RZ VS. MO. Difference No #3: Different Visions

“You call yourselves Americans, but you’re really just transplanted Englishmen…The same God, same language, same culture and history, same songs, stories, legends, myths – but different dreams. Different dreams. So very sad.”

– Col. Arthur Freemantle, Gettysburg (the movie)

If I were to pinpoint one of the two (crucial) differences between RZ and MO, it would definitely be the scope and targets of the ideals of the two groups. The former is impossibly vague and broad, the latter pinpoint and focused. Similarly, while RZ has perhaps thousands of different interpretations, MO as an ideology is pretty easy to explain.

Torah U-Madda, the flagship concept of MO, is essentially a souped-up version of Torah Im Derech Eretz. It simply takes the idea of a synthesis between Judaism and modernity far beyond Rav Hirsch’s vision to an ostensibly harmonious symbiosis. The few kinks in the armor (mostly having to do with academic Jewish Studies) are ostensibly just wrinkles of various sizes, to be ironed out at our leisure.

Having only one field to deal with – intellectual secular knowledge and mores – gave MO a big head start. The RZ world did not produce anything close to a Challenge or Tradition until very, very late in the game. In the field of intellectual engagement with the ivory tower, RZ is only beginning to produce intellectuals on the level of a RYBS, R. Eliezer Berkowitz or Walter Wurzburger.

However, this intense focus also means that MO suffers from a very serious case of tunnel vision. It remains solely wedded to the idea of the “Rabbi Dr.”, leaving all those who have talents in other areas (such as art, literature or music) to languish in mediocrity or leave in frustration. Even the so-called “splits” in MO are solely along the same line of purely intellectual issues such as halachic legislation and secular studies/modernity.

MO appeals solely to a specific kind of upper-middle-class intelligent professional. There is no room in its vision for simple, God-fearing Jews. There is no concept of ‘shlichut‘, of leaving the MO cocoon and spreading the good word, rather than remaining cloistered in the intellectual ivory tower and figure out the solutions to abstract problems.

RZ has the exact opposite problem. Ever since its inception, its slogans such as ‘torah ve’avodah’, ‘torah vechaim’ have always meant different things to different people. Its aim – to ‘revolutionize’ the entire secular world (‘to sanctify the secular’ in R. Kook pere‘s idiom) was so ridiculously ambitious, vague and unrealistic so as to collapse of its own weight. This, indeed, is precisely what happened for much of RZ’s history up until the late 1960s – the RZ community had no real goals outside of survival and vague dreams of glory.

Then something happened – the ‘holist’ fallacy (the idea of revolutionizing ‘everything’) splintered. Instead of doing everything at once, different groups all focused on a few, tangible goals. Some developed their political skills and aimed at settlement. Some developed schools and platforms for the arts, poetry, literature and cinema. Others still introduced new concepts and learning into the yeshiva itself – from serious study of Tanach to mass study of chasiddut. The resulting explosion of creativity was something larger than the sum of its parts – a true religious cacophony.

Even more important was the resulting pluralism of ‘ideal types’. Instead of attacking the idea of educated ‘talmidei chachamim’, which would be equivalent of cutting the branch that holds up religious society, they created alternatives for those not so destined. From the aforesaid religious artists, there are also the nach-nachs, the pioneers of settlement and ‘gar’inim toraniyim’, academics and many more. Religious Jews could now stand proud instead of feeling infinitely inferior just because they didn’t possess the specific qualities necessary to become great Torah scholars. They are infused with a true sense of ‘shelichut’.

This is not to say that RZ does not have its problems. It suffers from a serious lack of truly educated ‘talmidei chachamim’. RZ can no longer avoid the questions of modernity by crying “eretz yisra’el” any more – the elephant in the room must be faced, and MO is much better equipped to face them. The cacophony of voices that I praised earlier has also lead to a very seriously fractured community, so fractured that some wonder whether an RZ community exists anymore in any real sense. Nor is RZ free of the selfsame halachic and hashkafic debates that plague MO discussions.

Nevertheless, my point is that both sides have their advantages and blind spots, and if MO truly wishes to succeed in Israel, they need to admit that RZ also has much to teach them…


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: opdycke1861NOSPAM@yahoo.com
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4 Responses to RZ VS. MO. Difference No #3: Different Visions

  1. Shlomo says:

    Great post.

  2. fred says:

    …and here is where you are wrong.
    i think rz and mo are almost mutually exclusive. sure mo is zionist, but in a non-threatening, non-committal way.
    and rz, certainly the way its trending today, viz., mercaz harav [despite various streams, the mh/chardal seems to be dominant] has very little truck with western culture and society.
    and this is why rz almost never bothered to produce a tradition or tuma journal: not in their world view.
    i dont think they have to be mutually exclusive, i just think that is how it developed.

    i also think that in your characterization of mo you are speaking from an elitist perspective, as an academic ben academic.
    mo simply means [or should mean] recognizing an inherent value is modern culture which is not available in the torah, narrowly defined.
    you can be a shoemaker and still endorse this position.
    there are really few rabbi doctors under the age of 40, you may notice…

    mo see themselves as being walking kiddush hashems by example, and that would be cocoon-leaving…

    are there are any mo gedolim in the us?

    i do like your pre-1970 analysis of rz tho…

  3. fred says:

    an interesting diff is that rz has gedolim while mo doesnt really.

  4. AIWAC says:


    First of all, I specifically said that this post was about aspirations and ideology, not sociological attitudes and composition. So I don’t really understand your protest. That said, let me reply to some of your salient points:

    1) Most of RZ society, if we include the “middle ground” Jews, is very much a part of broader Israeli society, and that includes being exposed to secular ideas and mores. The situation was even more stark back when the Rabbinic element was negligible.

    Even today, when the Chardals are a force to be reckoned with, the issues of modernity are very much a factor. One need only look at the thousands of religious Jews who go to college or university to bely the “RZs are isolated from modernity” argument.

    2) “mo see themselves as being walking kiddush hashems by example, and that would be cocoon-leaving…”

    I have difficulty buying into this argument. I recently listened to a panel discussion on MO by major leaders, and one of the complaints was how MO Jews self-segregate no less than their Charedi counterparts (at least when it comes to residence)…

    3) For the RW section that accepts the concept of Gedolim, I’d say RYBS, Rav Hershel Shachter and other fit the bill…

    4) “mo simply means [or should mean] recognizing an inherent value is modern culture which is not available in the torah, narrowly defined.”

    This is the sociological attitude, not the ideology.

    I also don’t understand why RZ and MO can’t engage each other on issues that are not “core” ones. Would it really harm MO so much if it endorsed the arts or Chassidic-style spirituality? Would RZ really suffer if it had more committed Jews who can speak both the language of the Beit Midrash and the academy and not suffer from cognitive dissonance?

    I, personally, do not think this is the case.

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