Modern Orthodoxy is Always at the Crossroads


By Michael Broyde

[Editor’s Note: Rabbi Broyde penned and submitted an eloquent reaction to my piece in Ami Magazine regarding the dilemma that Modern Orthodoxy faces in regard to the Far Left. It is a more than worthwhile read, for cogently capturing a very different point of view. Rabbi Broyde and I have been fast friends for years. Despite the fact that we very rarely agree about important matters, we both sense that we share far more than we disagree about. I do not regard him as a member of the Far Left, especially because of our shared passion for serious Torah learning – even though we frequently disagree about pshat in the passages before us. We are friends neither in spite of our differences, nor because of them. We are simply friends.

Needless to say, I disagree with both my friend’s analysis of the differences between the Far Left and mainstream Orthodoxy, as well as his recommendations for action. I am hoping that readers will do much of the heavy lifting in reacting to this piece, saving me from having to write a detailed response. – YA]

I. Introduction

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein’s brilliantly written essay “Modern Orthodoxy at a Crossroads” is, like everything else Rabbi Adlerstein has written, full of his erudite insights into community. However, ultimately, both his diagnosis of the problem and his explanation of the solution are, I think, wrong: Modern Orthodoxy is always at the crossroads – no more now than yesterday or tomorrow. Furthermore, he fundamentally misunderstands the Modern Orthodox ethos and condition – Modern Orthodoxy will always be more embracing of all Orthodox Jews than many are comfortable with as our boundaries are determined more by the historical parameters of halacha than by current gedolim. Modern Orthodoxy will always be more open to all Orthodox Jews.

At its core, Rabbi Adlerstein’s essay is an attempt to delegitimize what he call the Orthodox “Far Left,” a term he does not define or characterize, but is used throughout in his essay. Allow me to give it a definition: the Orthodox “Far Left” is a group within the Orthodox community which is attempting to discard many aspects of minhag yisrael on matters of women’s issues and perhaps will come to adopt the same approach to other issues as well. Yet it seems that at least in intent (if not in effect, to borrow Lawrence Summer’s term), they are not seeking to leave the halachic community at all. They are, instead, seeking to expand the borders of customary practice with innovative readings of sources, some grounded in classical insights, some grounded in innovation and some grounded in social change that they perceive as present. Furthermore, and this might be the crux of the issue, they steadfastly refuse to defer to the judgments of the gedolim who dominate the community that Rabbi Adlerstein comes from and instead either put forward their own gedolim or deny the need for sanction from gedolim to make the changes they recommend.

Rabbi Adlerstein’s view is that the RCA must expel the “Far Left” and without such an expulsion, the cooperation with the Charedi community will be jeopardized. Both of these conclusions are wrong – indeed, I think that the RCA should welcome as members those whom Rabbi Adlerstein thinks is the “Far Left” with open hands; the Orthodox center and right are all better with the Orthodox “Far Left” present, and much more importantly, the Orthodox “Far Left” is better served in a community with the rest of Orthodoxy. Each will moderate and temper the other. The parts are weaker than the whole. Modern Orthodoxy has to be more embracing of all Orthodox Jews. Furthermore, if we exclude the halachic “Far Left” from our community, we will have no say in what they do and how they do it.

II. Halacha First: A Modern Orthodox Credo

First and foremost, Rabbi Adlerstein’s plea for expulsion is completely unconvincing to me. Anyone who really understands what Modern Orthodoxy ought to be, understands that after we are finished expelling the “Far Left”, there will be a new far left to expel. In this regard, the Rav’s z.t.l approach to Rabbi Rackman was correct – wrong halachic ideas are criticized and sometimes even delegitimatized – but people are not normally expelled for advocating ideas that are within the halachic universe but simply not proper or normative.

(But this is not enough of a vision for the Modern Orthodox community – as we have to decide what idea and conduct are outside of these parameters. Our tent needs to have walls – otherwise, what kind of tent is it? More on this in the next section)

Second, and most importantly, Modern Orthodoxy is – as its name suggests – an attempt to meld the classical rabbinic tradition with the best of the modern world, and it requires, indeed even mandates, that the modern world be examined to determine what is in it that ought to be part of the Orthodox community. This can be found in the rabbinic idiom that “The best of the house of Yefet should reside in the house of Shem” – the best of western culture should be part of the Jewish community.

To implement this requires two things, one obvious and one less so. It requires that we examine western culture faithfully and diligently to determine that which is best and ought to be incorporated. More subtly, it requires that we recognize that there are things missing from our own tent, so that we ought to acquire them from the outside: the recognition that there are things missing from our own tent is a central point of the Modern Orthodox mindset.

Here is the Modern Orthodox difficulty: we sometimes argue about what is missing from our own tent that ought to be incorporated. For example, some of us think that greater egalitarianism is needed, and others think that egalitarianism is not a virtue. Some think that Messianic Zionism ought to be incorporated — and others think that Messianic Zionism is a vice. Some welcome a university which is a yeshiva — others do not. Some of us think that Talmudic rabbis can err about scientific fact — and others do not. Modernity has brought many changes, not all of them good – but not all of them bad, either. Modern Orthodoxy is itself uncertain about these issues and most of us believe that each of these ideas (and many other modern ideas) has brought both positive and negative changes. Equal pay for men and women performing the same jobs, and communal action to prevent domestic abuse and marital rape are two clear examples of a positive impact of feminism. The unbridled use of unwarranted abortions and immodest dress, on the other hand, are clear examples of a negative impact. As with other contemporary values, such as democracy, the halakhic community must determine which values within a given contemporary ideology are worthy of incorporation. Most topics are rarely questions of black and white, and require a careful analysis of the halakhic sources as well as meta-halakhic factors at stake. Truth resides typically between the polar ideals of a complex situation.

How are we to solve this basic problem? I suggest Modern Orthodoxy both cannot and should not. Instead, we should allow experimentation within the Orthodox community to allow time to help us discern what is and what is not missing from our tent and to incorporate external virtues into our community gradually.

Finally, and related, until the reestablishment of a Sanhedrin, we need to achieve unity and not uniformity, enabling a reality of diversity without divisiveness. This is the appropriate historical lesson of the terrible schism within European Orthodox Jewry in the 19th and 20th centuries. The vicious fights between religious groups (Chasidim versus Misnagdim, Zionists versus anti-Zionists and many others) and the many polemical disputes about the details of ritual life (sermons in the vernacular, the placement of the bimah, etc…) with their delegitimizing tone strike one, with the wisdom of hindsight, as unwise. The fratricidal fighting did not help our community or Judaism as a whole, and appears particularly misguided in light of how we have come over time to live with these differences. Modern Orthodoxy – recognizing the difficulty of the task of melding the best of western culture with classical Orthodox Judaism – will be more embracing of all Orthodox Jews than those movements who see no value in this task.

This same motto of “unity without uniformity, diversity without divisiveness” should also apply to the range of opinions regarding women’s issues, and in particular, the role of women as students and teachers of Torah. Clearly, there exists a wide spectrum of opinions on this matter, ranging from Rabbi Soloveitchik’s opinion that Talmud study ought to be a routine part of women’s education, to Rabbi Teitelbaum’s approach that women may only be taught the Written Torah without even Rashi’s commentary. Many others fall out between these two poles, again recognizing that all remain a part of the Orthodox community.

III: Where Should the Walls of Our Tent Be?

But, of course there have to be walls to our big tent. These walls should be the wide historical walls of classical Orthodox halacha and haskafa and not the contemporary walls that bind our community in America or Israel. The Modern Orthodox community, and the RCA specifically, ought to welcome into its tent anyone who professes loyalty to the theology of Jewish belief endorsed by Rishonim and Aharonim as historically and halachically understood, and whose conduct is governed by classical Jewish law, even if that conduct is inconsistent with the current norms as put forward by the gedolim that Rabbi Adlerstein admires and expects fidelity to.
Let me add that Modern Orthodoxy by its very nature – incorporating the best of western culture into the rabbinic tradition – will be less traditional than other Orthodox communities which do not look at the world around them in any positive way. And that is not a problem. The Nodah beYehuda observes (correctly in my view) in OC 2:18 that when there is a clear minhag yisrael to do something (in his case, to have 12 windows in a shul), but that minhag is an obstacle to serious religious growth, then if the minhag is not grounded in halacha, we ought to abandon the minhag in that particular case. Most of us in the Modern Orthodox think that the Noda beYehuda’s formulation is correct, and if that is true, then all arguments of minhag without any serious reference to halacha will not really persuade anyone who is not already persuaded. They will always respond in reference to the Nodah beYehuda: non-halachic minhagim need to change as the reality of life changes. To really set limits on our community, we need to speak the language of halacha first and foremost.

Let’s focus on the example Rabbi Adlerstein focuses on most closely – Rabbi Kanefsky’s proposal to abolish the recitation of the bracha shelo asani isha, and replace it with the bracha she-asani Yehudi. (I will speak about the tone of Rabbi Kanefsky’s essay in the penultimate section.) Anyone who has read the halachic literature on this topic sees that such a proposal is grounded in the halachic literature, although very far from the current practice. A strong case can be made that the Rema endorsed the saying of the bracha of she-asani yehudi (see, for example, the Machon Yerushalayim Tur OC 46 note 12*), the Gra is widely quoted as endorsing such (see Sedai Chemed, Maarerchet Cherufin, Asifat dinim 5 sv umedi vedri on page 174) and so is the Rosh. It is not hard to find teshuvot on the Bar Ilan CD endorsing such a proposal as a matter of historical halacha.

I see no reason to exclude someone from Orthodoxy because they advocate a view that is far from normative now, when it has a fine rabbinic pedigree, even if it is unpopular with the giants of our contemporary times and untraditional. Let me add the obvious – even as I oppose this proposed change, I do not think that one who proposes it is outside of Orthodoxy.

Modern Orthodox tent walls need to exclude people and rabbis who advocate ideas outside the halachic box, but we should not exclude people who defy the current Orthodox convention. The way it is now is not the way it always was and we need not be convinced that it will always be the same. Exclusion should be limited to people who halacha lemaaseh endorse practices that are outside the confines of historical Orthodoxy, no matter what the current norm is.

IV. What then, Really, is at Stake?

So what is really at stake in the current controversy about the “Far Left”? Here, I think Rabbi Adlerstein again sees the world through his wonderful but focused eyes. He writes that the real reason the “Far Left” has to be excluded from Orthodoxy is:

Firstly, the impact upon areas of Orthodox cooperation will be enormous. If the Far Left grows stronger in untethering itself from both traditional hashkafos and accepted protocols of determining halacha, there will almost certainly be a reaction in the rest of the Orthodox world. Lemegdar milsa, to draw clear lines of differentiation, the traditional community will move in the opposite direction to oppose changes it sees as dangerous and illegitimate. We will drift even further apart. Cooperation in many areas – education, kashrus, kiruv, gerus, political advocacy – will be jeopardized or eliminated. Much of the right will argue that if Modern Orthodoxy can tolerate such aberrations in its midst rather than expelling it, than they cannot trust or continue to deal with the Modern Orthodox – especially if a YCT presence becomes mingled with the Modern Orthodox representation in common enterprises. Cooperation that took decades to accomplish may quickly unravel.

There is no “secondly” in the essay, a surprising breach of linguistic protocol for such a wonderful writer (and a member of Phi Beta Kappa) but this small linguistic faux pas reflects the fact that there is no other value present, really, in his calculus.

Let me be plain spoken here, because Rabbi Adlerstein is so honest. What he says might be true – the Charedi community might cooperate less with the Modern Orthodox community if we allow voices in our community that are repugnant to the Charedi mindset, and that is a political reason to remove the “Far Left.” I understand that rationale. I just do not favor these witch hunts; witch hunts never end – they just find more witches to hunt for, until the hunters consume themselves.

The threat is clear and the promise obvious. The Charedi community, Rabbi Adlerstein tell us, will not cooperate with the Modern Orthodox community unless we agree that there have to be clear limits and those clear limits will have to be determined by the gedolim approved by the Charedi community. Here, I think that no real reply is needed, but we should not substantively change our policies in light of this political truth, any more than the Rav zt”l did not respond to the cherem against participating in the Synagogue Council of America many decades ago – but he did not direct the RCA to withdraw from the SCA either. The Charedi community will have to accept Modern Orthodoxy on its own terms – or not – but I know that progress forward is not possible in any community if one has to look over one’s left or right shoulder all the time.

The same fatal flaw is found in Rabbi Adlerstein’s quoting of Rabbi Balk’s proposal to create a narrow based Modern Orthodox Moetzet gedolai Torah. Rabbi Adlerstein writes:

With the stakes so high, only one recourse suggests itself. The question of keeping YCT or defining it out of contemporary Orthodoxy should be put to the three talmidei chachamim within the American Modern Orthodox world that are most respected for their halachic ability: Rabbis Hershel Schachter, Gedalia Schwartz, and Mordechai Willig. The RCA should be prepared to abide by whatever decision these three come up with.

The decision to leave Rabbis Aharon Lichtenstein and Norman Lamm off this list, speaks volumes about what is wrong with this proposal and where its biases reside. I favor, truth be told, a Modern Orthodox moetzet – but Modern Orthodoxy needs to pick its own broad based leadership and I suspect that a Modern Orthodox moetzet needs to (like other mo’atzot) have many more than these three Torah giants as its voices in making such important decisions.

V. A Word to the “Far Left”

Having said all of this, the reader might think that I am an defender of the “Far Left”, so I end this essay with words of loving direct rebuke of that community.

The tone of much that is written from the leadership of the “Far Left” community leaves much to be desired; not only is their writing careless, but imprudent and haphazard planning of change has jeopardized the progress achieved on many levels within the Modern Orthodox world and brought our small community to the cusp of schism for no good reason.

So too, the “Far Left” community has proven bad at drawing lines in its sand and having walls in its tents. Nothing was said when the chair of the YCT attacked Rabbi Willig and Rabbi Schachter at a public event years ago; nothing was said when a YCT rabbi issued a gay friendly Haggadah featured in a YCT publication; nothing was said when Sarah Hurwitz was ordained rabba, and nothing was said when a women led kabbalat Shabbat at a prominent shul. Silence is not the way to define the walls of the tent – since people do not know which conduct was genuinely reflective of ideals, and which simply a mistake — and the sounds of silence are defining who the Far Left is. The same can be said for the tone of the initial article written by my good friend Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky (a “wonderful human being,” as Rabbi Adlerstein notes who I have known for more than 35 years) that provoked this current firestorm.

Everyone – left, right, and center – needs to be careful before they speak or write or do in public.

VI. The Path Forward

If Orthodox is to stay together – clearly a virtue that Rabbi Adlerstein and I share – it has to be because people are sensitive to what rocks the boat, and we all need to hesitate to the rock the boat without forethought and a great deal of planning. I turn again to the wise counsel of Rabbi Norman Lamm שליט”א Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University. He stated:

There are certain things that are acceptable only in the long run. I approve of the idea of increasing the role of women in religious life and think it is an important one….. At the same time, things have to be done gradually. To have a woman learn Gemara a generation or two ago like women learn Gemara today would have been too revolutionary. But with time, things change; time answers a lot of questions, erodes discomfort, and helps.

Orthodoxy – left, right and center – should take note of Rabbi Lamm’s reservations and hesitations regarding the future and recognize that the pace of change is a central measure of the likelihood of success. His nuanced formulation addresses well the question of change in minhag yisrael. Minhag yisrael does evolve over time, and yet slowly. Slow and careful change facilitates greater insight, feedback, and development, and could be a good motto for Orthodoxy in this area. The “Far Left” community has caused this crisis because they have adopted a pace of chance that is neither planed out nor thought out nor shared.

Lew me suggest a metaphor: change in Orthodoxy is a lot like orthodontics. To move teeth, you have to apply small amounts of pressure over great periods of time. Lots of pressure over small periods of time do not move teeth but break them. So too with the Orthodox community. Slow change produces positive developments, while large movements break us apart. There is also a natural limit to just how far teeth can move.

VII. Concluding Thoughts

Modern Orthodoxy, by its very nature, is always at the crossroads. As the modern world changes, Modern Orthodoxy must change as well, while remaining open to all Orthodox Jews. Responses that worked at a different time, no longer work, so the Modern Orthodox community has to craft new response to a new modernity. We understand that this is frustrating to our brothers on the right who are achecha bemitzvot, but who are less modern; we also understand that this is frustrating to the community to the left of us who are still waiting for us to incorporate the full impact of modernity. We sense that Modern Orthodoxy is a full blown lechatchela approach to the world that we live in, so long as we journey with care and deliberate speed — it incorporates two central values that we cannot live without: Halacha and the best of western culture. The question is whether we can still work together united if in fact we are all loyal to halacha. Modern Orthodoxy is happy to – but each community needs to do so on our own terms.

Rabbi Michael Broyde is a professor of law and the academic director of the Law and Religion Program at Emory University. He was the Founding Rabbi of Young Israel of Toco Hills in Atlanta, and a dayan for Beth Din of America

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Barry Dolinger
3 years 10 months ago

Dear All,
I’m a Rabbi at Congregation Beth Sholom in Providence, RI. Just started there and received semicha this summer from RIETS. I’ve been thinking about these issues a lot, and have one point to add. I feel that modern orthodoxy has often brought important ethical issues to the forefront, but not precisely and that the response concerns one of process, and is equally imprecise. For example, A Rabbi could say, “the bracha of shelo asani isha is unethical,” and the response would go, “it’s heretical or at best influenced by feminism.” The modern Rabbi in my argument not explain what exactly is unethical (in this case, it is probably the inherent notion that thanking God for not being a woman implies being a man is not only different but better) and the respondent did not say why feminism is bad or why this particular heresy is incorrect. I realize the case is a little simplistic, but the debate sometimes sounds like this to me. I think we need to have a more serious debate on the merits of an actual ethical issue, without bringing process and other concerns into the equation. Thoughts?

3 years 10 months ago

“R Broyde, and all of the subsequent posters in their guest threads IMO should be able to agree on a very simple but profound issue-who is the halachic and hashkafic address for a committed MO, and who is considered the same by the vast majority of MO, aside from the LWMO?”

Really? Why should they be able to agree on that? In fact, why should they want to agree on that?

Steve Brizel
3 years 10 months ago

R Broyde, and all of the subsequent posters in their guest threads IMO should be able to agree on a very simple but profound issue-who is the halachic and hashkafic address for a committed MO, and who is considered the same by the vast majority of MO, aside from the LWMO?

3 years 10 months ago

Meir Goldberg,
I believe that there may be a strong case to be made that the issues associated with the far left and the problems you see in your day-to-day work on campus may be much more closely connected than you think. In my view two of the things that bedevils the MO world are priorities and boundaries. Either explicitly or implicitly most MO kids are taught that secular acheivment is more important than Torah. They are also given no boundary as to how far they can delve into the secular world. Yeshivish (and right wing MO) kids are taught, “Your anchor is Torah it comes first, bring in no more of the outside world than you need.” Now, “no more than you need” may be quite a bit, especially depending on what parnassa a person chooses. However, in the end it is emphasized that this is secondary to Torah, regardless of the quantity. Any delving into the secular world is done with the knowledge that Torah comes first and that great caution must be mused in the process of exploring the non-Torah world.

What Avi Weiss and his compatriots on the far left are saying is that view is wrong. They are saying that the de facto view that Western knowledge is superior to the Torah in the MO world is actually de jure and fully justified. It reverses the location of the anchor and puts it on the secular side and says “be careful what you take from the Torah, some of it may be outdated and inapproriate for our times.” This attitude is only going to accelerate the rate at which MO kids leave the fold by justifying to these kids, God forbid, that the Torah is not for their times and sensibilities.

In short the battle must be fought on both fronts, on a personal level at the campuses and at a philosphical level among the leaders of MO so that they can provide a proper anchor for their children.

3 years 10 months ago

Rabbi Broyde cites the teshuva of R. Yaakov Emden regarding pilegesh as an example of an opinion which is “wrong” but not heretical. I think Rabbi Broyde has opened the door to the dangers of the very approach that he asserts is at the core of Modern Orthodoxy. Pilagshus is not part of normative halachic tradition despite having substantial basis in classic halachic writing. (I am not sure on what basis R. Broyde dismissed an opinion well grounded in Rishonim and Talmudic sources as “wrong” but that is another matter) We live in a society in which pilagshus is the norm for perhaps the majority of couples who are involved in serious relationships.The abstinence alternative has the potential for serious halachic consequences. Would Modern Orthodoxy allow the reintroduction of a practice-not merely grounded in traditional Rabbinic sources but one that was actually practiced- not as a conformity to current societal norms but as a means of preventing more serious halachic problems? Of course the potential hashkafic concerns of kedusha, etc. are non halachic “Daas Torah” issues about which reasonable authorities could differ.