Orthodoxy, Modernity, and the Future

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February 1, 2001
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Norma Baumel Joseph

Surely Jonathan Sarna is correct: prophesy — whether of the triumphalist or doomsday variety — is a risky business when linked to Jewish survival. Professor Sarna is also correct in locating some of the problems that face a potent Orthodoxy: the absence of leadership, of a strategic center, and of a consensus are indicators of a serious instability and even fragility as is the question of demographic growth. On the other hand, numbers cannot tell the whole story and some of those figures can be “read” differently. The Orthodox community is gaining in strength both in ritual action and in knowledge. Today, those self identified as Orthodox practice a more uniform set of rituals and are better text educated than those of two generations ago. They are more visible and comfortable in that public visibility. Interestingly, their grandparents were less conflicted about pluralism, Zionism, and modernity. And they did not expect uniformity. The internal schisms and disputes that are bemoaned today were countenanced then as part of Jewish life.

Modern Orthodox — initially represented by Yeshiva University and its ally the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations — has seen itself, as Sarna points out, as “a movement under siege.” Although there has been a resurgence of public commitment to Modern Orthodoxy today spearheaded by organizations such as Edah (whose motto is “the courage to be modern and Orthodox”) and JOFA (Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance), the contours and content of that form of Orthodoxy are nowhere obvious. Perhaps one of the greatest obstacles to identification and growth is the lack of definition and confidence. At the four conferences held by those organizations, the familiar refrain was “It is so good/comforting to see so many people here. I did not know there were so many of us!” This reflects not only the absence of a suitable marketing strategy, but also a failure of self-confidence that arises from serious issues of ambiguity and dissension.

What does it mean to be Modern and Orthodox? As with all of Orthodoxy, the latter word indicates a complete commitment to halakha, Jewish law, and the halakhic process. It is the modern part of the equation that causes conflict and confusion. Some have even substituted other words such as centrist, open, or moderate to avoid the word modern. But the issue remains regardless of the parameters of the compound: To what degree is modern an adjective; to what degree is it determinative? What is the Orthodox position on science and secularism? How far do modern medical advances enter into and dictate halachic deliberations? How does one accept the absolute authority of halakha and its human posek in a democratic individualistic world? How should Jews relate to those who do things differently? To what degree should Jews integrate into American society – and conversely, at what level must they remain apart? Questions such as these bristle with obstacles and opportunities.

The Modern Orthodox claim that modernity enriches Jewish life. Surely examples from economic, political, medical, social, educational, and cultural domains substantiate that assertion. But that message has not been elucidated or validated. The challenge has been to find a leadership, a consensus, and an infrastructure that will maximize the integrity, vigor, and authenticity of such claims. Although there are many pulpit rabbis who claim to be modern and Orthodox, their voices have not coalesced into a convincing posture or coherent movement. They have remained divided over issues, fearful of the rightwing Orthodox, and unable to preserve community support.

The remarkable success story of Orthodoxy in the 20th century has been the democratization of Jewish education – an excellent example of the enrichment modernity brought to Jewish life. All boys and even girls are now able to go to school to “learn.” This historic innovation preserved halakhic position within a modern undertaking. Consequently, knowledgeable Orthodox Jewish women consistently contribute to the spiritual growth, intellectual integrity, social stability, and religious leadership of the movement. But the results of this process have brought new challenges. Stimulated by the current feminist movement, some knowledgeable Jewish women have begun to contest and question. If there is nothing halakhically wrong with holding a Torah or attending a women’s prayer group, why have some rabbis so vociferously objected? Can the legally permissible actually be practiced? Feminism and Judaism, like modernity and Orthodoxy, can be viewed as antagonistic opposites or as associates in a potentially beneficial merger. It could work, but the future is not confirmed.

A final note: All of Orthodoxy will be judged inadequate if there is no imminent unequivocal solution to the problem of agunot, women who cannot obtain a Jewish divorce. The failure of the halachic system and its interpreters to end this tragic misuse of law ultimately challenges every claim of any and every halachic community.

The challenges of pluralism, feminism, secularism, and Zionism are weighty but they are simply policy issues requiring discussion and clarification. Public forums, conferences, and publications launch but do not complete the process. Perhaps the more demanding factor is rooted in matters of identity, personnel, and confidence. Can Modern Orthodoxy capture the piety, passion, and conviction of the haredi world? Can its emerging leaders speak with the authority and scholarship necessary to carry the community forward? Will Modern Orthodox Jews of the 21st century be able to cultivate and promote their legacy? The precedents exist; the promise contains far-reaching blessing. The future for all of Orthodoxy and even for all Jews depends on many of these same questions. Prophets and Monday morning quarterbacks will surely tell us if these challenges can be met.

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Norma Baumel Joseph is Associate Professor of Religion at Concordia University in Montreal.

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