The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






Modern Orthodox Judaism

Modern Orthodox Judaism (or Modern Orthodox, also known as Modern Orthodoxy and sometimes abbreviated as "MO") is a movement within Judaism that attempts to synthesize Orthodox Judaism with the secular modern world in its interactions with it. In the United States its leaders are generally associated with the world of Yeshiva University with its motto of Torah Umadda ("Torah and Knowledge/Science"). Modern Orthodox Judaism in America feels close to the Religious Zionist Movement and the Mizrachi party in Israel which they regard as their religious counterparts and ideological allies.



Modern Orthodoxy stresses that if guided by Jewish values, the interaction with modernity is in fact desirable and intellectually profitable.

Supporters of Modern Orthodox Judaism believe that Jews should hold fast to the traditional Jewish principles of faith, and should live by traditional Jewish laws and customs. Modern Orthodoxy is more flexible on these points than Haredi Judaism, or Hasidic Judaism, but more rigid on these points than any of the non-Orthodox movements, such as Reform Judaism and Conservative Judaism.

Modern Orthodoxy may be described as typically following more lenient positions in halakha known as kulas (meaning "leniencies" in Hebrew), and avoiding chumras (meaning "strictures" in Hebrew), while still viewing halakha as obligatory. This differs from the approach of the Reform and Reconstructionist movements, which do not consider halakha to be obligatory. In some areas Modern Orthodoxy may have a similar outlook to the more traditional elements of Conservative Judaism; however, it does not view the process by which the Conservative movement decides halakha as being legitimate, and disagrees with many of the more controversial Conservative decisions around halakha, particularly as regards issues of egalitarianism. The Conservative movement itself is struggling between its own left (more egalitarian) and right (more conservative) wings. In the late 20th century the more traditionalist-minded Conservative rabbis broke away from the Conservative movement to form the Union for Traditional Judaism , and some rabbis from the left wing of Modern Orthodoxy have allied with it.

Origins of the term

It is not exactly clear precisely when the label "Modern Orthodox" came into existence and when it began to be applied to and combined with "Judaism" to form the widely used description "Modern Orthodox Judaism". What is known is that by the end of the 1900s it had become a means of self-definition for those modern highly westernized Orthodox Jews residing mainly in the United States who did not wish to identify with the more stringent and outwardly more religious-looking Haredi and Hasidic camps to their right (labelled as "Ultra Orthodox").

It may well be that is some sense, Modern Orthodoxy traces its roots to the works of Rabbis Azriel Hildesheimer (1820-1899) and Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888). Rabbi Hirsch developed the motto of Torah im Derech Eretz, which translated literally from the Hebrew would mean "Torah with the way of the world". This phrase means that one should not only accept as necessary, but hold to be positive the integration of traditional Judaism with secular education. At that time Hirsch's definition of secular education included not only the basic academic topics and the sciences, but also (German) literature, philosophy and culture.

Origins of the movement

In Europe during the early 1800s, before the rise of the formal Reform Judaism movement, some people may have referred to any changes in strict Jewish law as a "reform". At that time, as now for the Orthodox, if it was still within the bounds of Jewish law, then it may have been a case of chumras ("strictures") being dropped in favour of kulas ("leniencies"). However, if it became a case of the abandonment of Jewish law -- meaning no justification, either lenient or strict, could be found or derived from the Shulkhan Arukh (the definitive "Code of Jewish Law") -- then most of the "reforms" that eventually became associated with Reform Judaism were rejected outright by the Orthodox. However, a number of acceptable reforms did occur amongst some Orthodox groups:

  • In Western Europe, having a sermon in the vernacular language, such as German or English.
  • Acceptance of lighter more modern styles of dress and fashion in the work place and professionaly, including less head-coverings for men and women when not worshiping in synagogue or at home.
  • Having the bima ("Altar") (a platform from which the Torah is read) in the front of the synagogue instead of near the center.
  • Accepting Zionism as a political movement.
  • Having ordered services with a choir.
  • Adding a prayer to the siddur (Jewish prayerbook) for the welfare of the nation in which the congregation existed, or having varying versions of certain older prayers.

Some Jews had a perception of Judaism as "static and unchanging" and that each of the above reforms may be a "violation" of Jewish law, and thus forbidden. Others thought that Jewish law was never "static" and could change as long as there is room for kulas ("leniencies") in Jewish law itself, or that these strictures were never enshrined in Jewish law to begin with. To the latter, the above examples of changes were justifiable, and perhaps necessary; that although these were changes in the Jewish tradition of recent centuries, they were not a violation of classical halakha.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch stated:

"it is foolish to believe that it is the wording of a prayer, the notes of a synagogue tune, or the order of a special service, which form the abyss between (reform and orthodoxy)... It is not the so-called Divine Service which separates us, (rather it) is the theory - the principle.
The subordination of religion to any other factor means the denial of religion: for if the Torah is to you the Law of God how dare you place another law above it and go along with God and His Law only as long as you thereby "progress" in other respects at the same time?" (S.R. Hirsch, Religion Allied to Progress.)

Modern forms of textual criticism

Some Modern Orthodox scholars may acknowledge insights provided by some tools of modern textual criticism into Judaism's sacred works and rabbinic literature. However, it also maintains that the Torah is of divine origin, and has been transmitted with almost perfect fidelity from the time of Moses until today. Modern Orthodox Jews often study academic biblical criticism but rely on traditional authorities for normative interpretation of the Torah. The documentary hypothesis is only of academic interest for observance.

Modern Orthodoxy is ambivalent, at best, about the use of academic criticism for other books of the Hebrew Bible because if one allows these techniques to be used here, one might then be tempted to eventually look at the Torah in this light as well. Orthodox Judaism makes clear distinctions between the books of the Hebrew Bible, holding that the first five books - the Torah - are of a special nature, being directly dictated by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. The rest of the books of the Bible, the Neviim ("Prophets") and Ketuvim ("Writings") are also considered holy, but are less direct transcriptions of God's will. As such some forms of higher criticism of these book are sometimes considered acceptable. A certain amount of Modern Orthodox acceptance of higher criticism for non-Torah books of the Bible can be found in the Soncino Books of the Bible series, and in the Pentateuch and Haftarah by Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz , both works which are widely used in the Modern Orthodox community.

Criticism of Modern Orthodoxy

Modern Orthodox Rabbis have been criticised for attempting to modify Jewish law and the Codes of Jewish Law in the name of adapting Judaism to the needs of modern world. Haredi groups have sometimes compared Modern Orthodoxy to the beginnings of Reform Judaism in Germany.

Furthermore, many spokesmen have offered highly differing views under the banner of Modern Orthodoxy, ranging from highly traditionalist to radically revisionist. In addition, some elements of Haredi Judaism appear to be more receptive to messages that have traditionally been part of the Modern-Orthodox agenda. As such, generalisations of Modern Orthodoxy are harder to draw then they were at its inception, around 50 years ago.

Important figures

Many Orthodox Jews find the intellectual engagement with the modern world as a virtue. Examples of Orthodox rabbis who promote this worldview include:

  • Marc D. Angel - former president of the Rabbinical Council of America
  • Yehuda Amital - A Hungarian survivor of the Holocaust, Rabbi Amital emigrated to Israel in 1944, and resumed his yeshiva studies in Jerusalem. During the War of Independence, he served in the Hagana armored corps, taking part in the famous battle of Latrun. Subsequently, he took an active role in the development of Yeshivat Hadarom, where he was involved in the formulation of the idea of yeshivat hesder. Following the Six Day War, Rabbi Amital founded and assumed leadership of Yeshivat Har Etzion. He is a dominant public figure in Israel who is widely respected on matters of religious and national concern.
  • Eliezer Berkovits - philosopher, author of many works including Not In Heaven: The Nature and Function of Halakha and Faith after the Holocaust.
  • Tsvi Blanchard - Director of Organizational Development at CLAL.
  • Benjamin Blech
  • Shalom Carmy - professor of Jewish Studies and Philosophy at Yeshiva University; a prominent Modern Orthodox theologian
  • J. Simcha Cohen, presently rabbi in West Palm Beach, Fl., formerly rabbi of the Melbourne, Australia, Mizrachi community. Author of a series of Modern Orthodox response collections.
  • Barry Freundel, Rabbi of Kesher Israel Congregation in Washington, DC, author of several works including 'Contemporary Orthodox Judaism's Response to Modernity.' Rabbi Freundel appeared on television as a panelist on religion in an early episode of Da Ali G Show.
  • Shmuel Goldin, Congregation Ahavath Torah, Englewood, N.J.; Chair, Shvil Hazahav
  • Irving Greenberg - Founder of CLAL; engaged in creating a pluralistic theology and inter-denominational cooperation.
  • Steven Greenberg - Senior Teaching Fellow at CLAL. He received his B.A. in philosophy from Yeshiva University and his rabbinical ordination from Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. He is the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi.
  • David Hartman - director of the Shalom Hartman Institute, Jerusalem. Working from a Maimonidean framework, and based on the works of his mentor Joseph Soloveitchik, he is engaged in creating a pluaralistic theology and inter-denominational cooperation. Author of many books including A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism.
  • Donniel Hartman
  • Norman Lamm - Rosh Yeshiva, Yeshiva University ; Orthodox Forum; author of Torah U-Maddah. One of the leading voices for the validity and importance of Modern Orthodoxy.
  • Daniel Lapin involved in the Pacific Jewish Center in Venice Beach, California and the founder of Toward Tradition, a group promoting stronger ties between observant conservative Christian and Jewish communities.
  • B. Barry Levy - former professor at Yeshiva University, now professor at McGill University. His work attempts to reconcile modern day biblical scholarship with Orthodox theology.
  • Mendell Lewittes - Author of Jewish Law: An Introduction.
  • Aharon Lichtenstein - Lichtenstein grew up in the United States, earning Semicha at Yeshiva University, and a Ph.D. in English Literature at Harvard. He is committed to intensive and original Torah study, and articulates a bold Jewish worldview that embraces modernity, reflecting the tradition of his teacher and father-in-law, Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik. In 1971, Lichtenstein answered Rabbi Amital's request to join him at the helm of Yeshivat Har Etzion. He is a source of inspiration for a wide circle of Jewry, for both his educational attainments and his intellectual leadership. Author of Leaves of Faith - The World of Jewish Learning, and By His Light: Character and Values in the Service of God.
  • Haskel Lookstein - Congregation Kehilath Jeshrun, NY
  • Michael Melchior - Affiliated with Meimad
  • Adam J. Mintz - Former Rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue, New York, NY
  • Emanuel Rackman - Chancellor Bar Ilan Univ, Israel ; member of Edah; former president of the Rabbinical Council of America, and author of One Man's Judaism. A leader in defending the rights of agunot, women who are prevented from receiving a divorce under Jewish law.
  • Shlomo Riskin - Formerly rabbi of the Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan, he emigrated to Israel to become the Chief Rabbi of Efrat.
  • Herschel Shachter - one of Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik's most prominent students, dean of the Katz Kollel at the Yeshiva University-affiliated Rabbi Isaac Elchanon Theological Seminary (RIETS). Has published several works attempting to established a definitive view of Rabbi Soloveitchik's Weltanschauung.
  • Rabbi Saul Berman - director of Edah, a Modern Orthodox advocacy organization.
  • Marc Schneier - Rabbi of The Hampton Synagogue, NY
  • Joseph Dov Soloveitchik - Known as "The Rav", he was effectively the spiritual and intellectual guide of Modern Orthodoxy in American for the mid-20th century. He is the author of "The Lonely Man of Faith" and "Halakhic Man," an outspoken Zionist, an opponent of extending rabbinic authority into areas of secular expertise, and a proponent of some interdenominational cooperation, such as the Rabbinical Council of America participation in the now-defunct Synagogue Council of America. He was known as a stern, even depressed, leader who stressed greatly the anguish and pain of religious life.
  • Joseph Telushkin - Author, teacher, lecturer.
  • Avi Weiss - Rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale Bronx, NY. Author, teacher, lecturer, and perhaps the Jewish community's best examplar of activism.
  • Dr. Joel Wolowelsky - Yeshiva of Flatbush; Orthodox Forum
  • Dr. Michael Wyschograd - Prof. Religious Studies, Univ. of Houston
  • Rabbi Alan Schwatrz - Rabbi of Congregation Ohab Zedek (OZ) on the UWS (Upper West Side, Manhattan) and professor of Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University's undergraduate colleges

Modern Orthodox advocacy groups

There are a few organizations dedicated to furthering Modern Orthodoxy as a religious trend: The largest and oldest are the Orthodox Union (Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations), which sponsors youth groups, kashrut supervision, and many other activities and its rabbinic counterpart, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA). Both have Israel and diaspora (outside the land of Israel) programs.

  • Edah,with its slogan of: The Courage to be Modern and Orthodox, is a non-membership advocacy operation. It is seen as representing the left wing of Modern Orthodoxy.
  • Meimad is a political/intellectual alternative to Israel's highly nationalistic religious parties or those hostile to modern secularist values
  • The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) a forum for enhancing the roles of Orthodox Jewish women within the Orthodox community, and reducing Orthodox religious disabilities against women. Considered a far-left organization by Orthodox mainstream.

See also

Modern Orthodox Congregations

External links and references

Last updated: 05-07-2005 08:56:01
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04