The Most Important Issues of the Day for Modern Orthodoxy

[Background: Recently Yael Unterman asked members of the lookjed mailing list to help her in compiling a list of the five most important issues facing MO. As I am not an educator, I cannot respond there (and no one will take me seriously if I did, since no one knows me and I don’t work in Jewish education). Therefore, I decided to post my response here for those few who actually read my blog.

To avoid boring everyone with a dry, academic tone, my post is in the form of a fictional speech, delivered with more snark and sarcastic humor than I usually display here.

Keep in mind that many of the assertions in this speech are exaggerated for rhetorical effect, and should not be taken as completely accurate (isn’t it sad that I have to include such a disclaimer?).

Anyway – enjoy, cringe, discuss. AIWAC]

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.

I was recently asked by no-one in particular to give my uninformed opinion on the topics most important to Modern Orthodoxy, a denomination that has been declared dead many times, even though I never got invited to the funeral or paid the insurance owed me. In the interest of the empty auditorium, I have compiled a list here of crucial topics for our terminal patient, which were selected at random while watching TV. I’ll try to keep this at 20 minutes, but no promises.

Subject #1: Non-Halachic Jews

Once upon a time – not too long ago, really – everyone knew who was a Jew and who wasn’t. Jews were either people born of a Jewish mother or someone who converted (preferably Orthodox, so that even if they went OTD, they would be considered a Jew by all). Oh, sure, we fought over everything – we’re Jews, after all – but at least we knew the identity of our disputants. People who intermarried almost invariably wrote themselves out of the Jewish community, children included.

Fast forward to the present day, and the situation has completely reversed. The almost unanimous opinion of the Jewish academic and planning elites, along with most of the Reform movement and an increasing segment among the Conservatives is that intermarriage without the conversion of the spouse is no longer taboo. In fact, it is celebrated outright, as the adoring coverage of the Clinton-Meszvinsky wedding proved.

Intermarriage rates among Conservatives and Reform Jews are presently somewhere between 30-40%; among secular Jews it is even higher; in Europe the rates approach 80%. What’s more, non-Jewish spouses often do not even go through a pro-forma conversion. To call this a “vanishing diaspora” would be too kind – “self-evaporating diaspora” would be better.

On the other hand, if before, children of such couples were almost always not Jewish in every single way, today an increasing number of children to intermarried couples are given a Jewish education of some kind. More and more people are identifying as Jews by choice even though they have not undergone an Orthodox conversion. So we have the curious case where there are many non-halachic Jews who keep Mitzvot and/or are far more dedicated to being Jewish than many a secular unaffiliated “cosmopolitan” who was born to a Jewess by accident.

This is an acute issue which must be addressed. Within a few decades a large proportion of non-Orthodox and secular Jews in the Diaspora (those who remain affiliated and self-identifiably Jewish) will be of mixed descent or non-Orthodox conversion progeny. If only from a purely sectorially self-interested point of view, the odds of someone to become a ba’al teshuva will drop dramatically since the average prospective person needs to go through an additional seven circles of hell to get to the metaphorical Sinai.

This issue will force a decision by MO either sooner or later, and sooner would be preferable. One option is to socially emulate the Charedim and build up the walls, with extra background family checks and increased standards for conversion (as if they couldn’t get any harder). The other is to try and find some way to accommodate such people, as part of our responsibility towards the non-Orthodox part of klal Israel. Perhaps an halachic middle ground between non-Jew and frum Jew, like there was in the time of Bayit Sheni and the Mishnaic/Tamlmud era? Just a thought.

Hey, you there in the back! Stop throwing tomatoes! I prefer red peppers!

Subject #2: Feminism VS. Feminization

OK, now that you’ve all wasted half the vegetable supply of Machaneh Yehudah on my umbrella, let’s move on.

A lot of ink has been spilled on the question of how far feminism can go in achieving gender equality in Orthodox Judaism, including in ritual, legislative ability and sacred texts. Most of the discussions are in the “what is allowed” and “what is not allowed” category, and often there is a lot more heat than light.

I’m more worried about what happens if and when the gender Bastille is stormed, and all remaining gender barriers fall to accommodate full egalitarianism. I have already stated why this might be a disaster. Having replaced the patriarchy with a matriarchy, “male flight” will very likely follow, just as it has in the more liberal Jewish denominations. Orthodox men, having been made irrelevant or not uniquely necessary in virtually every aspect of Jewish religious life, with no place to be “themselves” and forced to always be more feminine and sensitive, will run away like mad.

I see lots of talk about the Orthodox female demands from men and the need for men to be “educated” to be in touch with their feminine side and not be afraid of the change. Yet not one word is spent on men’s needs – either for themselves or from women. This is not a negotiated partnership, it’s an attempt to replace one oppressive gender regime with another, only the latter has a more “friendly face”.

This might feel good for those who have fought against the many real injustices inflicted on women, and hey, to hell with the consequences. It might even work for a generation or two. The third generation, however, will be happy to see men show up. The fourth will wonder what on earth a “man” is.

So, ladies, it’s either a negotiated peace or a Pyrrhic total victory – your choice.

(Yes, I’m a bachelor, why do you ask?)

Subject #3: The Challenge of Pluralism

OK, by my count, I have wasted tons of vegetables and ruined any chance of ever getting married. Let’s see how many more bridges I can burn, shall we?

When I say the challenge of pluralism, I mean the challenge of accepting the legitimacy of other cultures and attitudes yet sticking to your own for compelling reasons that can be passed to the next generation. MOers and RZers (at least the centrists and the LW types) love to emphasize the importance of mutual respect, tolerance, and essentially never judging.

But here’s the rub – if that’s the case, why be Orthodox or even strictly observant? After all, we’re all Jewish, right (or we’re all humans in the image of God)? What difference does it make, really? Thus we have a case where the case for tolerance has been made very effectively by MO – but not the case for fidelity or belief in one’s system as correct as opposed to other systems. All of this would be hard enough if it weren’t for the apparent failure of…

Subject #4: An Honest Assessment of the Connecting “And” in Torah and Madda

It has been a century plus since the banner of combining the Torah and secular knowledge – both the hard sciences and the humanities. First popularly known as Torah Im Derekh Eretz and later upgraded to Torah Umadda, the idea that Orthodoxy can live alongside, nay be synthesized, with intensive knowledge, questions and critical thought. Hundreds of thousands of students have come from different parts of this system.

The end product is not impressive. Yes, there are exceptions, but for the most part, Jews who went through this system (and have remained observant) appear to have taken one of three paths: categorical rejection of science on various occasions, surrender to all conclusions and just living an Orthoprax lifestyle for various reasons, or compartmentalization – leading a double life.

There are two causes for this:

The Search for Truth

Charedim base their ethos for the truth of their system on a number of principles like ’emunat chachamim’ and the ‘never-broken masorah’. While it’s true that both these concepts can and have been thoroughly critiqued, they at least provide a safety net for those who do not wish to confront and investigate. It may be voluntarily entering an insane asylum – but when the world outside seems crazy, the asylum is a safe place to be.

This is not an option for MO, which has axiomatically accepted the idea that the Torah does not and need not hide from any and all scholarly inquiry and questions. “No-one ever died from a question” as the Yiddish saying goes. Did not Maimonides successfully adopt Aristotle? Did not the pashtanim of France and Spain in the Middle Ages deal directly with textual issues ad succeed? Did not the Ramban rely on archaeological evidence when interpreting the Torah? Surely, MO can take anything the modern world can dish out.

Um, so…yeah. Many scholars are not quite certain that the Rambam succeeded in his task to assimilate Aristotle, and quite possibly he was a full-fledged Aristotelian. There are at least some religious Bible scholars in Israel and the US who have called either directly or obliquely for surrender of one kind or another to critical scholarship, arguing that this is OK because they still believe in God (which is irrelevant to the issue, which is the provenance of the Mitzvot). Their attempt to justify this by pointing to the 10-12 pesukim which Ibn Ezra gave a later date deserves little more than “nice try”.

Besides, even assuming this could somehow be accomplished with something resembling Orthodoxy intact (alongside the many problems w/Biblical archaeology) it would not begin to scratch the surface of historical challenges, including the differences in the Torah text (from which binding halachot were derived, mind you) as well as the axiomatic attribution of halachic decisions and TSBP to external forces, which brings me to the second issue…

Analytical Nihilism

I mentioned in my piece on Rav Avraham that scholars have despaired of coming up with a definition of Judaism, both for analytical reasons and because they didn’t want to exclude anyone (academia is axiomatically non-judgmental, or is at most judgmental of those who are judgmental, such as the Orthodox). The result is that for scholars ‘Judaism is whatever Jews do’ (hence the support or non-judgment of intermarriage).

If in the present, so in the past. Orthodoxy cannot claim to be the only version of Judaism that existed from time immemorial. After all, there were plenty of deviances and different groups, and they were no less ‘sure’ that they were right. So how can Orthodoxy claim to be the ‘authentic Jewish tradition’. Quite frankly, how can Orthodoxy claim that there is an authentic Jewish tradition given the multiplicity of activities? How dare they delegitimize or frankly even disagree with anyone else as to what to believe or how to behave? On what basis?

Come to think of it, is there even such a thing as Jewish philosophy, heritage, culture or anything quintessentially Jewish (see Ahad Ha’am VS Berdichevski on this)? Were not all Jewish activities artificial constructs and responses to general historical contexts, the Torah and Talmud included? Was not the bulk if not the totality of Jewish heritage merely one large borrowing or absorption of truly original works by other peoples? Surely, today non-Orthodox Jews (and Orthodox Jews) do exactly the same thing?!

After the claim to historical truth and even historical fealty is lost, what, if anything is left of the onion?

It is no accident that the most popular philosophers among Orthodox Jewish academics (at least in Israel) are those – such as Yishayahu Leibowitz, Eliezer Goldman &c – who argue that there is no connection between Judaism and facts or truth in the scientific sense. The popularity of post-modernists like Rav Shagar is likewise telling, bespeaking a massive lack of faith that Torah can be reconciled in any way with the secular world.

One need only see the analytical and sometimes cynical attitude of many educated Jews on various internet forums to see how little faith intelligent Jews have that there are answers that leave Orthodoxy as anything other than a (possibly) warm and value-laden lifestyle.

There will be those who say that I am alarmist. Even if it’s true that many have despaired – this is all an issue of the ivory tower! For God’s sake, how many people even bother with Jewish Studies in a serious or superficial level in university?

For that I will simply respond: the internet. Be it Wikipedia, virtually every general publication or even non-strictly Orthodox Jewish publication, the attitudes of analytic nihilism and of critical scholarship are everywhere. These value and factual positions are at the foundation of the present zeitgeist. Without a reasonable theoretical or practical framework in which to assimilate such arguments, many Jews will either become Orthoprax, or they will become RBOs. Either way, it’s not good for the Jews.

There are other issues I could discuss, first and foremost the complete lack of any role model other than Rabbi, Doctor or Rabbi Doctor for your average MO Jew. That, however, will have to wait for another time. I guess maybe this stuff isn’t so funny after all.

“Hey, you, I need to lock up!”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m going…”


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:
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