Monday, December 02, 2019

Is Modern Orthodoxy in Trouble?

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, ZTL (Times of Israel)
Nishma Research (with the help of the RCA - Rabbinical Council of America) conducted a survey on Modern Orthodoxy. Which has made more than few interesting observations.  Much of which has been summarized in a New York Jewish Week article. There is a lot to unpack here and I’m not sure I’ll be able to cover everything. But here goes.

My first quibble is in how they have define Centrist Orthodoxy. It isn’t so much that they have made an error. It’s because they define it only in the context of Modern Orthodoxy itself. Without considering the Charedi world.  In their context  I suppose they’re right. But this is not how I define Centrism. 

Centrism is not about some sort of midpoint level of observance.  It is much more about what they call right wing or stringent Centrism. The truth is that Centrism is probably closer to being Charedi than it is to being Modern Orthodox. But it still classifies as modern in the sense that it places a high value on secular studies as well as participating in the general culture when it does not conflict with Halacha and the traditions of Judaism that have been with us for centuries. There is no compromise on this.

This survey implies centrists having a lesser standard than that. Somewhere between Open Orthodox and right wing Modern Orthodox. It is true that category exists. But I would not call it centrist.I would simply call it Left wing Modern Orthodox. Which is to the right of Open Orthodoxy.

This is an important distinction since the Charedi world does understand these differences and lumps us all together as in some sort of less observant form of Judaism they call modern orthodox. Which  cannot be further from the truth. 

Which brings me to another quibble. It is true that Centrism doesn’t have the kind of centralized rabbinic authority that Charedi world does (which they call Daas Torah). We do have rabbinic leaders we turn to for complex questions of Halacha and Hashkafa. Centrism as I define it is fully observant and has relied and still relies on rabbinic greats such as R’ Yosef Dov Soloveitchik  R’ Aharon Lichtenstein and R’ Hershel Schachter. None of whom compromised in the slightest on issues of Halacha and tradition.

The Left on the other hand often makes communal decisions independent of (or ignoring)  any consultation with leading rabbis such as those I mention. Centrists understand their own personal limitations and biases and if our rabbinic leaders reject an innovation, we will not defy them.

Here are some of the issues the participants of the survey dealt with. 

One is how they viewed the authenticity of their own Hashkafa. It is troubling even at the most optimistic level. While 68% viewing it as authentic is a respectable number - the 38% that don't makes me wonder why they even bother observing something that do not believe to be authentic.

Perhaps that 38% belong to the category I have termed Modern Orthodox Lite. Those are Jews that  tend to be observant for social reasons. 

Interestingly about 58% of those interviewed were optimistic about Modern Orthodoxy’s religious future but at the same time only 24% said that it is spiritually inspiring. Which explains why as little as 6% felt there was any strong cohesiveness and only 24% felt there was any cohesiveness  at all.
The rest of the report focused on differences between the Right (Centrist) and the Left of Modern Orthodoxy on the issues confronting the 21st century. Differences on issues such as how to treat the LGBTQ community and the role of women..

The Right tends to be accepting of LGBTQ but not celebratory of the lifestyle  Whereas the Left tends toward a more celebratory approach.

52% of the left feels discontent with the status quo of women and want to expand their role. 

Interestingly 72% felt ‘some negative views and values of broader secular society are making their way into my Orthodox community’. That surprised me. I guess some of what general society offers is unacceptable even to the Left.

Significantly, the right feels that: ‘Orthodoxy was being too influenced by a secular liberal agenda not completely in sync with Orthodoxy, and the introduction of women clergy is “going a bit far.’ That is not surprising at all.

Another distinction is in how Modern Orthodox parents feel about their children remaining observant: 
(M)ost Modern Orthodox parents want their children to be halachically observant, with “centrist” Orthodoxy being the ideal for 58 percent, 18 percent wanting their children to be religiously “right,” and 13 percent saying their child’s religious preferences are not so critical or relevant. 
This too is a troubling statistic. It means that ‘centrists’ (as defined by Nishma) has as many as 42% that do not consider observance to be the ideal. That is another reason I don’t like Nishma’s definition. Centrists as I define them would be unanimous in that desire.

And finally there is Jewish education. The survey indicated that the near universal attendance at religious day schools is slipping.  An astounding 31% of Modern Orhthodox parents say they are considering public school for their children.

This is explained in the following way: 
The erosion is rooted in the question of whether Modern Orthodox schools are fulfilling their core mandate, “creating committed Orthodox Jews,” with 55 percent saying the schools do, but 34 percent saying they don’t.
While “learning” was a public and private priority, there were those who felt Jewish education could be more expansive; Gemara study should be more inclusive of Aggadah; Tanach study could better include the Later Prophets; and there should be room for teaching mysticism and mussar (Jewish ethical instruction and discipline). 
I happen to agree that there is a lot missing from Jewish education these days even in the best of schools. But I don’t see this as a reason to give up on day schools. Is there any parent that actually believes that pulling their children from a day school and sending them to public school will improve that situation?

What’s driving this in my view is the high cost of a religious education. Especially in schools that have a top notch secular studies curriculum and faculty to match. It is simply not affordable for many parents even if they have 2 working parents and a 6 figure incomes. 

While most parents still bite the bullet and manage to meet their financial obligations to the schools their children attend, it should not be surprising that a substantial number of them are beginning to question whether they can continue doing that -  and survive financially. Even for those that believe that money is well  spent. That is a serious problem that can only have adverse affects upon the viability of Modern Orthodoxy. And may be the most serious problem it has to tackle.