Zev Eleff is the author of Mod­ern Ortho­dox Judaism: A Doc­u­men­tary His­to­ry. He is guest blog­ging for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil all week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series here on The ProsenPeo­ple.

In May 1969, Rab­bi Nor­man Lamm pub­lished an essay on Mod­ern Orthodoxy’s Iden­ti­ty Cri­sis” in a mag­a­zine cir­cu­lat­ed by the Ortho­dox Union. His mis­sion was ambi­tious: to iden­ti­fy and grap­ple with the strug­gle of mod­ern Amer­i­cans who were con­comi­tant­ly com­mit­ted to Ortho­dox Judaism. Rab­bi Lamm also offered some salience rather than mus­ings. The essay trans­formed Rab­bi Lamm and Mod­ern Ortho­dox Judaism into a move­ment marked by sta­bil­i­ty and root­ed identity.

Of course, Rab­bi Lamm did not do this alone. Young women and men — many of them, first-gen­er­a­tion day school grad­u­ates — joined in, and revi­tal­ized Ortho­dox Judaism in the Unit­ed States. He also ben­e­fit­ed from a respect­ful form of Ortho­dox dis­course. Dif­fer­ing points of view were wel­comed as essen­tial ele­ments of a more whole­some con­ver­sa­tion. In 1965, the edi­tors of the Rab­bini­cal Coun­cil of Amer­i­ca pub­lished an arti­cle authored by Dr. Eliez­er Berkovits in the pages of its jour­nal despite the the fact that most of our Edi­to­r­i­al Board dis­agree with the views expressed in this essay.” Rather than reject the paper, the Ortho­dox rab­bini­cal orga­ni­za­tion includ­ed it as a mark­er of com­mu­nal revi­tal­iza­tion.”

The main­te­nance of informed and diplo­mat­ic pub­lic con­ver­sa­tion is essen­tial, par­tic­u­lar­ly in anx­ious moments of tumult. Late­ly, talk of an iden­ti­ty cri­sis” with­in Mod­ern Ortho­dox Judaism has resumed. By and large, the dis­course takes place in the are­na of social media. It is there­fore an undaunt­ed con­ver­sa­tion. It lacks a mod­er­a­tor and mod­er­a­tion. The right­ist wing refers to a cri­sis” as it writes off an out­mod­ed ide­ol­o­gy [that] is murky and vague.” The left­ists allude to the same cri­sis, char­ac­ter­iz­ing it as try­ing times for Mod­ern Orthodoxy.” 

Both sides rehearse sim­i­lar revi­sion­ist his­to­ries. Invari­ably, these sorts of writ­ers and blog­gers cite Dr. Bernard Rev­el, an ear­ly pres­i­dent of Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty, and Rab­bi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, con­sid­ered Yeshi­va University’s most impor­tant his­tor­i­cal fig­ure. Their con­clu­sions typ­i­cal­ly call for change, a Mod­ern Ortho­doxy defined by approach­es that came straight from the great­est of Euro­pean yeshiv­os” or a vision intend­ed to be, frankly, some­thing new.” The mid­dle-of-the-road out­look is not too often con­sid­ered. Fur­ther, these kinds of expo­si­tions rarely engage the pri­ma­ry sources. They lack tex­ture and nuance, drain­ing the past of all its col­or and cre­ativ­i­ty. In the end, these writ­ings are the stuff of polemic; not the lan­guage of con­struc­tive discourse.

Still, there is more to it. Increas­ing­ly, Ortho­dox Jews turn to social media to take part and read blog­posts, arti­cles, and com­ments on the grip­ping reli­gious issues of the day. These are the forums in which many Ortho­dox Jews obtain reli­gion, though an infor­mal type. For many, Face­book and Twit­ter have emerged as sacred spaces to acquire Judaism and Jew­ish con­tent. Of course, the syn­a­gogue and oth­er impor­tant cul­tur­al cen­ters still offer much, but these tra­di­tion­al” insti­tu­tions com­pete with dig­i­tal venues that are always open and are con­stant­ly upload­ing new con­tent. In most cas­es, it is hard­ly a con­test — after all, the rabbi’s ser­mon is only a week­ly occa­sion, and adult edu­ca­tion class­es simi­ar­ly must fit into some sort of restric­tive sched­ule. By con­trast, Face­book threads are time­less, unteth­ered, and hyperlinked. 

Rel­e­vance and prompt­ness have assumed unprece­dent­ed­ly pre­cious qual­i­ties of reli­gious com­modi­ties. Owing to this, rab­bis and edu­ca­tors take to the Inter­net for this very sort of rel­e­vance. The savvi­est among them upload their ser­mons and author blogs. These women and men rec­og­nize that to be some­one of con­se­quence they must become a part of the online conversation. 

There is an allur­ing and democ­ra­tiz­ing aspect of Face­book. The elites — the most edu­cat­ed, title-hold­ing lot — no longer have so much con­trol. Social media is a dia­logue — not a mono­logue, after all. Con­sid­er Daniel Rosenthal’s recent­ly polem­i­cal tract, Why Open Ortho­doxy Is Not Ortho­dox. In his tirade against the Ortho­dox Left, the author mar­shaled loads of extra-aca­d­e­m­ic evi­dence that amount­ed to 487 foot­notes: the lion’s share of these cita­tions were drawn from Face­book and YouTube. In one exer­cise of social media arith­metic, Rosen­thal actu­al­ly count­ed the num­ber of times a Face­book post was liked” by mem­bers of a par­tic­u­lar Ortho­dox group.

Of course, there are draw­backs to the new mode of dis­course. Most notably, this sort of unhinged con­ver­sa­tion tends to intro­duce his­tor­i­cal errors and over­sim­pli­fi­ca­tions. The Mod­ern Ortho­dox com­mu­ni­ty is far from unique in its embrace of online media as a pri­ma­ry form of dis­course. Sim­i­lar trends are evi­dent in oth­er Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties, and with­in oth­er reli­gious spheres. Mod­ern Ortho­doxy is also not the only one under­go­ing a so-called iden­ti­ty cri­sis.” It is, how­ev­er, the one that I can best help — that’s why I authored Mod­ern Ortho­dox Judaism.

Fea­tur­ing more than 180 texts and images, this doc­u­men­tary his­to­ry seeks to equip the present dig­i­tal dia­logue with a stur­dier foothold with­in the sources. The anthol­o­gy aims to restore sophis­ti­ca­tion and nuance to the new dis­course. Far from claim­ing to offer the final say on any mat­ter, the user-friend­ly com­men­taries and anno­ta­tions are meant to bol­ster a more informed con­ver­sa­tion. For instance, the mate­r­i­al on Ortho­dox Judaism’s part­ing of the ways with Con­ser­v­a­tive and Reform, the role of rab­binic author­i­ty and the place of women in sta­tions of lead­er­ship are cru­cial. These sub­jects are per­ti­nent to the class­room, the syn­a­gogue pul­pit, Face­book and wher­ev­er else we may strike up an intrigu­ing con­ver­sa­tion on the past and future of Ortho­dox Judaism in the Unit­ed States.

Zev Eleff is the chief aca­d­e­m­ic offi­cer of the Hebrew The­o­log­i­cal Col­lege, Chica­go. He is the author of five books and over thir­ty scholas­tic arti­cles. His book Mod­ern Ortho­dox Judaism: A Doc­u­men­tary His­to­ry was recent­ly pub­lished by the Jew­ish Pub­li­ca­tion Society.

Relat­ed Content:

Zev Eleff is the chief aca­d­e­m­ic offi­cer of the Hebrew The­o­log­i­cal Col­lege, Chica­go. He is the author of five books, includ­ing Liv­ing from Con­ven­tion to Con­ven­tion: A His­to­ry of the NCSY, 1954 – 1980, and edi­tor of Men­tor of Gen­er­a­tions: Reflec­tions on Rab­bi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. He has also authored more than thir­ty schol­ar­ly articles.

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