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Why Modern Orthodoxy?

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I don’t know anything about Republican candidate for the New York State Senate, Mindy Meyer. But an article in Tablet Magazine uses her candidacy as a springboard to demonstrate one of the reasons Modern Orthodoxy has so much to offer religious Jews.

One of the criticisms I get here is that I do not focus enough on the good side of Modern Orthodoxy… that I focus too much on the ‘evils’ of the Charedi world.

First let me state that I do not in any way consider Charedim to be evil. God forbid. The vast majority of them are sincere, God fearing Jews who want nothing more than to serve God in the best way they possibly can. They are Chareid L’Dvar HaShem – as their name implies. They tremble at the word of God.

My issues are not with mainstream Charedim. They are with the bad apples among them. The ones that get all the media coverage. Unfortunately there have been far too many incidences of evil being done by members of that community over the last few years that have gotten media attention – and therefore mine.

Otherwise my posts on the Charedi world generally involve defining our differences – and occasionally questioning the decisions of some of their leaders on various issues.

But I do admit not talking enough about the positive side of Modern Orthdodxy. Or worse not enough about its negative side.

Yes there is a negative side to Modern Orthodoxy.  Immersing oneself in the general culture even where Halacha permits it has its dangers. One can easily be enticed to ‘cross that line’ between the permissible and impermissible.  And it can be a fast and slippery slope from there. Just like the isolationists in the Charedi world are vulnerable to going OTD by being unprepared for their inevitable exposure to the outside world, so too can the Modern Orthodox Jew go OTD by being over exposed to it.

But I am not going to discuss here which way is the safer way to retain one’s Yiddishkeit. For purposes of this article let us assume the risks are equal. I am going to discuss the positive side of Modern Orthodoxy. Nowhere is this illustrated better than in the above mentioned article.

Using the candidacy of Mindy Meyer as a springboard to understanding the differences between Charedim and Modern Orthodox Jews – especially where women are concerned – Tablet shows just how poorly even the most seasoned reporters really understand those differences.  I could not agree more.

The truth is that Orthodox Jews are all lumped together as having the same attitudes in life. So that for example a Chasidic Jew in Williamsburg will be treated the same way a Modern Orthodox Jew in Teaneck. They are both seen as Orthodox and their worldviews are more or less seen to be the same: decidedly anti-modern. Quoting from the blog Jezebel, Tablet demonstrates this:

“That no woman has emerged as a political candidate [in New York], despite the Orthodox community’s growing size and political sway, is largely a result of women in the community being relegated or elevated, depending on one’s perspective, to a domestic role—expected to dress modestly, live quietly, and draw little attention to themselves in the outside world. Some women won’t shake the hands of men,”… “Others refuse to speak in gender-mixed company, be photographed, or wear a color as flashy as pink.”

This is definitely the way much of the Charedi world sees the role of a Jewish woman. While some of those descriptions apply to all Jewish women (e.g. dressing modesty) the Modern Orthodox woman will fully participate along with her secular sisters in all walks of American life. And they will seek the kind of education and opportunities that will enable them to do so. Tablet then illustrates this point by citing numerous examples of highly successful Modern Orthodox women, such as best selling author Faye Kellerman and Michelle Greenberg-Kobrin, the dean of students at Columbia Law School.

The more open and actively modern attitude with respect to secular education and western culture not only enables the MO woman to participate at these levels, it encourages them to do so, if they so chose.

This is not to say that Charedi women can’t or don’t achieve great successes like these. Tablet mentions Ami Magazine’s Rechy Frankfurter who is the successful senior editor of that magazine.  And she is not the only Charedi woman who has achieved high level success in the modern world.

But I think it is clear that the door to such success is far more open in Modern Orthododxy than it is in the Charedi world just from the simple fact that the attitudes about participating in the culture are so vastly different. Hence the greater number of highly successful modern Orthodox women.

How successful?  From Tablet:

There are many thousands of Modern Orthodox women engaged in every form of public pursuit, from Jewish-studies professors at elite universities to press secretaries for U.S. senators. Indeed, according to the newly released UJA Jewish Community Study of New York, directed by Dr. Steven Cohen, 41 percent of female Modern Orthodox respondents possessed post-graduate or professional degrees—“a somewhat higher level of educational attainment than their non-Orthodox counterparts” and the highest among all populations surveyed, male and female. None of which should be surprising, given that a passing glance at the Ivy League and beyond reveals flourishing Orthodox communities with countless aspiring Orthodox female professionals.Over at Yeshiva University, the institutional bastion of Modern Orthodoxy, similar trends can be observed. Last academic year, the university’s most prestigious post-graduate leadership program, the Presidential Fellowship, had 16 full-time members drawn from the previous graduating class. Half of them were women. Last week, the university granted tenure to 10 professors, the majority of them women, several of whom are Orthodox.

That pretty much sums it up for me.

I would of course never say that the Charedi priority of being a stay at home mom is anything but a wonderful thing for any woman to do. It has a very high value in Judaism and is very fulfilling – if demanding – when it is done right. But that ‘creature’ is becoming extinct in both worlds. Working mothers is the new normal.

Being  a good mother has just as much a value as being a successful college dean. Probably even more. But it is not impossible to be a good mother and a college dean. So if an observant Jewish woman wants to participate in the American Dream and have it all, Modern Orthodoxy is the best place to be in order to achieve that.

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About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at hmaryles@yahoo.com.


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