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Is Modern Orthodoxy, By Acquiescing to Ultra-Orthodox Radicalism, Fading Into Oblivion?

Posted on Tuesday, December 03, 2013 by Elana Maryles Sztokman

Some days it feels like modern orthodoxy is disappearing, like the contours that once defined a vision for a compassionate and worldly traditional Jewish life are fading into a mass of religious extremism.

Or perhaps it’s just been a bad month.  A few weeks ago, a group of Orthodox rabbis, including many who have been identified with modern Orthodoxy for most of their careers, came out with a scathing public attack against Wexner Graduate Fellowship alum, and newly appointed YCT head,  Rabbi Asher Lopatin. His sin? Daring to engage in a public dialogue with non-Orthodox rabbis about what challenges Jewish leadership. I call this the cooties phenomenon of Orthodox life – as if by sitting down with non-Orthodox rabbis, the Orthodox rabbi risks getting contaminated by cooties and having his entire religious identity ruined.

Last week Rabbi Ephraim Padwa, head of the rabbinate of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations of the UK condemned the Golders Green United Synagogue for passing the Torah into the women’s section during Shabbat services, calling the practice "Reform-influenced".

And then there was the Bnei Akiva incident. On the 25th anniversary of Women of the Wall, the Bnei Akiva educational stream in Israel – once the bastion of modern Orthodoxy – announced that it would be sending its ulpana high school girls to the kotel to protest against Women of the Wall. This came as a great shock, especially to many WOW-supporting parents in the ulpana system. Where I live in Modi’in, down the street from the local ulpana, many of my neighbors were furious that their daughters were being used as political pawns, without even discussing it with the girls or with the parents. As one woman – a former ulpana student, now a teacher – told me, “In the ulpana, there is no longer such a thing as developing your own political opinions. They’ll put up a sign that says, ‘Protest today, buses leaving at 12:00’, and nobody even bothers to ask what the protest is for. It’s assumed everyone will have the same opinion, whatever that is.” (In the end, Bnei Akiva cancelled the plans at the last second, but the damage had been done.)

The disappearance of modern Orthodoxy in both Israel and America has arguably been happening gradually over the past generation, but it seems to be at a breaking point today.  Rabbis show an increasing cowardice in the face of radical ideas, constantly worried about the approval of some kind of invisible ‘they’. Ultra-Orthodoxy in the meantime has become more radical, more mindless and obsessive in observance, more trapped in a group-think that dominates everything from one’s socks to one’s tablecloths, and every breath and thought in between. If this is the culture that modern Orthodoxy looks to for some kind of approval or validation, it’s no wonder that modern Orthodoxy is in trouble.  As if, the more “right wing” one is, the more “authentic” one is. As long as this narrative remains in place, modern Orthodoxy acting spinelessly and caving in to an ultra-Orthodox radicalism that is perceived as closer to some kind of truth, then modern Orthodoxy will continue to fade into oblivion.  

One of the groups that has consistently resisted this encroaching radicalism, and tirelessly fights for a passionate vision of civil moderation is the Orthodox feminist movement. The women – and men – who have dedicated their lives and spirits to protecting women’s places in religious life are the spiritual warriors of our generation.  We continue to put forth an alternative vision for Orthodoxy, one that does not see “stricter” or more “radical” as more “authentic” but actually views compassion and gender equity as foundational elements of Torah.  We are not looking to proponents of radical Orthodoxy for approval. In fact, I would argue that there are elements of ultra-Orthodoxy that are patently “off the derech”, so far removed from Torah as to be almost unrecognizable.  

The fight for women’s rights in Orthodoxy is not just about women, and it’s not just about rights. It’s about constructing a vision for a Jewish society that values both adherence to Torah and the perpetuation of a spirit of humanity and compassion. This vision is becoming increasingly vital to the health of the Orthodox community. The feminists are literally on the frontlines of the battle to create a community that can actually consider itself a light to the nations, a community that is not afraid of cooties but is afraid of what will happen to us when we stop appreciating that all humans were created in the Divine image.

Since its inception, JOFA (the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance) has been a key force in promoting a compassionate Orthodoxy. I’m proud to say that at the upcoming JOFA conference, Rabbi Lopatin will be a keynote speaker. Several other Wexner alumni are also on the roster, which you can see here. I invite all of you to attend: December 7-8 at John Jay College in NYC. Details can be found here.

The JOFA conference is at a vital moment for strengthening and maintaining a vision of Judaism that is loyal to both tradition and human relationships.  I invite you to be part of it.

Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is the Executive Director of JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, and author of The Men’s Section: Orthodox Jewish Men in an Egalitarian World (Winner of the 2012 National Jewish Book Council Award in women’s studies) and co-author with Dr. Chaya Gorsetman of Educating in the Divine Image: Gender Issues in Orthodox Jewish Day Schools. She lives in Modi’in, Israel, and works in New York City.  For more information about The upcoming JOFA Conference click here.


I agree with Rabbi Berger that modern orthodoxy is evolving. Since the death of its most notable leader, R. Soloveitchik, modern orthodoxy is struggling with who it is, what it wants to be, and here it should go from here. While I spent most of my childhood in the modern orthodox movement I do not consider myself a part of that movement. For full disclosure, I am graduate of Maimonides Hebrew Day School in Brooklyn MA, learned in a Hesder Yeshiva, and am an ordained Rabbi. Unlike R. Berger, I am not a member of the RCA. While my outward appearance is very modern orthodox my Hashkafa, philosophy, takes me out of that camp more often than not.
Allow me to provide my view on modern orthodoxy. From the outside the theory of modern orthodoxy is that it offers a compromise of the best of what the secular world has to offer and the best of the Jewish world. As YU puts it Tora to Madah. The theory that one can be deeply steeped in the secular world (college, social movements, etc.) and the religious world (Halacha, Shabbat, etc.) is a beautiful concept. It is one that is very alluring.
However, within the modern orthodox world, like all communities, there will be people who prefer more of the secular world and less of the religious world. The opposite is equally true. The fact is that modern orthodoxy is not monolithic. Viewing any group that way is detrimental, results in sweeping generalizations which, while true about one faction, is not true of another. Individuals, let alone groups, are far too complex to make sweeping generalizations about. That being said it is easier to talk about modern orthodoxy as a single monolithic group.
As a whole, the modern orthodox appear to be far more involved in social movements including women’s rights than say the Yeshivish movement. I have heard it argued that modern orthodoxy may be too involved in social movements and not enough in Halacha. I have personally heard well respected Rabbis speak out publicly and make comments that are in direct contravention of on issues like Agunah and women’s rights to just name a few. Some of these statements are incendiary and promote a culture of violence. Being “off the Derech” may be an accurate description of “elements of ultra-Orthodoxy” but it is an equally apt description of elements within modern orthodoxy.
During one of the Wexner breakout sessions I lead a breakout session on how to save modern orthodoxy. I was surprised at how many people attended. While we couldn’t agree with what saving modern orthodoxy meant one of the participants, who was not orthodox, summarized it best. We have similar problems as everyone else, we just view them differently.
I suggest that modern orthodoxy is and will continue to wage a bitter internal battle on determining who they are and who they want to be. Some of these battles will be bitter and alienate many people who identify themselves with modern orthodoxy. Others will not. Though it may appear unhealthy it is a natural process.
To me the real loos of modern orthodoxy comes from my personal observation that there are very few second generation and even fewer third generation modern orthodox. That will lead to the destruction of the modern orthodox more than any internal disagreements, no matter how strong.
I do not send my children to a modern orthodox school. I struggle every day to give them a derech to follow. I do my best to teach them Halacha and when they learn things that I find unacceptable or contrary to Halacha I take the time to educate them.
While it may be true that JOFA has consistently resisted this encroaching radicalism I query what that really means. As an observant Jew I am far more concerned with following Halacha and its perspective that radicalism. There are radicals within modern orthodoxy just as there are within most groups. I agree that “stricter” or more “radical” does not make one more “authentic.” However, that is only true if we operate within the bounds of Halacha. Once you exit those 4 amot we must acknowledge that it is not Halacha that is driving.
As the old joke goes, ask a rabbi and you will get at least 2 opinions. The same is true within modern orthodoxy. Arguably, the lack of a single leader within modern orthodoxy will make finding a unified derech difficult if not impossible.
I suggest that if we view modern orthodoxy, like all sects of Judaism, as consisting of a series of factions and not a monolith you will see that it evolving. It is essentially different groups with different ideas each struggling to resolve the issue most pressing to them. Some will feel alienated others embraced.
I would not describe this as a lack of compassion rather a difference of perspective. These struggles are nothing new within Judaism. We have been fighting since Moses and it is unlikely to stop even if the Mashiach were to come tomorrow.
To conclude similarly to R. Berger the Talmud teaches us that Torah exists within 4 Amot. Why not one, isn’t there really only one Halacha. The answer is as true as the joke referenced above. Halacha is an ever evolving body. Like real estate there are metes and bounds. Within those metes and bounds there is a lot of room for disagreement as illustrated by the great Talmudic arguers, Hillel and Shammai. As with them so it should be with us; with mutual respect.

Posted on Monday, December 09, 2013 at 7:14 AM by Douglas Stein

As someone who has grown up and remained in the Modern Orthodox community, I appreciate your perspective and understand your lament. However, as an academic (I teach religion at Emory University in Atlanta, and have taught the WH course in Rabbinics a few times), I can only say that Modern Orthodoxy is not “disappearing” – it is merely evolving, as do all religious movements. At different times and in different places, one could hear advocates of Classical Reform decry their movement’s embrace of Zionism or Hebrew or traditional ritual that had previously been eschewed; just 30 years ago, some rabbinic members of Conservative Judaism in America broke away over the issue of women’s ordination in an effort to preserve “Traditional Judaism.” Change is normal – and diverse (and strong!) reactions from within are to be expected. We may prefer one type of change over another, but these internal debates are quite typical, as groups struggle to determine the boundaries that unite them on the one hand, yet also distinguish them on the other.
Over the last several decades, inclusiveness has become a vitally important social value, and is a moral imperative for many; religious traditions, which have always created boundaries for inclusion and exclusion, are in the process of negotiating this newly central concern and working on incorporating it within their movements. The tensions and yes, conflicts, we see within Modern Orthodoxy are evidence of this internal struggle. But they are normal.
By the way, I was unaware that the letter penned by some members of the Rabbinical Council of America to which you refer ( was specifically prompted by Rabbi Lopatin’s sharing a stage with rabbis of other denominations. When I read the lettte, it seemed to be a general – if strongly-worded – concern over what they see as YCT and members of Open Orthodoxy, as they wrote, “unilaterally violating normative Orthodox laws, customs and traditions.” Indeed, organizations such as JOFA and YCT were created precisely to innovate and push the envelope, unsatisfied with the status quo (= “laws, customs and traditions”!) of Modern Orthodoxy as it was embodied in its late 20th century institutions and leaders. Change agents will almost always be challenged by equally passionate – and in many cases, equally principled – champions of a more conservative stance.
I don’t know most of the signatories of that letter (full disclosure: I am a member of the RCA), but I do know a few, and they include some very compassionate individuals, several who lead their congregations in social justice activities, have made sensitive modifications of the prayers in deference to women, etc. For whatever reason, these rabbis disagree strongly with Open Orthodoxy’s decisions and activities, but I would not brand them as “religious extremists,” lacking compassion, and “acting spinelessly and caving in to an ultra-Orthodox radicalism.”
Similarly, increased punctiliousness of observance in the ultra-Orthodox world is, in many cases, born of piety, a sincere effort to observe God’s law in what they believe to be the most ideal way. (See the social historian Haym Soloveitchik’s insightful analysis of this trend - And we all know that ultra-Orthodox Jews are extremely tight-knit, their community brimming with daily acts of care and concern for one another. While both phenomena have their excesses, calling their piety “mindless and obsessive,” and labeling the community “trapped in a group-think” fails to capture the vitality and cohesiveness that has enabled the ultra-Orthodox to survive and even thrive demographically and culturally over the last half century. No less significantly, such wording does little to create the bridges and opportunities for dialogue that you clearly want in inviting people to JOFA’s upcoming conference.
Over the coming years, many Jews will be voting with their feet, be it between various expressions of Judaism or by exiting, as the recent Pew study reminded us. But many will also be staying where they are and working from within, for various degrees of change that some might judge inadequate, others too radical. Whatever it is, it will be incremental, whose extent and implications won’t be known for a while. In the meantime, if we believe in and want to encourage change, both within our own communities and beyond, let’s do our best to ensure that the paths between the communities be pleasant – just like the paths of Torah.

Posted on Friday, December 06, 2013 at 7:47 AM by Michael Berger