Modern Orthodoxy Needs To Expand Its Theological Reach


Modern Orthodoxy is currently in the midst of an intense search for a formula that will help invigorate a movement whose allure has seemingly diminished. A philosophy which until recently had broad appeal, is losing traction among the younger generation. Its ethos, it seems, no longer excites the populace the way it did in its heyday. Rabbis, scholars and lay leaders are searching for a solution. So far, unsuccessfully.  The ailment is obvious; the cure, elusive.

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah might help explain the elusiveness. We are perhaps looking in the wrong direction.

Lot’s wife is a minor character in that saga, but her story has outsized implications for our generation. As her family flees the burning city being destroyed by God, she decides to turn around and look back. God takes offense and turns her into a pillar of salt.

The lesson is obvious. Her city is burning and, instead of courageously looking forward, she reflexively turns backward. Looking back disqualifies her from the role of matriarch. 

A matriarch knows when to heroically hold on to old paradigms, and when to bravely champion new ones. Sometimes we need to cling to the past, while at other times we need to let go of it. Lot’s wife holds on for too long. Her presence in the family's journey, therefore, becomes a liability. At that point God turns her into a pillar of salt. 

Her metamorphosis into a pillar of salt is very apt. A mother whose paralysis does not allow her to chart a path forward for her dependents has forfeited her maternal status. That is when Lot’s wife ceases to be a source of sustenance, becoming instead a mere condiment. 

Sadly, our community is currently experiencing a Mrs. Lot moment. At a pivotal time in our history, we are looking backward, instead of moving forward. 

"The Rav," Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, is undoubtedly Modern Orthodoxy's legacy, Dr. Bernard Revel, a president of Yeshiva University, certainly its standard bearer; but the future depends on something new. Debating the minutiae of the Rav's philosophy, discussing the merits of the ideas of his detractors, or arguing about the legitimacy of alternative theologies developed by some of his students is a worthy project – for academics. It is not, however, what is currently most important for our congregants. 

These are trying times for Modern Orthodoxy. Our safety net is porous; many are falling through the cracks. The under-40 crowd rarely participates in our communal shiurim, few of them attend daily minyan. When they do show up to shul they are not interested in debating the intricacies of philosophy and Jewish esotericism.  

Modern Orthodoxy’s innovative theology is most certainly what allowed it to take root in 1950s and 1960s America, a place that up until then was a wasteland in terms of intellectual Judaism. The movement’s creative theology catapulted Modern Orthodoxy into the highest echelons of Jewish thought. The appeal was strong, it inspired many non-affiliated Jews to embrace observance. That trajectory has now reversed course.

Outsiders rarely join its ranks; the attrition rate within the community is significant; and those who stay seem to grapple with an observance that demands much obedience but offers little inspiration in return.

Modern Orthodoxy’s forefathers built a sophisticated foundation. Now the time has come to expand its theological reach beyond its current narrow confines. Their Torah still stimulates our minds, but we now need a religiosity that also inspires our hearts. We are due for new religious vocabulary, innovative Jewish thought, and inspiring models of Jewish practice.

That is what my congregant, Josh, told me he wants. Ignoring him would be to our detriment. Let me explain.

A while ago, I wrote an essay in which I took on a prominent critic of liberal Orthodoxy. The feedback was positive. I felt proud. When I came to shul that Shabbos, my congregant, Josh, said that he wanted to talk to me after davening [prayer]. I was sure that he was going to compliment me on my essay.

He did not.

When tefilah was over, Josh pulled me aside. Tears welling up in his eyes, he said to me: “Rabbi, what you and your colleagues are doing is obscene. How is another essay on theological esoterica going to help me ensure that my son remains shomer Shabbos [observant], or that my daughter will marry in?”

It was painful to hear. His message was clear, though: our community needs less stimulation and more inspiration; less talk about belief in God and more opportunities to experience God; perhaps, more godliness and less "God."

Modern Orthodoxy is at a pivotal crossroad. It can rise by creating new and invigorating religious paradigms, or fall by merely polishing off old ones. It can boldly innovate, or blandly regurgitate. 

Hopefully, it will not repeat the mistakes of Lot’s wife.

If it does, it will soon share her fate. Instead of being a source of life and spiritual sustenance, it will become like salt, a condiment whose primary role is to cover up the deficiencies of that which is being served. 

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz is chair of the Talmud department at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and rabbi of the Prospect Heights Shul.