For over two centuries, factions both in Europe and North America loosely assembled under the “modern” Orthodox rubric came together around three main principles. First, a full commitment to religious observance does not demand reclusion from the broader society or from secular knowledge. Second, while personal observance is the ideal and should be encouraged, it is not an unconditional requirement for individual membership in the Jewish collective. Third, neither Reform nor Conservative Judaism is a legitimate expression of Jewish religious teachings.
Historically, there were sharp internal debates about these principles as well as multiple interpretations of them. But there was also overwhelming consensus on the foundational synthesizing ideals that inspired Modern Orthodoxy and distinguished it both from liberal denominations and from alternative forms of Orthodoxy. Even after the model was well established in America, certain causes—a striking example being the activist campaign on behalf of Soviet Jewry, a movement in which the Modern Orthodox took a leading part in mobilizing the energies of the entire American Jewish community—continued to nurture a sense of shared and distinctive purpose.
Today, the lines are softening, at least to some extent. Pitched inter-denominational battles are rare, and even haredi circles increasingly accept higher education and cooperate with non-Orthodox denominations under the banner of combating assimilation. Still, the norms of harediJudaism remain clear-cut and well defined, while the nuanced messages of Modern Orthodoxy become harder to detect. If, at the heart of today’s Modern Orthodoxy, one finds only a common “lifestyle”—what Jay Lefkowitz has dubbed “social Orthodoxy”—part of the reason may lie in the weakening hold of its foundational vision on the allegiances of syncretists and tolerators alike.
What themes continue to galvanize Modern Orthodoxy? Commitment to the state of Israel as a religious value is still an ideal that joins together the different factions and generates considerable enthusiasm. But, as Wertheimer notes, those most passionate about Israel tend to move there in order to contribute more directly to the society’s welfare as well as to experience a less bifurcated Jewish life, and this causes American Modern Orthodoxy to lose some of its most capable and inspired offspring.This brings us back to the evolving religious role of women: the one issue that continues to spark serious excitement among both those who campaign for expanding opportunities and those who oppose far-reaching changes. Whether equilibrium can be achieved on this issue, and can be accepted by the broadest part of the constituency, is unclear.
What is clear is that the ongoing vitality of American Modern Orthodoxy, and ultimately its survival, will depend upon the emergence of new causes or visions that generate pride and solidify a broad identification not just with the movement’s “lifestyle” but with its distinctive religious outlook.
Adam Ferziger, “Why Modern Orthodoxy Is in Crisis”, Mosaic (August 2014) [http://mosaicmagazine.com/supplemental/2014/08/why-modern-orthodoxy-is-in-crisis/]