Sunday, September 26, 2010

Modern Orthodoxy’s Weakness

One of the raps against modern Orthodox Jews (MO) is that they are so immersed in the general culture that they can easily succumb its temptations and go Off the Derech (OTD). The fact is that even though there has been a lot of discussion about Charedi youth going OTD because of being over-sheltered, I would be willing to bet that there is a far greater number young people who identify as modern Orthodox who do.

I suppose it is the nature of the beast to be more inclined to be influenced by those things one is constantly exposed to than it is to be influenced by things one is never exposed to. The trick is to know how to handle exposure when it happens. In the Charedi community there is the belief that insularity is the most protective. The problem with that is that it is virtually impossible to completely insulate oneself or one’s children from the general culture. And without proper preparation exposure can and often does lead to going OTD.

The opposite is true in modern Orthodoxy. Most Modern Orthodox Jews are exposed to the culture. All the preparation in the world cannot easily overcome that portion of the culture that pulls one away from observance.

There have unfortunately been numerous examples of such exposure pulling people OTD. Most recently a young woman by the name of Esther Petrack has made news in that vein. Competing for a spot as a contestant on the reality TV series, America’s Next Top Model - she was interviewed by Tyra Banks, the series host. After indentifying herself to be a Shomer Shabbos modern Orthodox Jew she was asked if she would violate Shabbos in that the show required 7 day per week participation. Without hesitation she said - Yes, she would.

I suppose one can Dan L’Kaf Zechus and judge her favorably. Perhaps she thought she could somehow participate without technically violating Shabbos. She probably already rationalized away modeling extremely immodest clothing in front of millions of the TV viewers. She may have thought that it’s not her responsibility to dress modestly – it is the responsibility of religious viewers to ‘avert their eyes’ and not watch the show.)

But realistically it is hard to imagine that she isn’t prepared to go fully OTD for the sake of getting on the show.

Is that a soft spot in Modern Orthodoxy? Perhaps. Both Charedi Judaism and modern Orthodoxy have its weaknesses. But I think the weakness in modern Orthodoxy though very real is a sociological issue and not a philosophical one. The unfortunate fact happens to be that modern Orthodoxy is a demographic that includes many segments - the largest of which I believe to be MO Lite.

Let me be clear. By MO Lite I do not mean left wing Modern Orthodox Jews (LWMO). They are generally very committed Jews who do not compromise observance. My differences with them are ideological. MO Lites are an entirely different demographic.

They are modern Orthodox for social reasons rather than theological ones. I believe that most of those who comprise this demographic were raised in observant homes but participation in the culture was emphasized far more that ritual observance. Their knowledge of Halacha is therefore minimal and often superficial. So that when religious observance comes into conflict with lifestyle, observance is sometimes a casualty.

As an aside I would note that there seems to be a backlash in some modern Orthodox schools against the move to the right that has affected all segments of Orthodoxy. I recently spoke to a Mechanech at a modern Orthodox high school who lamented that in his school there has been a reduction in the already minimal amount of Limudei Kodesh studies in favor of more academics - the greater part of the day being spent on it. I suspect that this is the will of their board of directors which is probably comprised of parents who view getting into the ‘Ivies’ as the most important thing in their children’s lives!

It should be little wonder therefore that MO students like Ms. Petrack are so quick to drop observance in the face of a lifestyle challenge. I would suggest that her level of commitment is of the MO Lite variety

So yes, the complaint against modern Orthodoxy is legitimate. However it is a sociological issue -not a philosophical one. The philosophy of modern Orthodoxy is not to minimize observance of Halacha. It considers Halacha paramount – exactly the same as Charedi Judaism does. The philosophically modern Orthodox Jew is devoted to observance first - and lifestyle second. I would apply this description to both left wing modern Orthodoxy as well as right wing or Centrist modern Orthodoxy. I would add that from my own perspective Centrist Orthodoxy is the closest thing to what God – through His Torah - wants from His people. But that’s another subject.

The one thing that is certain in my mind is that true adherents of Centrist or even left wing modern Orthodoxy are not MO Lite Jews who view much of their observance in social terms.

Unfortunately I do not believe that Centrists or LWMO comprise a majority of modern Orthodox Jewry. MO Lite Jews probably do. Although Yeshiva University graduates tend toward right wing modern Orthodoxy - and I believe are a growing Orthodox demographic which will eventually surpass the MO Lite demographic - we aren’t there yet. So the rap against us as a combined sociological grouping consisting of MO Lites, RWMOs, and LWMOs - is a legitimate one.

When I hear that a Modern Orthodox high school has lessened its religious curriculum in favor of its academic curriculum, it disappoints me. But at the same time I am encouraged by the typical YU student who is as serious about his Judaism as is any student in Lakewood – albeit with different Hashkafos.

Moderate Charedim will populate the ‘New Centrist’ communities along with these Centrists. And that – in my view - is the way modern Orthodoxy should ultimately be judged.

Update: (October 24, 2010) Apparently Ms. Petrack has been misrepresented. She is observant and plans to remain observant. I apologize for the error. I have written a new post elaborating on my apology. It is located here.