Educating for Modern Orthodoxy

February 1, 2001
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Sally R. Mayer

Rabbi Saul Berman speaks eloquently of the “Modern Orthodox experiment” taking a dif-ficult path, one that requires a constant balance of Jewish values with the integration of the good that the world has to offer. Indeed, as Modern Orthodoxy embraces the world, it necessarily opens itself up as well to certain challenges. As one who has taken this path, it feels not only worth the challenge but also the natural path to choose. Modern Orthodoxy offers a path that responds to the complexity of my world and provides answers that resonate without requiring me to bifurcate my life between the religious and the secular.

A major challenge facing Modern Orthodoxy is educating our youth in its ideals and values. As a Talmud teacher at a Modern Orthodox yeshiva high school for girls, I find that students often view the movement as a compromise rather than a positive ideological choice. In one conversation with students, I found that many view Hassidism as the truly authentic Judaism, while those who are not “strong enough” choose the Modern Orthodox route. Perhaps because the media refers to Hassidim as “ultra-Orthodox,” our children believe that we practice a diluted version. What contributes to this lack of self-confidence?

The first factor is a difficulty inherent in Modern Orthodox philosophy. Modern Orthodoxy does not have many simple answers. For example, its view of relationships with non-Orthodox denominations is complex and potentially difficult to explain to a child. If, as Rabbi Berman writes, “we profoundly and irreconcilably differ on many theological and halakhic matters,” then a student might wonder how we can cooperate or value the contributions that they make to the Jewish world. To take another example, a student once asked me how I can learn and teach Gemara when the Gemara itself outlines a prohibition against women learning it. And when I explain the many centuries of development of this particular halakha, they ask me why these changes have occurred while others, like the Talmud’s requirement for a mehitza in a synagogue, have not. Modern Orthodoxy does have cogent answers to these questions, but they are complex and require careful thought and study. Students who cannot understand or who do not devote the time to studying these questions are left with the feeling that this ideology is fraught with contradictions; the legitimacy of another ideology that gives clearer, more obviously consistent answers, rises in their eyes.

The second factor that contributes to our youth’s lack of confidence in Modern Orthodoxy’s legitimacy is the fact that the term “Modern Orthodox” means different things to different people. To many, it is the positive philosophy described earlier in this essay; to others, it is a sociological description of people whose observance is lax. I have heard countless times the expression, “he’s very modern” used as a euphemism for “he is not strictly observant of all halakhot.” This sense, that the more modern one is, the more lax his or her attitude toward halakha, does not engender respect among our young people for Modern Orthodoxy.

As teachers and parents, we should discuss with our children the tenets of Modern Orthodoxy, encourage their questions, and respond to them with honesty and rigor. Students who feel that Modern Orthodoxy is nothing but a compromise will ultimately either reject it (whether moving to the right or to the left) or live a life in which they are embarrassed by the religious lifestyle they lead. If we want Modern Orthodox youth to find Judaism inspiring and uplifting, we need to develop an understanding of our ideology, and through that understanding, a sense of comfort and pride.

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Sally R. Mayer teaches Talmud and halakha at Ma'ayanot Yeshiva High School in Teaneck, NJ and serves as Education Director at The Jewish Center in Manhattan.

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