Focus on Issues: Modern Orthodox Jews Engage in Public Search for New Identity
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Focus on Issues: Modern Orthodox Jews Engage in Public Search for New Identity

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Modern Orthodoxy is determined to put its house in order — or at least to figure out what the house looks like.

It has always been a movement open to a broad range of influences from both the traditional Jewish and secular worlds.

And the value conflicts that occasionally arise between these worlds have created challenges for its rabbinic leaders as well as a comfortable place for the majority of American Orthodox Jews who believe they can be observant while they enjoy the benefits of American society.

But modern Orthodoxy has in recent years been buffeted by countervailing forces so powerful that rabbis and other leaders within the community say that it has lost a sense of itself as a force with a distinct religious ideology.

“To this day, the majority of Jews identifying as Orthodox are centrist, yet none can clearly assert what centrist Orthodoxy is about,” said Rabbi Rafael Grossman, spiritual leader of Baron Hirsch Synagogue in Memphis, a congregation of 900 families.

So its leaders are now devoting themselves to examining — and re-articulating — what it means to be modern Orthodox.

Perhaps the most visible illustration of the soul-searching is the upcoming conference, “Orthodoxy Encounters a Changing World,” sponsored by Edah, a 2- year-old organization based in New York.

Edah was founded by a handful of Orthodox rabbis and laypeople who were determined to articulate a centrist view of Orthodoxy that they felt was being subsumed as the community moved toward more stringent practices and philosophies.

They gave Edah, which means “community” in Hebrew, a tag line: “The Courage to be Modern and Orthodox.”

Until now, the group, with an annual budget of about $650,000 raised from several individual supporters, has focused its efforts on reaching rabbinical students and women rising through the ranks of Jewish educational and communal institutions to expose them to a systematic study of Jewish law and ideology.

Now, however, Edah is reaching out to the grass roots. It expects about 650 people from around the country to attend the two-day conference, scheduled to begin Feb. 14 at a Manhattan hotel.

The Edah conference follows on the heels of two conferences focusing on feminism and Orthodoxy, which also provided venues for reflecting on recent changes within Orthodoxy. The conferences, held in New York City in February 1997 and 1998, attracted some 2,000 attendees from around the world.

Further evidence of the public self-examination was found in the respected Orthodox journal Tradition, which devoted its entire Summer 1998 issue to 33 essays on “The Sea Change in American Orthodox Judaism.”

Why is all of this self-examination happening now?

“We’re coming of age and looking around and wondering what direction to go in” on a number of issues, said Norma Baumel Joseph, an associate professor of religion at Concordia University in Montreal and honorary co-chairwoman of the Edah conference.

“We in the modern or centrist Orthodox community find ourselves beset” by two extremes, said Rabbi Norman Lamm, president of Yeshiva University, which offers Jewish undergraduate, graduate and rabbinical studies, as well as degrees in secular fields such as law and medicine.

From one side has come the powerful influence of the haredi, or fervently Orthodox, world, which emphasizes increasing stringency in Jewish observance, traditional gender roles and disengagement from the secular world whenever possible.

From the other extreme, said Rabbi Saul Berman, director of Edah, comes “a corrosive secularization present in the contact with secular society that tends to undermine spiritual passion.”

“The so-called modern Orthodoxy suffers from an inferiority complex,” said Rabbi Walter Wurzberger, who retired from leading an Orthodox congregation on Long Island, N.Y., and now teaches philosophy at Yeshiva University.

“In many circles, this kind of Orthodoxy is regarded as a compromise between genuine Orthodoxy and no Orthodoxy. Some people think modern Orthodoxy means you’re not as emphatic in your observance of halachah,” or Jewish law, he said.

Everyone interviewed agreed that the 1993 death of modern Orthodoxy’s revered rabbinic leader, Joseph Soloveitchik, has created a leadership vacuum that has not yet been filled.

Leaders of modern Orthodoxy believe their movement’s distinctiveness lies in its commitment to engaging with modernity, religious Zionism, expanded roles for women and relating to other Jews and non-Jews.

The most concrete changes have occurred in the areas of religious Zionism and the role of Orthodox women.

A deep commitment to the State of Israel as a political entity and as a religious phenomenon is a common thread woven through modern Orthodoxy. As a sign of that connection, graduates of Orthodox high schools often spend at least a year studying in a yeshiva in Israel.

But the political influence of religious Zionists in Israel, historically expressed through the Mizrachi Party, is virtually absent now that the major forces battling out Israel’s future are the fervently. Orthodox fighting with those who would like to see religion separated from the state.

The Religious Zionists of America, a New York-based organization that was once a potent rallying force among the modern Orthodox, has long been in decline.

Now a new leadership is working to revitalize it, said Grossman of Memphis, who is the RZA’s newly elected chairman of the board.

The organization had over 100,000 American Jewish supporters during RZA’s heyday, which lasted until the mid-1960s, he said, but is now down to between 10,000 and 15,000.

Plans include establishing new chapters around the country, publishing printed materials to spark discussion and engaging in outreach, Grossman said.

The newest item on modern Orthodoxy’s agenda — and one which perhaps more than any other illuminates the challenges facing the movement — is the changing role of women.

The emergence of the issue as a potent force, first widely acknowledged after the conferences on Orthodoxy and feminism — and the often-negative responses even from centrist Orthodox rabbis — has made it a watershed issue.

The backlash against the calls of women for enhanced roles in ritual and religious leadership has been “disproportionate,” said Berman.

That’s because “in many ways it is paradigmatic of the whole relationship between modernity and Orthodoxy,” he said. “Much of the fear isn’t about women’s roles, or fear of what it might do to halachah in the Orthodox community.

“It’s the perception that feminism is the lever which would pry open the safe haven of Orthodoxy to the general whims of modernity,” Berman said.

As participants grapple with these issues, organizers hope as Berman put it, that “people will emerge with a deep sense of pride in who they are as modern Orthodox Jews.”

The subtext, said Judy Adler Sheer, Edah’s executive director, is that “change is hard for everybody.”

“Sometimes you need more flexible, smaller organizations to light a fire” under the rest of the community.

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