The Paradox of Modern Orthodoxy

 

****A bit of a disclaimer, this post is full of ideas that may contradict your beliefs.  I’m not saying that challenging your beliefs is a bad thing, I am just giving a fair warning that if you do not want to be challenged please stop reading.  This post is mostly meant for future Jewish educators and is aimed at trying to convince the public that some sort of reformation of Modern Orthodox education is necessary

Growing up in a right-wing Orthodox community, I remember being delighted when I discovered what Modern Orthodoxy was really all about.  Being taught by Rabbis from the more Yeshivish world all my life, I left high school and entered Yeshiva with a pretty negative view of Modern Orthodoxy.  I remember that whenever talking about Modern Orthodox communities, many of my Rabbis would simply refer to them as “less religious.”  The stigma that Modern Orthodox Jews are less invested in their Jewish practice and identity is one that I grew up believing with full force.

As I matured and began to start asking the “more difficult” questions, Modern Orthodoxy would quickly come to the rescue.  Many of the issues that I started to have with Judaism and our tradition were answered in a very clear and simple manner.  I learned that the creation story did not need to be read as a literal account of history, thereby making way for cosmology and biology.  I was taught that the Rabbis in the Talmud did not have “great scientific” knowledge, and that all of the errors they made were simply a by-product of the times in which they were living.  I no longer felt ashamed for wanting to go to a secular college to study Applied Mathematics (a major that I soon dropped), instead of sitting and learning in a Yeshiva all day.  Modern Orthodoxy, with its emphasis on the more rational Rishonim, seemed to be able to supply all the answers.

Or so I thought.

Due to my intense passion for Judaism, I decided about four years ago that I wanted to work in Jewish education.  The Orthodox youth is going “off the Derech” at an extremely alarming rate, and I wanted to help.  I figured that if these teenagers and young adults were taught the more “rationalistic Judaism” that I have become a proponent of, all of their problems would be solved.

This goal inspired me to increase my learning to a relatively insane level.  In my first few years of college I was learning Talmud for about five hours a day, began a Smecha program where I was intensely studying Hilchot Shabbat, I kept up with the latest contemporary halachic and philosophical debates, and on top of that, I decided to minor (which eventually became a major) in Jewish Studies.  I would get into conversations about various aspects of Judaism wherever I went, helped convince many of my friends to go to Yeshiva or Seminary, worked as an educator in multiple organizations and schools, and would give bi-weekly Shiurim at UCLA whether it was a part of the Mishmar program that I founded, or the already established JLIC.

I loved this work so much that I decided to write a book about rational belief in the Torah and Judaism.  I remember a little over a year and a half ago, I decided to reduce my daily Talmud study and begin outlining my book.  My goal was to systematically refute any argument that could be used to disprove the authenticity of the Torah.

So I began reading.  My desk which was once covered in various tractates of Talmud bookmarked to different pages, with the corresponding Rishonim, were quickly replaced by books on Biblical Criticism, Ancient Mesopotamian history, and philosophy.

The next few months were some of the toughest in my life.  I have no interest in going through the full story now (perhaps one day), but I slowly began to realize that on my questions increased in strength and number while my answers remained weak.

Modern Orthodoxy, like the Talmud, accepts the fact that there is wisdom outside of the Torah.  Modern Orthodox Jews fully legitimize the knowledge coming out of the top researchers of every field, except for when it contradicts their dogmatic beliefs.  I see no reason to list all of the fallacies of belief in Orthodox Judaism, if anyone wants I still have the unwritten outline of my book, complete with enough unanswered questions to create a second Talmud.  However, to give a very, very, basic and general overview:

  1. The entire field of of Biblical Scholarship rejects a single, Mosaic authorship, of the Torah.  This is not due to some anti-religious attitude among academics, in fact, the vast majority of my Religious Studies professors at UCLA are religious themselves.  This is due to the very obviously different stylistic, linguistic, thematic, and often contradictory nature of different parts of the Torah.
  2.  Historians discount the historicity of much of the Tanakh, before the United Monarchy (King David).  Again, this is due to the fact that archeology has failed to reveal anything validating many crucial claims about Jewish history such as: a mass exodus from Egypt (click here for more) and the conquest of Israel by Joshua.  Yes, yes I know that absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence, but at a certain point we are only fooling ourselves.
  3. The Torah very clearly borrows from surrounding cultures in its stories, laws, and philosophy.
  4. The morality of the Torah is questionable on many different levels.  Of course, if we accept that it was all given by God at once then this is not a problem.  But after accepting 1-3, this is the next logical complaint.
  5. The entire idea that somehow the Rabbis in the Talmud have more Halachic judicial power than us seems completely arbitrary and bogus.  Many of their opinions come from a significant misunderstanding of how the world functions.  A good example of this, which ruins a significant number of women’s lives, is when the Talmud writes:

    “Resh Lakish said: It is better for a woman to live an un-happy married than to live alone..”(Kidushin 7a).   In trying to defend this idea Rav Soloveitchik, is forced to say that this statement is based “not upon sociological factors…[but] is a metaphysical curse rooted in the feminine personality” (1975 lecture to the RCA).  How about us just all admitting that Chazal were making a statement about the reality in their time and now this dictum no longer applies?

I am sorry that I got carried away and began ranting off for a bit!  The critiques above are only a few out of the many problems, and my explanation of them barely scratches the surface.  However, this is not one of those blogs where the author tries to convince all of his followers that all of their beliefs are a lie.  I myself am still a Halachically practicing Jew, and I believe that Judaism is extremely valuable on both the individual spiritual level and also a universal level (for more on this please see my post here).  My goal in writing this post is to inspire systematic change for the good, helping people not run the risk of losing their faith in a “shocking” or even “traumatic” manner.   If from a young age children are taught that the truth is much more ambiguous than any fundamentalist religion makes it out to be, the future of religion will be much more secure.   I know that websites, such as TheTorah.com, are already going down this road and I hope to see many other organizations continue.

The idea that Modern Orthodoxy remains “Orthodox” in terms of dogma but also agrees to accept wisdom from the outside community is a paradox.  One of them must go.  If religious institutions wish to continue to influence and inspire people in an age when disproving the Mosaic Authorship of the Torah is as easy as a quick Google search, they must begin to open themselves up to intellectual honesty.  Many of my Rabbis and friends in the Modern Orthodox camp refuse to even listen to the evidence provided by academic Biblical Studies, let alone accept it!  The future of religious Judaism lies in intellectual honesty not dogma – but Modern Orthodox still paradoxically tries fully accepting both.

Modern Orthodox can only hold on for so long, trying to impossibly tread the balance between the modern world of science and the dogmatic world of Orthodoxy.

 

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4 thoughts on “The Paradox of Modern Orthodoxy

  1. A couple of quick points:
    1. For questions of biblical criticism, a lot depends on one’s a priori frame of reference. If one assumes that the text was written by human authors, who are limited to certain consistencies of style, it is unsurprising that one would come to the conclusion that the book is authored by multiple such humans. On the other hand, if one approaches the text as a divine one, it is clear that God can address humanity from a variety of different perspectives, or with several different voices. This approach, which does not deny the textual variance noted by modern scholarship, but interprets it differently (and as befitting a divine author) is followed by R. Mordechai Breuer (e.g., in his Pirkei Bereshit and Pirkei Moadot) and, more recently, by R. Amnon Bazak (in his Ad Hayom Hazeh; English translation of the book available at this link: http://www.vbm-torah.org/en/topics/fundamental-issues-study-tanakh).
    2. On the historical issues, Kenneth Kitchen, an Egyptologist, addresses many of these concerns in his On the Reliability of the Old Testament.
    3. The question of perspective reframes not only the textual-critical questions but the moral ones, as well. If one assumes the Torah addresses us from a divine perspective, and we see its morality and wisdom in the overwhelming majority of the laws, and cannot seem to find it in a number of other laws, it is only reasonable to defer to a higher wisdom, and to live with the questions.
    4. Rabbi Soloveitchik’s understanding that Tav Limeisav applies to all women in all times is a singular, minority view. I personally spoke with Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, hk”m, about the issue, and heard him discuss in shiur, as well, that his understanding was that it could vary by society, and I have heard that R. Herschel Schachter says the same thing.
    Best wishes with your search, and I am happy to be in touch with you personally,
    Shlomo Zuckier (OU-JLIC, Yale; shlomozuckier@gmail.com)

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  2. Wow. It’s a harsh truth, but it rings of Emet – the truth which is not always comfortable or static. I especially appreciate your mention of the women’s issue – I myself was appalled when reading a similar concept in the Pele Yoetz, where Rav Papo clearly states that a woman who is being abused should stay with her husband, not complain, and not tell her family. This type of appalling contradiction with what I know to be the true metahalachic principles of the Torah is indeed, as you mention, a direct result of stubbornly attempting to hold onto ALL of the words of the Sages, even when they clearly no longer fit within our modern day context. My question to you is: at what point does this revolution of which you speak distinguish itself from and separate itself from Conservative Judaism? If you can elucidate that for me, I would like to join your movement and help in whatever way I can.

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  3. I agree with in this article except this line
    “The future of religious Judaism lies in intellectual honesty ”
    The future lies with the strains of Judaism that inspire it’s adherents to have strong and large families, whatever those strains believe and teach will be how Judaism looks in 50 -100 years

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