Will Modern Orthodoxy Make It? Will Any Traditional Religion?
If you ask me, Modern (Jewish) Orthodoxy is the ideal Benedict Option approach to religion. It holds fast to Jewish religious tradition, in a meaningfully countercultural way, yet engages to an extraordinary degree with modern life. [UPDATE: I should make it clear, in response to comments below from Jewish readers Aaron Gross and Jack Ross, that I see now that despite what I thought, I never really understood Modern Orthodoxy. — RD]
But there are problems. Mosaic magazine has several essays asking whether or not Modern (Jewish) Orthodoxy can survive the culture wars. Here’s the lead one, by Jack Wertheimer. In it, he says that the “same culture wars that have engulfed non-Orthodox Jews, Catholics, and Protestants now rage in the modern-Orthodox world.” You can read more details on this in the Wertheimer piece, but I found this to be the critical factor, one shared with the rest of us religious believers too:
Rabbinic authority is waning. Rabbis across the spectrum of Modern Orthodoxy, resisters and accommodators alike, point to a community that has absorbed American understandings of the sovereign self. “What rabbis say does not matter,” is a refrain I have heard repeatedly. “Authority is in retreat,” declares one rabbi; says another, “People like traditional davening (prayer) and singing; but when it comes to halakhahimpinging on them, then they resist.” In one haredi [that is, Ultra-Orthodox, *not* modern Orthodox! — RD] school, the head of Jewish studies states without any prompting, “In today’s age, the model of rabbinic authority does not exist. We don’t live in ghettoes anymore, so you have to reach students where they are. Saying ‘because it is so’ no longer works.”
In private conversation, the same lament recurs regardless of ideological position, although some go on to lay the blame for the loss of rabbinic authority on their opponents. On the accommodative side, the prevailing sentiment is that hidebound rabbis have brought this situation on themselves because, when it comes to the demands of modernity, they are “oblivious and clueless.” From the resisters, one hears that the accommodative wing has undermined the authority of recognized legal decisors by running to peripheral figures who are only too willing to approve innovations. Many sense their loss of authority so keenly that they shy away from asserting their views on the major cultural issues of the day even when they personally feel strongly about them.
Accelerating these trends is the new reality of the Internet. Thanks to it, states one rabbi, “everybody has a right to have a position; everyone has a de’ah [opinion] about everything.” Educated Jews can look up answers to their own questions and choose from the answers available online. Many feel empowered in this role simply by dint of their day-school education and by the time they have spent studying in Israel, even as they are also encouraged by modern culture’s stress on individual autonomy to act according to the dictates of their conscience.
The question of Authority is the common factor here. We all live in a Secular Age, as Charles Taylor famously dubbed it, meaning not that we are all unbelievers, but rather the awareness that our religious beliefs are chosen is impossible to escape. Even if we accept traditional teaching and traditional authority, the awareness that it is a choice, and that we might have chosen otherwise, is undeniable. If even the haredim, the strictest of the Orthodox expressions of Judaism, are finding their communal understanding of authority to be dissolving (relative to its own tradition), then who among us can stand? Not even the most insular Jewish communities are immune from modernity.
To be clear, the Wertheimer essay is not about the haredim, but about the Modern Orthodox, who are being torn apart from forces on both the Jewish religious right — the haredim, whose more vigorous and separatist Judaism is attracting some formerly Modern Orthodox — and the Jewish religious left, which is more in tune with the liberal secularist Zeitgeist. I can’t possibly do justice to the breadth and detail of Wertheimer’s piece (which is not very long, so don’t be intimidated away from reading it) in a blog post. If you’re religious at all, do yourself a favor and read the whole thing. You should also go to the Mosaic main page and check out the four responses.
For me, the takeaway is that religious identity and belief of all kinds is unstable today, and there are no foolproof ways to stabilize it. The Ultra-Orthodox are better than anybody else, it appears, because they unite behind clear, bright lines, but Wertheimer’s reporting indicates that that may not always be the case, as the increasing engagement of the haredim outside their self-imposed ghettoes is weakening their commitment to their tradition. The experience of the Modern Orthodox, and, from Wertheimer’s reporting, what is increasingly the experience of the Ultra-Orthodox, raises questions about whether the Benedict Option is even possible. Surrender is not an option, God knows, but it seems that there are no clear paths forward for any of us.
Thoughts? Let me know how it looks from within your tradition. It appears to me that if Jews are going to have a long-term future in this country, it will be Orthodox, one way or another. The same is true of Christians, in a small-o orthodox way (that is, built around traditional iterations of Christianity, either Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox). But there is no safe, solid ground. No ark, no monastery. Those who claim this is not a problem are whistling past the graveyard. But we who see a big problem here had better figure out how to grapple with the dimensions of the thing. The Wertheimer piece is about Judaism, but it causes me to doubt that I recognize the true scope of the challenge — and I think about this stuff a good bit.
I had always looked to Modern Jewish Orthodoxy as an ideal for the kind of modern Christian Orthodox I wanted to be. But maybe that’s an illusion.