Feb. 25, 2005
Orthodoxy at a crossroads


When the liberal wing of American Orthodoxy gathered this past Sunday at a Reform temple in Manhattan for its biennial Edah conference, the message on the state of the union was mixed.

On the one hand, the conference's main presenters noted, the state of American Orthodoxy is good.

The size of the country's largest Orthodox community, in New York, grew to 19% from 13% of New York Jews between 1991 and 2002; the community is relatively young; and its members marry and have children at a relatively high rate, according to a report by demographer Jacob Ukeles.

In America generally, Orthodox Jews have defied the naysayers who half a century ago predicted their imminent disappearance, sociologist Samuel Heilman observed. Orthodox Jews wield more political power than ever before, both within the Jewish community and in the nation's capitals. No longer on the cultural periphery, Orthodox Jews are portrayed positively on TV, support glatt-kosher restaurants in nearly every major US city and suffer virtually none of the anti-Semitism that has become common in Europe against people who are visibly Jewish.

On the other hand, the "modern" wing of the movement appears to be losing the ideological battle for the soul of Orthodoxy.

Many children of modern Orthodox homes are adopting a more fervent brand of Orthodoxy associated with the ideology of haredi Judaism; voices of moderation in Orthodox halachic debates are few and far between; and at Orthodox synagogues mechitzas have risen, knitted yarmulkes have been replaced by black hats, and mixed dancing is a thing of the past.

The numbers, too, show modern Orthodoxy losing ground. Identifying survey subjects as modern Orthodox by whether they consider a university education important, Ukeles found that modern Orthodox Jews tend to be older, are less likely to be married and have smaller families than other Orthodox Jews.

The question at Edah, an organization founded a decade ago to promote modern Orthodox values, is how to combat this sense of ideological weakness and keep the movement's children from being pulled toward the extreme right.

Rabbi Saul Berman-Edah's director and spiritual leader-argued that modern Orthodoxy should not become "haredi lite," that it must reject Orthodox authoritarianism, strive for truth, and restore a sense of piety and ideological confidence to modern Orthodoxy.

The trouble was, Berman could not really articulate any distinct ideology or philosophy for modern Orthodoxy. Instead, he described how it needs to be less fundamentalist, more egalitarian-minded, and more universalistic than right-wing brands of Orthodoxy.

Berman's conundrum is understandable. After all, modern Orthodoxy is not really a distinct movement; it is part of the continuum of Orthodoxy that is divided subjectively into ill-defined subsets identified by such terms as modern, centrist, yeshivish and haredi. Berman acknowledged as much in an interview, saying that modern Orthodoxy-which is on the liberal end of the spectrum-agrees with haredi Orthodoxy on the fundamentals.

But just because modern Orthodoxy cannot clearly distinguish itself from the rest of Orthodoxy does not mean that its voice is unimportant in the Orthodox world.

Modern Orthodoxy is not so much a movement as a moderating force on the rest of Orthodoxy. The question for those bearing Edah's mantle is how to promote their rallying cry of moderation in a way that will be relevant-and influential.

That challenge was apparent at a conference that failed to draw the leaders of any of mainstream Orthodoxy's major institutions, including the Orthodox Union, the Rabbinical Council of America or Yeshiva University.

Perhaps most notable was the absence of YU president Richard Joel, an advisory board member of Edah who attended the conference in the past but skipped Sunday's parley-Edah's first conference since he became president. Joel said he could not attend due to a scheduling conflict, but many Edah attendees ascribed his absence to pressure from right-wing elements at YU for whom Edah is treif.

Edah attendees decried this as yet one more sign that Orthodoxy is drifting toward the right extreme, where voices of moderation have no place. Many consider YU the front line in this ideological battle.

Interestingly, modern Orthodox Israelis face the converse of the problem faced by the Americans.

Whereas modern Orthodox Jews in America-the religious Zionists of the United States-are seen as moderating haredi religious fundamentalism, their Israeli counterparts are seen as extremists in great need of political moderation, particularly in comparison with Israeli haredim. As Moshe Tur-Paz, chairman of Israel's Ne'emanei Torah V'Avoda, described at the Edah conference, the political ferment among West Bank and Gaza settlers concerning the disengagement plan has turned Israeli religious Zionists into extremists, with Israeli haredim moderates by comparison.

Because of the very public political extremism of settlers sporting knit kippot, all of Israeli modern Orthodoxy has been tainted by the broad brushstroke of extremism, Tur-Paz said.

For both the Israeli and American Orthodox moderates, then, the challenge is the same: how to assert their moderation publicly and influentially in movements that threaten to be eclipsed by extremism of one kind or another.

Given the dearth of attention drawn so far by groups like Edah and Ne'emanei Torah V'Avoda, it seems they have their work cut out for them.