Will the Real Modern Orthodoxy Please Stand Up?


avrohom gordimerBy Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz’ feisty assailment of Rabbi Dr. David Berger’s July 2nd reply to Rabbis Avi Weiss and Asher Lopatin – both in Jewish Link of New Jersey – is nothing short of startling. Whether he realized it or not, Rabbi Katz, in the course of explaining to Dr. Berger what Modern Orthodoxy is (all while sniping at Dr. Berger’s own alleged misunderstanding thereof), veered so far off the Orthodox course as to assert that Modern Orthodoxy has an entirely different approach to Halacha, and that Modern Orthodox philosophical worldview should substantially impact Modern Orthodox halachic adjudication. These shocking proclamations may well describe the Open Orthodox/Neo/Conservative denomination – and they seem to fit it pretty darn well – yet they surely do not have anything to do with Modern Orthodoxy.

(We speak here of official Modern Orthodox policy and accepted theology, notwithstanding the unfortunate fact that much of Modern Orthodoxy has routinely suffered from some laxity in observance on the part of laity.)

Before we even address this radical new path, it is ironic that someone from an intense Williamsburg Chassidic background, with no Modern Orthodox schooling (irrespective of his current position at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the base of Open Orthodoxy), can rebuke and lecture a scholarly rabbi and eminent Orthodox historian trained by Yeshiva University, who also serves as dean of its graduate school for Jewish Studies, about the basics of Modern Orthodoxy. Dr. Berger is the embodiment of the best of Modern Orthodoxy. But be that as it may…

Having been educated, employed and professionally affiliated in the Modern Orthodox system for decades, I have heard and probably studied every possible explanation and major nuance of Modern Orthodoxy and the teachings of the sages from which Modern Orthodoxy claims to derive its approach. The concepts which Rabbi Katz articulated are totally foreign to the discourse; I cannot state it strongly enough.

Rabbi Katz wrote:

…It (Dr. Berger’s approach) ultimately displays a simplistic understanding of the philosophy of Modern Orthodox halacha. It also, at its core, reflects a minimalist understanding of the Modern Orthodox enterprise.

His Modern Orthodoxy is a compilation of two disparate value systems which operate side by side. For him, the Modern Orthodox ethos is primarily Orthodox with a mere nod to modernity, its core, though, is exclusively Orthodox. Consequently, according to him, Modern Orthodox adjudication of capital crimes should look no different than if it were adjudicated by a chareidi posek; process (research) and product (conclusion) should be indistinguishable.

While this clearly seems to be his understanding of the mechanics of Modern Orthodoxy, it is incorrect. Modern Orthodoxy is about synthesis, not bifurcation.

Modern Orthodoxy is a two-pronged philosophy that strives for full integration. The Modern Orthodox Jew’s Yiddishkeit is enhanced by a robust encounter with modernity, while his experience of modernity is enriched by an intense engagement with his Yiddishkeit. The Modern Orthodox Jew’s Orthodoxy would consequently look different than the Orthodoxy of the non-Modern Orthodox observer, and, their adjudication of the important issues of the day would hence differ significantly.

…Once the posek has identified the relevant sources, they have to be made compatible with many of the external variables the posek needs to evaluate in order to make the ruling relevant.

Modern halachic adjudication is about making the eternal contemporary…

According to Rabbi Katz, the core of Modern Orthodoxy is not “exclusively Orthodox”, and Modern Orthodox halachic processes should operate differently, such that Halacha should not be decided according to traditional methodology, but should instead reflect a philosophy that is a mixture of Torah and secular values.

Rabbi Katz calls for total integration and synthesis of Torah and secularism, arriving at a new concoction, which he claims is the true Modern Orthodoxy. However, in stark contrast, the notion of Synthesis, as espoused by Yeshiva University Presidents Drs. Bernard Revel and Samuel Belkin, reflects a synthesis of knowledge within the individual – such that the Orthodox Jew should be learned both in Torah and in worldly studies – and does not in any way represent a synthesized pedagogy or theology, as embraced by Rabbi Katz. (See Belkin, Essays in Traditional Jewish Thought, p. 17.)

Modern Orthodoxy, according to its leadership, calls for an unwavering and unadulterated commitment to complete belief in the Ikkarei Ha-Emunah, the Cardinal Principles of Faith, with an uncompromising fidelity to the traditional halachic system, all the while being part of the outside world, educated in its knowledge and engaged with its offerings and achievements. Hence, yes indeed, although rejected by Rabbi Katz, “Modern Orthodox adjudication of capital crimes should look no different than if it were adjudicated by a chareidi posek; process (research) and product (conclusion) should be indistinguishable”.

Numerous close talmidim (students) of Rav Soloveitchik have told me that the Rav never used the term “Modern Orthodoxy”; there was only plain, unmodified “Orthodox Judaism” or “Torah Judaism”.  The Orthodox/Torah Jew’s active participation in the secular world and higher academia did not modify his Orthodox/Torah identity and hashkafa (outlook).

Modern Orthodoxy is not the hybrid child that is born when Torah and secular values merge. Modern Orthodoxy is pure Orthodoxy, plus an appreciation and a serious embrace of the positive offerings of the outside world. For the authentic Modern Orthodox, being Modern adds to one’s Orthodoxy. For Rabbi Katz, being Modern impinges on being Orthodox.

This article first appeared at Cross Currents and appears here with the permission of the author.

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  1. Thank you for the article. I was privileged to learn by Rav Ahron Soloveichik zt”l. I can say with certainty that this new “orthodoxy” is in reality a new conservative movement. Is there any robust rebuttal to this movement coming from the ” modern orthodox” establishment?

  2. Once upon a time the sign of an orthodox observant jew was shomer shabbos ,Today ,we need to go back to even more basic:he/she adheres to the 3 chamuros without rationalizations

    As for Katz ,Linzer and the rest of those religious snake oil salesmen: Yeshaya 49:17

  3. I’d like to begin by applauding Rabbi Gordimir’s’ vigorous and valiant defense of authentic Orthodox Judaism, be it of the Modern or the Ultra-Chareidi stripe. My personal affiliation is with the Ultra-Orthodox community in which I presently reside, but I am convinced that Modern Orthodoxy as defined by Rabbis Gordimer and Berger is an essential element of the broader Orthodox universality. (Although, I prefer Rabbi Soloveichik’s terminology of “Torah-based Judaism” in expressing this universality, as opposed to breaking it down to absurd nomenclature as Charedi, Ultra-Charedi, Orthodox, Modern Orthodox, what have you.) Consequently I love each and every member of the Modern Orthodox community as I do my Chassidic brethren. (How big of me!, No?)

    Be that as it may, Rabbi Gordimir chose not to address what is my view the most offensive part of Rabbi Katz’s attack on Rabbi Berger’s position . May I quote verbatim?

    “One has to look no further than the history of heresy in halacha to see how halacha evolved. Maimonides (Hilchot Mamrim Ch. 3 verse 2), the progenitor of Jewish dogma, already modifies his absolutist stance towards heresy to accommodate his own contemporary reality. Eventually, in the nineteenth century, R. Yaakov Ettlinger, in response to Jewish Enlightenment, picked up the accommodationist mantle, arguing (Responsa Binyan Tzion 23) that his generation requires a modified approach towards the espousal of heresy. Following in their footsteps, the twentieth-century chareidi posek, the Chazon Ish (Yoreh Deiah 1:6), in response to Jewish sovereignty, once again updated the laws of heresy to have it accord with a community that experienced theological change and sociological upheaval.
    While they were writing the heresy codex for their time, now is our turn. It is the task of contemporary Modern Orthodox poskim to determine halachically appropriate responses to twenty-first-century expressions of heresy”.

    What an outrageous distortion of the positions advocated by these illustrious Rabbis! If one is to examine the context in which the cited Poskim presented their approach, it would become obvious that they were dealing with the question of whether certain heresies proposed by individuals who came by their erroneous creeds through ignorance or societal pressures or other stressors that have afflicted Jews through their long and arduous Exile, are so egregious as to render the adherents of those beliefs as heretics to whom one need not apply any of the obligations that one observant Jew has to another. The conclusions arrived by the cited Poskim is that, although the positions advocated by these miscreants is indeed heretical in the full sense of the word, the proponents of these false beliefs are nonetheless not to be held as full-fledged “appikosim” (although their beliefs are certainly “appikorsus”).

    In short, Maimonides, the Aruch L’Ner, and the Chaszon Ish would have arrived at the same conclusions have they lived in the Temple Era or were they with us today. They in no way sought to “accommodate” heretical thought as a response to changing times.

    As to the irony of Rabbi Katz, born and bred in the bowels of hallowed Williamburg rebuking and lecturing a Rabbi of the high repute as Rabbi Berger we might give Rabbi Katz a pass on that one. You see, Rabbi Katz may have been reacting to Rabbi Berger’s delegitimizing the entire Lubavitch movement because of its Messianic content. Although I am not convinced that Rabbi Berger position vis-à-vis Lubavitch is correct in all its aspects, and I believe that it was somewhat of a segue to the brunt of Rabbi Berger’s argument, nonetheless it may have prodded Rabbi Katz into responding the he did. You see, now Rabbi Berger got Rabbi Katz where he lives. Argue what you may about Jewish thought, but touch not one hair of Lubavitch.

    Rabbi Gordinir, continue to fight the good fight, and may you be blessed.

  4. Would Rabbi Gordimer kindly address the elephant in the room? Rabbi Gordimer writes :the unfortunate fact that much of Modern Orthodoxy has routinely suffered from some laxity in observance on the part of laity.
    Why? Why has much of Modern Orthodox’s laity been lax in observance and felt that they can blame it on “Modern Orthodoxy?”

    Why does Modern Orthodoxy see the need to spend millions of dollars to fight the influence of the “right,” but barely spent a penny fighting of laxity by its laity?

  5. I wish someone would just tell me why it is we’re paying attention to these guys? They’re completely out of our organizations, lets let them go.

    constantly talking about them legitimizes them.