Monday, June 9, 2014

Does Modern Orthodoxy Have a Future?

In the Middle Ages two theoretical approaches to Jewish thought emerged; rational philosophy and mysticism. Although neither approach was completely new, they were “new” in the sense that they were formulated in a way that made them accessible to the average Jew (or at least, the average Jewish male). By the 14th century the two were vying for the minds and hearts of Jews across Europe. Many of the greatest and most well-known Rishonim could be found in one of the two camps. It was far from clear which approach, if any, would win the day.

Looking back from where we sit today, it's hard to imagine that the two approaches were ever on equal footing. In terms of popularity, mysticism seems to routed rational philosophy. The chassidic world, and large parts of the Sefardic and yeshivish communities follow approaches which lean heavily, if not entirely, on mystical thought. Meanwhile, books like the Moreh Nevuchim, Sefer HaIkarim, and Ohr HaShem are for the most part, absent from the yeshivah curriculum. Even Rambam's Yud Gimmel Ikkarim, survives today absent the philosophical ideas which lay behind their formulation. While some of the popularity of mystical thought can be explained by the major tragedies which occurred in our community over the past 600 years, as well as personalities like the Baal Shem Tov, the Baal HaTanya and Rav Chaim Volozhin, there seems to be something else at play. Mysticism seems to tap into some human need, in a way that rational philosophy does not. It invests halacha and tefilla with a level of significance that is not found in the rational approaches. Mysticism suggests that our actions matter in the most serious of ways. In communities where mysticism plays a significant role, there is a high level of commitment, and, often, passion.

What does this mean for those of us who are not moved by and/or can not accept the claims made by mysticism? Is there a way to create communities where Avodas HaShem is not only important, but is engaged with in a serious and passionate manner? I'm not so sure. Rabbi Norman Lamm once said that our communities should be passionately moderate and not moderately passionate. If this is indeed the goal, for the most part, we are failing. A rabbi I know once shared a story with me. He told over the story of Franz Rosenzweig in his shul. Rosenzweig, who became a serious Jewish thinker, had been ready to convert to Christianity. Shortly before his conversion, he attended a Kol Nidrei service in a Chassidic shtiebel. Rosenzweig was so moved by the experience that he decided not to to convert. The rabbi asked his congregation “If Rosenzweig had davened with us, would he have stayed Jewish”?

While, to some degree, I think the problem is worse for the Modern Orthodox communities in the diaspora, which often lose their most inspired members to aliyah, it is an issue in Israeli communities as well. A friend of mine, who lives in a community which is built near a well-respected Hesder yeshiva, bemoaned the fact that many of the teenagers of the community were less “into it” than their parents. I would also suggest that the draw of Carlebach, both in terms of music and davening, as well as other neo-Chassidic approaches suggest that the youth from moderate communities in Israel are looking for something “deeper”.

To be sure, truth is not a popularity contest, but it is time for those of us in the Modern Orthodox world to wake up and figure out what we can do to create more meaningful religious experiences for us and our children. If our approach is not able to better engage our hearts and souls, it will not matter how much it engages our minds.


  1. Mod-O's battle isn't about rational philosophy vs mysticism. RYBS's MO is an offshoot of yeshivish which differs only from the rest of yeshivish in valuing secular knowledge for more than pragmatic reasons. While R' Hirsch was a rationalist, he was also a student of the Zohar (Qabbalah as symbol system). But neo-Orthodoxy was more a valuation of western culture, and not wasn't defined by either. MO also has room for those who study the mysticism of a Rav AY Kook.

    (Sorry, but RNS's "Rationalist Judaism" blog has me frustrated with people who use these terms in such blurry ways they mean anything. And then proves the applicability of one definition to some discussion but then derive further conclusions based on applying another.)

    Anyway, MO needs to provide some religious reason to stay affiliated because its ideology doesn't provide the same social barriers to assimilation that chareidim have. No deep attachment to a uniform, nor to a specialized dialect, exclusively listening to our own music, etc...

    However, the problem is more fundamental. Western culture's valuable contributions to humanity fade further into the background of its own daily life (eg Three's Company went from being a test case for the FCC to being fodder for the family nostalgia cable station). So there is less and less "derekh eretz" to be gained by refusing those social barriers. If mada is only available in the ivory halls, then we don't need to participate on a daily or cultural level to maximize access.

    Aliyah is another factor, as you note.

    As is the number of yeshivish mechankhim in MO schools.

    And the HSs do less to inspire, relying on the "year in Israel". Meanwhile, a not-so-subtle message of the year-in-Israel phenomenon in that religion is not to be found in a sacred application of this world as in a retreat from this world to that of the yeshiva.

    But I think my first issue is the biggest. Other than our natural desire to see our offspring follow our values, do we have a real reason to further MO in the next generation? Or is it out to solve a problem that is less and less applicable to actual American life?

  2. not sure if rybs is an offshoot of yeshivish, or rybs approach was always part of the mainstream yeshivish.
    also, rybs was not an idealist, but a pragmatist. he didnt believe in a university education per se, or women learning gemara per se, but only that given the state of the world today this is what is necessary. big difference.
    as an aside, who cares what rybs believed or not at this point? isnt it mostly academic at this point?
    agree on most other points.