The One-Percent Solution –Modern Orthodoxy

I just finished reading the Mosaic e-zine series on Modern Orthodoxy. It was well done, especially the initial essay of Jack Wertheimer, “Can Modern Orthodoxy Survive?” I have been asked for my comments by various friends. My comments here are based on his initial essay and none of the subsequent posts substantively change my concerns. I am not arguing for any side or essay, so do not over read. (Treat this as a first draft. )

on the move

Basically, we are talking about a very small number of Jews. According to Jack Wertheimer’s reading of the Pew Study, there are only 168,000 adult Modern Orthodox Jews, most of them baby boomers and senior citizens.  At best, we have 30,000- 35,000, maybe much less, in the bracket of college age through millennial. (Feel free to correct the math.)  In addition, among those between the ages of thirty and forty-nine who have been raised Modern Orthodox, fully 44 percent have moved religiously leftward; among those between eighteen and twenty-nine, 29 percent no longer identify as Orthodox.

Most of the discussion was about ideological issues; however ideological debates are a sign of vitality.  Almost any intellectual circle of the last 200 years involved thousands and not more. But to ask a question about survival, the key issues are probably demographic.

Is there enough younger Modern Orthodox Jews for endogamy only among themselves? If not, which community are their spouses coming from? Are they marrying those who grew up in a liberal movement willing to keep a kosher home or are they marrying those raised in a yeshivish home that are willing to be a bit more modern?  The original  Breuer’s community dissipated its ideology through marriage and residence patterns.  Can such a small number as Modern Orthodoxy keep out broader influences? Unlikely. 

When discussing survival, are there enough members to maintain the current Modern Orthodox institutions? We know from Protestants groups that those that own property and institutions survive better than those who do not. But which groups and people in this small number hold the money and the institutions? Those arguing for a split: have they already calculated who is going to pay the bills? If you look at those on the boards of the Modern Orthodox institutions, which side on they are?

Conversely, and more importantly, there needs to be institutions to cater to the millennial and younger. Do they have the institutions that they need? You read every week about the likes and dislikes of millennials, hipsters, gen y and gen z. Are the institutions still catering to the baby boomers and gen x and ignoring those in their twenties?

Are there enough institutions and leadership in the neighborhoods that younger Modern Orthodox Jews are moving to? Much of the demographic loss of the Conservative movement was the demographic movement out of the Northeast and out of working class neighborhoods towards the South and West and to wealthier areas. For those not Modern Orthodox moving home, are there enough institutions in the new areas? For example, the hottest neighborhood for young Jewish couples is Brownstone Brooklyn and it distinctly does not have a strong enough Modern Orthodox presence compared to the Upper West Side leading to attrition from Modern orthodoxy. (However, as I type this Rabbi Ysoscher Katz will now be a pulpit rabbi in Park Slope, this is more significant for demographics than just one pulpit). In general, there is a return back to the gentrified cities from suburbia. Will there be Modern Orthodox resources?

 Looking at it from the other direction, many of the Modern Orthodox congregations in less affluent neighborhoods became more Yeshivish in the 1990’s.  As I have noted before, the Pew statistics show that one must currently be in the top 6-7% of American income to be Modern Orthodox. What will become of the less affluent Modern Orthodox suburban neighborhoods and those who move out of affluent Modern Orthodoxy for financial reasons, where are they going?  Modern orthodoxy in the South and West deserve their own discussion, most of those looking at the community are New York centered or Boston to DC centered.(Poster above from an OU career fair encouraging people to move away from NY, this migration will have unintended consequences).

Then there are many other significant factors that will shape the community in the future. To take a small example, Norman Lamm molded the new heroic centrism through the unacknowledged affirmative action for YU students to be accepted into AECOM, creating a strong core of Modern Orthodox physicians. Now, Touro has acquired a medical school and is quietly embarking on the same process, while YU has probably lost tight control of AECOM.  In the 1980’s philosophic discussions by Modern Orthodoxy gave way to medical ethics as a response. What are the conceptual responses to the new fields of the 21st century?

No one mentioned the vast influence of popular culture on contemporary Modern Orthodox rabbis who show relevance that way. That may be an ideological divide of the future from those who see it as lacking Torah. 

Where will those looking for healing and pop psych turn? What about the influence on Modern Orthodoxy of the decline of Evangelical religion and the turn towards spirituality? What about those who feel overwhelmed by their secular lives and want purity before God?

The ideological debates in Modern Orthodoxy were framed by the articles as internal to the US. What is the current role of Israeli religious ideas? Are the liberal writings of the New Religious Zionists changing American Modern Orthodox Jews? Will the widespread use of Rabbi Eliezer Melamed’s halakhic works lead to the adoption of his ideology also?

Prof Wertheimer got the data absolutely correct that the break in the community does not run between two institutions, rather within each institution. A solid percentage of RIETS graduate are quite liberal and even more so on the college level, while not everyone at YCT is liberal or even in favor of partnership minyanim. The divide is greater than the given institutions. The vast majority of IRF members are YU graduates; those involved in the tefillin controversy and the smicha student at a partnership minyan was at YU. YU actually has greater number of graduates, especially in the millennial and younger, that have gone liberal, are GLBT rights advocates, or push for a liberal agenda.  This topic should not be pigeonholed into institutions. Whereas Wertheimer got it correct that the division is within the schools, social media likes clean boxes and places everything on the handful of people at YCT and not YU. Yet, the majority of those on both sides of the debate share the same synagogues, day schools, summer camps, and gap year programs in Israel. This is not two echo chambers, rather two sides of one organization.

More importantly, there is wide spread grassroots support for the idea of an Open Orthodoxy.  A solid plurality of the Modern Orthodox world would want to be Open Orthodox as a vote of protest. Among the many things they want are included social inclusion, social justice, aesthetics, spirituality, academics, or just the same but without the judgmental attitude and provincialism. People who have never met anyone from YCT or IRF are calling themselves Open Orthodoxy. It is becoming a catch-all for college students who want to separate themselves from their parents and older siblings, for social Orthodox, as well as for empty nesters who are leading more expansive lives. 

Now to the major point, there is not a single partnership minyan affiliated with any Orthodox synagogue, either connected with YU or YCT. It is laity driven. Many of the partnership minyanim post on their websites that they are open-orthodox but they are not sanctioned by anyone in YU or YCT. The practice of the laity is not based on statements from YCT or their advocating for partnership minyanim.  Just like my prior posts on Sweatpants Judaism, Social Orthodoxy, or Half Shabbos from three years ago, the laity is stretching its practice without concern for either side of the ideological debates. The 40% of Modern Orthodoxy college students who have attended a partnership minyan are not looking to either side for a blessing or permission. Even at the height of the debates at the start of 2014, I was invited by email to two local private partnership minyanim, neither had any rabbinic blessing, and I received notice of two new out of town partnership minyanim that were just formed by the laity in reaction to the debates.

In the early 1990’s the newspapers started writing that Modern Orthodox meant lax in mizvot, Chaim Waxman and others responded by stating clearly that philosophic modern Orthodox is rigorous in observance and should not be lumped with sociological modern Orthodox. The clarification was quickly accepted. There is no clarification right now about the differences between laity driven Open Orthodox and the IRF vision. If they wrote such a clarification, it would also be quickly welcomed. I have had people tell me, including, or especially, some of the new modern Yeshivish bloggers that they thought YCT, JOFA and the Torah.com are one, that they thought that they are teaching Biblical criticism at YCT, and that YCT is an advocacy group for women wearing tefillin and partnership minyanim. They honestly do not know that YCT is just Gemara and shiurim in halakhah culminating in Yoreh Deah. They neither sponsor the liberal innovations as an institution, and they do not have academic courses in Bible or Talmud, as YU does. Those who went on to gain notoriety had their graduate degrees from elsewhere.

In general, there is too much talk of ideology and too many assumptions about the role of ideology in social dynamics. I invite people to read the articles in the Jewish journals between 1960-1963, when they were filled with speculations if the Conservative movement could survive a split. They pointed out how having both Orthodox Halakhic scholars on one side and Reconstructionists on the other side was going to kill the movement. Then when both extremes broke in 1962,  few of the laity were even aware of the break nor did it play a role in the immense growth of the Conservative movement in the late 1960’s and 1970’s to become 60% of American Jewry. (Orthodoxy rapidly declined from 60% in 1950, to 22% in 1960 to 9% in 1970; now we trumpet growths back up to 11% as world-changing). The decisions in the field by pulpit rabbis played a bigger role than any real or imagined ideological decision.  

There is a bigger issue that was correctly noted by some of the articles, which is, of the lack of leadership and the lack of a leader that everyone could rally around.  The debates of August 2013-April 2014 on tefillin and partnership minyanim show that there are different leadership models out there. Many of the baby-boomers educated before the gap-year phenomena do not look to Roshei Yeshiva or feel beholden to them. They look to pulpit rabbis. Those whose spiritual formation occurred in Israel and then their formation continued with their Rosh Yeshiva upon return cannot see any other place to look for authority. Many of those below a certain age, now feel alienated from the worldview of these same Roshei Yeshiva and also do not look to them.  During the controversies, I personally refrained from making a single comment; rather I kept asking various threads on Facebook about what was the core of the controversy. What emerged were two clear opposing views of leadership. (I saved the threads to analyze later). Those two positions consisted of those that deferred to Roshei yeshiva and those who did not.

Avery Dulles in his Model of the Church discusses the Catholic approaches to religious leadership, and his analysis can be applied with some modifications to other hierarchical traditional groups.  One side clearly put their trust in Roshei Yeshiva and looked to them for legitimation, guidance, and authority. They emphasize hierarchy, correct beliefs and practices and authority.

Those who were on the other side of these debates had three of Dulles other categories. Some saw Jewish leadership as community based with a pulpit rabbi in charge who can lead the community and respond to their needs. Judaism is defined by the community. This group values the activism and flexibility of pulpit rabbis over Roshei Yeshiva. A claim about who has mastered more of the sacred texts does not matter if your question is who is responding to the community. 

Others, invoked Hasidic texts about the infinite of Torah and our need to respond to the personal call of the Divine. Torah is not in the community leaders of whether variety but in our souls.  Finally, there were those who argue for a democratic community of learners who make their own decisions based on their own education. They consult with Rabbis as teachers and resource people, not for authority or decisions.  The major leadership category of Dulles that the community did not display was rabbi as servant looking to help the common people, as in the older neo-Hasidic tales. 

One major observation of the rhetoric of this past year was the binary split in which one side argued for submission and the other side argued for openness. Prior forms of modern Orthodoxy from 1800 and onward always sought to take the best of culture. To display to oneself and others that one has a reasonable faith then one need to combine the best of both cultures. Modern Orthodoxy accommodates by reinterpreting tradition in light of contemporary values, understanding contemporary values in light of tradition, or it compartmentalizes. On a deeper level, there is dialectic, oscillation or synthesis between revelation and reason, revelation and man’s conscious, of authority and human feeling, reason, and morals. Modern Orthodoxy seeks to always be located in a conceptual middle. (Even if it is only a few percent of the population.) In order to claim to have the best of both worlds then one has to display to the world and at least convince the Modern Orthodox community that it is moral, tolerant, enlightened, modernist, sophisticated, educated, or any other modern value seen as positive.

However, much of the public fight over the last half year has been one side asking for submission and obedience and the other side arguing for openness. Neither side is using the classic Modern Orthodox formula of synthesis, dialectic, or tension.

Finally, the essays seemed to be Baby Boomers defending their view of Modern Orthodoxy against the Gen X’s Centrist vision of Modern Orthodoxy.  One gets a feeling that the gen x may be blinded by fighting against the baby boomers for the rest of their lives, leaving them unable to see the twenty something’s younger than them. Or to frame it by decades, just as certain Baby Boomer Modern Orthodoxy authors still define Modern Orthodoxy as the early 1970’s and have proclaimed the death of Modern Orthodoxy since 1983, I fear that certain younger authors will always be cheering for the more Yeshivish turn around in the late 1990’s despite further changes in the community.

The entire ideological debate may have much less relevance to those under 35. I can think of several up and coming under 35 Jewish writers who may frame the whole discussion entirely differently, without a reference to these older debates.(Picture below from the Salute to Israel parade, which now functions as a Modern Orthodoxy pride day.)

israel day parade

Will Modern Orthodoxy Survive? Modern Orthodoxy is both terminable and interminable. All constructions of modern Orthodoxy are culturally situated and ever bound to a specific time. Even a single version consists of many trends, sub-movements, and cultural shifts. All varieties of modern Orthodoxies have commonalities based on ideology, people, institutions, and texts, yet they are all terminable in that the resources, concerns, needs, and connections to other movements are all tied to a specific era. In our modern age, these constructions change regularly and rapidly, not that there is any specific need to respond to change, to assume any agency to change, or even to accept the changes. One can personally continue to argue for a given ideology, but often one finds that it is hard to hold back time. There will no longer be a mass migration of near-illiterate peasant Russian Jews, nor will there likely be a need again for a response to the high modernism of Kant, Freud, or Existentialism; however, the need for articulate ideologies will remain an interminable need for religious communities. Modernism and mid-20th century modern Orthodoxy may be gone, but, we can see that each era with their own ideology offers the needed construction for its community.

7 responses to “The One-Percent Solution –Modern Orthodoxy

  1. Has anyone considered that the only place that Modern Orthodoxy can ultimately thrive is in Israel?

  2. All I want to know is … will people be able to eat strawberries in 2050? That seems to be the heart of the issue. Joking aside, one point that seems to be not mentioned is that “modernity” and “Torah” seem to have been closer together in 1964 than they are in 2014. Perhaps the distance seemed just as great then (?), but certain things that are required to be considered socially modern today seem harder to reconcile with Orthodoxy. In 1964, many more people were traditionally religious and it was socially understood that people would stay loyal to their religious group. At the same time, it was clear to many immigrants from Europe that America was an entirely different society, one that required new thinking. Today, being traditionally religious is challenging in any liberal environment, even if one’s thinking is extremely liberal. At the same time, becoming yeshivish or chassidic no longer means that you cannot get a reasonable job. Nor does it mean that you can’t practice yoga or go to the gym.

    The truth is that RW Orthodoxy *has* changed in response to modernity. No, there are no women’s tefillah groups but what do you call this entirely new ideology of female superiority, the mystery of women’s ways, the deep, spiritual importance of challah, tsnuit as an opportunity for personal transformation rather than a sign of compliance? Those ideas do not come to us from the 2nd, 10th, or 17th centuries. There’s a reason there are never any footnotes to traditional sources in those articles. That’s adaptation to feminism and without it, no young woman (regardless of her background) would find RW Orthodoxy relevant. Children of modern Orthodox may shift right but they don’t join Satmar or Gur. That’s because while they want to deepen their religious practice and perhaps simplify their lives (and their children’s lives) with fewer choices, they are still modern in their thinking. Only a RW system that can explain itself in modern terms will be intelligible to them.

    From the sidelines of the C movement, I salute my MO brothers and sisters, both LW and RW. We each have our problems, but I believe that they are good problems to have.

  3. The “Laity” for Northeastern Modern Orthodoxy are often highly Jewishly educated, sometimes spending as many years learning in Yeshiva as the Rabbi. So using “Lay-Driven” in this context is misleading.

    A “Partnership Minyan” put together by someone with YU smicha who works as a lawyer is not “lay-led” in the traditional sense.

    On that note, Modern Orthodoxy traditionally had a laity which was Traditional and did not keep Kosher or Shabbos by the the rules of the Shulchan Aruch. This is still the case in many Orthodox Synagogues. Neither the article nor the responses seem to address this demographic.

  4. I just wanted to say that your interesting typologies of MO by generations, cultural interests and so on reveal a glaring failure on the part of MO. It lacks a comprehensive independent understanding of the new situation in the world post 1990. To the extent there is any political vision it is one of complete identification with Israel, and a disappointment and anger that the world sees things differently. To the extent there is any prism it is the self centered vision of right wing Israel. Recent events, especially the outbreak of anti-Antisemitism in Europe, the sudden emergence of ISIS, the unexpected strength of Hamas, and the fear and expectation that Iran will have nuclear weapons are just examples of a new kind of world that impinges to Jewish interests. More generally there is a sense that the world political situation is getting out of control against a background of a series of ecological disasters. i would say most Jews and certainly Orthodox Jews are both anxious and mystified. You can’t expect Jewish thinkers to have much impact unless they have something insightful to say about the new world we live in. I can’t think of a single rabbi or theologian or Jewish academic dealing with these issues.

    In earlier decades, the 1880’s to 1910 in the fight for labor unions, in the 1930’s with the Jewish socialists and communists and in the 1970’s with the emergence of Jewish Neoconservatives there were genuine attempts to understand the world. Today with a world that is really different from the 20th century and its battles against fascism and communism there is only a sort of mystification. What is common to generations X,Y,Z, millennials, Social Orthodoxy and the other variants of MO is that they all are essentially apolitical…they hardly ever look at the world.

  5. Just want to comment on the demographics in this post:

    According the 2011 JCSNY survey, MO women (in the NY metropolitan region) have an average of 2.5 children, comfortably above the replacement rate. 29% drop-out is not quite as bad as it seems; if you flip it, 71% retention rate for MO is pretty high, even if a good chunk of it is more left. I don’t think the question is how many MO adults there are, but how many kids there are – that’s what predicts growth. If MO women keep having children at this rate, there’s really no reason to be overly worried about the growth or at least maintenance of the religious movement.

    I am not saying it can’t disintegrate or face serious challenges, but I don’t see its demise as imminent enough to warrant questions about its survival.

    Ultimately, I do think this is more about demographics than about ideology.

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