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Modern Orthodox Jews Keep Authentic Tradition Alive
November 26, 1982
A Column from “A Modern Orthodox Life.”
by Emanuel Rackman
When ghetto walls began to crumble almost two centuries ago and Jews had to confront the world that we call modern, there were many different responses ranging from assimilation and baptism on the one hand to total isolation and withdrawal on the other. Those who withdrew altogether from the challenge are still with us in growing numbers in Israel and elsewhere and they call themselves Charedim.
Their way of life, their dress, their social, educational and even economic institutions are almost totally unaffected by the rest of the world about them. Those, on the other hand, who opted for assimilation and baptism, are, of course, lost to us forever and the number that follow their example even today grows from year to year.
The majority of Jews, however, chose other alternatives, such as Reform Judaism, secular Zionism and Jewish socialism. Those who were loyal to the Halacha and at the same time wanted to participate especially in the intellectual currents of the day first embraced the so-called neo-orthodoxy of Samson Raphael Hirsch, whose influence is still very strong. He is, as a matter of fact, the inspiration of most orthodox Jews who do not want to return to the ghetto.
Unfortunately, today his approach is being modified in some quarters. Some of those who profess still to be his followers are trying to revise his clearly stated position. In the words of Rabbi Walter S. Wurzburger they are claiming that Hirsch “did not advocate his classical formulation of the synthesis between Torah and culture (Torah im Derekh Eretz) as an intrinsic religious ideal… but merely as an emergency measure in order to salvage those elements of the Jewish community that otherwise would have been completely overwhelmed by the onslaught of modernity.”
I know descendants of Hirsch who are fighting this revision which dishonors the man. Yet the mere fact that such revision is suggested demonstrates how forceful have been the orthodox elements who want to rebuild the ghetto wall at least with respect to world culture and to live Jewishly without a symbiosis with modernity.
Those of us who, like Hirsch, feel that it is insulting to Torah to concede that it cannot cope with any challenge continue to follow Hirsch and other Jewish philosophers who manage the challenge especially Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. The thought of Franz Rosenzweig has very much enriched our perspective and here and there I too have tried to add a thought especially with regard to the legitimacy of the modern orthodox stance which I hold is authentically Maimonidean.
However, the symposium of modern orthodox thinkers published in Tradition reveals how apologetic many of them are. Dr. David Singer faults them very well for their lack of courage. In his contribution he defines “modern orthodoxy” with a quote from the same Professor Lawrence Kaplan (of McGill University) whom I quoted in my column last year. The modern orthodox Jew, says Kaplan, “attempts to justify his commitment to modernity in terms of his orthodoxy and, and at the same time, seeks to demonstrate the significance and meaningfulness of tradition and belief for modern man. On the one hand, his modernity informs his orthodoxy. Thus, he utilizes modern categories of thought to illuminate and deepen his understanding of the tradition and, in his study of sacred texts, makes use of the findings and methods of modern historical scholarship to the extent that they do not violate the religious integrity of these texts as he perceives it. But the movement of influence is not only one way. For his perception of the modern world and modern social and intellectual currents is shaped by his traditional perspective, so that his commitment to modernity is always critical and qualified.”
Dr. Singer then submits that altogether too few of the so-called modern orthodox rabbis are doing what Kaplan and he try to do. Instead many of them beat their breasts that they are not as meticulous as the right-wing orthodox in certain areas of ritual and only Dr. Hillel Goldberg in the symposium had the courage to suggest that perhaps meticulous concern with regard to one’s behavior vis-a-vis one’s fellow man is as important as meticulous behavior with regard to ritual. And in the area of Mentschlichkeit certainly the Charedim do not take prizes.
What is even more disconcerting is that modern orthodox rabbis do not vigorously fight the image that their point of view is a “compromise” approach. The very mention of the word “compromise” suggests the surrender of some claim or principle. But modern orthodoxy is often more demanding than so-called right-wing approaches. It does not say that it will sanction the study of science by a few who will have to risk their souls so that society may have the physicians it needs.
It insists rather that science be properly understood so that it does not threaten the foundations of our faith and, therefore, that all Jews may study it. It does not want a few to be sacrificed for the benefit of the many. Nor does it say that everything that non-Jews have created is taboo, thus denying billions created in the image of God any respect or credibility whatever. It says, on the other hand, every group contributes to the sum total of human wisdom but one finds in the Torah the loftier standards by which to evaluate what comes forth from all mankind.
And the study of Torah in the search for values becomes a glorious spiritual enterprise. Moreover, modern orthodoxy is often stricter in religious observance than others• Only from them does one bear protests against resort to legal fiction in order to permit outrageous usury even in orthodox circles as well as against the use of the word Dati to describe one who observes ritual no matter how unscrupulous he is in matters other than ritual.
The modern orthodox are not indifferent to the traditional values of modesty and chastity in the area of sex. They are not yielding to the Yetzer Ha-Ra to the human “id” when they are more permissive or more candid in sex education. On the other hand, they are trying to fulfill the Torah’ s ultimate value which involves ideal relationships between husbands and wives and parents and children, and perhaps in the society in which most Jews do in fact now live there may have to be a different approach if the proper attitudes cherished by the tradition itself are to be cultivated with better judgment in choosing a wife and even greater skills in relating to her.
Alas, even among those who isolate themselves from the modern world the situation of the family is not what it once was. The divorce rate is high, cruelty is on the increase as well as child abuse, alas, even venereal disease. The truth is hard to face but the modern orthodox know not only the good of modernity but its enormous evil which has invaded even the ghetto with the tallest walls.
In any event I continue to stand firm in my conviction that the modern orthodox are the standard bearers of the authentic tradition. They do not compromise it or falsify it. On the other hand, they are loyal to its letter and spirit and walk in the path of those who were the giants of Jewish history these past few thousand years.
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