"Is Modern Orthodoxy an Endangered Species?" This was the question posed at a conference yesterday in Jerusalem. Some speakers suggested that the very term "Modern Orthodoxy" doesn't fit the Israeli context or even accurately describe this slice of Jewish life. But what, indeed, is it?
Like nearly all denominational labels, this one is a product of the ideological and political debates of the 19th century, as the radical options posed by modernity—including the possibilities of assimilation without conversion to Christianity and of political self-determination—scrambled traditional categories as never before. In this unprecedented situation, adherents of tradition in general and of traditional Jewish law (halakhah) in particular became one party, now called "Orthodoxy," vying with others for adherents and authority.
Yet it never was a uniform party but rather, in the words of the historian Jacob Katz, "A House Divided." A key issue was, and remains, whether one could be Orthodox and still accept or even welcome elements of modernity and Western culture. Those answering yes became what are known in Israel as Religious Zionists and in the U.S. as Modern Orthodox. But the debates hardly ended there. Which elements of modernity? To what extent, and with what if any qualifications?
The debates themselves point to what makes Modern Orthodox Jews so interesting—namely, their willingness to ask basic questions of self-definition—and simultaneously so anxious for their future. The anxiety is not without reason. In the U.S., though the Modern Orthodox are solidly entrenched as a social group and a way of life, they are embroiled in often divisive internal debate over, these days especially, the opportunities and limits of feminism, and are under steady challenge from a self-confident right wing.
In Israel, the Religious Zionists are analogously riven, not only over feminism but also over loyalty to the state and army, the scope of rabbinic authority, the place of universal ethics, and more; meanwhile, ultra-Orthodoxy has demonstrated a capacity for mobilization that has marginalized the Religious Zionists within the very institutions, including the Chief Rabbinate, they themselves created. Recent years have seen the rise of a powerful new ideology, Haredi-Leumi (ultra-Orthodox nationalist), which affirms Zionism but rejects Western culture.
At yesterday's conference, the speakers thus had much to worry and to complain about. But they also had much to celebrate: the revolution in women's Talmud study, an efflorescence of religious literary and artistic creativity, and the fruits of social activism. Overall, the picture was of intellectual and cultural flourishing alongside social and political beleaguerment: not exactly a new phenomenon in Jewish history. Small in number, the modern (and post-modern) Orthodox continue to play a crucial bridging role between tradition and the larger world, which makes their internal debates among the most consequential in Jewish life today.
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