zt”l, phrased this idea similarly. PROBLEM WITH QUOTE – CHECK IT OVER “Let us not deceive ourselves. The whole question is simply this. Is the statement And G-d spoke to Moses saying with which all the laws of the Jewish Bible commence, true or not true? Do we truly believe that G-d, the Omnipotent and Holy, spoke thus to Moses? Do we speak the truth when in front of our brethren we lay our hand on the scroll containing these words and say that G-d has given us this Torah, the Torah of truth and with it of eternal life, is planted in our midst? Is this is to be no mere lip service, no mere rhetorical flourish, then we must keep and carry out this Torah without omission and without carping, in all circumstances and at all times. This word of G-d must be our eternal rule superior to all human judgement, the rule to which all our actions must at all times conform; and instead of complaining that it is no longer suitable to the times, our only complaint must be that times are no longer suitable to it. And if, again, in carrying out this word of G-d we choose to follow the teachings and instructions that have come down to us from the Rabbis, we can and must do only if and because we recognize in them the same divine origin as the written word of G-d.”
This approach can therefore be used to determine which beliefs are authoritatively Jewish or not. Either Matan Torah happened as described in the book of Sh’mos and as elucidated by our Sages, or it didn’t. Either the Torah Shel Ba’al Peh is an authentic and inseparable part of our law given by Hashem to Moshe Rabeinu a”h or it isn’t. Either the Shulchan Aruch and its commentaries are the most current authoritative source of Jewish law and practice or they aren’t. The answers to these questions and many more decide whether a person is faithful to Toras Moshe or not. What are the answers given by the Modern Orthodox community and why do they choose them?
Additionally, one must examine the influence of the surrounding culture on a Modern Orthodoxy which is not insulated from its effects. One factor affecting Modern Orthodox perceptions is that of the dominant Christian culture around us with its emphasis on public worship and relative lack of rituals for observance in the home. Another corrupting factor has been Secular Liberalism’s presumption that inequality between two groups (for example, men and women) must render one superior and one inferior, hence propagating unfairness. Finally there is the philosophy of the feminist movement in which any task traditionally thought of as “women’s work” has been denigrated and disregarded. Thus the emphasis on communal worship, the perception of inequality and the diminishment of the importance of the role of the women in maintaining the home have seeped into Modern Orthodox thought. The same writers who insist that Modern Orthodoxy is all about giving women equal rights to participate in shul and have their own Megillah readings come Purim give minimal mention to the challenge of the source and heredity of these values. If they have emerged from our interaction with the secular world, the first issue that must be addressed is how this interaction is to be understood within the Torah perspective.
Having stated all this, we return to the question of why Modern Orthodox Jews believe what they do. An example should suffice: A Chareidi family will not own a television for halachic reasons. Their Gedolim have forbidden the device because of the perceived spiritual damages it can cause. They will therefore avoid television and everything to do with it as a positive expression of their beliefs. In contrast, the answer for a Modern Orthodox person owning a television might be “I don’t think G-d has a problem with it.” That is the true problem with this group; even the ideological adherents often do not perform activities with the positive intent of worshiping God. They argue that a practice is permitted but the ideal is not considered. A corresponding Modern Orthodox answer to the question of the acceptability of modern media in the home should be: “I think the positives of television outweigh the negatives and possessing one helps enhance my Judaism. God wants me to enhance my Judaism so I own a 45” plasma just to be machmir” but how often does one hear that stated?
At the root of Orthodoxy, a Jew does not perform activities because they’re “nice” or “the right thing to do”. The guiding point of every action should be that these actions are a Jew’s fulfillment of ratzon Hashem, God’s Will. It’s one thing to echo secular concerns and say that this is what defines Modern Orthodoxy. Without first declaring, though, that the fundamental assumption behind adopting these concerns is a desire to fulfill ratzon Hashem, these activities lack legitimacy from a Jewish standpoint and cannot define Orthodoxy.
IF AT FIRST YOU DON’T SUCCEED…
There is a common failing amongst struggling groups. They continue to implement ideas and plans that, until now, have failed miserably in the hope that they will soon become successful. As Modern Orthodoxy has faced its difficulties over the last few decades, there has been a tendency to emphasize the “Modern” as a way to redeem the movement. Thus the Edah organization used “The Courage to be Modern and Orthodox” as its slogan, as if there was some important Jewish expectation that one must be modern to be a good Jew and that this is courageous in some sense. This approach has never shown much success. Modern Orthodoxy has done a poor job over the last few decades when it comes to producing Torah scholars, defining the image of a Jew in the public arena and the greater Jewish community, interesting people through outreach and attracting other Orthodox Jews while holding on to their own young.
The response from many Modern Orthodox authorities has therefore been to increase the “Modern” yet further. We are now told women’s prayer groups, mixed learning and social events and an appreciation of secular knowledge will strengthen the movement and lead it back to greatness although these very attempts have had the opposite result until now. As a reaction to the increasing power of the Chareidi community in defining what a Torah-observant Jew should look and act like, Modern Orthodoxy has come to emphasize matters that are only remotely connected with Torah, like showing concern for world affairs and engaging the general community in feel-good endeavours. The final result is that while the mother might express her modernity at an all-women’s prayer service, her children will do it at the movies.
It might be posited that much of what Modern Orthodoxy posits as its defining characteristics are, in fact, qualities of Secular Liberalism that have snuck into the mindset of Jews who have become immersed in Western culture and have blurred the line between halachic positions and politically correct ones. This must be recognized and countered by accurate understanding of Torah sources and a desire for the Jew to seek out a true manner of service of Hashem not based on self-interest or “what I think is right.”
G. IS IT EVEN PERMITTED TO BE MODERN?
At the root of this matter is the question of legitimacy. Simply put, is the concept of Modern Orthodoxy, with its combining of the sacred word of Hashem and human sources of knowledge, one that is consistent with Torah and halachah?
There are those in the Chareidi world who would answer that question in the negative. Certainly their viewpoint has its sources. For example, Moshe Rabeinu tells us that the Torah is “your life and the length of your days.” Further, at the beginning of his career as leader, Yehoshua is told by Hashem that “this book of the Torah shall not depart from your mouth but you should contemplate it day and night in order that you observe it to do according to all that is written in it, for then you will be successful in your way and you will act wisely.” As a final example, we have the words of the mishnah in Avos: “Turn it over and turn it over for everything is in it, and in it shall you gaze.” From these sources, it would seem that a life dedicated exclusively to the study of Torah would be the standard by which an observant Jew would have to live his life.
However, even a superficial knowledge of Jewish history is enough to indicate that this interpretation is not correct. Throughout the Talmud we are told of what work our Sages of blessed memory engaged in. Indeed, the concept of paying a rabbi to teach Torah only came about, according to some opinions, when that teaching began taking up so much time that the rabbis in question could no longer find time to both practise a trade and teach. As is well known, both the Rambam and Ramban were physicians while Yitzchak Abarbanel was a minister of finance in medieval Spain. If exclusive Torah learning is a requirement, how did these giants of our people justify their career choices?
Furthermore, the technology that permeates modern society affects all of us. Unless we wish to return to an existence that excludes such basic utilities as running water, electricity and toilet paper, or we wish to be parasites living off the hard work of the secular world around us without participating in it, we must engage in some level of secular education in order to better our own circumstances and through that, our ability to observe and learn Torah. Therefore, Modern Orthodoxy must declare that, al pi haTorah, it is not just desirable but necessary for an observant Jew to engage in secular education – even if only in order to learn a profession or trade - something the Talmud had already recommended 1500 years ago. But again, can this define Modern Orthodoxy? Are there not elements within the Charedi world, perhaps connected to the Frankfurt School, which would maintain the same position?
The movement must do something more than announce that going to university or working for a living are permitted. Right at the beginning of the story of Creation we are told that Adam HaRishon was commanded to “have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” Yishiahu 45:18 states: “He is God, the One who fashioned the Earth and its Maker; He established it’ He did not create it to be empty; He fashioned it to be inhabited.” Building a civil society with all its physical and cultural appurtenances is, therefore, not against the Torah or even only a simple utilitarian necessity. It is a positive Torah value for Jews to become educated and cultured so that they can, al pi haTorah contribute to the world around them and help bring God’s morality to it. This must be the guiding motivation of Modern Orthodox. It must not be a religious position of exclusion but rather an expression of the highest aims of Torah and Judaism. It is not merely permitted to be modern. In many ways, it is obligatory!
H. PRACTICAL SUGGESTIONS
In order to become a viable alternative to Chareidi Judaism, Modern Orthodoxy must undergo profound changes. While deciding the specifics of this is beyond the scope of this article, it can be proposed here that Modern Orthodoxy’s intellectual group should lead the way in this endeavour. If the movement is to change from its current status as a loose association of “not Chareidi, not non-observant” members, any definitions decided on should be done so from the rigorous standpoint of halachah as interpreted through traditional yet scholarly methods. It might be noted that the behaviourally Orthodox group may be slighted by this approach. It is important, however, that the Modern Orthodox movement move beyond vague definitions and into more concrete territory even though it will compromise some of the autonomy which has defined it until now.
In this regard, the leading luminaries and religious authorities of the Modern Orthodox world must work together to develop such meaningful definitions for the movement. Any characteristics that are negative (“we’re not ultra-Orthodox”) or emphasize an attachment to secular liberal priorities (“we’re all about helping the world through Tikun Olam”) cannot be fundamental parts of this definition. As mentioned at the end of the previous section, Modern Orthodoxy must define itself as an approach to Torah and the understanding of the Will of God for us in this World.
This must be an authoritative description. It must include uncompromising loyalty to Torah and mitzvos with the emphasis on developing a system of halachic observance based on rational analysis of the traditional sources. The first and only fealty of the Modern Orthodox Jew must be to Hashem and His expectations for us. “Turn the Torah over again and again, for everything is contained within it.”  Any definition so vague as to not exclude anyone who currently considers himself/herself Modern Orthodox, no matter how limited his/her practice of halachah would be meaningless; only in the authority granted to these definitions will there be the capability of encouraging behavioural and philosophical change amongst those on both sides of the movement. Like the Chareidi world, it will be important to define what is “right” and “wrong” within the scope of Jewish practice based more on centrally derived values than on reactions to the non-religious and ultra-Orthodox communities.
The next step would be to begin a centralized coordination of all those institutions in North America that claim to be Modern Orthodox in ideology to ensure that a common message, based on these standards is being transmitted to their memberships about the movement and its expectations of members. Again, these expectations would have to be decided by the leading figures of the movement. It would necessitate bringing a Chareidi concept, that of the Gadol, or authoritative halachic leader, into the Modern Orthodox world albeit with amendments reflecting the distinctive nature of Modern Orthodoxy. On the surface, this may be seen as an assault on one of the most precious features in the current dogma of Modern Orthodoxy -- the aforementioned personal autonomy over the values of the greater community -- but it is the extreme statement of this value that is exactly one of the main features that keeps Modern Orthodoxy from advancing as a movement and realizing any potential. Does this mean a total restriction on autonomy? Not necessarily. What it does mean is that there will be the articulation of the parameters that maintains the necessary vision of the movement. An old Jewish curse goes “May you have many leaders”. With Modern Orthodox gedolim defining the movement and setting down standards, the form of the movement would become far more cohesive.
There must also be a philosophical shift within the world of Modern Orthodoxy. Charedi Judaism keeps its adherents loyal and dedicated through its use of emotion. Oftentimes, Modern Orthodoxy attempts to bring forth this emotion through its nationalistic fervour specifically in its commitment to Israel. This is not enough, especially outside of the Land. The passion for Torah must be paramount.
Within the Charedi world, there is a concept of kavod haTorah which animates its members. Charedi Jews are, often, not as strong in terms of honestly approaching halachah from an impassioned position of scrutiny. This does not hinder them because of the strength of the emotions they feel for their system of Judaism, their leaders, their perception of Torah and Hashem.
If Modern Orthodoxy wishes to evolve into a strong, relevant movement, then this passion must be brought into it. For the intellectual group within the Modern Orthodox world, Judaism has become, in a sense, the equivalent of scientific study. Rare, gifted individuals can be excited by new dimensions in quantum physics. The masses would just yawn at such a thing. It is the same within the Torah world. While the intellectual group within Modern Orthodoxy is certainly no less knowledgeable (some might say even more so) of the intricacies of Torah than their chareidi counterparts, the average Modern Orthodox Jew is not given anything to feel excited over. What’s more, the egalitarian structure that most Modern Orthodox institutions adopt takes away from the concept of kavod haTorah that encourages this missing passion. Rabbonim within the movement must regain the sense of being leaders through the respect inherent in their positions. The rav shouldn’t just be an employee. He is a teacher in the subject most important to the soul of a Jew. A hierarchy, as distasteful as that might be to the autonomous standard currently in place, is necessary to restore that respect and the passion that would come with it.
Another philosophical shift must occur in the perception of what is considered “Torah-true” behaviour. Through diligent public relations work and subtle propaganda, the Chareidi community has positioned itself as the authentic version of Judaism. Anything which fails to meet its minimum standard or deviates from it is automatically considered “less Jewish”. Along with this has come the attitude that s when there are two competing opinions in an area of halachah, the more stringent one is automatically the more legitimate one. This must be challenged by the Modern Orthodox community. In pure halachah, it is the opinion that one feels is most in consonance with what Hashem wishes that is the most correct opinion for that person, not whichever is stricter. This must be emphasized in Modern Orthodox education.
Following this, two final initiatives must be considered. One is the establishment of a common curriculum in all Modern Orthodox educational institutions demanding excellence in both secular and Torah based studies. The movement must produce students capable of navigating themselves competently through general society while educating them to understand the depth and excitement of true Torah study. Modern Orthodoxy must not be apologetic about embracing this approach which will lead to its students fulfilling the words of the Shulchan Aruch (O.Ch 156): “After a session of Torah study, go to work. This is because all Torah which is not combined with a job will eventually come to nothing and will lead to sin. One should not make his work the chief focus of his life but rather secondary to his Torah and in this manner both will flourish.”
The additional advantage of this initiative will be to produce Modern Orthodox educators so that the movement’s current institutions can reduce their reliance on teachers of Judaism that are not always reflective of the studies or the students they teach. Modern Orthodox teachers, rigorously trained in both secular and Jewish subjects and approaching their students with enthusiasm, will have a self-perpetuating effect on the movement that is incalculable.
Also, just as the Agudas Yisroel distributes books and materials emphasizing their points of views and insights through major publishers such as Artscroll and Feldheim, Modern Orthodoxy must retain a publisher and begin spreading books and materials relevant to its philosophy. Why is it that the current Orthodox Union siddur is published by Artscroll and not by a Modern Orthodox publisher? When searching the shelves of the local Jewish book stores, one can justifiably ask: where are the biographies of the Rav and other luminaries from the Modern Orthodox world? The importance of this aspect of the movement cannot be over-emphasized.
In the end, Modern Orthodoxy must not only be about statements of position and practice. It must also be about belief. We should define our practises according to halachah and, after proper introspection, drop those changes that have entered the movement because of a desire to be more like Secular Liberalism even though we may have fooled ourselves into thinking that we are fulfilling our halachic commitments by doing them. We should develop the passion for our style of Jewishness that the Chareidim have for theirs that will enhance our faith in Hashem and His Torah. “A person, who believes with his whole heart in God’s help, will always be happy and be able to endure everything.” We should teach our children that Orthodoxy isn’t just the default lifestyle they were born into but a growing, active framework around which to develop and grow. And we should reach out to our non-religious brethren and show them that a Modern Orthodox lifestyle is a viable, superior form of Jewish life that can only benefit them and give them true spiritual satisfaction.
The author wishes to express hakaras hatov to Rav Ben Hecht for his assistance and editing work on this article.
R’ Dr. Michael Schweitzer is a Family Physician in Hamilton, Ontario and is an associate clinical professor in the Department of Family Medicine at McMaster University. He is also the author of three really good fantasy novels: The Curse of Garnel Ironheart, The Ashes of Alladag and We, the Living which you should go out and buy right away.
 Avos 5:7
 Avos 2:5
 Waxman, C.I. “Dilemmas of Modern Orthodoxy: Sociological and Philosophical” p.1
 Leibman, C.S. “Modern Orthodoxy in Israel” p.1
 Liebamn, C.S. “Orthodoxy in American Jewish Life”, p. 91
 Weiss, A “Open Orthodoxy! A Modern Orthodox Rabbi’s Creed” p. 1
 Helmreich, W.B. and Shinnar, R. “Modern Orthodoxy in America: Possibilities for a Movement Under Seige” Jerusalem Letters 383 (1-Jun-1998)
 “In my humble opinion the first principle for understanding the words of our Sages is that they were experts in the law of G-d. They received, transmitted and taught His Torah, commandments, laws and statutes but they were not necessarily experts in science, mathematics, astronomy or medicine – except when it was relevant to knowing and observing the commandments of the Torah. We do not find that secular knowledge was transmitted at Mt. Sinai. The greatest of our Sages know the wisdom and the science according to what was accepted as true by the leading secular scientists of the day.” Shapiro, Marc B. “Between the Yeshiva World and Modern Orthodoxy” The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization CHECK NUMBERING
 Grayel, S. “A History of the Jews” Meridian equals of these scholars but did not transcend the secular knowledge of their day.” (Letter on Agada, p 9-10) CHECK QUOTE
 For example, he was well known to admire the Alps as an example of the grandeur of G-d’s creation. He also favoured the use of choirs during prayers because of the enhancement to the beauty of the service that they offered.
 Shapiro, Marc B. “Between the Yeshiva World and Modern Orthodoxy” The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization
 Hence the Haskalah was tremendously successful in damaging the religious population of Eastern Europe while in Germany, R. Hirsch’s approach kept the Reform Movement from wreaking similar harm.
 “Collected Writings of Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch” vii 39-40 (New York, 1992)
 See 11.
 Don’t you just hate people who put lots of endnotes into an essay which means you have to flick the pages back and forth to keep up with whatever they’re trying to tell you? Yeah, me too.
 Cf. Avos 2:16
 And that description is important because, of course, there are many scholars and fools on both sides of the fence
 Weiss, A “Open Orthodoxy! A Modern Orthodox Rabbi’s Creed” p. 3
 For example, the recent controversy over whether Metzitzah B’Peh, the sucking of the blood from the wound caused by ritual circumcision, must be done by the mohel putting his mouth directly on the infant’s organ. Within the response literature, based on the relevant discussion in B. Shabbos, there are positions both demanding it and being lenient by allowing a pipe to interpose between the mouth and the organ. After a number of newborns circumcised by a particular mohel in the New York area developed neonatal herpes, Rav Moshe D. Tendler attempted to rein in the practice for health reasons. The controversy made its way to the highest chareidi circles in Israel where the final daas Torah pronouncement was made banning any form of metzitah b’peh other than the traditional direct one and declaring this to be the only acceptable form.
 Sacks, J. “Traditional Alternatives: Orthodoxy and the Future of the Jewish People” p.136
 Waxman, C.I. “Dilemmas of Modern Orthodoxy: Sociological and Philosophical” p.6
 Lockshin, M. “A Modern Orthodox Manifesto” Canadian Jewish News March 1, 2007
 Hirsch, R.S.R. “Judaism Eternal” Vol II, P. 26
 Devarim 30:20
 Yehoshua 1:8
 Avos 5:28
 Bereishis 1:28
 Avos 5:22
 Translation from Eidensohn, D. “Daas Torah” Emunah Press, Jerusalem 2005
 Orchos Tzadikim, 9th Gate – The Gate of Happiness