Category: Modern Orthodoxy


…the content of American-educated Orthodox rabbis’ English-language sermons was dramatically different from that of the (mostly) Yiddish-language sermons of an earlier generation. This was particularly true between the World Wars in New York City, where Leo Jung on the West Side and Joseph Lookstein on the East Side—self-proclaimed ‘modern Orthodox” rabbis—drew upon the works of Carlyle, Dickens, Freud, Goethe, Ibsen, William James, Macaulay, Shaw, Tennyson, and Whitman, as well as on the vast body of rabbinic literature, to craft sermons much like those of American-born Reform and Conservative colleagues. Keeping in mind the warning of a contemporary Conservative rabbi, Israel Herbert Levinthal, that his printed sermons were often delivered ‘extemporaneously” and written “out a long time after their delivery,” the historian looks for typescript sermons or sermons reprinted in synagogue bulletins and the Jewish press immediately after delivery. They are abundant, and, by the 1930s, Orthodox rabbis in various places turned a Latin phrase, digested a German book on philosophy or literature, or followed the scientific arguments of the leading writers of their time as easily as they could quote from the Talmud.

Marc Lee Raphael, The Synagogue in America: A Short History (New York & London: New York University Press, 2011), 89-90.

Rather than seeing Orthodoxy as a more or less fixed entity, with “modern” and “ultra” flavors, I suggest we look at it as a cluster of processes, enacted across a range of what I call “Modernizing Orthodoxies,” by which I mean a group of religious movements bearing a familial resemblance, based on some core features, through which each works and reworks in its engagements with modernity.

Yehudah Mirsky, “Modernizing Orthodoxies: The Case of Feminism”, in To Be a Jewish Woman: Proceedings of the Fourth International Conference: Woman and Her Judaism, June 2005, ed. Tovah Cohen (Jerusalem: Kolech – Religious Women’s Forum, 2007), 37.

What has changed with Orthodox women in the last two decades in reality is astounding. Some of the initiatives started by JOFA and other forward-thinking organizations took hold. Some didn’t. Some failed miserably. But some of the vision “leaked” out to other communities and organizations, and change happened where we least expected it.

We started noticing that the haredi communities that denounce feminism had their own feminist issues: women were standing up to their leadership about domestic violence and sexual abuse and even agitating in order to get into Hatzolah, the volunteer ambulance corps. Places that 20 years ago would not have considered celebrating a bat mitzvah or a girl’s birth were regularly holding those celebrations. Women’s tefillah (prayer groups), which had been seen as crazy and “out there,” became the more conservative bat mitzvah alternative to partnership minyanim (where women lead parts of the service).

In Israeli newspapers after Simchat Torah, observers were struck at seeing women dancing with Torahs in places you’d never think possible. And no one batted an eye. And even on the issue of agunot, or women unable to get Jewish divorces from recalcitrant husbands, which is seen by so many as the big failure because we have yet to develop a systemic solution, the Orthodox community has made incredible strides. It sits front and center on the communal agenda, and different rabbinic courts and organizations are using their clout to try to solve the problem case by case.

The seismic change in the community has been women’s learning. Twenty years ago there were a handful of women learning torah sheba’al peh (the Oral Law). Today there are dozens of women’s programs that teach Mishnah and Talmud. No one seems to think twice about it.

Bat Sheva Marcus, “How Change Happens”, The Jewish Week (6 December 2013), 23.

As a rabbi, I spend most of my time reading writing, talking, discussing and arguing about Jewish things. There is a lot to argue about, a lot to talk about. From our perspective, these issues can seem not just important, but overwhelming, more important than anything else could possibly be. The divisions and politics of the Orthodox, the Modern Orthodox world are important – but only to a point. The question of the differences between Yeshiva University, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, between this group and that group, this rabbi’s statement and that rabbi’s counter statement – these are all important issues. But, for too many of us, for me, personally, they are given far more prominence than could possibly be justified.

Rabbi Shaul Robinson, “Priorities: Inside the Tent and Outside“, Lincoln Square Synagogue Blog (11 November 2013).

I long ago came to a personal realization that the term “Modern Orthodox” no longer defines the religious segment that I was brought up in. A world where rabbis of all denominations in a community were warm and visiting colleagues; a world where Jews of all practices were held in equal respect by the rabbi; a world where the emphasis was on the beauty of our religion, not the stringency of its practice.

I believe we need a new term to define those who fit the true center — not the one defined by the haredi masters that so many of our leaders and organizations kowtow to. What was once “Modern Orthodox” is to me neo-haredi, and it’s time to make break and return to the vision that was created for America after the Holocaust.

David Sable, “Outraged At Chief Rabbinate’s Snub Of Rabbi Avi Weiss”, The Jewish Week (1 November 2013), 28.

You could say that it’s our job in this world to make manifest what God intended because God’s not doing it, that’s our job. So, all Rabbi Weiss is doing is trying to implement in this world the ideal that he sees fit. I think that’s part of why he keeps going back to tzelem Elohim, because which narrative is that from? The narrative of creation. He’s following that more than anything else because he’s trying to recreate the world. Not just tikkun olam, mind you – although he does make references to repairing the world – there’s an act of world-creation here, along the lines of what Rav Soloveitchik has advocated. And part of that means shaping the world in the image that you think it ought to be.

Rabbi Josh Yuter, “Halakhic Process 25: Open Orthodoxy“, Yutopia Podcast #119 (27 October 2013).

It may be that Open Orthodoxy’s niche, and the important role of the hundreds of future ordainees of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the Modern and Open Orthodox yeshiva in Riverdale, New York, will be not only to open the tents of Orthodoxy to anyone interested—and in a sense of mutuality, learning from each other—but to go beyond welcoming to actually making the journey to where our fellow Jews are. Both Hareidi and Chabad outreach welcome all Jews to come to Orthodox homes, Orthodox Shabbat tables and Orthodox places of prayer—and that is admirable connecting. A confident, self-assured Orthodox community will be able to go even further and connect with students, young adults and families where they are. This means learning together with Reform, Reconstructionist, and renewal teachers and students; it means being willing to be on panels even with other rabbis or leaders who will be saying things that are not consistent with Orthodoxy; it means being willing to have Orthodox students spend time with non-Orthodox students, and then Orthodox families find ways of going to the non-Orthodox homes for Shabbat. All without compromising the beliefs or the practices of Orthodoxy!

Rabbi Asher Lopatin, “Challenges and Opportunities for a Robust Orthodox Judaism”, Conversations, Issue 17 (Autumn 2013/5774), 57-58.

I agree that it isn’t “fair” that while men can be given the title “rabbi” simply by learning sections of Yoreh Deah, the women must do a lot more to be accepted. But that is required any time new developments come into place. I have been assured by people in the know that the day is coming when we will have first-rate women halakhists and talmudists. It will be fascinating to see what insights they bring to matters, and if a woman’s perspective affects how halakhah is decided. But we haven’t reached that day yet, and just as importantly, the Orthodox world as a whole is not yet ready for that day, as they have not yet become comfortable with the idea of a woman poseket.

Marc B. Shapiro, “Answers to Quiz Questions and Other Comments, part 2”, The Seforim Blog (25 March 2012) {http://seforim.blogspot.com/2012/03/answers-to-quiz-questions-and-other.html}

The title “rabbi” is indeed significant. This can be seen by the fact that when Sara Hurwitz was called Maharat there wasn’t any outcry, but when she was given the title “rabba” that is when the controversy really broke out, even though her job description didn’t change in the slightest. Does this mean that there was no objection to a woman functioning as a rabbi as long as she didn’t have the title? Only after she was renamed “rabba” did the RCA adopt a resolution rejecting the “recognition of women as members of the Orthodox rabbinate, regardless of the title.” Yet despite that resolution, there are synagogues where women are still serving, for all intents and purposes, as members of the rabbinate minus the title.

Marc B. Shapiro, “Answers to Quiz Questions and Other Comments, part 2”, The Seforim Blog (25 March 2012), n. 6 {http://seforim.blogspot.com/2012/03/answers-to-quiz-questions-and-other.html}

Another irony is that the halakhic textbook written by the most distinguished of these yoatzot turns out to be more stringent, and requires consultation with rabbis more often, than halakhic texts written by men. See Aviad Stollman’s review of Deena R. Zimmerman’s A Lifetime Companion to the Laws of Jewish Family Life in Meorot 6 (2007), p. 5. I can’t imagine that women think that there is an advantage in having halakhic works written by other women if these works actually reduce female autonomy in intimate hilkhot niddah matters and require more consultation with male rabbis.

Marc B. Shapiro, “Answers to Quiz Questions and Other Comments, part 2”, The Seforim Blog (25 March 2012) {http://seforim.blogspot.com/2012/03/answers-to-quiz-questions-and-other.html}