Monday, January 5, 2015

W(h)ither Modern Orthodoxy?- Does Modern Orthodoxy still speak to us?

During the approximately two years during which I went through a crisis of faith, I spent a lot of time reading, as well as having conversations with many rabbis, academics and friends, in the hope of finding my way back to faith. Perhaps the most important piece of advice that I received was to go through the aspects of Judaism with which I was struggling, and figure out which, in fact, were essential to Jewish belief. Ultimately, I came to recognize that there was a much wider range of theological options available that could fit within a world of belief.

There was a time when Modern Orthodoxy was less doctrinaire. A perusal through the index of the issues of Tradition from the ‘60s and 70s shows that both in terms of content and writers, Modern Orthodoxy of that time had more theological room than does the Modern Orthodoxy of today. I will leave it to sociologists to evaluate the reasons for the change. Instead, I will talk about a way that we might go back to those more open days.

I begin with a discussion of a theory put forth by Thomas Kuhn about paradigm shifts in science. For those who are unaware of the theory, the following is a summation of the theory from an article by Rabbi Dr. Joshua Berman of Bar Ilan University:

A mature science, according to Kuhn’s hypothesis, is one in which there exists a dominant paradigm—a conceptual framework that informs the scientist of what to expect as he engages in his or her scientific inquiry. It delineates the parameters of what can and cannot be considered acceptable solutions to a problem. Only that which conforms to the paradigm is deemed true. The training of scientists consists of inculcating them with the tenets of the paradigm, the rules of the game, before they embark on their own research. To engage in “normal science” is to endeavor to tie up loose ends and adjust the paradigm to reality. Paradigms introduce a sociological factor into science. To practice science is to engage the mysteries of the natural order not in unmediated fashion, but through the lens of the paradigm, itself a human construct. This dogmatic aspect determines who is considered “in” in the scientific community, and who is “out.”
Inevitably, results will begin to arise that are inconsistent with the reigning paradigm. At first these will be dismissed and faults will be found either with the method employed or with the assumptions upon which they rest. As these bothersome findings persist and accumulate, however, a creative scientist will come forward to challenge the axioms of the paradigm and propose a new one that encompasses the “problematic” results as well in a systematic fashion. Because the old paradigm is but a human construct, it is subject to human foibles: its articulators will typically dig in their heels, and the new paradigm will gain traction only as the masters of the old one pass from the scene. New paradigms do gain influence, but only slowly

Essentially, once a theory is accepted by the scientific community, it becomes a type of dogma which can not be challenged. Those who offer such challenges are ignored and/or rejected. Only when the challenges become strong enough, does the theory change. Although we are talking about religion and not science, the comparison is instructive. Jewish theology changes with the times. Throughout our history, challenges from within Judaism or from other religions have caused Jewish theology to pivot, as it were. While traditionalists at first fought back, eventually the pressure became great enough that change occurred. Even then, the change happened slowly, and usually, almost imperceptibly.

We live in a time when belief in Jewish dogma is very challenging. In various ways, scholarly or not, there have been those who have talked of these challenges and offered new ideas. As in Kuhn’s theory, these attempts have been rebuffed. Traditionalists have dug in their heels and insisted that certain beliefs are essential and not up for debate. Still, the attempts to spell out a theological approach that works for modern sensibilities, speak to some of the angst that is felt by many in our community.

So where do we go from here? Ideally religious thinkers from Yeshiva University, the institution that for many represents Modern Orthodoxy, would step into the void and try to address some of these concerns in a theologically sophisticated manner. Sadly, this has not been the case. Many of the roshei yeshiva are firmly in the traditionalist camp, and consider certain beliefs and concepts to be inviolable. Those roshei yeshiva and professors who are more open to modern sensibilities, have, to some degree, both in recorded lectures and in writing, addressed some of these issues, but there is yet to be an attempt at spelling out a full theology from those within the walls of YU. To some degree, some of the rabbis and students from Yeshivat Chovevei HaTorah have tried to bring about a paradigm shift, but in ignoring the idea contained in Kuhn’s warning that change occurs slowly in science,a truth that applies to the world of Orthodoxy as well, these attempts have failed to gain significant traction. I would hope that the leadership of YCT would think about why a community that hungers for a sophisticated more modern approach, has not taken to their approach. In America, new attempts are coming from the likes of Michael Fishbane, while the Modern Orthodox world fails to produce works along the lines of Rav Shagar’s works, which show how Orthodoxy might deal with the challenges of Post-Modernism.

Who, if anyone, will step into this void? If Modern-Orthodoxy is to stay relevant, a work will have to be produced that shows a level of theological sophistication, while, at the same time speaks to the layman. A new paradigm is needed for those, like myself, who passionately belief in the world of Torah and Mitzvohs, while at the same time recognize the challenges of the times in which we live.


  1. I'm afraid to comment about this post, since there were no specific examples given. To paraphrase Orwell, all inviolable concepts are equal, but some are more equal than others.
    For example, in science you might want the roundness of Earth or the law of gravity to be considered inviolable, while being happy that Einstein convinced scientists that matter equals energy, or that Lemaitre & Hubble convinced scientists the universe was expanding.
    But herein lies the nub: It was scientists that slowly & begrudgingly changed their paradigm, not readers of the journals Nature or Science or Cell. To follow the analogy, those changes would need to be acceptable to, & accepted by, those encyclopedic minds that you consider to be in the traditionalist camp. Because a Rabbi has done wonderful things for Soviet Jewry, or has neutralized Carmelite nuns at Auschwitz, doesn't make him the ideal instrument to change things rooted in millennia of Jewish scholarship, even if he gathers like-minded geniuses around himself.
    The Arizal needed the approbation of Rabbi Moshe Cordovero for his revolution. Rabbi Yisroel Baal Shem Tov needed to establish himself as both a Talmid Chochom & a tzaddik for his. Rabbi Yisroel Salanter needed to be near the pinnacle of Vilna scholarship to push mussar, and Rabbi Chaim Brisk had to be dean of Volozhin to have his systematization of sevara adopted.
    Within Modern Orthodoxy, without giants like Rav Shmuel Mohliver, Rabbi S.R. Hirsch, Rav Dovid Zvi Hoffman, Rav Kook & Rabbi J.B. Soloveichik, it would never have been able to become an "entity" within the Orthodox world. If it would've been an Orthodox "movement", it would've been just a catch-all defined negatively as "anyone not Chasidic, Yeshivish or Sephardic."

    But ultimately, I question your assumption that if the bounds of MO scholarship are constrained, it will lead to a lack of relevance to the young (more than it is now, with many of the young turning Right or Left).
    The essential underpinnings of MO stay the same: Strong connection to Israel & Zionism, strong religious & secular education, engaging the non-Orthodox & non-Jewish worlds, etc. Israel is still beleaguered, a strong secular education is still the primary path to prominence in America, being engaged in the "world" is still a powerful challenge & mandate.
    So, in my guesstimation, the few towering intellectuals within the MO world that feel stifled will break out those old Tradition magazines, then tackle the new issues for themselves using the well-established rules & sensibilities of those that came before.

  2. (Take 3 on writing this comment...)

    You asked me for my opinion, but I'm not sure how happy you're going to be with it.

    First, I don't think Modern Orthodoxy ever spoke to the vast majority of its adherents. The Rav spoke very much from the first person. Which is touching and emotionally moving, but doesn't jump the gap between RYBS and the typical Mod-O Jew.

    So, for example, his halakhic man is a synthesis between creative man and religious man. Which may be the way halakhah looks to the poseiq, such as himself. Most people, however, are uncomfortable even with the range of right answers offered by the Arukh haShulchan (or if they learn Shulchan Arukh starting with the Beis Yoseif, and/or with the acharonim on the sides). Even within O, most observant Jews want the certainty of a Mishnah Berurah, Qitzur SA or English guide. "Creativity" simply doesn't describe how they interact with halakhah. It makes for beautiful platitudes, but not life guidance.

    More to the point, RYBS's ramatayim tzofim (roughly "twin peaks"), or YU's Torah uMada (same idea, different words, IMHO) is very much about academia. It's not about embracing Western Culture, it's about the holiness of all knowledge, and thus gaining from Western Knowledge. There is an assumption that one comes with the other, but it needn't.

    In fact, in a process that is only accelerating, the gap between "normal" western society and western wisdom of the "mada" sort or the high western culture of "derekh eretz" (as in R' Hirsch's "Torah im Derekh Eretz") is large and growing. Being a normal American doesn't actually give access to that which the Rav lauded.

    And I think the reality that what's worth getting from the west is further and further from the common marketplace is why we find an increasing number of ideologically MO Jews wearing black fedoras and other symbols of trying to stand apart, to not fully integrate into western society. Because in truth on can stand on the side of western norm and reach academia and high culture just as well as someone more westernized in the common culture sense.

    Those old tradition magazines didn't actually reflect the diversity of the masses. First, the masses didn't bother reading them. A fact we still see today -- MO is putting out numerous books based on the notes of the Rav, and more siddurim and machazorim than a shul could choose among, but no general reading for the 95% of the target audience. There is no MO Torah for people who aren't going to wade through neo-Kantian terminology and/or can't follow a bit of Brisker lomdus. (I'm exaggerating; there is Torah-to-Go, but it's hard to think of much else.)

    Anyway, the job of a journal, in any field, appears to be to give people a platform for stretching the limits. The vanilla doesn't seem to get published. Thus, it's hard to judge the bredth of MO thought by what makes it into Tradition. Nor do I see less variety today than in decades past. It's not that long ago that the 13 iqarim were debated in its pages, or that is carried the proposal that the flood was regional.

    But again, in terms of reaching the vast majority of the target audience, Tradition doesn't do it. You need to look at lighter fair, like Jewish Action.

    But all-in-all, I think MO never reached its masses. There is a reason why the Rav's subtle message of dialectic tension as one walked a tightrope between twin peaks played out among so many as a compromise between halakhah and normalcy, with many practices becoming norm despite being known to be contra-halachic.

    And while MO never succeeded in disseminating its message, that message is a way of living in a world that the west is leaving behind. I'm not sure we should really be trying to see how to make MO work as much as watch which successors emerge.

    1. As an example of how Western Culture has shifted away from the world Mod-O was created to live in:

      Notice that the battle over freedom of expression vs. barbarism is happening over "Charlie Hebdo", a sophomoric magazine of alleged humor. And the previous big battle? "The Inteview".

      The battle for what influences the Western mind has shifted from expressions of high culture to pieces that aim at "lowest common denominator" entertainment.

      I think it points to the growing distance between being "normal" and gaining from what Yefes has built. It's harder to justify living more like the mainstream as a way of internalizing refinement or wisdom.

      That said, the distrust of Yefes that allows chareidi rabbis to question things as objectively valuable as vaccines or psychotherapy is also unwarranted. The wisdom of the West isn't lost, but it isn't in the hands of the cultural normals either.

  3. Great essay. I think the problem is that MO was never truly defined within any lines. You have camps that might be lax on Tzinius and you have hardcore yeshivish YU peeps. While Rav Kook and Rav Hirsch were mentioned above, some will say they were not MO at all. We don’t have the scholarship you pine for, but we have seforim, literature, and even a culture within the various MO camps. For years people have bemoaned lack of leadership, but if you look at each camp, there are leaders within. The unified MO world we all want would mean different sides accepting the other. No achdus=no unification.

  4. Replies
    1. Haha im the guy reading the Rav in that keeps cropping up in articles about modern orthodoxy

  5. Pesach, at a Beit Hillel conference I recently argued the following: That until a generation ago Israeli Religious Zionism was extremely ideological, while diaspora Modern Orthodoxy was mostly pragmatic. The latter did draw lines in the sand when it felt it had to (because that is what diaspora "Orthodoxy" is ultimately all about), but it still tried to be as inclusive as it could. Like the old "Tradition".

    But over the past generation things have changed. Israeli Religious Zionism, which used to define itself against a secular Israeli society that was itself highly ideological on the one hand, and against the intensely ideological Israeli charedi world on the other hand, watched with pleasure as the former became less ideological and more traditional. When that happened, Religious Zionism could begin to see itself not as a movement or as a מגזר, but instead as a natural part of general Israeli society (as opposed only to the charedim and the Arabs).

    In Modern Orthodoxy the opposite happened, precisely because the Torah world grew strong. When weak (until the 1980s) it had every reason to try to be as inclusive as it could. But when feeling mighty it no longer had a reason to try to be inclusive, and now tends to draw its lines in ways that give power to those who do the line drawing. There is obviously a political dimension to that aspect, which has to do with the people who took power at RIETS after the Rav zt"l was no longer effective there.

    A final point is that Religious Zionism doesn't include the charedim: It defines itself against them. But diaspora "Orthodoxy" does include the charedim, and thus even the "modern" part finds itself making accomodations for their views.

    In any case, Israeli Religious ZIonism is far more inclusive t0oday than is mainstream diaspora Modern Orthodoxy.