Modern Orthodoxy – Can We Have It All?


Below is a link to an article from  colleague, Rabbi Dr. Jeffrey Woolf who is a Senior Lecturer in the Talmud Department at Bar Ilan University. His article uses the recent participation of Esther Petrack on America’s Next Top Model to focus us on an important issue facing Modern Orthodoxy.  Esther comes from a Modern Orthodox background.  You can find the article here. –

I think Rabbi Woolf, who is a Modern Orthodox Jew makes a very good point and challenges the Modern Orthodox camp in a serious way.

Excerpt from the Tablet Magazine article on Esther Petrack.

After letting Esther say a bit about herself—namely, that she was born in Jerusalem—Ty Ty asked her about her Orthodox Jewish practice. “Do you honor the Sabbath?”

“Yes I do,” Esther responded, proceeding to explain the rules regarding the usage of electricity, computers, cell phones, and cars on Friday night and Saturday. Tyra sternly informed her that ANTM contestants work all the time, seven days a week. (I never realized that modeling was so urgent!) Would Esther, Tyra wanted to know, be able to adhere to the ANTM work schedule? Her Jewish identity was all of a sudden squarely on the spot, not unlike that of her Biblical namesake….” (for the full article follow this link –

3 Responses to Modern Orthodoxy – Can We Have It All?

  1. alice says:

    You can’t have it all. you have to choose: orthodoxy or feminism? Orthodoxy or liberalism? They are not equal, no matter how hard you try, one is supreme. I decided to choose my feminism and liberalism over my orthodoxy.

    • Jacquelyn says:

      While no one can “have it all,” orthodoxy and feminism are not mutually exclusive. The fact that (most or many) orthodox feminists don’t advocate that a change be made a very short time after the issue arises (in most cases) does not invalidate their work toward changing women’s standing within halachic parameters. This is not to say that a person must choose to follow an admittedly complicated path, such as that of being a traditional Jew and a feminist. I am also not inclined toward apologetics on either side of the issue. My point is that that orthodoxy and feminism need not be mutually exclusive choices.

  2. Michael Stein says:

    Nothing new under the sun. Hazal noted that Jews engaged in idol worship in order to pursue forbidden sexual relations. Tanach is filled with complaints about Jewish infidelity to God caused by material wealth. We have never lacked justifications for compromising on our fidelity to the ways of our forefathers. Some of those justifications are self-serving (like wanting even more material wealth than one already has) and some of those justifications are difficult to argue with — like anger and despair over seemingly endless Jewish suffering in galut. Some of those justifications are intellectually vapid, and some are serious reactions to the very serious challenges modernity has posed to religious faith.

    I don’t view this issue as a uniquely modern orthodox problem at all. It is a challenge for all segments of the religious community in all generations to identify what it is that Judaism demands (not as easy as it sounds) and then observe those demands despite the sacrifices that might be necessary, and despite the potential conflicts that will arise with other cultural influences in our lives.

    It’s easy to bash non-serious modern orthodox for treating observance as a lifestyle that must be convenient to work for them. But Jews of all sorts manipulate religious observance into what they want it to be, by ignoring the inconvenient parts.

    I think a serious Modern Orthodox approach does to a certain extent exacerbate the problem. A serious encounter with modernity will result in exposure to viewpoints that are very hard to refute, and that make religious commitment harder to maintain, certainly on a communal level (if everyone were exposed to those ideas), and even on an individual level.

    For example, it is easy but facile to pretend as if Biblical scholarship’s claims over the past 150 years or so are spurious and meaningless. Breuer, Cassuto and Kugel are just three serious and observant thinkers who are brave enough to acknowledge that the claims are strong. Where do you go from there? Not easy.

    Also, it is painful to realize that to the extent orthodoxy of any brand has made progress in the past 100 years in improving the status of women, it has been almost entirely in response to the broader culture, and not as a leader in that regard. Where are our leaders with vision who want to make orthodoxy into a leading ethical force, not merely a laggard? Having abandoned the leadership position, we then admit that other ethical systems are at least in some regards at least teaching us something, rather than vice versa. How do we retain our faith in Judaism if on critical ethical issues of the day we are leaders and not followers? I’m not saying that rejection is a necessary conclusion here, just that grappling with these issues makes observance harder — it would be easier to take the view that Judaism in in all ways radically superior to all alternatives, at least in meaningful, ethical regards. But how does a Jew who interacts seriously with the modern world maintain such an untenable belief?

    So, I view the reaction to this one young woman’s comments as a tempest in a teapot. Of course it’s sad, but when the compromise is driven by such superficial concerns, it fails to raise interesting questions.

    As for the prior post — by Alice — I think it is not quite so black and white — if our religious identity and learning is the primary force in structuring our ethics and worldview, it is still possible to have other influences alter our thinking on various issues. You might not end up with “pure” Orthodoxy, “pure” liberalism, or “pure” feminism, but I believe that “pure” anything is an illusion, and something of a cop out. Life is full of compromises, and world views can legitimately contain compromises as well (to a point).

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