Dear Rabbi Zahavy,
In the past few years I’ve seen that people use the term “modern Orthodox” in news and opinion articles to describe a current form of Judaism. More recently, I read about a new group that sounds attractive to me, that wants to promote a more “inclusive” Orthodoxy. But I always have understood that Orthodox Judaism clearly says that it is the oldest and the original form of Judaism, that all of its practices are crucial to the survival of Judaism, and that they conform perfectly to God’s will as interpreted by the Orthodox rabbis. Why do people apply these fancy new labels for their faith? And is it hypocritical for me, if I embrace modern values, to continue to stay plain old Orthodox? Or should I join up with the new guys?
Confounded in Clifton
If there was a supermarket where you could buy a religion in a box, you would not find many products with the label description “New and Improved.” But you would find most with the description, “Same Classic Ingredients for Centuries (or Millennia).”
So you are correct to be confused about the term “modern Orthodox.” Orthodox Jewish authorities’ main claim to legitimacy is that the content of their system is not modern. They insist that it is ancient, dating back thousands of years, to God’s covenants with our patriarchs, and to God’s revelation of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. And you legitimately can scratch your head in disbelief when someone comes up with an incongruous title that implies that a religion can be ancient and modern at the same time.
So, you may ask, what then is all this talk about “modern Orthodoxy”? On the surface, I might dismiss that new label, or the similar tags “open Orthodoxy,” and “pluralistic Orthodoxy,” as marketing names without any deep meaning. I might say that they are meant to make the brand of religion that its leaders are selling more attractive to consumers.
I can speculate that the intended patrons of this type of religion want to enjoy the idea that they belong to the age-old religion called Orthodox Judaism. At the same time, they want to embrace styles and values from our modern society.
And if these terms are mere marketing words, no further analysis is needed. You should not be baffled. Just think of all the examples of marketing labels that we encounter every day in our free market economy and realize that they mostly are designed to convey images to consumers, to sell products. Successful promotional brands need to be catchy, but they do not need to be logical or consistent.
There are many other designations out there for the slightly different varieties of Orthodox Judaism. There’s Sephardi and Ashkenazi (descriptive of the origins of the members), chasidic and misnaged (descriptive of the types of rabbis and theologies employed by the groups) and charedi.
In Israel there are even more types and labels, like Dati Leumi (Religious Zionist, a political denominator) and Edot Hamizrach (a geographic label for those of “Eastern Communities” origin). Unlike the “modern” tag, these labels are substantive and meaningful.
You asked about one type that seems puzzling to you, that combines “modern” with “Orthodox.” Let’s analyze that term a bit more, along with two related appellations, “open” and “inclusive.” Perhaps you find these descriptions of Orthodoxy equally perplexing.
The new group that lays claim to the “inclusive” label publicly launched in May as a high-profile discussion group with an emphasis on fostering a pleasant tone of discourse. It promotes itself as a lay organization, not dependent on rabbis. For now, it takes a seemingly passive attitude toward the inequities of its system, with no visible plan of action beyond talking aloud about being nicer. So far, “inclusive” appears to be the newest marketing marker on the block for a type of Orthodox Judaism.
You may find it mystifying and ironic that the highly educated and accomplished Orthodox men and women who support “inclusive” Orthodoxy come together in the main sanctuary of a prominent synagogue and talk about being nicer to each other. You know that when the talk is over and the praying begins, by strict policy, the women must move back behind the mechitzah walls to their women’s section. The women cannot lead the service and will not be called to the Torah. In clear words, Orthodox women are segregated and denied civil rights. And yes, I am sure, that’s essential and obligatory to Orthodoxy. It is not voluntary. It is definitive of what Orthodoxy is.
Let me be more talmudic, and consider that perhaps I am speaking too harshly here.
Maybe within the nicer atmosphere of inclusive Orthodoxy, women find no problem at all with mechitzah-walls. They believe it is not fair to call its use segregation, and that it is a core part of the pleasantness of Judaism. And so too for the lovely prohibition against men hearing women sing, and on the niceness of women not receiving aliyahs and on the beautiful propriety of women not having the right to divorce their husbands, and on the congenial imposition of clothing modesty requirements on all women. Maybe a nicer tone is all you need to make those practices meaningful and pleasant, genial and cheery.
However, there is the possibility that some brilliant people believe that they need to change the core values and practices of a religious system — like Orthodox Judaism.
They may imagine that talking about being more inclusive, open, and modern is not the end goal. It is an important precursor to achieving alterations in Orthodoxy. Of course, by the way, that would mean that these folks will have a concrete plan that they will put into action.
I wonder what an activist Orthodox group would suggest. Perhaps it would have a proposal to disrupt and modify things, something like this hypothetical timetable to abolish the segregation of women.
Week one — in Orthodox shuls across the nation and world, women and men sit together in synagogue for Kabbalat Shabbat. Week two — they extend mixed seating to the Shabbat Maariv service. Week three — Shabbat morning mixed pews. Week four — women get aliyahs to the Torah. Week five — a woman gives the sermon. Week six — a woman leads the prayers. Now, that is not nice talk. That is a plan of active action.
Ah, but let’s not worry much about any disruptions, commotions, or disturbances. The best I can tell about the new inclusive group on the block is that they intend later in the year to have — get ready for this — some more panel talks about being nicer Jews. My guess is that nobody at any such event ever will stand up and say, “When are you guys going to stop talking about being nice, and start doing something to be more inclusive?”
But the high-rhetoric and low-action nature of the participants is not the biggest mysterious aspect of the latest flurry of all of these ironic Orthodox activities. The greatest puzzle of the latest noise from within this faction of Orthodoxy is the actors’ downright lack of self-awareness.
Anyone who reviews the history of Judaism over the past two centuries can learn that Orthodoxy is totally proud of its barriers and gender distinctions and is utterly not amenable to changes regarding women’s rights and more inclusivity. When change was achieved in Judaism in several historical waves during the 19th and 20th centuries, it was because Jews walked away from Orthodoxy and founded the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements.
Today’s new wave of talkers about a more modern open inclusive Judaism come to the fore after their numerous predecessors fought the religion wars many times before them. The question to ask of the current players is why don’t you see how clearly history shows that Orthodoxy cannot be reformed? The bottom line is that the reformers must leave.
And so, if you, my questioner, are unhappy with aspects of current Orthodox belief and practice, why do you stay? Why not go down the block to Conservative or Reform or Reconstructionist synagogues? Or if you have the time and money, why not start your own new denomination?
Of course I do not dismiss the stickiness factor of your own social and cultural backgrounds, the pull of tradition that so many cannot overcome. But at some point that needs to be weighed against the dissatisfaction and the dissonance that you may experience.
The newer forms of Judaism, established over the past two centuries, strive to be in or near the social mainstream. They strive to present Judaism as a religion like other religions in our larger culture, and to embrace with vigor the values of fairness, openness, and democracy.
My advice to my confounded questioner is make your choice to stay and accept happily (or grudgingly, or hypocritically) the standard articulation of religion with which you live.
Or you may choose to move on to another form of your religion and look for your spiritual fulfillment elsewhere.
Or you do know that instead of affiliating with a denomination, instead of attending any synagogue services on Shabbat morning, you may sit and pray and study Torah at home, or at some other venue, or you may opt to read a good book or to peruse the weekend New York Times. No one forces you to pray or to go to a synagogue. In America, as we all appreciate, religion is a voluntary association.
Your choice among these many options is entirely your own.
Tzvee Zahavy of Teaneck earned his Ph.D. from Brown University and his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. He is the author of several books, including these ebooks on Amazon: “The Book of Jewish Prayers in English,” “Rashi: The Greatest Exegete,” “God’s Favorite Prayers” and “Talmudic Advice from Dear Rabbi” — which includes his past columns from the Jewish Standard and other essays.
The Dear Rabbi Zahavy column offers mindful advice based on Talmudic wisdom. It aspires to be equally open and meaningful to all of the varieties and denominations of Judaism. You can find it here on the first Friday of the month. Please email your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.