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A number of essays recently published in The Jewish Press, in particular those written by Avi Ciment and Ben Shapiro, have highlighted some of the challenges Modern Orthodoxy faces. Ciment primarily focused on the shortcomings in Torah observance among Modern Orthodox Jews, while Shapiro primarily focused on the influence of liberalism on the moral ideology of Modern Orthodox Jews and their institutions. Whether or not one agrees entirely with their assessments, both made arguments that deserve attention.

Ciment wrote, “Modern Orthodoxy is in peril. Big time.” To his credit, his third piece on this topic offered some potential solutions to try to improve the state of spirituality in Modern Orthodoxy. I agree we should endeavor to work within the system to meet the full potential of what Modern Orthodoxy could be. But if one accepts the premise with profound concern that Modern Orthodoxy is in danger of losing its way in its adherence to halacha and/or in its approach to contentious ideological issues, then does this mean that the future for observant Jews is in the charedi world, where demographics are favorable, talmud Torah and tefillah thrive, and there is less confusion of where one’s moral loyalties lie? Should one who shares Ciment and Shapiro’s concerns abandon Modern Orthodoxy altogether?


At the beginning of my college years, I grappled with the same sort of question, albeit with a different starting and ending point.

I grew up in an observant Conservative home. My father is a Conservative rabbi. Shabbat and kashrut were part of our home, and I received a Jewish education. It is not a secret, however, that although the Conservative movement officially embraces halacha, most of its constituents do not adhere to halachic observance. Many formerly Conservative Jews have become Orthodox when seeking a community of others who share similar aspirations of halachic observance. Likewise, while there are Conservative institutions with rigorous academic opportunities, the vast majority of constituents do not seek a yeshiva type of environment, and one will likely not find a highly advanced Tanach or Talmud shiur in an average Conservative synagogue. Finally, over time, the Conservative movement has shifted to the left ideologically, both in terms of its halachic positions and its moral values, while many of the observant members of the movement would have preferred for it to remain more traditional. These considerations have led many individuals to shift from Conservative to Orthodox communities. Of course, some have left Conservative Judaism for other denominations to the left or have chosen to not affiliate at all.

Modern Orthodoxy has suffered from similar attrition. The articles published in The Jewish Press describe why it is not surprising that some Jews raised in Modern Orthodox environments leave Orthodoxy altogether. On the other hand, there are many people who leave Modern Orthodoxy for the yeshivish world out of similar considerations to the ones that caused me to leave Conservative Judaism. People who leave Modern Orthodoxy for communities to the right seek communities in which keeping halacha is the central priority; they seek more serious environments for davening and learning; and they may seek an environment where the worldview is more countercultural and less complicated than the Modern Orthodox approach that seemingly dances between Torah and prevailing contemporary values.

I have come to appreciate that in a certain sense, Conservative and Modern Orthodox ideology have some similar goals. They both assert the importance of religious commitment while adapting to society. They both believe that Judaism can be compatible with participation in society and academic pursuits. Yet, some major differences emerge. To the extent that Conservative Jews observe halacha, the movement has made halachic change a cornerstone of the effort to adapt to contemporary life. Modern Orthodoxy, though, does not change halacha or its principles but may display some flexibility in terms of the contemporary application of halacha. Modern Orthodoxy seemingly has been more successful than Conservative Judaism in integrating with society while holding on to halacha as a defining feature of Jewish identity. Still, Modern Orthodoxy struggles with the inevitable dissonance between contemporary society and adherence to halacha and principles of faith. It is true that many have chosen to be socially Orthodox while identifying with the outside world in terms of their principles.

If it seems like the charedi world has more success in maintaining an environment conducive for religious growth, is it inevitable that every serious Modern Orthodox individual will join a more right wing community? Is that something that we should push for and celebrate?

Migrating from the Conservative world to the Modern Orthodox world, I can appreciate that there are some similarities between the Conservative-Modern Orthodox axis and the Modern Orthodox-Charedi axis. Yet, there are also some significant differences. While some of the ways in which I was disappointed with the Conservative world are relevant to Modern Orthodoxy as well, it is difficult to compare. Modern Orthodox Jews are generally observant and knowledgeable. Even if there is room for growth in terms of the intensity of observance and dedication to Torah learning, it is also important not to understate the progress we have made in America in demonstrating that one can be observant while participating in the professional world in a meaningful way. Modern Orthodoxy has many communities with robust minyanim and learning opportunities. The Modern Orthodox populace still buys into the importance of Shabbat and kashrut observance. Our schools can count many successes in preparing students to commit to a lifetime of learning and connection with Hashem. While most people will acknowledge there are ways to improve our educational institutions, some shortcomings do not mean the entire system is broken. While many may wish that kids would be more turned on to learning and keeping halacha before they arrive in Israel for the gap year yeshiva years, there are many seeds being planted in middle school and high school years that are latent but important. Yeshiva University enrollment has been very high. There are many ways in which Modern Orthodoxy can be proud of its achievements.

Ultimately, while Modern Orthodoxy may have its issues, it is imperative that it ultimately succeed. It should be noted that this “crisis” is not new. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, z”l, delivered a lecture subsequently published in the collection By His Light in which he acknowledged this “crisis” yet defended Modern/Centrist Orthodox positions. I certainly respect anyone who chooses, as a matter of principle, to identify with the environment of the charedi world and also its hashkafic stances. However, for those of us who choose to remain with the Modern Orthodox community, despite an acknowledgement that we could do better in our commitment to observance and learning, we are here because we believe Modern Orthodoxy is fundamentally true. No matter how hard a community tries to isolate itself from the outside elements attempting to penetrate, nobody can entirely create an insular environment without any outside influence. While worldly knowledge develops and does not necessarily represent absolute truth, there is no doubt that worldly knowledge is indispensable and enhances our understanding of the world. We live in a world in which professional involvement with society is necessary and enriching.

With all of the challenges this interaction with society poses to Torah observance, it is impossible and undesirable to avoid it. Even for those shifting to the right, while they may not want to identify sociologically with Modern Orthodoxy, in practice Modern Orthodoxy is intellectually most consistent with the world they live in. They are still involved in advancing society at large and they regularly use the worldly knowledge they acquire. Finally, while approaches to feminism and LGBTQ continue to be debated, it is Modern Orthodoxy that is best positioned to navigate the challenge of balancing inclusion with halachic boundaries. A more hard line approach may appear to be most consonant with the Torah in an abstract way, but Torah was given to human beings, and Torah has to respond to the reality of the contemporary world in a way that promotes the dignity of its adherents. Modern Orthodoxy must succeed because the complexity of this worldview, as challenging as it is to convey the full complexity, most accurately captures the existential and intellectual experiences of our world.

Ciment and Shapiro are not incorrect that adherents of Modern Orthodoxy have some soul searching to do regarding future directions. One might wonder why even remain part of this community when there are other observant communities that do not have all of these same issues. Indeed, for some people, that really may be the right option. Yet, no community is without flaws, which is true of the right as well. With all of the flaws of the Modern Orthodox community and the need to aim higher in inculcating spiritual experiences and attachment to the Almighty, the ideological component of Modern Orthodoxy remains true. The Jewish community needs Modern Orthodoxy. Our only option is to continue to nourish the soul of Modern Orthodoxy.

To read Ben Shapiro’s original article click here , and to read other responses click here and here.


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Rabbi Judah Kerbel is the rabbi of Queens Jewish Center.