Modern Orthodoxy, Beneath The Surface


Reprinted with Permission of The Jewish Week
The Full Story February 26, 1999
Opinion
Edah Tapes

Modern Orthodoxy, Beneath The Surface

By: Samuel Heilman,
Beneath much of the content of the many panels and papers that made up the substance of the recent gathering of so-called "Modern Orthodox Jews," dubbed the Edah conference, were a number of unspoken yet nevertheless significant feelings. Foremost among them, perhaps, were the sensations of defeat and existential loneliness that for the last number of years had overwhelmed many of these Modern Orthodox Jews, who felt increasingly beleaguered and besieged by the apparent growth of black-hatted, haredi Orthodoxy. Increasingly, those who defined themselves as Orthodox had watched as their right-wing counterparts both in this country and Israel had swelled in confidence, numbers, and influence. By the mid-'90s, the right wing was at least 40 percent of Orthodoxy and on the verge, it seemed, of becoming the majority, and ideologically dominant. From what was once considered shrinking and dark vestiges of yesterday's Orthodoxy there were signs of a life more potent than anything the "moderns" could demonstrate. It was the haredi wing that was fighting back most vigorously against the forces of assimilation that seemed to carry the day for the first 75 years of this century. They refused to disappear. They challenged the pluralist assertions of contemporary society, demanding to be accepted and sustained by it on their terms. They built more and more institutions, took over much of the faculty of all Orthodox education, both here and elsewhere on the globe. In perhaps the most dramatic display, they transformed the once nearly forgotten daf yomi, the daily dose of Talmud study, into an increasingly popular Orthodox commitment, culminating in massive gatherings that filled Madison Square Garden, the Nassau Coliseum and other large stadiums throughout the world for the siyum, the completion of the 7 1/2-year cycle. And they packed these great halls not once but for two cycles, as if to say: "See how many we are, and we are growing rather than disappearing." "What," a Modern Orthodox rabbi had asked me rhetorically after one siyum, "could the Modern Orthodox do that would draw so many of our number?" He could think of nothing. Nor could I. In Israel, the voice and public face of Orthodoxy was increasingly emerging from bearded faces and under a black hat, demanding concessions to often rigid demands that ignored some of the fundamental principles of modernism: democracy, pluralism, tolerance and an appreciation of the contributions of contemporary culture and secular education. According to these Orthodox Jews, Torah study was not simply the ideal but the only legitimate pursuit of Jews, while being engaged "in the world" was seen as Jewishly threatening because the world was - as the haredim argued - filled with the corrosive influences of popular, base "westoxicated" culture. The yeshiva was the safest and therefore best place for Torah-true Jews; work in the world was an unfortunate sell-out. The university was not regarded as a place that allowed for growth and genuine education, but rather as an institution that poisoned minds and sullied the Jewish spirit. "Professor" was a dirty word, the opposite of "rabbi." Even in the Orthodox family, the haredim seemed to be winning converts. Modern Orthodox parents, university graduates and professionals, who had built day schools and sent their children to them and then for a year to study in Israel discovered that many of their children came out of that experience rejecting the very Orthodoxy of their parents as hopelessly compromised. The parents with university degrees and knit yarmulkes who once thought their engagement with the modern world to be the truest test of the strength of their religion had sons who were ready to turn their back on that sort of lifestyle and instead find shelter beneath black hats or daughters who yearned to put on their own hats and marry a young man whose first commitment was to extended Torah study. Even the designation "Modern Orthodox" was abandoned in favor of "centrist Orthodox," because "modernity" had gotten somehow debased and association with it was stigmatizing. All this was just beneath the surface of many of those who gathered in Manhattan under the Edah banner, while the echoes of right-wing condemnations of their meeting still rang in their ears. But when they came together and saw 1,500 people, many of them 20-something men and women, who were not ready to give up on the ideals of "modern Orthodoxy," those who came to the conference once again felt "we are not alone." That phrase and accompanying sentiment repeated throughout the two days was probably the most frequent refrain. Accompanying it were words and convictions that Orthodox Judaism did have much to gain from engagement in the contemporary world and no less to contribute to culture. The crisis of confidence that the rise of insular and monochromatic Orthodoxy had aroused among the "modernist" wing was at least temporarily overcome. Whether it was in a dramatic discovery that the prayers of the Modern Orthodox could be no less inspiring than those in the yeshiva or the hasidic rebbe's court, or in the renewed realization that the exploration of Jewish texts informed by modern sensibilities and critical thinking nurtured by a secular education was no less engaging and religiously rewarding than traditional yeshiva study, or whether it was the revelation that sociology no less than theology could inform people's understanding of what it meant to be a Torah-true Jew, the conference breathed new life into the Modern Orthodox spirit. Here were rabbis who were willing to talk about the limits of rabbinic authority and wisdom. Here were religious virtuosi that included women no less than men. Here were university professors who could share the podium with rabbis and speak a common language. Here were people who could champion orthodoxies without damning reforms. Of course if the Edah conference was only a one-time feel-good gathering it will at best be a small footnote to contemporary Jewish life, the bright blast before the light burns out. The challenge ahead remains the capacity to rebuild a movement from an idea, to retake the initiative in Jewish education and community life. That will not be easy. It will require resources, both financial and human. Only time will tell if those can be marshaled.

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