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The Uniqueness Of Modern Orthodoxy (Part I)

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Question: What is unique about Modern Orthodoxy?

Answer: In the Middle Ages, theologians analyzed Judaism to assess its essential nature. Their concern was to locate a component that, if missing, would render Judaism something other than Judaism. A modern example of such an inquiry would be to seek the essential component of a car. A car without air conditioning or a radio is still a car. A vehicle without a motor, however, is not.

What is the essential component of Modern Orthodoxy? Some have suggested chesed. But chesed is not unique to Modern Orthodoxy. Many Jews and non-Jews consider kindness essential to their way of life. Anyone hospitalized in New York City will attest to the wonderful service of Satmar women who provide kosher food to patients free of charge. I still recall one woman who travelled with two different busses for over an hour each way to bring kosher food to my wife.

If not chesed, then, what makes Modern Orthodoxy different than other streams of Orthodoxy?

First, we must narrow down the possibilities. It is well known that we say a berachah upon meeting a great scholar in worldly wisdom. HaRav Yitzchok Hutner, zt”l, however, argued that we don’t say this berachah if the great scholar is a Jew (Pachad Yitzchok, V’Zot Chanukah, 9:2 and 9:5). One only says a berachah over a Jew who possesses Torah knowledge, not a Jew who wins the Nobel Prize in chemistry, for example. Conversely, one does not make a berachah over a non-Jew who possesses tremendous Torah knowledge.

Rav Hutner argued that this is implicit in the wording of the Shulchan Aruch, which list two separate halachos: that we say one berachah over a non-Jewish scholar with worldly wisdom and another berachah over a Jewish scholar. The two berachos are “Blessed are You…who has given of His wisdom to those who fear Him” and “Blessed are You…who has given of His wisdom to human beings.” The two berachos are separate and should not be confused. One only makes a berachah over a Jew with Torah knowledge and only over a non-Jew with worldly knowledge.

Why? In regards to berachot, there is a guiding principle of ikar and tafel (essential and secondary). For example, one only recites a blessing over spices if the spices were originally designated to provide fragrance – their main purpose. If the spices, however, were designated for another purpose, one would not recite a berachah over them even if one enjoyed their fragrance.

So too, contends Rav Hutner, in regards to the blessings over scholars. The prime purpose of a Jew is to learn Torah. This is the goal of his existence. Everything else, including secular scholarship or scientific knowledge, is of secondary value to the Jewish soul. It may be important. It may even be vital to life, but it is still secondary to Torah. As such, one only recites a berachah over a Jew who excels in his primary role – Torah. So too with non-Jews. One does not say a berachah over him if he is an expert in Torah because Torah is not his primary role in life.

Getting back to Modern Orthodoxy: Since Torah is the distinctive character of a Jew, the uniqueness of Modern Orthodoxy must lie in Torah. We then must reformulate our original question. What makes the Torah of Modern Orthodoxy uniquely different from the Torah of the yeshiva or chassidic world?

(To be continued)

About the Author: Rabbi Cohen, a Jerusalem Prize recipient, is the author of eight sefarim on Jewish law. His latest, “Jewish Prayer the Right Way” (Urim Publications), is available at Amazon.com and select Judaica stores.


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