Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Modern Orthodoxy

[Note: All instances of emphasis in caps are mine – Moderator]

Modern Orthodoxy was created as a response to a problem.

The problem: The new world. America. Things will be different there. America is not the place for traditional Torah Orthodoxy. In the words of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveichik: “we would be enveloped by a new economic order. The lion’s share of Jewry would be centered in the Western world, and society would be based on science, where “the sun and the moon and the eleven stars” will radiate scientific learning and technology; where every scientific discovery will be publicized in the newspapers as the greatest sensation’ where all professions will be linked to higher education . . .it was [therefore] forbidden to rely on a continuation of the status-quo . . . great changes were about to occur in Jewish life for which we would have to be prepared.” (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveichik, Five Addresses, p.31)

“There is secular culture, great and powerful technology creating wonders and changing the foundations of our life . . .this secular culture entails destructive elements, many negative and perverse aspects; it may be a blessing and a curse simultaneously, and thus AS LONG AS ONE CAN LIVE WITHOUT IT SO MUCH THE BETTER FOR THE SPIRIT – [but] finally we will have to relate to it. The confrontation will . . . take place . . . in a new and alien land where the tempo of life is greatly accelerated and fundamental changes occur daily. G-d’s decree: your seed will be strangers in a land not their own “ will be fulfilled sooner or later. In a “land not their own”, I fear, we will not be able to maintain a separation between us and the surroundings. If we will not be prepared for new conditions, the environment will swallow us! Our intellectual forces will completely assimilate. On the other hand, if we think for the future, we can plan for . . . a new economic and social order.” (ibid p.28)

“Providence demands of us now, perhaps for the first time in Jewish history, to meet the outside world . . . “ (ibid p.154).

This was not Rav Hirsch’s philosophy, this was not anything suggested before. This was, “for the first time in Jewish history”, a reluctant, kicking and screaming integration into the secular social order because it was the only way its proponents knew how to counter the terrible power of that social order. In the words of Dr. Norman Lamm, President of Yeshiva University:

“The Modern Orthodox Jew in America represents the product resulting from the confrontation between authentic halachic Judaism (sic) and Western thought. He is a novel kind of Jew, a historical experiment in the reaction to the great dialogue. His survival and success may very well have the most fatal consequences for Jewry and Judaism throughout the world.” (Dr. Norman Lamm, Faith and Doubt, p.70).

“Jewry and Judaism throughout the world” depended on the survival of this movement.

What cannot be understated are the words of Rav Soloveichik, “secular culture . . . . AS LONG AS ONE CAN LIVE WITHOUT IT SO MUCH THE BETTER FOR THE SPIRIT”. The traditional Ultra-Orthodoxy (Rav Soloveichik refers to them as “isolationist” (sic) Orthodox, or “extreme” (sic) Orthodox) would theoretically be the best choice. But in America, it can’t survive. Forced by a new “economic and social order” and high-speed advances in technology to abandon our traditional Torah Orthodoxy, which will get “swallowed” and “completely assimilated”, we must “prepare”.

“Preparations” included, among other things, creating a “new type of Talmid Chacham”, who “you will find . . . in the free professions such as medicine, science, law, and also in business” (ibid, p.155), and joining Mizrachi in the building and supporting of the State of Israel, since “we cannot pin much hope on the Diaspora. Assimilation grows daily . . .True, there is a bit of Torah in the Diaspora; however the number of Torah students in proportionately very low, and it is impossible to forecast what will happen in future generations. . . whereas in that very non-observant Israel the future of Torah and traditional Judaism is far more secure.” (ibid p.33)

“We reject the theory of isolation as dangerous for the continued existence of the people. The force of circumstances in recent years that lead to the majority of Jewish people being moved to the west and becoming connected, language-wise, economically, and politically with society in general, has rendered the approach of the isolationists suicidal. In such an approach lurks the danger that we shall dwindle to a small sect with little life expectancy” (ibid p.176)

If these words seem a bit difficult to understand today, you must appreciate them within the context of the prevailing secular social attitude during the time they were said, the early 1960’s. Many people were dazzled by the “new social and economic order” and even frightened about the future of Torah in America. The typical alter litvishe water carrier didn’t seem to fit in to the picture of what they imagined to be the technologically fueled, fast-paced, high-educated America. I once asked a Rebbi in Yeshiva University, a super chareidi of the Brisker school, who did not even speak English fluently, who was vehemently opposed to Modern Orthodoxy, why he left MTJ (a small Yeshiva in the East Side headed by Rav Moshe Feinstein ZT”L) to accept a job in YU.

“[Rabbi Soloveichik] convinced me that the future of Torah in America depends on YU”, he said in Yiddish, shaking his head in disbelief at his own decision. This was in the mid 1980’s.

Indeed, Rabbi Isaac Elchonon Theological Seminary itself was evidence of the irresistibility of the “new American social-economic order”. When REITS was founded, it was not a secular studies Yeshiva.

In 1896, Rabbi Moses Malin founded the Rabbi Isaac Elchonon Theological Seminary on the East Side of Manhattan, named after his beloved Rebbe, Rav Yitzchok Elchonon Spektor of Kovno, who passed away that year. Modeled after the Eastern European Yeshivos, the seminary’s official purpose was to educate and prepare students to become rabbis. There were no secular studies.

The school was designed to pick up where the existing East Side Yeshiva Eitz Chaim , which was founded 10 years earlier, left off. Graduates of Eitz Chaim were able to attend RIETS.

The Agudas Harabbonim, an American rabbinical organization, then endorsed RIETS. The Agudas Harabbonim saw in RIETS a counterforce against the Conservative JTS (Jewish Theological Seminary). In 1906, when RIETS moved into its new building on 156 Henry Street (next door to Eitz Chaim), the Agudas Harabbonim helped create a smicha board in RIETS, publicly denouncing the rabbis who graduated from JTS.

But the new “American social-economic order” struck, as the students demanded secular studies in RIETS. The board of directors was undecided about whether to concede. But pressure mounted, and in 1908 the board expelled 15 students for going to secular schools during time allotted for religious studies. This spurred a student strike. Many students left the school. Resulting financial pressure and bad publicity caused RIETS to compromise their principles and after three weeks, they caved in. They reaccepted the 15 expelled students and instituted a secular curriculum.

As time passed, the secularization of RIETS accelerated, due to various influences. Harry Fischel, a philanthropist, became vice president of RIETS in 1908. He was bent on step up the secularization of the institution. In 1915, with the completion of the new RIETS building, Fischel made a speech stating that his goal is to “unite Orthodox Judaism and Americanism”. The Agudas HaRabbonim were not happy.

Along with the new building in 1915, there came a new president., Dr. Bernard Revel. Revel expanded the secular curriculum at RIETS. Then, together with his Hebrew Philology teacher, Dr. Solomon Hurwitz (editor of The Jewish Forum), he decided to open a Jewish high school – the Talmudic Academy (T.A.).

TA was opened in 1916, under the leadership of Hurwitz. Hurwitz’s desire was to “bridge the gap that exists in the life of the immigrant child between ultra-oriental Judaism and an ultra-occidental Americanism” (Between Tradition and Modernity, Seth Taylor, p.11). Revel claimed he wanted to create a Torah school with American ideals. Ironically, even the non-Jewish faculty members would preach “Judaism and Americanism” in TA.

After Hurwitz’s death, Dr. Shelly Safire, biology teacher in Stuyvesant HS, became principal. Safire further expanded the secular dimension in the school. In 1921, because of the WWI immigration, the school had over 200 students.

That year, the school joined the Mizrachi Teachers Institute. Revel had hoped to attract more orthodox people with this move, since at this point many Orthodox shied away from RIETS, unable to recognize much difference between it and JTS.

In 1923, Revel unveiled a plan to create a four-year yeshiva college (sic). The board approved, and Harry Fischel donated the first $10,000 of the five million dollars needed for the project.

Plans were made for a building. It would be modeled after the architecture during the time of King Solomon. There would be 8 buildings, with twelve pillars representing the 12 tribes. However, other than a small Shul on campus, there was nothing there to make it look distinctly Jewish.

Revel died of a burst blood vessel in 1940, partly attributed to the strain of supporting his institution during the impossibly difficult financial period of the Depression and post-Depression eras.

The Agudas HaRabbonim, who originally approved revel’s appointment, now wanted someone with different ideas. They had opposed Revel’s “Americanization” of the yeshiva. The Board of Directors, however, ignored the directive of the Rabbonim and appointed Dr. Samuel Belkin, who strongly believed in revel’s ideas of Americanization. Revel’s goal was accomplished through Belkin, and Yeshiva University was established.

Rav Soloveichik succeeded his father as Rosh yeshiva in 1942.


Apparently, RIETS was unable to withstand the pressures of the “new economic and social order”. Many believed that the fate of RIETS awaited all who stepped foot into the “Golden Medinah”.

Nevertheless, Rav Soloveichik admits that his movement did not impress everybody. He explains why: “This is the reason why certain American personalities . . . claim and even swear that they are in love with the true orthodoxy that arranges melave malke parties and sings Bnei Heichalah soulfully [a Chasidic seudah shelishis custom – Moderator] , but they cannot tolerate modern orthodoxy, as it were (they write “modern” but they mean Yeshivat R. Yitzchak Elchonon, the Rabbinic Federation and the Mizrachi!) . . . For this reason a famous representative of secular Jewry in Israel said in a talk with Dr. Belkin and myself that he respects extreme orthodoxy but not the mizrachi and hapoel mizrachi. THEY ARE ALL AFRAID OF US because we employ a method of conquest, but they have no fear of those who shut themselves behind walls.” (ibid p.155)

And the Torah leaders? He admits that they, too, did not accept the Mizrachi. He compares the rejection of the Mizrachi by Torah leaders to the rejection of Joseph by his brothers. And why don’t his “brothers” see things his way? Simple. “However, to our great sorrow, while the tribes of G-d thousands of years ago finally admitted Joseph’s righteousness, and begged his forgiveness, ‘please forbear the wrong of your brothers and their sin, for they caused you evil (Gen. 50:17), today a segment among our brethren still LACK THE CAPACITY TO SEE REALITY AS IT IS AND THE COURAGE TO ADMIT THEIR ERROR. Even today, after Treblinka and Auschwitz – as assimilation putrefies a great portion of Diaspora Jewry . . . they hold fast stubbornly against their brother “Joseph” (religious Zionists)”. (ibid p.33)

This was the Modern orthodox mind-set in the early 1960's. Ultra-Orthodoxy will be swallowed up by the all-too-powerful American culture, and the "new type of Talmid Chacham", the secularly educated, religious Zionist will "conquer" the new world. ("Conquest" is a word often used in Rav Soloveichik's lectures).

That was then. Before long, the tune began to change. Yeshivos, chareidi-style yeshivos flourished and grew. Kollelim, yes, Kolleleim, where married men with families would “shut themselves behind walls” and spend their entire day immersed in Torah, began to spring up all over the country. Ultra-orthodox Kiruv organizations were succeeding in attracting even the most Americanized youths.

Where we used to see articles announcing the pending death of “ultra orthodoxy”, we saw, in the 1980's, articles by such Modern Orthodox spokesmen as Rabbi Dr. Emanuel Rackman, of Fifth Avenue Synagogue on Manhattan and afterwards Bar Ilan University in Israel, decrying the spirit of “Ultra Orthodox Triumphalism”. When the ArtScroll series of English Torah classics came out, we saw an article, I believe it was in Tradition magazine, complain about how ArtScroll, by using good English and high quality production, gives the false impression that they are really “Modern”, when in reality they are “ultra orthodox” in disguise.

Today, Rabbi Dr. Walter Wertzberger, Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Yeshiva University, Rabbi Emeritus of congregation Shaaray Tefila, Lawrence N.Y. former president of the Rabbinical Council of America and of the Synagogue Council of America, correctly points out: “Of late, there seems to be no end to articles in learned journals and the daily press lamenting the impending demise of Modern Orthodoxy. .Although I am fully aware that in Jewish religious circles the pendulum has swung to the right, I dismiss the prophets of doom and gloom” (Is Modern Orthodoxy an Endangered Species? By Walter S. Wurzburger, Orthodox Caucus).

Forty years after Rav Soloveichik made those addresses, things were not supposed to end up like this. Ultra-orthodox yeshivas are bursting at the seams, and their neighborhoods are expanding, multiplying, multiplying, and spreading to the most unlikely places. Something changed. Something went wrong.

In this atmosphere of “Ultra orthodox Triumphalism” (sic) we find more articles on the identity crisis taking place within Modern Orthodoxy. Dr. Mendel Ganchrow, President of the orthodox Union, begins a June 4, 1999 article in the Jewish Week called, “Defining Modern Orthodoxy” by saying, “The question of who or what is a modern Orthodox Jew is a new one”.

He is right. But the question is being asked. And not in the Chareidi circles of Bnei Brak, but within the Modern Orthodox camp itself. Continues Dr. Ganchrow:
“These days, the modern Orthodoxy of my peers and myself is under suspicion. In screaming headlines and news articles, we are told that a new modern Orthodoxy is setting out to provide "closer ties between Orthodoxy and the outside world" and to encourage its adherents to have "the courage to be modern and Orthodox". When I wore a kippah to my medical office or made rounds with a five o'clock shadow while wearing sneakers on Tisha B'Av, wasn't I exhibiting that courage? . . . I have always been proud of being a "centrist" Jew; but of late, I find myself being stripped of my identity. “

Dr. Ganchrow is referring to “Edah”. A February 26, 1999 JTA article by Debra Nussbaum is titled: “1,500 modern Orthodox converge to define identity”.
“1,500 modern Orthodox Jews who gathered here over the Presidents Day weekend for a conference whose goal was to re-articulate just what it means to be a modern Orthodox Jew today.

“The conference, which was organized by the nascent group Edah and drew twice as many people as expected, came at a time when many of modern Orthodoxy's adherents are struggling to define their movement's philosophy. . . .

“To be a modern Orthodox Jew today is often to feel lonely, to be without a community in which to ask ideological questions," said Rabbi Daniel Lehmann, who was ordained at Yeshiva University and is now headmaster of the pluralistic New Jewish High School, in Waltham, Mass. . . .

“Dassi Rutman, one of about 200 university students who attended the conference, said she came from Ontario, Canada, hoping that she would "feel more secure with my identity."

"I'm modern Orthodox, but I feel the pressures from people around me, friends who are moving to the right," said Rutman, who studies biology at York University . . .

Dassi Rutman, one of about 200 university students who attended the conference, said she came from Ontario, Canada, hoping that she would "feel more secure with my identity."

"I'm modern Orthodox, but I feel the pressures from people around me, friends who are moving to the right," said Rutman, who studies biology at York University . . .

“In his keynote address kicking off the conference, Berman, Edah's director, said that modern Orthodoxy is a religious path defined by "maximum integration with society," with adherents who "simultaneously affirm a passionate total commitment to halachah," Jewish law. “

Who would have though that in 1999 America, which was going to “swallow up” Ultra orthodoxy, that a modern Orthodox Biology student in NYU would feel “pressures” to become more Ultra orthodox?

Truly, something extraordinary happened.

Or did it? There were those who were not at all surprised.




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