Faith With­out Fear: Unre­solved Issues in Mod­ern Orthodoxy

Michael J. Harris
  • Review
By – June 29, 2016

While Amer­i­can Mod­ern Ortho­dox Jews often com­pare them­selves to their some­what anal­o­gous brethren in the land of Israel, Reli­gious Zion­ists, Rab­bi Michael J. Har­ris’s new book offers read­ers a glimpse into the mind of one of Britain’s Mod­ern Ortho­doxy’s crit­i­cal thinkers. While admit­ting — at least with regard to some issues — to fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of con­tro­ver­sial for­mer Ortho­dox British Rab­bi Louis Jacobs, whose break with Ortho­doxy led him to found the Masor­ti (Con­ser­v­a­tive) move­ment in Eng­land, Har­ris strug­gles with some of the same intel­lec­tu­al dilem­mas that Jacobs did, while address­ing oth­er top­ics as well, all with­in a slim but extreme­ly com­pre­hen­sive work.

The book seeks to elu­ci­date many of the inher­ent ten­sions in Mod­ern Ortho­doxy, includ­ing whether that move­ment or Hare­di Ortho­doxy is the true inher­i­tor of the his­tor­i­cal Jew­ish tra­di­tion; the sta­tus of women in light of advance­ments in wom­en’s Torah study; the degree to which Jew­ish mys­ti­cism is and should be includ­ed as part of a Mod­ern Ortho­dox Jew­’s world­view and reli­gious prac­tice; how recent devel­op­ments in the field of ancient Near East­ern stud­ies as well as crit­i­cal Bible study affect the Ortho­dox belief in Torah min HaShamay­im (Torah from Heav­en); what the mes­sian­ic era that is prayed for every day will actu­al­ly look like; and how Jews should per­ceive their rela­tion­ship with non-Jews and with mem­bers of oth­er denom­i­na­tions with­in their own reli­gion. Each of these top­ics would on its own jus­ti­fy com­plete works, and many have, but Har­ris does an excel­lent job of clear­ly and suc­cinct­ly sketch­ing the divid­ing lines and core issues that lie at the heart of these hot but­ton top­ics, and in brief sen­tences, sum­ma­riz­ing large swaths of schol­ar­ship. For exam­ple, in his dis­cus­sion of wrestling with the moral dilem­ma of how mod­ern Jews should feel about the Bib­li­cal com­mand­ment to wipe out Amalek, a dis­com­fort already present in ancient rab­binic texts, he notes that the mil­i­tary real­i­ties of the ancient world meant that a war of total destruc­tion had to be man­dat­ed to ensure Israelite sur­vival, but as these real­i­ties change, the Halakhah itself moves toward the abo­li­tion of the com­mand­ment in prac­tice because of its moral unac­cept­abil­i­ty beyond the con­text of the harsh envi­ron­ment of antiquity.”

Har­ris, who serves as the rab­bi of the Hamp­stead Syn­a­gogue, and is the son of a for­mer South African Chief Rab­bi, pre­sum­ably has a con­gre­ga­tion that wel­comes their spir­i­tu­al leader writ­ing about such issues in ways that lean heav­i­ly on aca­d­e­m­ic schol­ar­ship and non-Ortho­dox the­olo­gians, to bor­row a phrase from the title of the book, with­out fear.” While as an Amer­i­can I can­not spec­u­late as to the impact the book has had on the British Mod­ern Ortho­dox scene, it is dif­fi­cult to think of an Amer­i­can Mod­ern Ortho­dox rab­bi who would be will­ing or able to do the same. While Israel’s Beit Morasha, a cen­ter for Advanced Juda­ic Stud­ies and Lead­er­ship,” recent­ly pro­duced a Hebrew work, In the Eyes of God and Man: The Believ­er and Sci­en­tif­ic Study of the Bible, which col­lects arti­cles by thinkers rang­ing from Israeli heads of Ortho­dox yeshiv­ot to Bible pro­fes­sors from the Con­ser­v­a­tive sem­i­nary JTS, all wrestling with how to rec­on­cile mod­ern Bib­li­cal schol­ar­ship with tra­di­tion­al reli­gious belief, none of the con­trib­u­tors are Amer­i­can Mod­ern Ortho­dox pul­pit rab­bis. It remains to be seen whether Har­ris’s book, pub­lished by a British pub­lish­er, sparks dis­cus­sion in the Amer­i­can Ortho­dox scene. Regard­less, the issues that Har­ris so devot­ed­ly and sin­cere­ly wres­tles with aren’t dis­ap­pear­ing from the minds of crit­i­cal think­ing Mod­ern Ortho­dox Jews any time soon.

Relat­ed Content:

Dr. Stu Halpern is Senior Advi­sor to the Provost of Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty. He has edit­ed or coedit­ed 17 books, includ­ing Torah and West­ern Thought: Intel­lec­tu­al Por­traits of Ortho­doxy and Moder­ni­ty and Books of the Peo­ple: Revis­it­ing Clas­sic Works of Jew­ish Thought, and has lec­tured in syn­a­gogues, Hil­lels and adult Jew­ish edu­ca­tion­al set­tings across the U.S.

Discussion Questions