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We Are Not ‘Lost to Secularism’

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This article does not reflect the views of JewishPress.com, but we decided to publish it to encourage positive dialogue over the future of Modern Orthodoxy in America.


Harry Maryles provided an excellent exploration of DovBear’s anonymous blog post, wherein the author laid out five observations about the Modern Orthodox world, and then posed the question: will Modern Orthodoxy survive? Or could it be on its deathbed?

Maryles provides what seems to be a scathing indictment of the left-wing Modern Orthodox community, which he says leads children away from Orthodoxy due to the fact that they often attend secular universities and do not continue their Jewish education past high school. The result, Maryles points out, is a large number of highly educated Jewish parents, but not the educators needed to create a sustainable model for Jewish education.

This would, it seems, lead children to stray from Modern Orthodox, the Torah ‘Im Derekh Eretz that Maryles outlines. However, as someone who grew up in a left-wing Modern Orthodox family, and, for the record, has continued my Jewish education past the secondary level, and is now in a joint program with Columbia University the Jewish Theological Seminary’s undergraduate college, I would like to posit that the reason that young people like myself are leaving Modern Orthodoxy is not that our education has failed us.

In fact, our education has succeeded beyond compare.

Modern Orthodoxy is based upon balancing oneself upon a seeming contradiction: that modernity, and its liberal and progressive values are not in conflict with the traditions of Orthodox Judaism. However, as the world has become increasingly modern, and has continued to embrace, in particular, egalitarianism and a heightened acceptance for our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, young Modern Orthodox Jews, like myself, have become ever increasingly aware of the disparity between our religious communities and our secular lives — and, then, we feel we have to choose between the two.

If Modern Orthodoxy is not a contradiction, then, it seems, we are at a crossroads that generations that preceded mine have placed us before: we can either reject modernity altogether and embrace solely the religious values imparted to us by our parents and educators, or we can continue to straddle the two opposing identities by creating a new Modern Orthodoxy that is, truly, both modern and Orthodox.

If Torah ‘Im Derekh Eretz is, honest and for true, possible, then we should never have to choose between them. This means that, in our Modern Orthodox communities, we have to work just as hard to preserve tradition as we do to include previously disenfranchised groups. And this means letting women don tefillin and providing equal roles for them in synagogue and communal life. This also means creating new spaces for members of our communities who identify as LGBTQ to participate meaningfully in communal life — which might mean creating spaces for them in marriage, which seems to be the biggest fight championed by the LGBTQ community as a whole for the last half-century.

We are not lost to secularism or, even, lost to Modern Orthodoxy: we are the continuation of Modern Orthodoxy, just not the Modern Orthodoxy of our parents’ generation or our grandparents’ generation because the world we live in is a fundamentally different place. If Modern Orthodoxy is predicated on both modernity and Orthodoxy, then it must change when one of them changes. And the response from our generation has been one of two: we either move beyond the pale of what Modern Orthodoxy used to be, as defined by older generations, or we move into the ultra-Orthodox world, which has much clearer boundaries and a much clearer rejection of modernity — and I say this as someone who grew up in an ultra-Orthodox community, and whose family was rejected explicitly by the community after we failed to pass the communal scrutiny of allowing me to attend a co-educational Jewish day school for high school and, ultimately, my coming out of the closet when I was in tenth grade. Alternatively, we move away from Modern Orthodoxy and move leftward, where our values as modern, Western people are validated.

And the hope — or, at least, my hope — is that we can create a Modern Orthodoxy that is both modern, in the twenty-first century meaning of the term, and Orthodox, in the ancient, traditional meaning of the term. But that means Modern Orthodoxy needs to change so that we can be both at the same time.

When we talk about Torah ‘Im Derekh Eretz, much to Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch’s probable chagrin, we talk also about the “Religion Allied to Progress” that he simultaneously rejected. To say that modernity ends when Orthodoxy begins, and that I must check my liberal, progressive values when I enter an Orthodox synagogue, is not Modern Orthodoxy: it is the unspoken (and yet very clear) rejection, that, at its core, Modern Orthodoxy is possible as an endeavor.

Modern Orthodoxy is failing, but it can be saved, and it must be saved now. It is failing not because of the lack of Jewish education, but the lack of ability on our part to provide a meaningful framework with which to be both practitioners of modernity and tradition in every aspect of our lives. To be a “Jew in the home and a man in the street” is not Modern Orthodoxy. I should not be expected to shed my kippah when I leave the synagogue, and should not be expected to shed my egalitarianism when I enter the synagogue. That is what Modern Orthodoxy can — and should — be. And that is what I hope it will become.

We are not lost to secularism. We are not the failures of the Modern Orthodox project. We are its success stories, and we will be the ones to carry it into the twenty-first century, to be the next, and newest, realization of what Modern Orthodoxy has to offer.

About the Author: Amram Altzman is a first-year student in a joint program with the Jewish Theological Seminary's List College of Jewish Studies and Columbia University. He has written for the Huffington Post's Teen section and My Jewish Learning, and currently writes weekly columns for New Voices, a website for Jewish college students. You can follow him on Twitter @thesubwaypoet


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2 Responses to “We Are Not ‘Lost to Secularism’”

  1. I have tattoos, Altzman, am I still a Jew?

  2. Shira Louis Yashin says:

    We live in Jerusalem, and my 30-year-old modern orthodox son has decided that MO no longer satisfies him, so he's "going farther in," as he says. He works in internet radio and has many "modern" interests and sees no contradiction in continuing with those interests. My other son is yeshivish and also has "modern" interests. It's much easier if you don't label yourself.

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The reason young people like myself are leaving Modern Orthodoxy is that our education has succeeded beyond compare.

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