Take your pick: A. Modern Orthodoxy, influenced by the denomination’s haredi element, has taken a hard turn to the right, endorsing insularity and isolation from the American popular culture that surrounds it. Or, B: Modern Orthodoxy is fighting to reassert its mid-century post-war centrist ideology that encourages religious Jews to integrate secular and Torah studies in order to remain connected to and carve out a comfortable niche in the community at-large.
Dr. Samuel Heilman
Dr. Samuel Heilman, noted professor of sociology, author, and commentator on contemporary Jewish life, will examine the direction of modern Orthodoxy for the ‘1st century in three lectures he will deliver as scholar-in-residence at the Teaneck Jewish Center on Sat., Mar. ‘4.
Will Orthodoxy continue to follow the path of the last ‘5 years, "toward the religious right with growing numbers of restrictions or demands, or will it move back where it was for a time in the post-World War II period, trying to find a way to stand with a foot in both worlds, the secular American culture and [meeting] the demands of strict religious loyalty?" asked Heilman in a phone conversation earlier this week with The Jewish Standard.
This dilemma, Heilman suggested, is reflective of the rift present throughout American society between increasing liberalism on the one hand and growing conservatism on the other. Illustrating what he called the extreme polarity, he observed, "You have the rise of the Christian Right and gay marriage."
The middle ground appears to be the toughest to sustain, he contended. "When you walk in the middle of the road, you are bound to be hit by the traffic moving in both directions," said Heilman.
Heilman’s first talk, scheduled to start about 11:30 a.m. following services, is "What Has Happened to the Rabbis: the Changing Nature of Religious Leadership?" The trend in the Orthodox rabbinate, Heilman argues, is a further reflection of the same pattern. "In the last number of years, from the 1970s to the end of the ‘0th century, rabbis were increasingly trained in yeshivot here and in Israel that emphasized the importance of Jewish sources and living in the Jewish world, taught by people who didn’t necessarily share the values of a university education." Those raised in a modern Orthodox tradition, by contrast, were not entering the rabbinate in significant numbers to counteract the yeshiva influence. An attempt is now under way at modern Orthodoxy’s flagship academic institution, Yeshiva University, said Heilman, to shift the balance to "Torah u Maddah," concurrent study of Torah and science, the movement’s guiding principle, with the recent establishment of the Center for the Jewish Future. "There’s an effort to create an alternative model for the [Orthodox] rabbinate that brings it back to the center by drawing on resources that are not strictly Jewish, that suggest that all the wisdom for religious leaders is not only the wisdom [found] in Jewish texts, but that sources beyond those [such as texts in social sciences and American literature and culture] have value and can enrich Jewish religious and communal life and the education of Jews."
During lunch, Heilman will turn his attention to the growing participation of women and how they have transformed ritual and models of leadership. That talk, "Synagogue Life: the Dynamic Character of a Central Jewish Institution," will begin at 1 p.m.
Heilman’s final lecture, at 9 p.m., "Sliding to the Right: the Contest for the future of American-Jewish Orthodoxy," is also the title of his latest book (S. Mark Taper Foundation Book in Jewish Studies).
Heilman, who holds the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center, is distinguished professor of sociology at Queens College and the ‘004 winner of the Marshall Sklare Memorial Award for lifetime scholarship from the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry. His 10 books include "A Walker in Jerusalem" (National Jewish Book Award, 1987); "The Gate Behind the Wall" ("Present Tense Magazine" Literary Award, 1984); "Portrait of American Jewry: The Last Half of the ‘0th Century" (Gratz College Tuttleman Library Centennial Award, 1996); and "When a Jew Dies" (Koret Award, ‘003 and National Jewish Book Award, ‘004). His work appears in general circulation magazines and newspapers as well as in scholarly journals, among them, "Contemporary Jewry," where he serves as editor-in-chief. Heilman has been a visiting professor at the universities of New South Wales and Melbourne in Australia and is a guest lecturer on the university circuit around the United States.
The Saturday program is open to the community free of charge; however, seating is limited and advance reservations are required. To attend the lunch costs $’0 per person, $55 maximum per family. For information, call the Jewish Center office at (’01) 833-0515.