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.