Over the last 50 years American Orthodoxy has managed to
create a national community that is successful in the realm of
imparting knowledge, Jewish commitment and continuity.
Over the past years Orthodox rabbis convinced entire communities to
change their eating habits by refraining from “eating out” and to raise a
generation of Jewishly literate and deeply committed youth by sending
their children, at great personal expense, to Jewish day schools. It is precisely
these rabbis, on the heels of these successes, who can galvanize the
Orthodox community to broaden its focus in a way that can contribute so
much to the American Jewish community, and the world at large. Because
of the strength and vitality of our community, in many ways the envy of
other denominations, an engaged and relevant Orthodoxy could reshape
the way Orthodoxy is perceived by broadening the Orthodox conversation.
Orthodoxy represents a very small part of American Jewry. Small
numbers notwithstanding, Orthodoxy, specifically Modern Orthodoxy,
must start believing that it has a contribution to make to the larger Jewish
world. While not all Jews will become Orthodox, Modern Orthodoxy
must begin to speak to all Jews. Modern Orthodoxy must make a claim of
relevance. A number of strategies need to be employed if Modern
Orthodoxy wishes to be heard beyond the boundaries of her adherents.
First, Modern Orthodoxy must see itself as a full participant in the
activities of the wider Jewish community. This would include participation
and support of Federation activities, Jewish Family Services, Local Boards
of Jewish Education, communal endeavors of Jewish learning as well as
National Organizations like American Jewish World Service. In order for
our opinions to matter, we must be seen and heard in the places where the
broader Jewish community meets and studies.
Related to this is the need for Modern Orthodoxy to become a movement
that speaks to all Jews by relating to the full gamut of human conditions.
This includes Jews whose lifestyle deviates from Halakhic norms.
Modern Orthodox communities have managed to integrate those who do
not observe Shabbat and Kashrut in the traditional sense without creating
the perception of condoning that behavior; we can and must do the same
for all Jews.
Second, Modern Orthodoxy needs to speak out on the major cultural
and ethical issues of the day. Darfur, materialism, poverty, global warming
and immigration are just some of the issues facing the American and
world public. The imperative to imitate God, understood by Maimonides
as stemming from the verse “God is good to all and his kindness extends
to all His creations,” establishes a moral responsibility on our part to speak
out and to act on issues facing humanity.
While Orthodoxy must maintain concern for the details of the laws of
the Torah, Modern Orthodoxy must expand the discussion to include the
ethical, moral and social issues that are part and parcel of the broader message
of the Torah. We have a unique potential to make the wisdom of an
ancient tradition compelling to a modern diverse audience. The broader
American Jewish community, indeed, all of our fellow citizens, both
Jewish and gentile, could benefit from the Torah’s perspective on contemporary
issues translated into modern language.
Third, Modern Orthodoxy must promote those traditional, though
often neglected interpretations of Halakha which are faithful to Jewish law,
while at the same time compassionate and open. Jewish law must be
applied in ways that make halakhic living attainable to as many Jews as
possible. Kashrut, conversion and family purity are all areas where stringent
rulings can give way to halakhically recognized approaches that
would help people realize that living according to Halakha is a realistic
goal. Orthodoxy is fast becoming a world of humrot—stringencies, while
the koah d’hetera, the priority often given to leniency, is quickly disappear
ing. The point of is to bring more people to observance of Halakha; as
more people recognize that they can live according to Halakha in specific
areas, more will be willing to try it in other areas.
In a similar vein, while community rabbis should consult with academics
and rabbinic scholars, it is the rabbis who are in the synagogues
who must ultimately set the agenda message and tone of the Modern
Orthodox community. It is the community rabbis who are “in the trenches”
and therefore understand the social, religious and economic realities of
the Jewish community. It is the community rabbis who feel a personal
responsibility towards members of the community and will therefore do
all that is possible to find viable answers to those problems.
Finally, Modern Orthodoxy must begin to tackle issues of the spirit,
meaning and relevance of Judaism. When people find meaning in the
Orthodox system they will feel spiritually connected to it.
Questions like: What do the myriad steps that need to be taken before
meat is rendered kosher teach us about the Jewish view of eating meat?
What do the laws of the Sabbatical year teach us about labor relations and
property ownership? How can a full understanding of the laws of Shabbat
impact social and family life? Should the Biblical laws prohibiting waste
and destruction impact on our choice of the cars that we drive, as well as
the food we waste at our lavish weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs?
An Orthodoxy that is able to present a system of Judaism that taps into
these and other foundational issues of life will be viewed as spiritually fulfilling
In order to achieve all of the above, Modern Orthodoxy must develop
self-confidence and stop looking over its right and left shoulders hoping
for approval and acceptance from others. Doing so is self defeating and is
largely responsible for the reason Orthodox Judaism remains irrelevant to
Modern Orthodoxy, as a movement grounded in Jewish text and tradition,
while at the same time appreciating the fluid nature of modern reality,
is the Jewish movement in America best suited to speak to the issues
of the day with conviction and confidence. We have a unique message that
can benefit the entire American Jewish community. We have to stop preaching
only to the choir.