Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks

Modern Orthodoxy has still not worked out what it is and why.

Jews were, in John Murray Cuddihy’s phrase, “latecomers to modernity.”  Throughout Europe in the nineteenth century they found themselves suddenly exposed to a series of shattering changes.  There was the intellectual challenge of the Enlightenment, the social drama of Emancipation, and throughout it all, at first no more than a discordant note but eventually a deafening crescendo, came the storm of anti-Semitism in which 80% of European Jewry was swept away.

Shaken by the initial tremors, the house which had once been home to Klal Yisrael — the house that used to be called Torah, but which was now called Orthodoxy — began to collapse until only a few rooms remained.  Many Jews constructed other shelters — Reform, Conservative and Liberal Judaisms, secular, cultural and political Jewish identities, and the many forms of Zionism.  The nineteenth century saw more new versions of what it is to be a Jew than the whole previous Jewish history combined.

As the twentieth century, secular time, draws to a close, we are in a position to look back and take stock.  In many ways, Orthodoxy today commands a position of immense moral authority.  Neither liberal Judaism nor secular Jewishness achieved their avowed aims.  They did not end anti-Semitism.  They did not create a viable basis for a Jewish identity that could be transmitted across the generations.  With the single exception of Zionism, they read the course of modern history wrongly.  The Jews of the West expected an open society purged of prejudice.  The Jews of the East hoped for a classless utopia.  They anticipated heaven.  What transpired was hell.

The Orthodox world, for its part, was not free of mistakes.  But faithfulness to Torah allowed it to keep a distance from the passions of the moment, and distance is one of the ingredients of wisdom.  The Orthodox rabbinate understood that a society which expects a group to forfeit some of its most cherished beliefs and practices, when these do not threaten anyone else’s liberty, is not a free society in any real sense of the word.  They knew that neither German liberalism nor Russian revolution was the promised land.  Instinctively they knew that a people that carries with it the legacy of more than 3,000 years of history and spirituality does not trade these things for the blandishments of Emancipation.  Orthodoxy did not only preserve its beliefs.  It preserved its dignity.  And that, when your world is falling apart, is no small thing.

Today, after two centuries of assault from outside and within, the Orthodox community stands tall.  While other sections of the Jewish world suffer attrition it has grown and is poised for further growth.  It has shown that the ancient defenses against assimilation and intermarriage are still the most effective.  In Israel, America and elsewhere it has rebuilt the world destroyed by the Holocaust.  It has created strong families, communities and institutions.  In a manner little short of miraculous, it has rekindled the once-dying flame of Jewish learning.  Perhaps most movingly, it has not confined its energies to itself.  Inspired by the example of Chabad, for the past three decades it has reached out to others, encouraging many young people to encounter tradition for the first time.

These are great achievements, and by now should have allowed a generation of Orthodox Jews to emerge who face the future with confidence and with all the moral attributes that flow from confidence — generosity, warmth, forgiveness, grace — the range of dispositions summed up in the word chesed, which means the love we feel for those to whom we are bound by a covenantal bond.  Doubtless there are many such Jews.  Yet this is not the image of Orthodoxy that prevails in most places in the Jewish world.

All too often Orthodoxy today conveys negative associations.  The Chareidi community projects disdain towards other Jews.  The religious Zionist camp has from time to time elevated nationalism to the point of fanaticism.  Chabad is overshadowed by messianism.  And Modern Orthodoxy has still not worked out what it is and why.  These are failures of the spirit which derive ultimately from insecurity — and insecurity bespeaks a lack of bitachon, of trust in God.  Worse, they frequently border on Chillul Hashem, a failure to demonstrate the presence of God in our midst.

If we are to change our world, we must first change ourselves.  That means recovering our confidence, which means living by the words, “I will fear no evil for Thou art with me.”  An ish emunah, a person of faith, shows neither triumph nor trepidation.  Instead, he or she lives by the principle of ahavat Hashem, which the sages and Rambam interpreted as living in such a way as to bring others to the love of God.  As Wordsworth put it, “What we love, others will love and we will show them how.”

Today, in the United States and elsewhere, the nineteenth century concept of one-nation-one-culture has been replaced by the idea of pluralist democracy, one-nation-many-cultures.  That has given us as Jews greater freedom to be ourselves, but it has not relieved us of the burden of tikkun olam, the moral advance of society as a whole.  The Rambam rules (Hilchot Melachim 9:14) that (as a matter of Noahide law) we are collectively responsible for the society of which we are a part.  That means that today we should be in the forefront of moral debate.

As one who observes from afar, I am struck by the fact that those who have taken on this role most impressively in the United States have been either religious Catholics or secular Jews (I think here of figures as diverse as Lionel Trilling, Daniel Bell, Irving Kristol, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Amitai Etzioni, Michael Sandel and Michael Walzer).  Where are their counterparts in the Orthodox world?  Where do we hear the voice of Torah, speaking not just to us, but to our fellow citizens about the objectivity of morality, the sanctity of human life, the values of family and community, the role of education as the key to human dignity and the many other Jewish values so germane to an age lost in the maze of individualism?  We cannot fulfill the mandate of tikkun olam by talking only to ourselves.

The effort to communicate with others will itself generate the works of musar and machshavah, ethics and Jewish thought, that this generation both needs and lacks.  For me, the living role models are figures like Professor Reuven Feuerstein in Jerusalem, working with severely handicapped children, or Lord (Robert) Winston in Britain advancing the treatment of infertility — Orthodox Jews who have translated their faith into new ways of enlarging the boundaries of human hope.  The key concept here is Kiddush Hashem.  Each of us is granted an area of influence within which, and unique gifts through which, we can bring to others an awareness of the Divine presence — and it was for this that we were created.  Our task is not to find role models.  It is to be role models.

Feminism in its more militant mood is the last vestige of Marxism in advanced liberal democracies.  For “class war” it reads “gender war” and sees all human interactions as relationships of power.  This is so hostile to the spirit of Judaism that there can be no genuine dialogue with it.  By contrast, recent decades have seen the emergence of Torah institutions for women and of outstanding women Torah teachers, together with determined efforts (through get legislation and pre-nuptial agreements) to resolve the problems of agunot.  This has nothing to do with feminism and everything to do with the principle, set out in the first chapter of Bereishit, that women and men are equal citizens under the sovereignty of God — and in this respect there is work yet to be done.

Religious Jews are already among the most effective users of the Internet.  Indeed we should be among the first to articulate the religious significance of information technology.  Nothing has so affected the course of civilization than the way we record and transmit information.  The invention of the alphabet, of which Hebrew was the first, was the single most decisive event in human history.  It made possible (as cuneiform script did not) a society of universal literacy in which knowledge was no longer the property of the elite.  This was the background which made possible the moral revolution of the Giving of the Torah — the only time (as the medieval Jewish philosophers pointed out) that Heaven spoke not to “the son of God” or “the prophet of God” but to an entire people.  Judaism was and remains the single most radical expression of egalitarianism of the spirit.  The crown of Torah — as the Rambam puts it — rests before every Jew.

The second revolution (whose effect on Christianity was the Reformation) was the invention of printing.  We are living through the third:  instantaneous global communication.  It is impossible to predict its effects on human consciousness, but they will be deep and far reaching.  At the very least, the Internet will lead in the twenty-first century to a decline of the nation-state in favor of modes of association that are both more local and global.  The Jewish people — whose very strength lies in its local communities and its sense of global kinship — will be among the greatest beneficiaries.

Lack of space precludes me from answering the other questions, but I end by returning to my essential point.  Too often contemporary Orthodoxy seems driven by what Freud called “the narcissism of small differences.”  There is too much factionalism and parochialism, too much defensiveness and aggression.  We are haunted by shadows.  The world of Torah, so rich in inner strength, sometimes seems to be more interested in finding people with whom to communicate.  At such times I hear the voice of those who once said, “Shammai’s impatience sought to drive us from the world, but Hillel’s gentleness brought us under the wings of the Shechinah.”

For me, and surely for most Jews at most times, Torah was not simply or even primarily the “theoretical physics” of Rav Soloveitchik’s Halachic Mind, or the mysticism of other worlds or the self-righteousness of a cloistered elite.  It was, quite simply, the architecture of a society built on justice and compassion, the choreography of grace in human relationships and the building of a home for the Divine presence made out of deeds that bring God from heaven to earth.  That is the Torah which calls to us today, defining our task and assuring us that, with God’s help, we will be equal to it.

Rabbi Dr. Sacks is the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the Commonwealth.

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.