Monday, January 28, 2008

Flipped Out: Life on the Fringes of Modern Orthodoxy

My “Modern Orthodoxy” has been called into question in personal conversation a couple of times recently, and each time it was odd and unsettling.

It felt odd, because I never would have thought the question would unsettle me. I’ve never liked the “Modern Orthodox” label. It feels somewhat pretentious - “Look at us, we’ve upgraded the system” – even though it usually isn’t meant that way.

And it was unsettling, because I didn’t think there should have been a question. I was educated in Modern Orthodox schools – Hebrew Academy of Long Beach, MTA for high school, Yeshiva University. I grew up in a Modern Orthodox home, in a Modern Orthodox shul with a Modern Orthodox rabbi. I believe in advanced Jewish education for women, in Zionism, in creating kiddush HaShem through involvement in the broader, secular world. I listen to Weezer and Linkin Park. I am part of a Jewish clergy group that runs the gamut, and occasionally speak in reform and conservative temples. I believe in Jewish unity beyond my own narrow frequency on the denominational spectrum.

So I’ve always taken it as a given that I fit into the “Modern Orthodox” mold, to one extent or another, and I don’t think there should be any question.

But then came the questions - not from people who really knew me, but from people who met me for the first time and read a lot into what they saw. I wear a hat for davening. I have a beard. I put my tallis over my head. I believe that some men (and women) should spend their lives in learning Torah. I am not a fan of women’s tefillah groups. I am not willing to support Modern Orthodox schools to the exclusion of supporting all others.

And so, it seems, some have decided that I no longer fit into Modern Orthodoxy.

I half-expect MTA to go back and crop me out of the yearbook photo.

All of this comes to mind as I continue to mull Flipping Out, from Yashar Books.

I read this book when it first came out and recommended it to quite a few people, as a good first look at the statistics and sociology of our children’s “Year in Israel” evolution – but I felt something was missing, and I couldn’t put my finger on what it was.

I liked the statistical analysis by Rabbi Shalom Berger in the first part, and I really appreciated the perceptive psychological analysis by Rabbi Daniel Jacobson in the second part. The book captures much of what parents are wondering about, and it gives them some ideas on how to prepare for, and cope with, the changes their children will likely manifest. I would have liked to have seen more on women’s seminaries – data which the authors did indicate should be coming soon – and I would have liked to have seen more practical guidance, but beyond that I felt something substantive was missing.

Now, I think I know: The book is missing an in-depth contrast between the religious milieu in which today’s teens live, and that of their parents thirty to fifty years ago, when they were teens. It's not the Year in Israel - it's everything that comes before the Year.

President Joel insightfully noted in his Foreword that the year in Israel should be seen as part of an educational continuum, not an end and not an entity unto itself. It is part of a bigger picture of environment and influences and formal/informal education. Following that thought, I think any serious look at this generational shift really ought to begin by asking about the differences between the pre-Israel experiences of the parents and their children. The book does touch on these issues, such as when both Rabbi Berger and Rabbi Jacobson talk about the pre-disposition of our children for change based upon their previous educational experiences, but not in an intense way, devoting a section to this discussion.

Some examples of key areas of difference between the lives of North American Jewish youth 30-50 years ago, and the lives of today’s North American youth:

-The political and economic strength of today’s Jewish community, and a resultant sense that we can be more fully Jewish and less compromising in our integration into society;

-The influence of NCSY, as well as other groups, in giving children a strong Jewish identity;

-The ubiquity of “right wing” influences, which were once seen as anachronistic and all-but-extinct but have now become a powerful voice in North American, and world, Jewry;

-The inculcation of religious ideas, with children growing up hearing – in school, camp, Jewish music, everywhere in the Jewish world - about an emphasis on talmud torah and mitzvos and deveikus to HaShem, and then attending yeshivot where those are presented as attainable goals.

Modern Orthodoxy, in any generation, is as much a product of its surroundings as it is a product of R’ Shimshon Raphael Hirsch or Rav Soloveitchik. I believe that one of the major reasons today’s youth have a version of Modern Orthodoxy that differs from the version of their parents is simply that they live in a different world, which sets up different poles and different compromises.

This is certainly true for me. As much as my own evolution in Israel was a function of the unique experiences and relationships from which I benefited there (Yeshivat Kerem b’Yavneh), I think it was really much more a product of these surrounding factors, of my upbringing and education and world. I hope that a future version of “Flipping Out” might add that to the formula as well.


  1. You are sooooooooooooooo Modern Orthodox, it's not even funny.

  2. It's funny, I had a similar discussion with a friend tonight about what why my "covering my head w/ my tallis" is doesn't make me modern (I also rock a beard/hat and I'm currenly listening to Sonic Youth's "Daydream Nation" album as I think about finishing a post of my own).

    You hit the nail on the head, "today’s youth have a version of Modern Orthodoxy that differs from the version of their parents is simply that they live in a different world." Parents probably don't get it. Just like when we go on a road trip and my kids wake up and hear Queen or the Talking Heads. My 8 yr old can't stand secular music (97% of what I listen to is "Jewish") basically because he's grown up with Uncle Moishy and Piamenta. We and our kids are products of our "surroundings".

    A well stated post.

  3. Thanks, Neil.

    I don't blame parents for not getting it - they live in a different world, and won't see things the way their kids them. But recognizing that factor would be a good first step toward reconciliation.

  4. Thanks for the reply. Good Shabbos Kodesh.

  5. what i thought was missing from the Flipping Out study was the serious issue of realignment of community identification. just because you wear a hat it doesn't de-MO'ify you; however, wearing a black hat in order to identify with the "black hat" community, its ideals and soundbites, does realign someone's allegiances. and then when they send their children to be educated in the new community, they're effectively flipping out of their old allegiences and "switching sides". the factors the study looked at are purely cosmetic in comparison.

  6. Steg-
    Welcome to the blog!
    I hear your point, but I don't see that you could implement that in a survey. At that age, many of them don't fully comprehend why they are doing what they do, such as in taking on a black hat (or a srugah, of that matter). It's only years later, if ever, that they understand how much or little of it was peer pressure/searching for a community.