Modern Orthodoxy: The Definition and Preservation of a Philosophy
Rabbi Shalom Hammer
January 6, 2006
כי כה אמר ה' בורא השמים הוא האלקים יצר הארץ ועשה הוא כוננה לא תהו בראה לשבת יצרה; אני ה' ואין עוד.
ויברך אתם אלקים ויאמר להם אלקים פרו ורבו ומלאו את הארץ וכבשה וגו'.
ששת ימים תעבד ועשית כל מלאכתך. ויום השביעי שבת ליהוה אלהיך וגו'.
רמב"ם משנה תורה, הלכות גזילה ואבידה ו:יא
והמשחק בקוביה עם הגוי אין בו איסור גזל, אבל יש בו איסור עוסק בדברים בטילים; שאין ראוי לאדם שיעסוק כל ימיו אלא בדברי תורה וביישובו של עולם.
אמר רב פפא אמר קרא (דברים ה) ולמדתם ועשיתם כל שישנו בעשיה ישנו בלמידה כל שאינו בעשיה אינו בלמידה.
רמב"ם משנה תורה, הלכות דעות א:ד
הדרך הישרה היא מידה בינונית שבכל דעה ודעה, מכל דעות שיש לאדם; והיא הדעה שהיא רחוקה משני הקצוות ריחוק שווה, ואינה קרובה לא לזו ולא לזו. ולפיכך ציוו חכמים הראשונים שיהא אדם שם דעותיו תמיד, ומשער אותן ומכוון אותן בדרך האמצעית, כדי שיהא שלם בגופו.
משנה אבות ב:ב
רבן גמליאל בנו של רבי יהודה הנשיא אומר: יפה תלמוד תורה עם דרך ארץ, שיגיעת שניהם משכחת עוון; וכל תורה שאין עימה מלאכה, סופה בטילה וגוררת עוון.
משנה אבות ב:יב
רבי יוסי אומר:...התקן עצמך ללמוד תורה, שאינה ירושה לך; וכל מעשיך יהיו לשם שמיים.
עבדו את ה' ביראה, וגילו ברעדה.
Rav Soleveitchik, Divrei Hashkafa, p. 78
The young American generation...is not totally engrossed in the pragmatic, utilitarian outlook... To the degree that average people in our society attain higher levels of knowledge and general intelligence, we cannot imbue them with a Jewish standpoint that relies primarily on sentiment and ceremony.
Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, Leaves of Faith, Volume 1, p. 280
On the other hand, the typical modern Orthodox Jew bridles at the thought of constricting his autonomy. Lacking a hagiographic orientation, he probably holds even his "own" gedolim in less awe than the haredi exudes with respect to his mentors. But even if this were not so, he would still be somewhat reluctant, on personal and philosophic grounds, to seek or even accept their counsel. That reluctance is, after all, part of his modernity. From Descartes on, if not since the Renaissance, the concern with personal judgment—whether in Kantian ethics, libertarian politics, Romantic aesthetics, or existential angst—is central to modern culture. Moreover, the modern Orthodox Jew would not regard his reluctance as a failing. He would, in all likelihood, insist upon seeing it as a virtue—the result, not of presumptuous vanity, but of a readiness to confront reality as a responsible spiritual being; and he would speak of striking the proper balance between the avoidance of error and the value of personal engagement.
Leaves of Faith, Volume 1, p. 295
Come now, and let us reason together, remember the days of old, consider the years of many generations. Was there ever anything like this, and where, then, did you find such a custom in any of the books of the sages of Israel, either Rishonim or Aharonim, that there should be a praiseworthy custom to ask for worldly counsel, as to what to do with respect to secular matters, of even the greatest sages of Israel of old, such as the Tannaim or Amora'im, to whom no secret was foreign and to whom even the byways of Heaven were familiar...?
Leaves of Faith, Volume 1, p. 322
But they do ordinarily command a price. Obviously, a community or an institution that harps incessantly upon a single theme should inculcate greater adherence to it than one that advances several simultaneously. The monochromatic pursuit of Torah, narrowly defined, will presumably result in greater expertise that a more diverse approach; and an ideology committed to the proposition that nothing but Talmud Torah is of intellectual worth should instill a more passionate commitment than one which contends that, for a ben Torah, learning may be central but need not be exclusive.
Those who nevertheless opt for a ketonet passim do so out of the conviction, consonant with Hazal's statement that כל העוסק בתורה בלבד דומה כמי שאין לו אלוקה, "Whoever engages in Torah only, is as one who has no G-d," that Torah and its study must, ideally, exist within the context of the totality of avodat Hashem and human life. But they recognize that they pay a price for their Torat hesed, even if they deem it worthwhile.
Leaves of Faith, Volume 1, p. 312
Does one champion a complex of views regarding the basic and ultimate matters—history, nature, the relation of the temporal and the eternal, of secularity and the sacred, even of G-d and man—because he has probed the issues in depth and these views constitute his innermost convictions? Or does one accept them because they provide and convenient equilibrium between rigorous insular faith and multifaceted culture, enabling him to enjoy the psychological security of remaining firmly anchored in tradition, while basking in the social, intellectual, and, yes, economic ambience of his contemporary milieu?
Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, Leaves of Faith, Volume 2
Far more grievous, however, is the existence of a weakness that logically does not inhere in the centrist outlook, and sociologically need not flow from it. What in the quest for scope mandates, for example, that children in a mamlakhti-dati school in Jerusalem should go home at noon, while their peers in a heder learn until evening? What degree of historical sensitivity dictates that a haredi of high school age make do with three weeks summer vacation, while his modern counterpart has well over two months? Does a universalist concern require that youngsters—and hence most adults as well—know a great deal about the Rolling Stones but nothing of the Avnei Nezer? That they be familiar with batting averages but unable to identify Reb Menachem Zembe?
The sad answer is self-evident. Not just the exigencies of budgeting energies, resources, or time, both the balancing of needs and the assignment of priorities, but sheer shallowness or callousness with respect to yiddishkeit is responsible for such abberations. These are the weaknesses that truly hurt, both because they are so avoidable and because of the mindset they presumably reflect. Juggling priorities and balancing opportunities, determining orders of importance amoung values, deciding what to emphasize and what to defer: this is all part of the inevitable complexity of spiritual existence, personal or collective.
There are at least two distinct types of Modern Orthodox, depending largely on the criteria used for defining the group. One is philosophically or ideologically modern, while the other is more appropriately characterized as behaviorally modern. In the category of philosophically Modern Orthodox would be those who are meticulously observant of Halakhah but are, nevertheless, philosophically modern. Within this context, being modern means, at minimum, having a positive perspective on general education and knowledge; viewing oneself, from a religious perspective, as being part of, and having responsibility for, both the larger Jewish community as well as society in general; and being positively disposed to Israel and religious Zionism.
The behaviorally Modern Orthodox, on the other hand, are not deeply concerned with philosophical ideas about either modernity or religious Zionism. By and large, they define themselves as Modern Orthodox in the sense that they are not meticulously observant. In many ways, their definition of themselves as Modern Orthodox has the same basis as did those whom Marshall Sklare found to define themselves as Conservative. That is, when asked, "What do you mean when you say you are Conservative?" the responses were, typically: "Now—I'd guess you'd call it middle of the road, as far as (not) being as strict as the Orthodox, yet not quite as Reformed as the Reformed," or "... I don't like the old-fashioned type, or the Reform. I'm between the two of them." Similarly, most of those who define themselves as Modern Orthodox do so in reference to right-wing or "Sectarian" Orthodoxy, and they define themselves as modern in the sense that they are not as observant.
For when all is said and done, it is traditional, Sectarian Orthodoxy which has been successful in maintaining and even strengthening itself as a community. By contrast, although there may be many individuals who define themselves as Modern Orthodox, Modern Orthodoxy has not established itself as a real movement in the way that Sectarian Orthodoxy has, nor is it likely to.
The majority of those who consider themselves Modern Orthodox are so behaviorally rather than philosophically. As indicated previously, it is their very selectivity in observance that manifests their modernity. However, for them, that selectivity is almost solely a matter of personal choice. They usually do not seek to legitimize their behavior ideologically—halakhically—nor do they feel a need to.
Orthodox Judaism is the stream of Judaism which adheres to a relatively strict interpretation and application of the laws and ethics first canonized in the Talmud ("The Oral Law") and later codified in the Shulchan Aruch ("Code of Jewish Law"). It is governed by these works and the Rabbinical commentary of the last 1,000+ years.
Orthodox Judaism is characterized by:
- The belief that the Torah (i.e. the Pentateuch) and its pertaining laws are Divine: Transmitted by God to Moses who then wrote it down, and cannot be changed by a human being.
- God has made an exclusive unbreakable covenant with the Children of Israel, the ancestors of the Jewish people, to be governed by the Torah.
- The belief that there is also an oral law in Judaism, embodied mainly in the Talmud and Aggadah, which is intrinsically and inherently entwined with the written law of the Torah.
- Adherence to Halakha (code/s of Jewish law), as codified mainly in the Shulchan Aruch, as an expression of both the written and oral laws.
- Judging the world outside, at any point in history and time, by the principles and guidance of what is presented and taught in the Torah/Talmud/Aggadah/Halakha primarily through the viewpoint of rabbis and their rabbinical literature.
- The centrality of yeshivas as schools of Talmudic study and learning.
- A traditional teaching and acceptance of the Jewish principles of faith by all Jews.
- Belief in the thirteen principles as stated by the Rambam (Maimonides).
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