Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Can Modern Orthodoxy Survive?

Modern Orthodox Jew, Jack Lew, US Secretary of the Treasury
Jack Wertheimer does it again. He never fails to amaze me with his ability to explore, describe, and analyze issues of the day that affect Judaism.  As a Conservative rabbi he has in the past criticized his own movement’s lack or even inability to inspire its members towards observance. And he attributes much of their demise to this. As I recall he was right on the money on that issue.

About a year ago also did a very positive analysis of Orthodox outreach in all of its incarnations.

He now tackles Modern Orthodoxy. He has certainly done his homework. And his analysis here is also very positive. Perhaps he wants to join us? His complaints about his own movement do not exist in Modern Orthodoxy. I’m pretty sure he is personally observant and I’ll bet that he would breeze through tests for an Orthodox Semicha. (Although I’m not his theological views with respect to Torah MiSinai are acceptable from an Orthodox perspective. But I digress.)

He practically fawns over Modern Orthodoxy in his opening remarks in comparison to other segments of Jewry: 
Relatively small in number, making up just 3 percent of American Jewry as a whole—and by no means comprising all who identify themselves as Orthodox—it alone seems to have found the sweet spot: a synthesis of the modern with traditional Jewish observance. Recent surveys, including Pew’s Portrait of Jewish Americans, make clear just how well the Modern Orthodox have combined both parts of their name. 
He then defines it both philosophically and sociologically. As most people who read this blog already know,  Modern Orthodoxy combines Torah and Mada.   MO Jews reinforce both via an intense Jewish education where in most cases there is rigorous Torah study in the mornings and an equally rigorous secular studies program. The result is a strong commitment to observance and an ability to achieve great heights in both the the Torah world secular world.  Modern Orthodoxy also appreciates secular culture where it does not contradict with Halacha… and in some cases enhances observing it.  

As a result, MO Jews have risen to the highest level of achievement in both the religious arena (R’ Hershel Shachter and R’ Aharon Lichtenstein come to mind) and in the secular arena (e.g. Jack Lew, the current Secretary of the Treasury; Michael Mukasey, former U.S. Attorney General; and Joseph Lieberman, former Democratic nominee for the Vice Presidency as noted By Professor Wertheimer). Another plus for MO is that they are in the top categories of income earners.  More MOs are in that category than any other segment of Jewry.

But all is not rosy, which is the implication of his question, ‘Can Modern Orthodoxy survive?’ (I believe this question is only about what is happening on the US and not really applicable to Israel which has a whole bunch of other issues to contend with that muddy the picture.)

There are indeed forces working against Modern Orthodoxy from both the right and the left.  Professor Wertheimer correctly identifies those challenges. My only quibble is that he seems to give them equal weight. In my view the far bigger challenge comes from the right.

This should be clear for anyone who has been paying attention. There is strength in numbers. And the right has them. Chasidim reproduce in far greater  numbers than MO Jews. And non Chasidic Charedim are not that far behind the Chasidim. It is also the nature of the right wing world to seek jobs in Chinuch. There is in fact a glut of Charedi teachers seeking such work. In some ways that is a good thing since hopefully the best and brightest tend to get hired. (Although that is not always the case, hopefully it is true most of the time). MO Jews tend not togo into Chinuch.Their education is geared to getting good jobs and having great careers. 

That leaves day schools and high schools with not enough MO teachers to hire and they have to rely on right wing teachers. And no matter what the Hashkafos of the school are… and no matter what Hashlafos these teachers are told to impart, the truth is that they impart their own beliefs to their students. Many of them are influenced to attend RW Yeshivas in their gap year and end up becoming right wing themselves.  Add to that the relatively recent advent of community Kollels that have been established in major cities throughout the country  and specialize in ‘inreach’ and you have the perfect storm for a communal move to the right.

Contrast that with the influences from the left. They have hardly made a dent in most MO communities. There is also a lot of push-back by MO rabbis who lean rightward. The only real influence they have is on left leaning Jews who might otherwise go the Conservative route or hardcore feminists. They have not really had much of an impact on the Modern Orthodox mainstream.

So what is the answer to Professor Wertheimers question. Can MO survive?  I’m not so sure. Much as I believe Right Wing Modern Orthodoxy (Centrism) to be the correct path of a Torah Jew, the tidal wave of Charedism will overwhelm it. But this is not necessarily a bad thing. As I have said many times, the vast majority of Charedim are moderates that have adopted many of the ways of Modern Orthodoxy. There are more Charedi professionals who have gone to universities, graduate schools,a and professional schools than at any time in history.

 And despite their likely denial to the contrary, they have been in influenced by it, in positive ways. They are also more affluent than the hardcore Charedim who these days echew secular studies. The lifestyles of a Moderate Charedi and an RWMO are pretty much identical. RWMOs have moved to the right too but have not abandoned their Hashkafos. I have called this new conglomeration of Jews,  the new centrists. They are socially the same but ut their Hashkaofs are different. And they will continue to be as long as there is a yeshiva University that produces them. But since Hashkafos are rarely if ever discussed between them, they will meld socially as a cohesive community.

I don’t think this is a bad thing. As long as these Charedim stay moderate and educate their children that way. And as long as RWMOs do not abandon their Hashkafos and educate their children that way. This new entity will not be called Modern Orthodox. But who cares? I never liked labels anyway. The important thing is that the important values of Modern Orthodoxy will be retained and hopefully swept into the way this new entity defines itself.