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Modern Orthodoxy for Everyone?

Posted July 9, 2010

This week I attended a special get-together in honor of the Hirhurim blog. Hirhurim, founded six years ago by Rabbi Gil Student, provides for open and productive blog discussion on a wide variety of topics relating to the Jewish world as well as the world of Orthodox Judaism. I commend Rabbi Student and his dedicated group of volunteers for their courage in using the internet as a mode of communication on many controversial and divisive issues within the Jewish community. In honor of this get-together, Rabbi Student published a wonderful collection of essays and studies. I would like to share with you my contribution entitled “Modern Orthodoxy for Everyone?” This essay is the result of a conversation I had recently with a friend (who happens to have been one of the first people to sign up for my blog). I look forward to your comments and reactions.

Modern Orthodoxy for Everyone?
Rabbi Adam Mintz

I was recently speaking with a friend who stated that “Modern Orthodoxy has no future because it is the denomination of the elite.” I would like to evaluate this comment.

Rabbi Norman Lamm, in the Preface to his volume Torah UMadda, includes the following autobiographical note: “I have experienced a lifelong romance with this ideal [of Torah UMadda], a romance that was not at all uncritical. It has inspired and frustrated me, challenged and puzzled me, and made me feel that, in turn, it is incapable of theoretical justification for a believing Jew – yet so self-evident as not to require any justification.” Rabbi Lamm dedicated his volume, and in many ways his professional and intellectual life, to define this ideal of Torah Umadda. Yet, Rabbi Lamm’s self-perception only strengthens the question whether the average Orthodox Jew is ready or willing to experience the religious and intellectual challenges that Torah Umadda demands.

I believe that translating the challenges of Torah Umadda, or Modern Orthodoxy in the broader sense, for those who do not feel the constant tension expressed by Rabbi Lamm, will determine the viability and energy of Modern Orthodoxy in the coming generation. While the exact definition of Modern Orthodoxy has been debated for as long as the ideology has been around, the synthesis of Torah learning and worldly knowledge has been considered a cornerstone of this religious philosophy, by intellectual and layman alike.

Modern Orthodoxy, like many ideological movements, has been defined through the vision of its founders and spokespeople. How can Rabbi Soloveitchik’s Lonely Man of Faith or Rabbi Lichtenstein’s Leaves of Faith not be considered central texts for the community that struggles to integrate the worlds of Torah and worldly culture? However, to dismiss the struggles and the possible resolution of these struggles as relating only to the intellectual is to shortchange the layman or yeshiva student who tries to find his or her place in the complex religious world in which we live. Whether it is determining the role of Biblical Criticism in the life of a shomer Torah u-mitzvot or choosing a profession that will enable you to spend adequate time with your family, the ability to evaluate relative merit and value from a modern Torah perspective is the framework by which all of these decisions must be made.

Yet, as is often the case, the theoretical construct is much easier to articulate than to put into practice. How many Modern Orthodox leaders have the knowledge and the courage to assist people in making these decisions that are based on relative religious value judgments? And, how many members of our community are even willing to ask the questions. It is in this vein that I believe that we must all congratulate Rabbi Student and the Hirhurim community for giving opportunities to scholars and laymen, to talmidei hakhamim and beginners, to participate in a conversation that addresses so many of the critical issues for our community. While the comments on Hirhurim cannot be considered as piskei halakhah, the ability to freely discuss these issues creates greater sensitivity, and I believe courage, to make difficult decisions in our religious lives.

While my friend’s comment is understandable, Rabbi Student has gone a long way towards insuring that Modern Orthodoxy, with all its challenges and inconsistencies, can be a “lifelong romance” for our entire community.

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