Is Modern Orthodoxy Pointless?

I don’t usually read Alan Brill’s blog, but a chance discussion over at Hirhurim led me to this post on a YCT speech. There in the comments section are pretty biting, often scathing indictments of the whole Modern Orthodox project. One comment in particular caught my eye. It is of course the view of the ever irreverent Evanston Jew, who seems to have a real bee in his bonnet about MO. His is the most impassioned justification for compartmentalization or a “dual-truth system” I’ve seen in a while.

I post his comment here in full, not because I agree with it, but because this view is held by many not only in the Charedi community but also among MO Jews. Anyone who advocates the MO ideology will need to take these arguments seriously. Anyway, enjoy, read, debate in the comments:

It’s easy enough to speak heroically and challenge students to confront the issues of modernity. But the talk is empty unless there is some possibility of working something out. Just struggling, grappling, being in pain is not enough. You don’t get credit for struggling with a math problem; you get credit for solving the problem. Sometimes it sounds that MO believe the struggle creates its own authenticity, and in and of itself turns a person immersed in medieval thought into a modern person. I hold this is a conceit on the part of MO and doesn’t even work when the contrast are charedim…wooo they hide in a ghetto and don’t confront, don’t struggle. I say thank God somebody is sane. Being masochistic, driving yourself crazy with questions that cannot be answered given the assumptions of Orthodoxy, is not a sign of virtue. MO are open to anything and everything as long as Orthodoxy is accepted as true, real etc, in an a historical way without giving up any mitzvot. Is there any chance that Orthodoxy will ever accept biblical criticism, the continuous ever changing nature of halacha or a post modernist approach to God and the afterlife? Not in our lifetime. So if you know where you have to end up, why go through the charade…you only end up with more bs.

MO has been confronting for quite some time, at least since Hildersheimer and David Hoffman, and the score after over a century of play is secular modernity 100, MO zero. The tragedy of MO is this need to confront, to answer all contradictions between secular and Orthodox thought. I say better to have a vertical split in consciousness, to hold to contradictory worldviews or ways of talking if you like. Let the grandchildren worry about these problems. Parallel worlds will lead to more creative and modern ideas about Jewish life than all attempts at making sure everybody is on the same page. (see EJ 11/05/2006)

See also this comment (by one AS):

R. Linzer’s piece seems to argue for the need for more “responses.” I am tired of the use of “response.” Everything from pop culture to bible criticism to natural disasters apparently call for a “Jewish Response” or Hareidi, Centrist, Modern Orthodox, Open Orthodox, or (insert any other measure of Jewish identity politics) response. What does that even mean today? Are these supposed groups in some kind of discursive engagement with one other or the larger culture in any useful sense? The crisis/response model tells me that the only “crisis” left, and maybe the only one that ever mattered, is the crisis of identity which is either still -the- crisis of modernity or at this point something that only afflicts those seeking to reconstruct the pristine coherence of the premodern. Is the answer to have a newer or larger quiver of responses?

There is also the persistent equivocation about crisis. There are demographic and social trends that foretell crises for certain groups and their are personal crises. Our recognized thinkers tend to think that their personal crises are the root causes of the larger social crises when it is more than likely the other way around. The crisis theology is the delicate identity of the person who looks around and thinks that his only fellow traveler is the person he sees in the mirror. “Woe is me, for only I am tormented by being an apologist for the domination of women yet utterly committed to the self-evident integrity of halakha (sure other people say similar things, but they mean it differently because they do not posses the unique combination of personal insight, historical consciousness, indigenous authenticity, human empathy, and genius as me).” So we have a bunch of very bright humpty dumpties walking around with fragile identities protecting themselves by projecting their crises out into the world who are too scared of getting called out to make more than vague gestures about what they actually think. (And liberal modern Orthodox theology never escapes the profoundly individualist sacrifice of the intellect motif).

Get over it. Modern identities are built, marketed and sold off the rack -something that the hareidi wolrd gets. If you’re looking for bespoke you’re probably not even offering the “responses” that will matter in the long run. Modern Orthodoxy will be changed much more profoundly by the loss of suburban affluence than by having a women’s megilla readings or scholars in residence who discuss bible criticism. Aren’t we modern enough to realize that telling the flock that having the equivalent of a Talmud torah Jewish education followed by a year in Israel and an upper middle class profession is exactly what it means to be a good modern orthodox Jew will be more helpful to preserving it in the long run? But try constructing a theology around that.


Hi, my name is Avi Woolf. I'm an American-Israeli MO Jew living in Israel. I have a background in Israeli (as in Land of Israel) and Jewish History and an insatiable need for knowledge. I also have professional experience as an editor, translator and indexer. Enjoy the ride! If you are interested in using my services or just want to drop me a line, contact me at:
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s