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Yeshiva University's Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. Sept. 15, 2022

The fate of our children’s children rests with us – with whether we surrender the legacy of our forefathers for a little temporary convenience, or whether we stand proud and strong in the face of the storms to come.

Modern Orthodoxy is in a state of crisis. It is in a state of crisis because its leadership class has, in large measure, abandoned its central principles in favor of political expedience, surrendering long-term interests for short-term tactical maneuvering.

Modern Orthodoxy – or Centrist Orthodoxy, or Torah im Derech Eretz, or Torah U’madda – defines itself by embracing engagement with secular knowledge. Modern Orthodoxy posits that the secular world can provide information and methodology that enriches a Torah worldview and lifestyle, granting evidentiary support for the eternal truths supplied by the Torah itself. In the words of Maimonides (in Shemonah Perakim), “Hear the truth from whomever speaks it.”


Philosophy, science, literature – all are necessary pathways to understanding God’s creation and His law. Investigating the world grants us access to deeper knowledge of G-d. As Rabbi Norman Lamm states in his book Torah U’Maddah:

Torah, faith, religious learning on one side and Madda, science, worldly knowledge on the other, together offer us a more over-arching and truer vision than either one set alone. Each set gives one view of the Creator as well as of His creation, and the other a different perspective that may not agree at all with the first … Each alone is true, but only partially true; both together present the possibility of a larger truth. [1]

Modern Orthodoxy, at its core, understands that secular knowledge can only be embraced with the understanding common to all Orthodoxy: that Jewish values cannot and must not be corrupted or supplanted by secular values. Modern Orthodoxy says that Judaism suffuses existence; search existence, and you will find Judaism. It does not and never would argue that modern values ought to be read into Judaism, that such values ought to hollow out eternal values. R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch explained in harsh language just how dangerous it would be to jettison the eternal values of the Torah for values more “suitable to the times”:

This word of G-d must be for us the eternal rule, superior to all human judgment, to which at all times we must conform ourselves and all our actions, and instead of complaining that it is no longer suitable to the times, our only complaint must be that the times are no longer suitable to it…. If Judaism has been established by G-d, then its business is to teach the age, but not to let itself be taught by the age. From the beginning G-d placed Judaism and its adherents in opposition to the age…. In every age he will regard it as his duty, from the standpoint of his Judaism, to seek to appreciate the age and its conditions, so that in every age, with whatever new means the age provides and in whatever new circumstances the age creates, he may unfold in every greater richness the spirit of his ancient Judaism, and fully and totally fulfill the task of his ancient Judaism, in every greater fullness and with ever-increased fidelity. [2]

And, of course, R’ Joseph B. Soloveitchik agreed several generations later, in even stronger terms:

[W]e must not yield to the passing charm of a modern political or ideological slogan because of an inferiority complex. I say not only not to compromise, but even not to yield emotionally, not to feel inferior. It should never occur that it is important to cooperate even a little bit with a modern trend or secular modern philosophy… one must not try to gear the halachic norm to the transient values of a neurotic society…. We feel sometimes as if we were swimming against the tide. The crowd, the great majority, has deserted us. We are facing an awesome challenge. If you think, however, that the solution lies in a reformist philosophy or in an extraneous interpretation of the Halocha, you are badly mistaken. [3]

And yet today, many supposedly Modern Orthodox institutions have moved toward the corruption of Jewish values by infusing the worldview of secularism. Some have entirely abandoned the notion that Torah values are eternal and true. And they have done so in the name of the most dangerous illusion provided by the worldview of secular morality: the worldview of untrammeled individual subjectivism.


Jewish Identity vs. Secular identity

At the core of Orthodoxy lies a simple proposition: to be a Jew is to follow the Torah.

To act halachically is the basic calling of a Jew. That is precisely why a convert must take upon himself the halacha in order to be accepted as a Jew. As Rabbi J. David Bleich observes:

Judaism is not merely a faith-community; its adherents are bound by a rigorous and demanding code of law governing every aspect of life. Commitment must be total. To be accepted as a member of the community of Israel the convert must not only subscribe to the beliefs of Judaism but must willingly agree to observe its precepts…. In this Judaism is unyielding. The basic conditions of genuine conversion are clearly enunciated in Halakhah. As the guardians of a divine mandate, Jews must perforce refuse to recognize any conversion not performed in accordance with the norms of Halakhah. This stark reality cannot be altered by the fiat of any civil judicial body. Nor for that matter is any rabbinic court or other ecclesiastic body empowered to overlook the sina qua non of Jewish identity. [4]

Undergirding this Jewish identity is a simple premise: to follow the halacha is a choice. Man is endowed with free will; biological drives and desires are no excuse for either ignoring the halacha or treating the halacha as fundamentally incorrect. Maimonides lays out that clear belief in Hilchot Teshuva 5:4:

Had the decree of G-d prompted man to be either just or wicked, or had there been a fundamentally inborn something to draw man to either of the paths, or to any one branch of knowledge, or to a given tendency of the tendencies, or to particular act of all actions as the astrologists maintain by their foolish inventions, how did He charge us by the prophets, to do thus and not to do such, improve your ways, and do not follow your wickedness, whereas man from his embryonic state already had a decree of his conduct issued, or his inborn nature draws him toward a given path of conduct from which he can not deviate? Moreover, what need would there be, under such circumstances, for the Torah altogether? And by what law, and under what system of justice could the wicked be punished, or the just rewarded? Shall the judge of the whole earth not exercise justice? …He is, therefore, judged according to actions; if he did good, his is rewarded with good; and if he did wrong, he is punished.

Belief that biological drives represent a rebuttal of the duty to follow the commandments is a violation of basic Judaic principles. We conform our individual wants and desires to the halacha, not the other way around.

And yet secular identity is built around that very premise.

Secular modernity suggests that social morality must be built around the premise that our subjective sense of self must be celebrated. Where Judaism requires that Jews fulfill their duty to G-d – and that in fulfilling this duty, man finds fulfillment – secular modernity suggests that social duties represent an obstacle to happiness. Free will, in this view, is an illusion: we are merely agglomerations of biological material, placed in a chaotic universe against our consent.

This philosophy is a product of the Enlightenment, against which Modern Orthodoxy was founded. Philosopher Baruch Spinoza, famous excommunicate from Amsterdam’s Jewish community, wrote:

Further conceive, I beg, that a stone, while continuing in motion, should be capable of thinking and knowing, that it is endeavoring, as far as it can, to continue to move. Such a stone, being conscious merely of its own endeavor and not at all indifferent, would believe itself to be completely free, and would think that it continued in motion solely because of its own wish. This is that human freedom, which all boast that they possess, and which consists solely in the fact, that men are conscious of their own desire, but are ignorant of the causes whereby that desire has been determined. [5]

If man is unfree by nature, then he is bound by his biology. To deny the wants and desires of biology becomes cruel and immoral. As the Marquis de Sade observed, “Virtue can never bring anything but a fantastical happiness…there is no true felicity except in the senses, and virtue gratifies none of them.” Romantic poet and libertine Percy Shelley explained the perspective well: “In fact, religion and morality, as they now stand, compose a practical code of misery and servitude: the genius of human happiness must tear every leaf from the accursed book of G-d ere man can read the inscription on his heart. How would morality, dressed up in stiff stays and finery, start from her own disgusting image should she look in the mirror of nature!”

This, then, is the secular conclusion: Identity consists of our desires. And as we are not the creators or shapers of our desires, we bear no responsibility for acting against them; to do so would be to ignore the possibility of happiness.

What is more, since human beings are naturally social, our identity must be celebrated by those around us in order for us to feel truly happy. It is thus the job of society to mirror our subjective identity; to deny that identity would violate the secular morality that rules our day. Society has no place in even applying objective standards to our identity – and thus, it is considered societally unacceptable to use biology as a standard in measuring a person’s self-proclaimed sex. Even biological reality takes a back seat to identity.


The LGBTQ+ Challenge

The conflict between Jewish identity – rooted in halachic observance, a belief in the morality of the Torah, and a deep-seated sense of free will – and the secular worldview has reached its apex with the rise of the LGBTQ+ movement. That movement reduces identity to sexual desire – the most powerful feeling human beings supposedly have – and then demands that society’s institutions celebrate all of its claimed identities. The movement goes even further, demanding that society’s institutions celebrate identities that run directly counter to biological fact by giving credence to men identifying as women, and the like. As philosopher Carl Trueman correctly notes:

The intuitive moral structure of our modern social imaginary prioritizes victimhood, sees selfhood in psychological terms, regards traditional sexual codes as oppressive and life denying, and places a premium on the individual’s right to define his or her own existence. All these things play into legitimizing and strengthening those groups that can define themselves in such terms. They capture, one might say, the spirit of the age…. The person who objects to homosexual practice is, in contemporary society, actually objecting to homosexual identity. And the refusal by any individual to recognize an identity that society at large recognizes as legitimate is a moral offense, not simply a matter of indifference. [6]

This movement’s moral structure indeed requires the violation of rules and norms. It requires the explosion of traditional institutions, which are seen as bigoted in their restrictions on “authenticity.” It is a moral system centered on transgression.

Authentic Judaism cannot abide this worldview. It cuts against all the key tenets of Judaism. Judaism stands foursquare against both “alternative sexual identities” and the notion of “gender identity” separate from biological sex. The only proper identity for a Jew is in Judaism; to claim identity in a sinful activity or in a desire for sin runs counter to Torah values. Judaism has sympathy for those drawn to sin – but Judaism bears no tolerance for those who claim that their identity is centered in such sin. In the words of Rabbi Soloveitchik, “The Torah summons the Jew to live heroically…there are limits to [leniencies]. When you reach the boundary line, all you can say is, ‘I surrender to the will of the Almighty.’” [7]

And yet three groups within the Modern Orthodox movement have embraced the secular worldview and, in doing so, threaten the obliteration of Orthodox Judaism itself.

First, there are those who clearly embrace the morality of secular modernity – call them the Secular Orthodox. The organization Eshel, for example, bills itself as Orthodox, but states that its mission is to “create a future for Orthodox lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals, and their families…Eshel envisions a world where Orthodox LGBTQ individuals can live out their lives in the Orthodox communities of their choice.”

The very language of Eshel’s declaration is a complete renunciation of Orthodoxy. Judaism admits of no such concept as an “Orthodox LGBTQ individual” any more than it admits of an “Orthodox Sabbath breaker” or an “Orthodox pork eater.” Orthodoxy acknowledges that some struggle with sin, and treats those people with compassion. But it certainly does not admit that sin can be placed at the center of identity alongside Jewishness, or that, G-d forbid, sin ought to be not only tolerated but celebrated, and countenanced by Orthodox Jewish communities as a whole. The Torah enjoins us that we must “surely reprove” our kin. As the Talmud teaches (Shabbat 54b):

Anyone who had the capability to effectively protest the sinful conduct of the members of his household and did not protest, he himself is apprehended for the sins of the members of his household and punished. If he is in a position to protest the sinful conduct of the people of his town, and he fails to do so, he is apprehended for the sins of the people of his town. If he is in a position to protest the sinful conduct of the whole world, and he fails to do so, he is apprehended for the sins of the whole world.

Yet many Modern Orthodox schools, synagogues and non-profit organizations have embraced the perspective of Eshel that the duty of Modern Orthodoxy is to mirror the sexual preferences and gender identities of community members. In the words of SAR High School Principal Jonathan Kroll, “We wanted to create an environment that let our gay students know that they were not just being tolerated in our community but welcomed and embraced.” Unsurprisingly, LGBT activity and identity have skyrocketed at such institutions; societal subsidization breeds imitation.

Then there is a second group: Modern Orthodox organizations that know the halacha and understand it, yet are embarrassed by it – call them the Nervous Orthodox. In this category falls, sadly, the Orthodox Union. Recently, the Orthodox Union put out a statement endorsing the so-called Respect for Marriage Act – a piece of legislation enshrining same-sex marriage into federal law. The RFMA inherently rejects the Judaic point of view on marriage in favor of secular morality; by pretending that marriage between two men is equivalent to marriage between a man and a woman, and then declaring that religion is essentially the only reason to believe otherwise, the RFMA utterly undermines the natural law basis for marriage as well as the logical basis for halacha on the matter.

Agudat Israel put out an excellent statement rejecting this view:

The passage of RFMA will inevitably result in continuing the disparagement and disenfranchisement of faith-based communities and their millennia-old views on marriage and gender, further alienating them from national discourse… Millennia-old notions of marriage and gender are vilified as bigotry, and faith-based communities and institutions that subscribe to these views live under a cloud of disfavor and disdain…. Jewish law and values unequivocally reject homosexual conduct and same-sex marriage, both for Jews and for society at large.

The Orthodox Union, by contrast, sent a letter on November 15 endorsing the RFMA at the Senate level. While acknowledging that halacha indeed recognizes only male-female marriage, the OU then stated that “your recognition that religious liberty interests must be explicitly and substantively addressed in the context of this kind of legislation is itself an essential act in a nation devoted to the principles of diversity, tolerance and religious freedom.”

This was inaccurate legally – the RFMA does not provide proper protection for religious Americans outside the confines of synagogue or school – but more importantly, it essentially argued that Orthodoxy approved trading away the definition of marriage for some weak legal protections. This enshrined the notion that opposition to same-sex marriage is rooted only in unreasoning religious bigotry. In fact, the OU stated precisely as much:

In 2015, when the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, the leadership of the Orthodox Union “reiterated(ed) the historical position of the Jewish faith… Our religion is emphatic in defining marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman. Our beliefs in this regard are unalterable.” At the same time, we noted “that Judaism teaches respect for others and we condemn discrimination against individuals.”

This is adopting the language of transgressive social morality wholesale. Judaism in fact requires discrimination against behavior; it requires judgment directed against sin. Judaism does not equate such discrimination – social sanction for sin – with “discrimination against individuals.” To do so would be to fall into precisely the identity trap of secular morality and to mirror its priorities.

Finally, there is a third group: those who understand the halacha and hold by it, but do not fully appreciate the optics of their actions, and therefore grant fodder to their opponents – call them the Clumsy Orthodox. Yeshiva University’s leadership apparently falls into this category.

When confronted with the threat of a state court forcing them to admit a “Pride Alliance” student group, Yeshiva University did the right thing: they fought the student group at the Supreme Court level, in a lawsuit that is currently ongoing; they also shut down all student groups rather than acquiescing to the tyranny of anti-religious bigotry forcing violation of halacha. This was an act of bravery and vision.

And then, presumably confronted by donor heartburn and public pressure, YU attempted to halve the baby. In October, after the Supreme Court temporarily refused to put a hold on the application of the New York City Human Rights Law to the university, YU put out a statement announcing that it had started what it called “the Kol Yisrael Areivim Club for LGBTQ students striving to live authentic Torah lives.”

YU now argued:

This newly founded undergraduate student club, which emerges from Yeshiva’s principles and its students’ interest for a club under traditional Orthodox auspices, was approved by the Administration, in partnership with lay leadership, and endorsed by senior Roshei Yeshiva. It also reflects input and perspectives from conversations between Yeshiva’s rabbis, educators, and current and past undergraduate LGBTQ students. The club will provide students with space to grow in their personal journeys, navigating the formidable challenges that they face in living a fully committed, uncompromisingly authentic halachic life within Orthodox communities.

YU had not caved legally to the argument that homosexual activity could be validated by a Modern Orthodox institution; they still have not, to their credit. Nonetheless, the impression was left with the public that YU had caved to outside pressure to launch a support club for “LGBTQ+ students.” This was YU being too clever by half, hoping that by launching such a club, they could please ardent advocates for homosexual activity while also avoiding endorsing homosexual activity itself. But dangerously and counterproductively, YU did use the language of the secular Left on the issue, tacitly endorsing the notion of LGBTQ+ identity directly at odds with halacha.

And this, in turn, leads to the logical conclusion that YU accepts LGBTQ+ identity as such, and simply refuses to allow people with that authentic identity to engage in the activities likely to make such people happy. No wonder 1,000 YU alumni signed a letter of outrage to the university, demanding a full-scale acceptance of the YU Pride Alliance itself:

We are troubled that an institution that champions Torat Adam, the infinite worth of every human being, questioned the dignity of its LGBTQ+ students by declaring their efforts to attain recognition of their identities necessarily incompatible with Torah values.

There is no halving the baby, say the LGBTQ+ advocates. And they are right.


The Leadership or the Community?

Why are Modern Orthodox institutions caving before the assault of secular morality? The answer lies in a daisy chain of failure: educational failure by Modern Orthodox leaders to educate their communities; communities consequently demanding the infusion of secular morality into Modern Orthodoxy; and cowardice by Modern Orthodox leaders in the face of such demands.

Modern Orthodox leadership seems to have been taken largely by surprise by the infiltration of secular morality. They shouldn’t have been – this has been the threat against Modern Orthodoxy since its inception, as the words of Rabbi Hirsch attest. Yet Modern Orthodox leadership has run screaming from the conflict of worldviews, opting instead for a bifurcation between religious practice and moral suasion on the most controversial issues.

Modern Orthodox rabbis seem to preach religious adherence when it comes to halacha, without resort to the moral worldview of halacha except with regard to uncontroversial issues: give more charity, treat your family with respect, etc. These matters draw little fire and also avoid the complications of seeming “political.” They are values shared not merely across Jewish categories – Reform, charedi, and Modern Orthodox – but across religions as well. There is nothing to distinguish these values from the values of Unitarianism or Bahai.

The Torah’s worldview is most valuable precisely where there is controversy. This means that the halachic worldview is eminently political, because politics is about values. The Torah is not silent on values; it is quite loud. The Torah’s injunctions against homosexual activity or intermarriage are perfectly logical and easily explicable; pretending otherwise is cowardice. And yet our leaders routinely wave away such injunctions as “G-d’s will” without explaining, in powerful terms, just why G-d would want such a thing. This amounts to the “chok-ificiation” of Torah – the reduction of halacha to the realm of the inexplicable, the unjustifiable will of G-d. [8]

This abandons the field of morality to the secular world, and tears away the main reason for allegiance to the eternal truths of Torah.

The Modern Orthodox community has taken note. Research from the Micah Foundation as of 2019 shows that 31 percent of Modern Orthodox find Modern Orthodoxy less than spiritually inspiring. Meanwhile, 35 percent of the Modern Orthodox say that Modern Orthodoxy is too focused on “drawing lines”; their top issues, unsurprisingly, are “increased roles for women and acceptance of LGBTQ.” Unsurprisingly, these two issues also top the list for those who believe that tradition is not sufficiently preserved. Modern Orthodoxy is experiencing a split right down the middle: 35 percent believe that Modern Orthodoxy is being too much affected by its liberal wing, while 41 percent disagree; 72 percent agree that “some negative views and values (in my opinion) of broader secular society are making their way into my Orthodox community.”

Given this conflict, Modern Orthodox institutions have chosen to either ignore the problem until too late, or to attempt to draw a false middle ground. Both solutions have failed. In fact, 34 percent of Modern Orthodoxy suggest that perhaps the movement “would perhaps be better off splitting into separate camps.” Unsurprisingly, infusing a secular worldview into Modern Orthodoxy ends with less halachic observance. Only 51 percent of respondents say they stand firm in their religious practice; 37 percent say they compromise at some level – generally kashrut and Shabbat.


What Comes Next for Modern Orthodoxy?

Perhaps Modern Orthodoxy was always destined to collapse into the morass of secular morality. After all, the term itself is limiting and self-contradictory. It wasn’t Hirsch but Reform Jews who coined the term “Orthodox” as an insult; as Hirsch himself observed, “it is not ‘orthodox’ Jews who first introduced the term ‘orthodoxy’ into Judaism…it was the modern style ‘progressive’ Jews who first applied the epithet to their ‘old-style’ backward brethren to distinguish them in a derogatory sense.” Adding the term “modern” to the label “orthodox” was an attempt to demonstrate that Orthodoxy was not disconnected from secular knowledge, but it in turned paved the way for conflict between “modern” secular values and ancient Jewish ones.

True Orthodoxy admits the legitimacy of no such conflict. Secular knowledge may be valuable, but modern social values are of no consequence to authentic Jews.

What, then, should the Modern Orthodox do?

First, we ought to stop relying on institutions as reliable moral guideposts, absent verification of their values. If those institutions are willing to sell out the long-term values of Judaism, even rhetorically, for a temporary reprieve from Heinz Ketchup, then they deserve to lose their legitimacy. Jewish institutions are being targeted by advocates for secular morality, ranging from the so-called “open orthodox” to political advocates who assure us that they are merely being “tactical” in their retreat from deep-seated values. This means that schools, shuls, and other organizations must ideologically screen their candidates in rigorous fashion based on authentic hashkafa. Trust has been broken; verification must become the rule of the day.

Second, we must shore up the institutions that are willing to represent Modern Orthodox principles yet fall into the trap of publicly vacillating. Yeshiva University is the single most valuable Modern Orthodox institution on the planet; it cannot be allowed to publicly signal unease with its own philosophy, or to give fodder to those who would disembowel that philosophy in the name of secular modern worldviews.

Institutions like Yeshiva University require chizuk, and the Modern Orthodox community must give it to them – and the leading rabbanim at such institutions must publicly demand adherence to Modern Orthodox philosophy at all levels, no matter the cost to the institution. Yeshiva University was never meant to be all things to all people. It should proudly say just that.

Third, new institutions with trusted leadership must be built – institutions willing to say the controversial, to stand strong in the face of pressure, to speak proudly on behalf of authentic Torah values. This means educating new Modern Orthodox leaders unwilling to bend before pressure, confident in the Torah worldview, unafraid of controversy. Judaism does not reject science or literature or mathematics, but it certainly rejects the moral suasion of secularists who see the Torah as a book of ancient bigotry and the Jewish faith as a repository of antiquated rules. Judaism allows for the reality of sin, but it does not brook the argument that halachic values ought to be overturned because some are unable to resist sin. Jews are those who accept the Torah, accept the halacha, accept Jewish values – without discomfort, without embarrassment, with pride in a worldview that was born at Sinai and that has stood as the bedrock of Western civilization for three thousand years.

We answer to G-d, not to man; we cling to his Torah, not to the approval of a set of values that will surely pass away like a breath in the wind. The fate of our children’s children rests with us – with whether we surrender the legacy of our forefathers for a little temporary convenience, or whether we stand proud and strong in the face of the storms to come, saying as Isaiah did, “Take counsel, and it will be foiled; speak words, and they will not succeed, for G-d is with us.”


[1] Rabbi Norman Lamm, Torah U’Madda, 236

[2] Rabbi SR Hirsch, The dangers of updating Judaism in Ed. Philip S. Alexander, Textual Sources For The Study Of Judaism (University of Chicago Press, 1984), 147-150

[3] Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik, “Surrendering to the Almighty,” 17 Kislev 5736

[4] Rabbi J. David Bleich, Contemporary Halachic Problems: Volume I, 236

[5] Baruch Spinoza, Letter to GH Schaller, October 1674

[6] Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, 63-69

[7] Rabbi Soloveitchik, “Surrendering to the Almighty,” 17 Kislev 5736

[8] Thanks to my brother-in-law, Rabbi David Pardo, for this idea.


Responses to Ben Shapiro:

‘Give Me Yavneh And Its Sages’
by Rabbi Michael J. Broyde

Modern Orthodoxy And Morality: In Response To Ben Shapiro
by Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Sinensky

Is The Future In Modern Orthodoxy?
by Rabbi Judah Kerbel


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Ben Shapiro is founding editor-in-chief and editor emeritus of The Daily Wire and host of “The Ben Shapiro Show,” the top conservative podcast in the country. He's also written eleven books, most recently, "How To Destroy America in Three Easy Steps" (Broadside Books).