Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Toward a Modern Orthodox Ideology

A dozen years ago, a rabbi who was among the founders of Edah explained to me that Edah was meant to develop an ideology for Modern Orthodoxy. As he put it, the vision of Modern Orthodoxy cannot be, “I’m Modern Orthodox because I go to shul and I go to movies.”

A dozen years later, I am told that Edah, for better or for worse, no longer exists. In the meantime, Modern Orthodoxy, for many of its adherents as well as opponents, still lacks a formal ideology. And I agree with that rabbi – this movement needs an ideology.

Movies or Israel, Kashrut or Secular Education or Women’s Issues, no matter the topic, the choices which guide our lives must derive from a sound philosophy. Without such a driving engine, our religious practice, and even belief, are a function of our needs/wants rather than religious tradition and teachings, and that’s no way to run a movement.

But I think such an ideology is within reach, if we first define the term Modern Orthodox itself.

As I understand it (and some people might not even consider me Modern Orthodox in the first place, so take this with a grain of salt) "Modern Orthodoxy" describes an Orthodoxy which absorbs what we believe to be valuable in the Modern ideological world, if and only if those valuable ideas jive with our Orthodox tradition.

Or to borrow from R’ Shimshon Raphael Hirsch’s introduction to Horeb: Orthodoxy is שמעתתא and Modernity is אגדתא. Modernity provides insight into Orthodoxy, but only when it does not conflict with that Orthodoxy.

Given that definition, I would suggest that an ideology of Modern Orthodoxy should be composed of the basic primacy of Orthodoxy, as well as the ideas we have embraced from Modernity.

To illustrate, here are three modern isms which Modern Orthodoxy has embraced, having found their basis within Orthodoxy as well:

Universalism, in my usage, implies an embrace of the world as a whole, in the recognition that all human beings are created in the special image assigned to them by Gd (Tzelem Elokim).
This modern idea, rooted in Enlightenment-era philosophy, leads to the conclusion that all human beings constitute a family of some sort, and it also promotes the idea that all human beings may have some lesson to teach me.
This idea is manifest in Modern Orthodox ideas of:
religious tolerance;
equal opportunity for religious education and religious engagement;
engagement with society;
study of both Jewish and secular wisdom.


Self-Determination, here, refers to the right and responsibility of any individual or collective to determine their future path.
This modern idea, which has its roots in centuries-old political theory, teaches that if we wish to have a better lot we ought to take charge of creating that better lot for ourselves. Lack of control is the result of my own failure to create my own destiny.
This concept plays out in Modern Orthodox ideas of:
Political action.

Rationalism, as defined by Vernon Bourke, is an approach in which “the criterion of the truth is not sensory but intellectual and deductive.
This idea is less modern than the previous two, but it has gained significant ground in the public mind in recent centuries. It demands of us that we detemine truth based upon observable reality.
This concept generates Modern Orthodox ideas of:
Serious study of Jewish tradition, from text;
Adherence to text over tradition;
Secular study;
Skepticism toward mysticism.

Note, though:
While all three of these ideas have clear antecedents in both תורה שבכתב and תורה שבעל פה (the Written and Spoken Torah), nonetheless, they are not consistent with every aspect of Torah.
Universalism runs afoul of the particularism which drives laws governing ribbit, avdut and more. It also conflicts with mystical ideas, embraced by Kuzari as well as Chassidut, of the special character of the Jewish neshamah.
Self-Determination conflicts with some applications of bitachon (trust in Gd) and the expectation that we will rely on Gd to assign us our destiny.
Rationalism, unchecked by loyalty to tradition and revelation, risks violating the basic principle that Modernity must conform with Orthodoxy.

So that's a start. Universalism, Self-Determination and Rationalism, within the context of a robust Orthodoxy, are but a few pieces of a Modern Orthodox ideology; can you identify more?


  1. what about feminism?

    the growing trend for Modern Orthodox women's "rights" within the context of Halacha.

  2. Hi Shorty (no insult intended!),
    I see Feminism as a function of Universalism, which is why I included it under "equal opportunity for religious education and religious engagement."
    As I understand it, Feminism emerged from a universalist view that men and women are both created b'tzelem Elokim, and have personal relationships with Gd.
    How do you see it?

  3. I agree with you...that feminism is about men=women

    My personal view on some modern feminism is that although fundamentally in the eyes of Hashem women and men are both the same, from a spiritual, physical, practical...they are different. We think differently, we interact differently, we physically look different.

    To ignore those difference in order to make everything "the same"...i don't know...i think it would take away from the spiritual experiences for men and women.

    I think women "confuse" secular equivalency with spiritual. I think some of them feel that the lack of minyan or tallis means somehow they are inferior, the same way that a lower salary would. That is simply not the case.

    I can go on and on.

  4. Without such a driving engine, our religious practice, and even belief, are a function of our needs/wants rather than religious tradition and teachings, and that’s no way to run a movement.

    Wait, you're saying that the Reform approach won't work? ;)

  5. What about democracy? For American Jews, who take it for granted as the "right" way of doing things, merging that with rabbinic authority is an interesting challenge.

  6. former allentownerFebruary 4, 2009 at 5:26 PM

    a few comments:

    you seem to imply that Modern Orthodoxy is a breakaway from "regular" orthodoxy.

    nothing can be further from the truth!

    the other orthodoxies -- i.e., various forms of charedi orthodoxies, are breakaways from time honored traditions of judaism, for various (mostly valid) reasons (but they dont necessarily have to lead to charedism; they can just as easily lead to Modern Orthodoxy.)

    and of course there are some versions of modern and charedi orthodoxies (the form you imply you are sometimes considered, chardal, modern-machmir, etc).

    i remember r berman's (edah) predecessor going on a tirade to distinguish modern orthodoxy from non (or lesser) observance of judaism. should also be mentioned in a post such as yours.

    note: i only capitalized Modern Orthodox to distinguish it from RSRH, who is considered the first modern (but not necessarily Modern) orthodox rav. of course, his version of orthodoxy no longer exists, having been subsumed by lakewood, per last years debate in kaj-washington heights. but that is another topic beyond the scope of this blog.

  7. Shorty-
    I agree. Universalism must not be confused with Uniformism; the idea that everyone shares certain central characteristics does not dictate that they share all characteristics.

    I agree that it is quite the challenge; I suppose I should list that as an outgrowth of Universalism, since Universalism is surely the root of modern democracy. (As opposed to earlier, Greek democracy, which was not as universalist in nature.)

    I think we are talking about two separate animals. When I use the term "Modern Orthodoxy" I mean, specifically, Orthodoxy which seeks, actively, to blend in Modern ideas.
    Those of us who support MO believe that this is true to tradition - but the result of that blending will absolutely not look like older applications of Orthodoxy.

  8. Great post. Of course, a term like "Modern Orthodox" is probably broader than just one post. Your quote from the intro to Horeb was golden!

  9. I think it's important not to overemphasize the 'modernity' in Modern Orthodoxy — my version of MO ideology believes that Judaism is compatible with the positive and neutral features of *all* human civilizations, not just the Post-Enlightenment West in which we live.

  10. from the linked-to old post:
    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 think that "(and women)" up there may very well put a huge neon flashing "Modern Orthodox here" arrow on your black hat.

  11. Rabbi-

    I certainly understand where you're coming from when you claim that MO should only incorporate aspects of modern culture which "jive" with Jewish tradition. However, I believe that this is an oversimplification of the ideology, and of what should lead to a true understanding of the dvar Hashem.

    Just as one example, modern science, something that is certainly incorporated in any MO worldview, appears to contradict many areas of traditional Judaism. If we were to simply reject science as incompatible, and claim that it should therefore not be a part of our program, we would be missing out on discovering the true secrets of the Torah, and a proper understanding of it.

    The same can be said for other pursuits that are viewed as important in the MO world, while rejected (or perhaps simply ignored) in Haredi society- i.e. archeology, history, use of modern literary tools, etc. Of course, these are not "-ism's" but nevertheless are valuable tools learned from the modern world which enhance our religious experience.

  12. Neil-

    1. Why is that limited by the Modern?
    2. Of course, I will define "positive/neutral" based on Torah, so that statement becomes a tautology.

    1. I agree that it's an oversimplification; this is, after all, a blog post...
    2. Are those valuable tools not incorporated under the basic theme of Rationalism? Or, to put it differently: I believe that the reason we try to incorporate those tools is because of our acceptance of Rationalism.

  13. 1. Why is that limited by the Modern?
    2. Of course, I will define "positive/neutral" based on Torah, so that statement becomes a tautology.

    1. Some people think that's what 'Modern' means (and also think that the ideas that underly Modern Orthodoxy were only recently made up) — and i've seen many people, both MO and almost-MO, grant some kind of essential priority to Western Civilization over other human cultures, as if it's the only worthwhile culture to integrate with and learn from. Sometimes it can reach a level of racism.
    2. How is it a tautology? because we're judging the features of other cultures based on Judaism's terms?

  14. Steg-
    1. I see. That's one element I was trying to clarify in my definition of MO - that "modern" is not a description of Orthodoxy, but rather it is a description of the ideals which MO Jews try to absorb into Orthodoxy.

    2. I mean that because we are saying that the ideas which are worth absorbing into Orthodoxy are ideas which Orthodoxy deems neutral/positive.

  15. former allentownerFebruary 6, 2009 at 2:18 PM

    Those of us who support MO believe that this is true to tradition - but the result of that blending will absolutely not look like older applications of Orthodoxy.

    February 4, 2009 6:03 PM

    neither will charedi versions of orthodoxy look like older applications of Orthodoxy.

  16. It's nice to know that we Conservative Jews aren't the only ones having difficulty developing an ideology. :)

    Self-determination may also be a factor in what I perceive as a preference, among many Modern Orthodox Jewish men, for working for a living, as opposed to spending decades in full-time study programs (kollel, etc.). As far as I can determine (since I'm an outsider), Modern Orthodoxy does *not* preach that a man must choose to study Torah full-time, as opposed to supporting himself and his family, in order to be an observant Jew.

    And I don't think a guy would get weird looks at a Modern Orthodox synagogue for wearing--gasp!--a multi-colored kippah s'ruga, either. :)

    Sadly (from my perspective), the jury's still out on the acceptance of women's tefillah groups. :(

  17. Hi Shira,
    Thanks for your thoughts on this. I'm not sure whether the drive for earning a living is from self-determination or rationalism; it may be a bit of both.

    WTGs are an issue because of a separate problem, which I have not really addressed here: Defining "Orthodoxy" itself...