Mod­ern Ortho­dox Judaism: A Doc­u­men­tary History

Zev Eleff; Jacob J. Schac­ter, fwd.
  • Review
By – June 29, 2016

This col­lec­tion of doc­u­ments dat­ing from the ear­ly nine­teenth cen­tu­ry until the present day presents a diverse and mul­ti-dimen­sion­al por­trait of how Ortho­dox Judaism has attempt­ed to respond to the cul­tur­al changes and chal­lenges pre­sent­ed by the rapid evo­lu­tion of Jew­ish and sec­u­lar lifestyles in the Unit­ed States over the course of the last two centuries.

All reli­gions are tasked with mak­ing sense out of and engag­ing with the human con­di­tion at the par­tic­u­lar times and places in which their adher­ents find them­selves. As opposed to rel­a­tive­ly extreme reli­gious approach­es that either attempt to iso­late them­selves from their sur­round­ings or com­plete­ly incor­po­rate the cur­rent trends extent with­in soci­ety, Mod­ern Ortho­doxy, like all cen­trist reli­gious denom­i­na­tions, strives to main­tain a bal­ance between tra­di­tion and moder­ni­ty — which, in the eyes of some its crit­ics includ­ed in these pages, con­sti­tutes a ver­i­ta­ble con­tra­dic­tion in terms. The book con­tains reflec­tions of how Ortho­dox Judaism has addressed changes in litur­gy, the divin­i­ty of the Torah, the delin­eation of var­i­ous Jew­ish denom­i­na­tions, aes­thet­ics of places of wor­ship, atti­tudes towards sec­u­lar edu­ca­tion, women’s rit­u­al and lead­er­ship issues, inter­faith dia­logue, Fri­day night pro­gram­ming, sex­u­al­i­ty and fam­i­ly mat­ters, genet­ic test­ing, Zion­ism, the bat mitz­vah cel­e­bra­tion for young women, com­mem­o­rat­ing the Holo­caust, Zion­ism, Sovi­et Jew­ry, and address­ing the ter­ri­ble dilem­ma of help­ing women whose hus­bands refuse to grant them a divorce.

The doc­u­ments con­tained in Eleff’s book, reflect the ongo­ing soul-search­ing and wrench­ing con­cerns in which insti­tu­tions and their lead­ers have engaged in their attempt to adjust and yet pre­serve Judaism’s tra­di­tions over the years. With the con­sis­tent inte­gra­tion of sev­er­al points of view regard­ing many of the issues addressed, Mod­ern Ortho­dox Judaisms read­ers are able to appre­ci­ate the com­plex­i­ty of these issues and the earnest­ness of pur­pose of those grap­pling with them.

A pat­tern of ascen­den­cy fol­lowed by a decline in the rel­a­tive­ly broad ide­o­log­i­cal reli­gious approach cat­e­go­rized as Mod­ern Ortho­doxy can be traced specif­i­cal­ly in doc­u­ments from the 1960s to the 1980s. The win­now­ing of Amer­i­can Ortho­doxy,” as well as sig­nif­i­cant changes in the movement’s key lead­er­ship, is cred­it­ed by Eleff for the aban­don­ment of pre­vi­ous mod­er­ate, cen­trist posi­tions in favor of a sharp­er delin­eation of the left and right wings of the group. Many of the writ­ings in the book’s final chap­ter reflect attempts on the part of more lib­er­al and pro­gres­sive ele­ments with­in the con­stel­la­tion of Mod­ern Ortho­doxy, to claim for them­selves the man­tle of being the true heirs of this par­tic­u­lar tradition.

Reflect­ing on the doc­u­ments assem­bled in the book, is that in addi­tion to the nat­ur­al changes that inevitably affect all cul­tur­al set­tings, one comes away with the dis­tinct impres­sion that the dis­ori­en­ta­tion caused first by immi­gra­tion from more tra­di­tion­al and even repres­sive soci­eties to the open­ness and per­son­al free­dom of the Unit­ed States, fol­lowed by the gen­er­al relo­ca­tion of Ortho­dox Jews from urban set­tings to sub­ur­ban envi­ron­ments, has played a major role in empow­er­ing many to think that past approach­es and prac­tices must be altered, inde­pen­dent of the long-stand­ing demands of reli­gious tra­di­tion. When such devel­op­ments are cou­pled with the light-speed advances in tech­nol­o­gy and social media, the integri­ty of Mod­ern Ortho­doxy, per­haps more so than Jew­ish denom­i­na­tions fur­ther to the left and right, has been sore­ly test­ed. Seri­ous con­tem­pla­tion of the past by read­ing doc­u­ments col­lect­ed in books like Zev Eleff’s, how­ev­er, is help­ful for those iden­ti­fy­ing with Mod­ern Ortho­doxy to at least brace our­selves for what might be yet to come.

Relat­ed Content:

Vis­it­ing Scribe: Zev Eleff

The New Dig­i­tal Dis­course and Mod­ern Ortho­dox Judaism

The New Dig­i­tal Dis­course and Mod­ern Ortho­dox Judaism: How Online Media Is Chang­ing the Jew­ish World

In Whose Image? Mai­monides Among the Por­traits of the Lawgivers

Yaakov (Jack) Biel­er was the found­ing Rab­bi of the Kemp Mill Syn­a­gogue in Sil­ver Spring, MD until his retire­ment in 2015. He has been asso­ci­at­ed with Jew­ish day school edu­ca­tion for over thir­ty years. R. Biel­er served as a men­tor for the Bar Ilan Uni­ver­si­ty Look­stein Cen­ter Prin­ci­pals’ Sem­i­nar and he has pub­lished and lec­tured exten­sive­ly on the phi­los­o­phy of Mod­ern Ortho­dox education.

Discussion Questions