The Orthodox Union Centennial Symposium

Our Next 100 Years: The Future of American Orthodoxy

A dozen questions for us all to ponder

The Emancipation, which began a little over 200 years ago, threw the Jewish people into a dizzying downward spiral from which we have only recently begun to recover.  The new opportunities for advancement in general society introduced by the Emancipation seemed to be impeded by the demands of an ancient religion, and this perception triggered the movements of defection from the fold.  In too many instances, the Jew was embarrassed by his Jewishness and strove to dilute the all-embracing character of his religion.

Our role as a “Light unto the Nations” may be understood in two ways:  in our segregated state, the splendor of a Divinely-touched people may illuminate and impact upon the nations of the earth from afar; or, the Jewish people may mingle and interact with the nations and thereby illuminate by direct contact.

It is only fairly lately that our position in society creates relatively little conflict between our religion and our opportunities for advancement.  As a result, from this aspect, we may feel secure and confident in our Judaism as we face the outside world.  While this profound change in our inner landscape has created fresh opportunities, it has also created fresh problems:  it has engendered a resurgent Orthodoxy while simultaneously creating new dilemmas and vulnerabilities.  The so-called “move to the right” is in part an attempt to deal with this situation by retreating into ourselves.

Thus, as we look to the future, it is with a sense of triumph mixed with trepidation.  The new opportunities have provided the strength and confidence to influence our estranged brethren.  It also enables the Jewish people to become a “Light unto the Nations” via direct contact, while at the same time creating new potential dangers to our spiritual health.

As we celebrate the centennial year of the Orthodox Union, the Jewish Action symposium focuses on the broad questions that will determine the character of Klal Yisrael in the years and generations that will follow ours.

Participants in the symposium were asked to address one or more questions:

  1. Considering the ease with which a Jew can relate to the outside culture, how can we help him/her maintain a proper balance between the general culture and the Jewish community in all its facets? What are the responsibilities of the contemporary and future Jew to the general culture with respect towards tikkun haolam?
  1.  Notwithstanding the strength and growth of Orthodoxy, are we satisfied that there exists a spiritual depth which makes us feel confident in the future of American Orthodoxy? Are the centripetal forces pulling towards the religious core a match for the centrifugal forces pulling away from the center?  Can we create the works of musar and machshavah [Jewish thought] that speak to our own generation?  And more importantly, what can we do to help develop the living role models which can inspire us to aspire to higher madregot [levels] in our personal Yiddishkeit?
  1. The feminist issue is perhaps the most explosive issue facing Orthodoxy. How can we preserve the special quality of the traditional Jewish woman in the face of the incessant demands of the American feminist agenda?  How can we distinguish between legitimate requests for improvement and change from those which are echoes of the surrounding society?  Do you believe the feminist issue will estrange feminists and their supporters from the rest of Orthodoxy?  One well-known feminist has recently forsaken Orthodoxy over feminist issues.  Do you believe we need to fear further defections?  What can be done to heal the developing breach between the opposing factions?
  1. What do you think will be the effect of the information and communications explosion on Orthodoxy? How can we best utilize the new opportunities afforded by the new technology for education, outreach, communal interaction, etc.?
  1. Our generation has seen the passing of numerous Torah giants from our midst. How can we encourage the development of knowledgeable, inspiring and forceful leaders?
  1. What can be done to improve the relations between the different groups within Orthodoxy? Are we in danger of greater polarization or can we look forward to greater unity?
  1. Do you foresee the greater yearning for Yiddishkeit as a spur to non-Orthodox Jewry becoming more traditional and closer to authentic Judaism? How can we help them draw closer?  Do you think the rapid increase in the rate of intermarriage and the disastrous impact of  “patrilineal descent” have made it too late to effect a turnaround?
  1. What do you see as the major role of the Orthodox Union in the next century? What are some of the areas which will require greater attention?  Would it be of value to convene a gathering of some of our best minds to engage in interactive brainstorming in order to anticipate the crucial challenges of the future and articulate imaginative plans?  Should they prepare a blueprint for the future?
  1. What do you see as the future relationship between American and Israeli Orthodoxy? Can American Orthodox Jews help heal the religious-secular Israeli rift?
  1. How can we express our opposition to blatant violations of halachah without creating confrontations which frequently have disastrous counterproductive consequences?
  1. How can we educate our children to be more sensitive to Chillul Hashem and the extreme gravity of that sin? Are we placing sufficient emphasis on the merit of honesty in the education of our children?
  1. How serious is the problem of defections from Orthodoxy? What are the chief causes of this little-discussed phenomenon and what should be done to remedy it?
This article was featured in the Fall 1999 issue of Jewish Action.
We'd like to hear what you think about this article. Post a comment or email us at ja@ou.org.