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Who's "Modern'? It's Academic: A Conference Offers a New Definition for a Movement of "Centrists"


Reprinted with permission of the New Jersey Jewish News. Visit

Who is a “Modern Orthodox” Jew? The Orthodox community, accustomed to close study and fine nuance, has many labels--some self-chosen, some pejoratively assigned--for its various sub-groups, communities, and ideologies. At times it seems that the only thing that unites these streams within a stream is that all generally see themselves flanked on the left by those whom they consider insufficiently observant, and those on the right whom they consider excessively observant.

Within that intramural Orthodox debate, “Modern” has become a loaded term. At one time, it signified an integration of a fully observant Jewish life and full engagement with secular culture and academia, as well as a willingness to participate in dialogue with non-Orthodox Jews. Its flagship institution was Yeshiva University, whose motto, “Torah u'mada” (roughly, Torah and secular knowledge) represented the “Modern” ideal.

But the term “Modern” has been marginalized in recent decades as leaders like YU chancellor Rabbi Norman Lamm, under pressure from rabbis to their “right,” declared themselves “centrist.” Many younger Orthodox Jews, trained in insular Israeli yeshivas, adopted stricter practices than their parents and childhood rabbis. Haredi, or “ultra-Orthodox” communities grew in size and influence.

Eight years ago, Orthodox rabbis and lay leaders launched the organization Edah, seeking to reclaim the term and the ideological ground with the motto “the courage to be Modern and Orthodox.”

Speaking at Edah's fourth biennial conference last month, researcher Dr. Jacob Ukeles advanced a less nuanced definition of Modern Orthodox, one that he was able to deploy in the recent 2002 community study by the UJA-Federation of New York.

For the first time in such a study, the Orthodox respondents (totaling nearly 500) were divided into two groups. Those who responded that they believe it “very important” that their children attend university, Ukeles dubbed “Modern Orthodox”; those that labeled it somewhat or not at all important, he considered to be haredi, or “ultra-Orthodox.”

The study focused on the eastern portion of America's largest Jewish community: the 1.4 million Jews of New York City's five boroughs, Westchester, and Long Island, the area served by the New York federation. It found that a plurality of Jews were in Orthodox households--about 387,000, slightly more than those in households identifying as Reform, which in turn outnumbered Conservatives.

This college “litmus test,” said Ukeles, was borne out by related demographic findings. Modern Orthodox Jews look like other New York Jews in terms of income, education, and cultural activities. Haredi Jews, he said, are largely clustered in Brooklyn, are significantly poorer, and have larger families.

Of the two groups, Modern Orthodox constitute the majority--60 percent--though the larger family size of the haredi community indicates that the lead is shrinking.

While Ukeles touted these findings as reassurance for Edah's Modern Orthodox constituency, Edah represents only one ideological stream within the Modern Orthodox demographic.

While several speakers and many attendees were from the demographically Modern Orthodox communities of Bergen County, particularly Teaneck, the local Orthodox synagogue rabbis and educational leaders were not represented.

Rabbi Saul Berman, Edah director, was optimistic at the conference. “I believe we are on the cusp of a Modern Orthodox renaissance,” said Berman, who teaches Jewish law at both Stern College and Columbia University School of Law. Much of that optimism was owed to the appointment in 2002 of Richard Joel as YU's president. Joel, who is on Edah's board of advisers, is credited with reinvigorating Jewish life on campus as international head of the multi-denominational Hillel campus movement. (Joel did not appear at the conference, citing scheduling conflicts.)

Guidance from the past

Berman said that rabbis reflecting Edah's values of “spiritual striving and intellectual integrity” will be produced by YU, “as its new president energizes that institution to serve the entire Jewish people with Modern Orthodox integrity.”

Added Berman: “We have to pursue interdenominational cooperation. We have to closely monitor what rabbis and educators say about non-Jews. We have to examine halachic claims.”

As a sign of interdenominational cooperation--or, perhaps, post-denominationalism--the conference was held at the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning at Temple Emanu-El, Manhattan's flagship Reform synagogue.

The one-day conference featured 80 sessions, ranging from text study, to discussions of Orthodox communal issues and general Jewish concerns. More than a quarter of the 90 speakers were from Israel, reflecting in part Edah's ties with Israel's Kibbutz HaDati religious kibbutz movement.

Session titles reflected both external and internal tensions: “When our children choose a different path” (i.e., when they move to the “right” of the practice they grew up with); “Substance abuse at yeshiva high schools” (featuring panelist Rabbi Scot Berman, the former principal of the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, who now heads the Kushner Family Foundation); and “Are day schools preparing our children for the real world?”

At a session titled “Confronting Intermarriage in Communities and Families,” Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld described his experiences in his new pulpit in Washington, DC, a community, he noted, that has the lowest affiliation rate in the country.

Herzfeld approvingly cited a 19th-century rabbinic ruling concerning a case of intermarriage in America, where a man married to a non-Jewish woman had his son circumcised despite the objections of the local rabbi.

“Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer though the child should be circumcised, offering two arguments which should be taken seriously by the Modern Orthodox community today,” explained Herzfeld. “First, though the offspring is not a legal Jew, on a mystical level the child retains a Jewish element. Not only does he argue that it is a mitzva to perform that circumcision, he also states that it's a mitzva to convert that child, and implies that it's important to bring the non-Jewish child to Judaism.

“His second argument is much more practical. If we ever want the father to return to Judaism, the only way we can do that is to embrace the family as well. If we want to bring back the father, we have to embrace the child in communal life.”

Herzfeld's provocative presentation epitomized the challenges and opportunities of Modern Orthodoxy--plumbing the past to consider seemingly modern-day issues, seeking leniency in ways that accord with Jewish law and reality.

“Open Orthodoxy” is the term Edah program director Rabbi Bob Carroll prefers to highlight his organization's ideological position.

“It puts the finger on what the issue really is.” said Carroll, who lives in Bergenfield. “Do you have enough faith in your own beliefs and the truths of your own beliefs that they can withstand and grow from and benefit from an exposure to the outside world?”

Copyright 2005 New Jersey Jewish News. All rights reserved. For subscription information call 973.887.8500.

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Derived from the Hebrew for "Jewish law," it's pertaining or according to the body of Jewish religious law including biblical law (those commandments found in the Torah), later Talmudic and rabbinic law, as well as customs and traditions. Hebrew, literally, for "sitting," refers to a Jewish educational institution that focuses on the study of traditional religious texts (including Torah and Talmud study). A yeshiva can be a day school for elementary or high school students, or a place of study for adults. Traditionally, a yeshiva was attended by boys/men only; more recently, yeshivas have opened for girls/women and even co-ed yeshivas now exist. Hebrew, literally, for "sitting," refers to a Jewish educational institution that focuses on the study of traditional religious texts (including Torah and Talmud study). A yeshiva can be a day school for elementary or high school students, or a place of study for adults. Traditionally, a yeshiva was attended by boys/men only; more recently, yeshivas have opened for girls/women and even co-ed yeshivas now exist. Hebrew for "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
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