David Singer

Today’s Orthodoxy has the character of a private club…

Short of the coming of the Messiah, this has to be one of the best times ever to be an Orthodox Jew.  Certainly, there has been nothing like it in the whole of the modern era.  Just think:  The State of Israel exists, with Jerusalem as its capital; communities that were decimated in the Holocaust have taken on new life in Israel and the United States; unprecedented numbers of individuals engage in advanced Talmud study; religious observance is at sky-high levels; educational efforts of every sort are thriving; and communal life is enriched by such diverse phenomena as the ArtScroll publications, gourmet kosher restaurants and new offerings of religious music.

Still, the question needs to be asked: if things are so good, why are they so bad?  Why is it that Orthodox Judaism today, for all its solid achievements, is incapable of touching the lives of the masses of non-Orthodox Jews?  If we flatter ourselves in thinking that Orthodoxy is such a hot ticket, should we not wonder why others are so disinclined to buy into it?  To be sure, there are outreach efforts to non-Orthodox individuals, but the results they produce, in statistical terms, are a drop in the bucket.  As for Orthodoxy’s impact on the group level, in terms of the other religious denominations, it is a flat zero.  All in all, today’s Orthodoxy has the character of a private club, well satisfying its members, but leaving all others on the outside.

How is this situation to be explained?  How can it be that a newly-strengthened Orthodoxy lacks the means of engaging the hearts and minds of non-Orthodox Jews?  The answer, I would contend, has everything to do with the cultural irrelevance of Orthodoxy in its current form. At present, Orthodoxy is capable of flexing its muscles, but it lacks a cultural language and a cultural style that would enable it to communicate in a serious way with Jews outside its orbit.  For better or worse, non-Orthodox Jews are immersed in the culture of secular modernity, yet Orthodoxy asks them to be satisfied with a naive fundamentalism.  It simply will not wash.  Truth to tell, from the non-Orthodox point of view, Orthodoxy is nothing short of an alien planet.  Small wonder then that those outside Orthodoxy want nothing to do with it.

Orthodoxy’s cultural irrelevance, it needs to be stressed, is not the result of accident, but of conscious policy.  It stems directly from the isolationist outlook of the traditionalist — “black hat” — leadership that sets the tone for the Orthodox community at present.  Traditionalist leaders take it as a given that the modern cultural enterprise is treif, and that Orthodox Jews need to be kept from contact with it.  This sense of the cultural realm as something forbidden is strongly reinforced by a desire to settle scores with the remnants of old-style “Modern Orthodoxy,” which advocated a policy of cultural engagement.  The net result is a world of Orthodox affirmation in which no idea is too childish, too absurd to fail to pass muster as someone’s notion of “Torah truth.”  In the current Orthodox framework, myth mongering and fantasy are the order of the day.

For those who want Orthodoxy to be more than a private club — those who want the Torah to speak to all Jews — there is no alternative to a posture of cultural openness.  Let me add immediately that openness is not at all the same as surrender.  It is clear that an uncritical embrace of the modern cultural realm would be far more harmful to Orthodoxy than the mindless rejection which exists at present.  What is needed is engagement:  taking the culture of secular modernity seriously, sifting its elements to determine which are worthy of embrace, and honestly confronting the challenges which arise.  Non-Orthodox Jews cannot reasonably expect Orthodoxy to have all the answers in this domain, but they have every right to expect that Orthodoxy will ask the right questions.

If it appears that what I am calling for is a restoration of old-style Modern Orthodoxy, that is absolutely correct.  Modern Orthodoxy, it needs to be stressed, is something very far removed from the “centrist Orthodoxy” of today.  The former is openly enthusiastic in its approach to the cultural realm, whereas the latter is timid and compromising; the difference in name speaks volumes about the difference in orientation.  Modern Orthodoxy’s glory years were the 1960s, when the slogan “Torah and Science” –the words carried on the seal of Yeshiva University — was taken with full seriousness.  Modern Orthodox types aspire to “synthesis,” the mutually enriching interaction of Judaism and Western culture, and toward that end read widely in the humanities and the social sciences.  “Mutually enriching” has two significances here.  On the one hand, it involves the process of imbuing the modern experience with religious import by applying Torah values to areas of secular life.  On the other hand, it entails the use of secular disciplines and modern categories of thought to illuminate aspects of Torah tradition.

The Modern Orthodox of the 1960s sought to establish a pedigree for themselves by pointing to authority figures from the past.  Going back to the Middle Ages, of course, there was Maimonides, while in the modern era there was Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch.  Without doubt, however, the key figure in this process of legitimization was an individual who was actually present at Yeshiva University in the 1960s.  I refer, of course, to Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, who was the ultimate role model for the Modern Orthodox.  The fact that Rabbi Soloveitchik — no, Dr. Soloveitchik — had a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Berlin and maintained an active interest in such diverse fields as mathematics, philosophy of science, Christian religious thought, and literature made the very enterprise of Modern Orthodoxy possible.

The standard view is that Modern Orthodoxy experienced a precipitous decline as a result of the burgeoning of traditionalist Orthodoxy.  This is true as far as it goes, but there is an added dimension which cannot be ignored.  Not a few in the orbit of Yeshiva University gave lip service to Modern Orthodoxy without internalizing its message.  They talked bravely about Modern Orthodoxy representing the ideal of Torah, but they really regarded it as a survival strategy.  This was America; in America one had to compromise; and that compromise was secular studies.  In their heart of hearts, these individuals felt guilty about what they were saying and doing.  Their model of authentic Jewishness remained that of the East European yeshivah world — a total absorption in Judaism’s sacred texts.  Hence, when Orthodox traditionalism came strongly to the fore in 1970s and 1980s, they quickly retreated.  Who were they to argue with “Torah-true” Jews?  How could they — with their college degrees no less! — stand up to traditionalist rabbinic scholars who rejected all contact with secular culture?  The battle to determine the future shape of Orthodoxy came to an end even before it began.

Under the guidance of a traditionalist leadership, Orthodoxy has taken a series of giant steps backward on the cultural front.  Forget about “synthesis;” at present the very notion of a secular education is under direct assault.  The chief target, of course, is Yeshiva College, which, on top of being reviled in the black-hat world, faces a traditionalist rebellion by segments of the school’s own faculty.  In this context, mention must be made of a crude historical revisionism that is afoot, one that is willing to employ outright falsehood in order to discredit cultural openness.  Even so revered a figure as Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik has not been exempt from this process.  Just recently, a prominent rosh yeshivah at Yeshiva declared that the only reason Rabbi Soloveitchik obtained a Ph.D. was in order to avoid the military draft!

If Orthodox Judaism is to move in the direction of cultural openness, a revival of Modern Orthodoxy is imperative.  But is such a development possible under current conditions?  I believe there is, at least, modest reason for hope.  A significant portion of the centrist Orthodox laity is aware of the absurdity of the current situation and would welcome Orthodox voices calling for serious cultural engagement.  Moreover, an underground Modern Orthodoxy does exist at present — all of us know each other — and could come out of hiding to do battle.  What is clearly lacking as of now are halachic authorities willing to endorse a Modern Orthodox outlook, and that may well prove to be the make or break factor.  In any case, those Orthodox Jews who are appalled by Orthodoxy’s inability to cross the cultural barrier to the world of non-Orthodox Jews have an obligation to speak out.  Otherwise, Orthodoxy will continue to function as a private club, rather than the voice of Torah that speaks to all Jews.

David Singer is the editor of the American Jewish Year Book.

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This article was featured in the Fall 1999 issue of Jewish Action.
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