Modern Orthodoxy's Ontological Predicament

When Modern Orthodox Jews are asked for a definition of their Jewish approach, they tend to give one of two answers. The first, which we shall call the "squeeze" hypothesis, is that they are primarily Orthodox in the traditional sense. It just so happens that Orthodoxy does not legislate over specific issues such as secular education, political thought or gender economic roles, and it is in these areas which they squeeze in as much modernity as possible, recognising many of its benefits. The second, which we shall call the "fuzzy" hypothesis, is that they wholeheartedly embrace both Orthodoxy and modernity. Each has a wide array of values which they admire, and together they provide the necessary elements for a comprehensive Jewish lifestyle.

I will argue that neither of these approaches is theoretically or practically coherent, resulting in the paralysis of what was once an exciting Jewish movement. I will propose a new definition which provides a framework within which we can move forward. If admitted openly, it could dispel some of the growing dysfunctionality in the Modern Orthodox community and build a platform from which its leaders can address the younger generation, deal with inter-denominational tensions, and create a strong, growing middle ground (especially in Israel).

The squeeze hypothesis relies on an assumption about the nature of Jewish law and its role. It is a revisionist approach, perceiving the halacha (Jewish law) as a pristine legal system covering certain areas of life, and leaving others untouched. However, such a hermetic delineation has little basis in Jewish history. There has always been a complex interplay between legal rulings and communal norms, for example in the outlawing of slavery or heter iskoh (the leniency over lending with interest for commercial purposes). Nonetheless, if one insists on making the distinction, anyone taking the halacha seriously today discovers an uncomfortable truth; while it might permit full participation in a modern economy, it leaves precious little room for modern values such as tolerance or open-mindedness.

The fuzzy hypothesis, in contrast, simply ignores these problems, oblivious to the clash between modernity and Orthodoxy over a multitude of issues, including human rights, doctrine, women's status, educational methodology, ethics and our national destiny. Living under the fuzzy hypothesis is essentially living in ignorance, and implies either abstention from considering any one of the above questions from both viewpoints or a compartmentalisation of one's beliefs into two often-contradictory systems. Neither possibility yields much stability to a modern, enquiring mind with access to a wealth and plurality of information.

The approach which I propose is radical yet obvious. Modern Orthodoxy needs to take a deep breath, hold its head up high, and shout to the heavens, "we are going to compromise, lchatchila (by primary intention, not as a secondary response)!" The c-word, so inimical to Orthodox thought, is the only way Modern Orthodoxy can ever define itself honestly. Yet, why is it such a hard concept to embrace? Since when has compromise been anathema to the Jewish way? In Egypt? In Yavneh? In Oslo? Let us not confuse the occasional outpouring of zeal with an overall picture of our nation's history. God Himself compromised with Adam, Cain, Abraham, Moses and many other characters in the Tanach, not to mention the entire Jewish people dozens of times.

The real reason why compromise is seen as taboo is that it begs the question : "If we are willing to compromise, what makes us different from Reform, Liberal, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Secular Humanist Jews?" The tragic reality is that Modern Orthodoxy ultimately defines itself with reference to, and as against, other strands within the plurality of Jewish communal life. Perhaps a better question they should ask is : "If we are not willing to compromise, what makes us different from ultra-Orthodoxy?" A movement which seeks a place in the future of a people cannot be constrained by artifically-imposed political categorisations. Is there any serious Jewish thinker or sect which is not seeking to bring the treasures of our heritage to individuals of the modern age? What exactly is the argument about? Has sensibility been undermined by banal tribalism?

Constructing a coherent definition of Modern Orthodoxy entails appreciating four things : what is good about modernism, what is bad about modernity, what is good about tradition, but also what is bad about Orthodoxy. Other strands within the Jewish world may choose to ignore one or more of these considerations, but as a movement struggling to define itself and underwrite its very existence, Modern Orthodoxy does so at its own peril. Such a framework will unavoidably yield a plurality of approaches, some dissenting, but an ability to withstand and embrace the resultant tensions will reunite it firmly with the spirit of the Tanach (Bible), and create a dynamic, participative Jewish life that has some hope of recapturing its richness.

© Mayim, 2005.