|Image taken for the New York Jewish Week|
I am a modern Orthodox Jew. I say that with pride. I do not hide that fact from anyone. Although there are some modern Orthodox Jews that will dispute that as my true identity. That’s because there is some controversy about how one defines that category.
Any fair minded person would allow for a variety of different sub-identities that would fit into modern Orthodoxy. No fair minded person should deny any of them. For me being modern Orthodox means placing a high value on secular education and those parts of the secular culture that do not contradict Halacha or contradict the Torah’s values. Which include both Halacha and tradition.
I am therefore not only proud of my religious education, I am proud of my secular education. Nor do I have any guilt enjoying various aspects of the secular culture that fit into the above mentioned parameters. I incorporate much of it into my life daily and have done so as far back as I can remember. I believe that this is how the Centrist component of modern Orthodoxy by and large see themselves. As I have mentioned in the past, both Hirschean Torah Im Derech Eretz (TIDE) and Torah U’Mada (TuM) fit into that category.
(Although adherents of TIDE don’t like to be called ‘modern’ and do their level best to discredit TuM, I don’t see much difference between them with respect to the actual embrace of both secular education and secular culture. True, there are philosophical differences between TIDE and TuM as to why and what toe embrace. But that is not an impediment to being called modern Orthodox as I and many others like me define it.)
Alas, my critics from the left do not accept that as a definition of modern Orthodoxy. They see a more theological component to it that accepts disciplines such as modern scholarship of the bible.They even allow for a belief that the Torah was written by man in its entirety as an allegory - albeit Divinely inspired perhaps.
They also would posit that modern Orthodoxy should embrace the egalitarian ethos of our time as more just than our Torah based traditions are. In some cases they even grant some form of legitimacy to heterodox movements. They will say that as long as the strict letter of Halacha is kept, you can add the word ‘Orthodox’ to modern.
I can understand why they might say so. But I am in profound disagreement with them for reasons beyond the scope of this post.
Which brings me to a recent article in the New York Jewish Week. It suggests that there is a greater ‘crisis of faith’ among modern Orthodox young millennials than at any other time in history:
The recent, first-ever study on the Modern Orthodox community, reported on here for the first time last week, found data to support Weisberg’s intuitions. The study shows more wavering on Orthodox theological fundamentals — including full belief that God loves his creations (at 46 percent) and the bible was given at Sinai (64 percent) — than one might expect nearly 4,000 self-identified ‘Modern Orthodox’ responded.
Among millennial respondents (aged 18 to 34), belief in God and the divinity of Torah decreased across the board compared to older respondents. While 86 percent of respondents aged 55 and older believe the Torah was given at Sinai, only 78 percent of younger respondents believe the same thing. While 71 percent of those 55 and older believe the oral Torah was given to Moses — condensed into the Talmud— 62 percent of younger respondents said they adhere to that belief.
First I think it should be noted that these figures are based on an opt-in survey rather than a random sample. Which is statistically flawed, in my view. If you pursue participation in a survey rather than being randomly chosen to respond, I think it might be because you want to ‘make a statement’ by responding in a counter intuitive way. So I have to question what the real percentages are.
But let us for the moment say that these numbers are somewhat accurate. If your definition of modern Orthodoxy allows for these kinds of responses as a legitimate form of Orthodoxy, then this survey might have little meaning to them. If all modern Orthodox Jews started to believe that the events at Sinai never really happened, that’s OK with them.
But if you are a Centrist like me, it is troubling. For us Emunah requires one to believe that the events at Sinai actually happened. Because if they didn’t, than what you are really saying is that our sages lied to us. Even if they made it all up for the best of reasons, a religion based on lies is a religion of Sheker. Fudging that by saying it was divinely inspired is just speculation at best. Why bother with it altogether?!
The response by many such skeptics who nonetheless are quite observant of Halacha, can be seen by the following:
In an open-ended question, the overwhelming majority of respondents — 42 percent — gave “community and a sense of belonging” as the key driver of Orthodox observance.
As Jay Lefkowitz put it when asked why he is observant despite the doubts he had about the events at Sinai: I do it because I’m a ‘Jet’. (This was the name of a fictional street gang in the play/movie West Side Story.) In this case substituting the word ‘Jew’ in place of ‘Jet’.
But what is it exactly that is perpetuated if you don’t believe in Sinai? Are you not perpetuating a lie?! Why would anyone want to be part of that kind of heritage?! Furthermore, what difference does it really make whether you keep Shabbos or not? -Just to preserve us as a people?! Who cares?!
That is where the danger lies in accepting the left’s version of modern Orthodoxy. Millennials will ask these questions and can easily answer them by rejecting Judaism entirely.
Charedim do not have these issues as much because they are sheltered and not as exposed to these kinds of questions. They are rarely if ever discussed. Belief in the events at Sinai is so ingrained that the mere thought of questioning their legitimacy is rejected before it can even reach their consciousness. (Although there are increasingly more exceptions to this as these issues become more discussed in the larger arena of the internet where religious assumptions are constantly being challenged.)
There are more skeptics and atheists among formerly Orthodox Jews than ever before. However, many of them are outwardly observant. Sometimes even meticulously so – depending on the culture in which they live. They do so for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is to retain their status as observant Jews among their family, friends, and peers. Or for the ‘peripherals’ of a family life Halachos like keeping Shabbos engenders. But how long can that really last if it is based entirely on a cultural desire rather than an actual belief?
These young modern Orthodox millennials are probably the most vulnerable to these new influences. Their religious background allows them more freedom to pursue ideologies that contradict the Torah. and perhaps more significantly because the left finds that kind of thinking acceptable and the fact that they have institutions and role models to follow in that regard. This means increasing levels of doubt will happen among our young.
This is a major problem for modern Orthodoxy and to a lesser extent – even in Charedi Orthodoxy. What to do about this problem is a question I really have no answer for.