Friday, September 29, 2006

Whither Modern Orthodoxy

Religious groups that are defined by distinctive practices and beliefs are fascinating social organisms. To outsiders, the group's adherents are invariably viewed as an undifferentiated mass, as a collection of people who think and act alike. Inside of the group, there are distinctions and nuances that can beget sharp theological disputes. The Sh'ia world exemplifies this reality.

That world is huge, consisting of tens of millions, perhaps hundreds of millions, of Moslems. All of world Jewry is, as I suggested at least a generation ago, less than a statistical error in the Chinese - and now also the Indian - census. The Orthodox are a small part of world Jewry, according to demographers about 500,000 in the United States. Yet, there are four major groupings of American Orthodox - Centrist, Chassidic, Modern and Yeshiva-world - and that's not counting Chabad or the Sephardim. There is also a dizzying array of subgroups, as, for example, the many Chassidic sects. There's more. Satmar, the largest sect, is divided over theology and not merely over succession and control. There is a splinter group which claims that mainstream Satmar has become lax in its religiosity.

There are also distinctions among the Modern Orthodox. An ultra-modern wing differs substantially from other Modern Orthodox on feminism, relations with the non-Orthodox and how to respond to modernity. Its leaders include Rabbis Saul Berman and Avi Weiss, respectfully the founders of Edah and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. Despite the errant and endless kvetching of Samuel Heilman that the Moderns are a threatened species whose young are being subverted by charedi teachers, the reality is otherwise. My censuses of Jewish day schools indicate significant growth in the Modern Orthodox sector, an impressive development in view of the number of Moderns who have made aliyah.

As summer arrived, Rabbi Berman announced that Edah would close, a shocker in view of its ability to attract attention and funding and, more importantly, participation in its events and activities. While key Edah projects are being incorporated into Chovevei Torah where Rabbi Berman will direct continuing rabbinic education, it is unlikely that things will be the same.

In a thoughtful front-page article published in The Jewish Press explaining why "Edah is electing to wind down," Rabbi Berman wrote, "we didn't see the need for the Jewish community to bear the burden of yet another Jewish institution." This admirable sentiment should be emulated by other Jewish groups, notably the large number that for all practical purposes have long been dead.

Less admirable is Rabbi Berman's claim that Edah followed in the path of notable Orthodox Rabbis, including Rabbis Samson R. Hirsch, Jacob Ettinger and Azriel Hildesheimer and that these and other Orthodox leaders provided "the halachic and hashkafic antecedents" for the major ideological positions of Edah. This is a total historic distortion, a claim that doesn't have even a wobbly leg to stand on. Rabbi Berman should make his case without relying on what is bogus.

If, as he writes, it was not Edah's "purpose to criticize other Jews," the group did a terrific job camouflaging its intentions. Edah's well-advertised slogan, "The Courage to be Modern and Orthodox," was a deliberate jab at mainstream Orthodoxy. It takes little or no courage to be modern. It takes, at times, much courage to be distinctive in dress and appearance and to maintain a strictly Orthodox life in a society that is mired in Rabbi Berman's appropriate phrase, "the debasement of the low secular culture in America."

Edah's conference sessions frequently exhibited the bad habit of targeting mainstream Orthodoxy, even as tolerance and a welcome mat were the message to the non-Orthodox and those who openly deviated from halacha. My main peeve concerns sessions dealing with day schools where the refrain was the imperative to rescue Modern Orthodox schools from the pernicious influence exerted by charedi teachers. There was not a word of empathy for these men and women who toil with dedication and at low pay in the essential field of religious Jewish education. There was only criticism and the foolish notion that these teachers dictate the curriculum and character of the schools.

There was scant inclination to practice diversity and tolerance by inviting Orthodox speakers who might offer a different opinion on feminism, education and other topics on Edah's agenda. About the time that Rabbi Berman made his announcement, Rabbi Nati Helfgot, a top-flight scholar and star on Chovevei Torah's faculty, defended the school against criticism published in Yated Ne'eman, the yeshiva world's main newspaper. This resulted in a powerful response from the paper's editor who compellingly documented Chovevei Torah's hospitality toward those who advocate anti-halachic positions.

Orthodoxy is not what ails American Jewry. Modernity is. The impact of modernity is inescapable and, to one extent or another, all of Orthodox Jewry faces the problem of how to integrate elements of modernity while also shielding against that which is harmful. While strategies differ, the major parts of Orthodoxy have by and large established boundaries. The ultra-Moderns as represented by Edah have not. In the mindset of the ultras, too often Orthodoxy places second to modernity.

Modernity and the low secular culture that accompanies it are dynamic forces that constantly widen the gap between what society tolerates and what religious Jewish law allows. This reality has added to the predicament of Edah and the ultra-Modern Orthodox. The embrace of modernity can fill a conference hall, fed in part by Conservative traditionalists, but it cannot fill a Jewish home with sanctity.

Thatis why many Modern Orthodox rejected Edah. Unless the ultra-Modern Orthodox define the limits of modernity, there is a good prospect that, as has been anticipated for some time, little will separate them from the Conservative traditionalists who are unhappy because their movement has drifted far away from any traditional moorings.