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Modern Orthodoxy’s Welcome Alternative

Many of the talented and motivated individuals who leave the Haredi world could choose Modern Orthodoxy, but they don't.

haredi dropouts

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In the last number of years there has been great media and literary attention paid to the phenomenon of members of the Haredi community who choose to leave their lifestyle and neighborhoods – in some painful instances even becoming estranged from their families, as they move into mainstream secular society.

Books, investigative essays, interviews and websites have highlighted various elements of this phenomenon, while organizations have been formed to offer support to such individuals.

Particularly striking is the swing from one extreme to another, as many who once were intensely Haredi end up living an extremely secular lifestyle, detached from halachic observance of any kind or affiliation with any Jewish community.

To the best of my knowledge, there have not been systematic peer-reviewed studies of the extent of this phenomenon and whether the cases highlighted in the media are representative. Nevertheless, it is increasingly obvious to those who keep a close watch on the situation that a good percentage of those who leave the Haredi community end up rejecting halachic observance.

And that is a real tragedy, because so much of what these individuals wish for in their public comments – to study secular subjects on a high level, to participate in and enjoy the cultural and leisure activities of mainstream society, to find themselves in educational settings where rigorous questions and inquiry can be pursued, to encounter a less restrictive atmosphere surrounding male-female interaction – is available to them in the various shades and sub-communities of Modern Orthodoxy.

Many of these talented and motivated individuals, if they investigated and sought out Modern Orthodox settings, could find their niche as well as many of their most profound human, psychological and spiritual needs addressed in a community of committed Jews who engage fully with the modern world while remaining committed to their core religious values.

In addition, many of these individuals could contribute in positive ways to the Modern Orthodox community, bringing with them their life experiences, their feelings and struggles, and, in many cases, a deep knowledge of classical rabbinic literature.

Many of those who grow up in an intensely insular environment internalize a “black and whilte” view of the world. In this context the message one has imbibed is that if one does not fully embrace the cultural norms and religious assumptions of the community, one must therefore totally reject any connection to the values, practices and core beliefs of that community, along with its peripheral trappings and sociologically based norms. One leaves the community one was brought up in and passes “go” without stopping to consider alternatives and options.

This is reminiscent of the stories of Eastern European immigrants at the turn of the previous century who, upon realizing it was not socially acceptable to wear a kippah at their place of work, simply gave up the entire enterprise of living a Jewish life.

Or to take another example, one reads Bialik’s classic poem “Hamatmid” today with a certain wistfulness of missed opportunities. In the poem, Bialik expresses his longing and appreciation of what the traditional bet midrash had given him and the Jewish people. Yet he feels he can no longer remain in that place, given his desire to experience the world and all its knowledge. For Bialik, as for so many young men and women of the late 1800s and early 1900s, religion and modernity could not co-exist under one roof. They felt they had to make stark choices, and no middle ground was available.

I still recall reading the poem close to thirty years ago as a junior at Yeshiva College and thinking, What would Bialik have done if a thriving Yeshiva College had existed back then and been supported by the traditional religious establishment? Or what would Bialik have done if the “acceptable” choices in Eastern Europe for a rabbinical education were not only Volozhin and Slabodka but also the equivalent of a Yeshiva University/RIETS or a Yeshivat Har Eztion or a Beit Morasha or a Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School?

Had the ethos and openness of a Modern Orthodox education been more readily adopted by the rabbinic elite and communities in those days, how many of our greatest minds and spirits would have developed without rupturing their entire connection to traditional observance and creativity?

It is time to reach out loudly and clearly to all those in the Haredi community who are struggling to find their niche in the Jewish world and declare: Come and be part of this thriving fellowship of Modern Orthodoxy. Of course we also have problems and challenges and disappointments and unfinished business to address, but we have strong, motivated people who are trying to find their way through their daily challenges in a spirit of integrating Torah and life, in all its majesty and grandeur.

We are committed to Torah and Jewish observance coupled with an openness to God’s wonderful world – to appreciating the value of all human beings, to being ennobled by the best of general culture, to supporting the state of Israel, and to helping foster Jewish nationhood. You don’t have to write yourself out of that grand Jewish story, and you have so much to add and contribute. Welcome, and let us grow together.

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About the Author: Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot is chair of the departments of Tanach and Jewish Thought at Yeshivat Chovevei Rabbinical School; is on the faculty of SAR High School; and is spiritual leader of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, New Jersey.

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31 Responses to “Modern Orthodoxy’s Welcome Alternative”

  1. Ahron Ebert says:

    They can also what what they claim they seek in Orthodoxy. Also, in the non-Chasidic Charadi world you can also be frum and go to college and are not forced into a marriage.

  2. Benjamin Fox says:

    Save them not same. Sorry.

  3. Lisa Liel says:

    I'd add that they should check out actual Modern Orthodoxy, and not the "Open Orthodoxy" of YCT.

  4. Lisa Liel says:

    You're an idiot.

  5. Rabbi Josh Yuter says:

    What do you see as the difference?

  6. Lisa Liel says:

    I see OO as starting off with Western (primarily American) cultural norms and principles. If something is contrary to those principles, there's an imperative to find a halakhic way around it. Anything short of a blatant violation is fair game in order to achieve this.

    See, no one starts from the Torah and says, "Hmm… looks like the Torah, or God, wants us to have women wearing tefillin." There's just no such thing. Instead, someone comes along and says, "It's bad that men wear tefillin and women don't. Can't. So let's find a way to bend things to change that. A daat yachid, maybe. A b'dieved halakha."

    Which is more or less how things worked in the Conservative movement before they permitted driving on Shabbat, Kohen-divorcee marriages, and other nonsense of that sort.

    The rav of my shul often talks about the problem of -isms. How people adopt an -ism (either consciously or by default), be it feminism, Zionism (he's extremely Zionist, btw), multiculturalism, humanism, etc., and once they do that, they tend to force the Torah into that mold. Like the bed in Sedom. How it's important to start with the Torah and let *it* dictate your principles. You know, asei retzoncha kirtzono, etc.

    I look around on the Internet, particularly on the JBlogosphere, which is mostly the JSkepticBlogosphere, and I see nominally Orthodox Jews who are mamash embarrassed to say, "The Flood happened, and if the archaeological/paleontological dates conflict with that piece of information, it's the dates that need to be reevaluated." It's an inferiority complex that stems from the fact that so many of those nominally Orthodox Jews see Judaism as *in fact* inferior to western science and morality.

    So you have the guy who wrote the recent article about how he, as an Orthodox Jew, feels like a virtual war criminal (my words, not his) for circumcising his son. You have every single person on the Morethodoxy blog.

    Believe me, if they were to call themselves something other than Orthodox, I would still count them out. I'd still see their way as invalid and not properly representative of Judaism. But I wouldn't feel the animosity that I do when they insist on trying to drag Orthodoxy off the derekh after them. It's cowardly, I think. It's a craven unwillingness to part from the emotional and societal label of Orthodox, despite the damage they're doing to truth. Excuse me, Truth.

    I'm aware that there are some in their ranks who are not engaged in the incessant push away from Torah ideas, but have actually bought into the myth that they are merely "open" along with their Orthodoxy. Some of those will eventually leave OO, and others of them will eventually change and become genuinely OO. Just as happened with the Conservative movement.

  7. Jacob Alperin-Sheriff says:

    "See, no one starts from the Torah and says, "Hmm… looks like the Torah, or God, wants us to have women wearing tefillin?" Who are you to call a tanna (the Tosefta quoted in Eiruvin 96b) no one. The Gemara explicitly shows that this tanna (and by implication, both Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Meir) held that tefillin is a mitzvat aseh shelo hazman grama and hence obligatory for women, and it took going by Rabbi Yosei that it's optional and to the Yerushalmi/Pesikta over the Bavli/concerns over women's cleanliness (even when she's tahara) to pasken that it's not allowed

  8. Charlie Hall says:

    I've been blessed with being able to attend a number of Rabbi Helfgot's shiurim. Anyone who is interested in hearing the best of modern orthodoxy should go out of their way to hear him.

  9. Charlie Hall says:

    "The Flood happened, and if the archaeological/paleontological dates conflict with that piece of information, it's the dates that need to be reevaluated."

    It isn't that I'm embarrassed to say it, but that I'm not saying it because it isn't an accurate statement: There is absolutely no chiyuv to accept the traditional rabbinic chronology as literally true!

    And if you disagree, you are arguing not with me but with Rambam, Rabbi Avraham ben HaRambam, and Ramban.

  10. Lisa Liel says:

    No Tanna said anything of the sort. It was an Amoraic suggestion that's immediately dismissed.

  11. Lisa Liel says:

    No Tanna said anything of the sort. It was an Amoraic suggestion that's immediately dismissed.

  12. Lisa Liel says:

    Charlie, chronology is not aggada. You're conflating the two because it serves your personal agenda. If you want to claim that the Flood didn't happen because you dismiss rabbinic chronology as aggada, you're being ridiculous, but it's moot, because the Flood is described in the Torah.

  13. Benjamin Fox says:

    Takes one to know one Lisa, and seems you know neither history or scriptures so that makes you a idiot.

  14. Charlie Hall says:

    Lisa Liel "chronology is not aggada"

    Wrong. Our chronology is from Seder Olam Rabbah, a midrashic work attributed to Rabbi ben Chalafta.

    "you want to claim that the Flood didn't happen"

    I've never said that. To the contrary, I've repeatedly repeated in many forums the fact that there was a massive worldwide flood at the end of the last ice age, raising the sea level by something like 120 meters. The flood did not cover the entire world, though. (And the gemara in Zevachim 113 brings down the opinion of Rabbi Yochanan that the flood indeed not cover the entire world, sparing Eretz Yisrael.)

    "it's moot, because the Flood is described in the Torah."

    So is the talking snake and the talking donkey, and Rambam explicitly treats both non-literally.

  15. It's always interesting to learn with someone who comes for a different hashkafic background than you!

  16. Yori Yanover says:

    Lisa Liel · I agree with you on the problematic nature of what you so poignantly named "OO," but I don't think you're right on the chronology. I believe we only care about your actions, not about your world view, unless said view directly interferes with the mitzvot (say if you believe in Jesus).

    We also are absolutely allowed to say that every event, include the story of Creation, are a myth, the divine poetry of Moses, as long as we accept that it's essentially and entirely God given.

    That's the line the Gemorah draws in Perek Chelek, in Sanhesrin, as I understand it.

  17. Anonymous says:

    If they want to be modern orthodox they should enroll in Columbia then go to law school. Then send their kids to yeshivas that cost 15-20 grand a year. Also show up to shul on shabbos when it's alenu. Considering how few modern orthodox Jews are actually into being modern orthodox maybe the rabbi should work on them first.

  18. Lisa Liel says:

    Open Orthodox is their own term. They probably didn't realize what OO means in most places in the world. But what you're describing is Orthopraxy. Orthodoxy is about more than just correct action. And assimilationist hashkafa does result, eventually, in assimilation. Look at Moses Mendelssohn. In terms of practice, he was as frum as anyone. But his hashkafa sucked, and you have only to look at his descendents to see the result.

  19. Ariel Dahan says:

    Your problem is that you keep assuming that all these actions stem from some sense of adhering to an -ism. It does not. At its core, there is still orthodoxy.

  20. Gene Steinberg says:

    This could makes sense, assuming one has an issue with the restrictive Orthodox lifestyle but still believes in a God. For those who leave because they no longer believe in a God, and that's often the case, switching to Modern Orthodoxy makes no sense.

  21. I wonder Nati, if it is just the nature of haredi religious life that makes the translation unlikely. Haredim live in a world unto itself, a cocoon. Values and principles, purposes and moral visions are all sealed inside so tightly that they lose any meaning other than, the fact of being inside. Outside all of it evaporates, as Marx said, into thin air. Jewish means the warm embrace that is incommensurate and so, the very languages used by Modern Orthodox Jews, the project of translation, doesn't register Jewish.

  22. Cookie Jar says:

    And just like that, we have our answer as to why people go OTD and do not become modern othordox

  23. Cookie Jar says:

    Perhaps they could find their niche in Modern Orthodox – but why should they?

    After a life of listening to what other people tell them to do, and when they've finally had enough and walk away from it all – now you want them to listen to your idea of what kind of life they should lead?

  24. Jacob Alperin-Sheriff says:

    You need to actually check out the sugya,

    אלא האי תנא היא …. שמע מינה: מצות עשה שלא הזמן גרמא הוא, וכל מצות עשה שאין הזמן גרמא נשים חייבות

  25. Jacob Alperin-Sheriff says:

    And it's not dismissed that this tanna (citing Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehuda) indeed held it was a chiyuv for women, as it next goes on

    ודילמא סבר לה כרבי יוסי דאמר: נשים סומכות רשות? לא סלקא דעתך, דלא רבי מאיר סבר לה כרבי יוסי ולא רבי יהודה סבר לה כרבי יוסי

  26. Many who want a bit of freedom choose modern Orthodoxy,it just works you can as they say [tantz ov tzvei chassanes],& yet maintain dignity and respect from within as well as your family to a certain extent.Throwing everything away is the antithesis of a Bal Tshuva , your just running away from were you come from ,usually a classic dysfunctional home as are the Bal Tshuvas. Nothing to be ashamed of if you come from that type of a background.A vast majority of people from loving functioning homes usually remains as they were brought up ,not seeking challenges or complications in life.

  27. Orah Peer says:

    Nice Article! I always thought the same! why this pple instead of leaving their communities live all together when there are many sections inside orthodoxy that may be a great fit for them..

  28. Orah Peer says:

    Nice Article! I always thought the same! why this pple instead of leaving their communities live all together when there are many sections inside orthodoxy that may be a great fit for them..

  29. Orah Peer says:

    Nice Article! I always thought the same! why this pple instead of leaving their communities live all together when there are many sections inside orthodoxy that may be a great fit for them..

  30. However, even as we speak Modern orthodoxy is caving repeatedly. Some hasidim are motivated by their fear of having to put up with the risks of of MBP and now the OU and RCA equivocates on the issue. Others are revolted by the tolerance for sex abuse and the RCA and OU are equivocating in deference to Yisroel Belsky. MO has to be as fearless as the hasidim are to be credible. Whatever the flaws of hasidic leadership, wimpiness is not the issue.

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