Modern Orthodoxy’s Parallel Universe – Rabbi Barry Gelman

 

Modern Orthodoxy’s identity crisis is manifested in compartmentalized living. It seems that many in the Modern Orthodox camp live their lives and at other times live their Jewish lives. Often the two do not resemble on another.

Here are a few examples.

In our daily lives we are committed to equality and embrace the idea that women should have all the professional and social opportunities that men have. When it comes to our Jewish life we often revert to a pre-modern approach wherein we decline to offer women religious opportunities no barred by halacha. In our secular settings we are perfectly happy to listen to a women give a lecture, but many cringe at the thought of a women delivering a Dvar Torah in shul. Consistency would demand that we either embrace the later or refrain fro listening to women speak entirely.

In our work places we interact with non Jews all the time and we accord them respect and treat them as equals. Often when talking about gentiles in the Jewish context the tone and language change and the most radical approaches to gentiles an Jewish gentile relations are accepted.

Another area is in the realm of Torah study and understanding of Jewish law. For the most part, we live a life on nuance and recognize that there is often more than one way to approach a question or solve a problem. However, when it comes to Torah study and more so when it comes to halacha, many in the Modern Orthodox community expect that there is only one approach or answer to a given question. This may stem from the growth in popularity of Daat Torah, that the great sages of the day have the single and ultimate answers to everything. Perhaps some Modern Orthodox Jews have Daat Torah envy.

The problem with this approach is that Modern Orthodoxy, at its core, recognizes that there are often a multiplicity of approaches to a given question and that more than one answer can be legitimate

These are a few examples of the parallel universes that many modern orthodox Jews live in. It seems to me that the modern orthodox lifestyle has been adopted and championed without much thought about the underlying ideals of Modern Orthodoxy. We embrace the Modern Orthodox license to watch television, attend the opera and read philosophy without coming to terms with some of the important ideological underpinnings of Modern Orthodoxy.

This “double life” cuts to the very definition of Modern Orthodoxy and raises an important question. Is Modern Orthodoxy as practiced today in America based on a series of high ideals that lead to a certain lifestyle or is Modern Orthodoxy simply the decision of Jews to live a convenient lifestyle while essentially adopting chareidi philosophical positions?

6 Responses to Modern Orthodoxy’s Parallel Universe – Rabbi Barry Gelman

  1. Hillel David Rapp says:

    Your question should be applied to Modern Orthodoxy’s development in history as much as it is to Modern Orthodoxy today. Has Modern Orthodoxy ever meant more than selectively embracing certain broad social values while remaining ambivalent to others? Has Modern Orthodoxy ever been defined by a clear approach to the Jewish legal tradition vis-a-vis modern, external values? And if it did attempt to find an approach, would it still be recognized as Orthodox?

    It seems that Modern Orthodoxy has never been much more than a community driven social contract. A community comes together by defining which elements of the Jewish legal tradition they are willing to keep (i.e. Shabbat, kosher), maintaining a sense of historical authenticity and continuity, and which elements they are willing to ignore (i.e. hair covering, kol isha) as being irrelevant in face of their modern sensibilities.

    The real question is this: Is there any recognizable majority of people living in these communities that really want to change the way things have always been? It actually works quite nicely. You get to classify yourself as Orthodox, gaining universal Jewish acceptance, an intense Jewish education that seems to be a fairly good protection against intermarriage, and at the same time you get to live a near-fully secular professional life and a religious life that doesn’t cause you too much discomfort. Do the people in Modern Orthodox communities really want to risk the recognition they have under the Orthodox umbrella in order to reconcile every single modern value? Right now, a charedi man from Monsey will come to say kaddish at Modern Orthodox shul in Manhattan. And he may not be thrilled if his child wants to marry a member of this Modern Orthodox community, but he won’t break off ties because of it. However, if this shul had a female rabbi, that could be an entirely different story.

    If there is going to be any sort of broad change in Modern Orthodoxy, it is not likely to come from a minority of rabbis and individuals seeking value consistency and intellectual honesty. It is likely come from the majority of people in a community deciding to risk the broad recognition of their status as Orthodox – and all the benefits that come along with that status – for the sake of a cause they feel collectively impelled to act upon. Communities did this once upon a time, embracing Zionism, university study, and gender equality in educational content. But they did that facing a much smaller and less empowered charedi right, and with the weight of a Soloveitchik from the heart of the Lithuanian Yeshiva elite backing up them up. If the forces of progress want to succeed, they need to convince the public that they can maintain their status as Orthodox while incorporating this particular modern value. In short, they need broader acceptance.

  2. pierre says:

    >…or is Modern Orthodoxy simply the decision of Jews to live a convenient lifestyle while essentially adopting chareidi philosophical positions?

    As an attender of a flagship MO institution in the suburbs of a major american city, I can definitely say it’s CLOSER to the latter – with the caveat that we slash “Chareidi philosophical positions” thusly;

    “Charedi/Orthoprax/apathetic philosophical positions with communal participation largely for the sake of having remotely Jewish children”.

    It’s all very sad to watch and part of why I no longer even comfortably call myself Orthodox.

  3. Apikorus says:

    Listen to the deafening silence of the Morethodox Rabbis when Rabbi Weiss is fighting the RCA for inclusion of woman Rabbahs. They are all of course RCA members but don’ have the guts to stand up for what is right. Listen to their deafening silence. Where is their support for R. Weiss? Where are their articles and blogs? They will respond that it is an internal Weiss/ RCA matter when in fact they are all wimps who look behind their backs at the RCA and Charedi elements to determine their own levels of observance. Where is the real leadership? Not on these pages…..

  4. R' Daniel says:

    Weiss did not even come up with the Rabbah term. The Israeli organization Kolech did in June 2009.

  5. Michael Stein says:

    Regarding Apikorus’s comment, I note that Rabba Sara Hurwitz is listed as a contributor to this web site. What more does he expect? That’s about as open and public a statement one could ask for. So blaming the rabbis who participate in this web site for modern orthodoxy’s lukewarm and sometimes hostile response to a woman rabbi seems off base to me.

    The thought that occurs to me as I read Rabbi Gelman’s essay is that Modern Orthodoxy’s problems are not limited to a failure to articulate “that there are often a multiplicity of approaches to a given question and that more than one answer can be legitimate.”
    I think the movement’s problems are also evident in its inability to forcefully reject certain beliefs.
    Take the age of the earth.
    I know relatively young, Modern Orthodox rabbis who are content to argue that it is acceptable to believe that the world is more than 5770 years old.
    That is a very weak statement.
    It is absolutely ludicrous to believe otherwise, and the persistence of a belief that the world is only 5770 years old makes orthodox Judaism look backwards and foolish in the eyes of the vast majority of Jews and in the eyes of the broader community of nations. It is a chillul Hashem of the first order.
    Isn’t this an example of where modern orthodox Jews need to consider the philosophical underpinnings of being modern orthodox, and argue strenuously on their behalf? Arguing that we are merely an equally acceptable view betrays profound insecurity.
    Another example would be our view of midrash. We need to forcefully assert that midrash is an allegorical and philosophical mode of expression. It is stunningly profound, and is central to understanding the wisdom of our tradition. But it is absolutely ludicrous to approach midrash with the view that the stories told literally happened. Modern orthodoxy again is defensive — arguing that it is acceptable to routinely view midrash as allegorical, but still showing respect and deference to the literalists. Modern orthodoxy must stand for something. And if it can’t forcefully state beliefs like these, then it will perpetually be on the defensive.
    Of course, forcefully stating these opinions will elicit the wrath of the right wing, where literalism prevails. Sadly, there are very few orthodox leaders willing to stand up to that pressure.

  6. Nathan says:

    It seems to me that the average Modern Orthodox Yeshivah graduate does not possess enough understanding of Torah and/or Jewish Philosophy to safely study Gentile Philosophy.

    Therefore, studying Gentile Philosophy is a big mistake for the average Modern Orthodox Yeshivah graduate.

    I saw a very intelligent Modern Orthodox Yeshivah graduate become a Baal Teshuvah for a few years, and then go off-the-derech permanently, partially because of her extensive interest in studying Gentile Philosophy.

    If permanently losing Jewsis not enough to persuade you that studying Gentile Philosophy is a big mistake, then I do not know what is.

    And even if It seems to me that the average Modern Orthodox Yeshivah graduate does not possess enough understanding of Torah and/or Jewish Philosophy to safely study Gentile Philosophy.

    Therefore, studying Gentile Philosophy is a big mistake for the average Modern Orthodox Yeshivah graduate.

    I saw a very intelligent Modern Orthodox Yeshivah graduate become a Baal Teshuvah for a few years, and then go off-the-derech permanently, partially because of her extensive interest in studying Gentile Philosophy.

    Even if studying Gentile Philosophy were permitted, we would still not receive reward for it. Why should we study something that gives us no reward, when we can study Torah and receive enternal reward?

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