March of the Mendelssohns: Attempting to Make Orthodoxy Modern

In “Judaism of the Future” (available here), Rabbi Eliyahu Fink attempts to tackle some of the greatest problems confronting Orthodox Judaism today. He asks why Jews aren’t spiritually fulfilled, why their practices seem out of sync with reality, and why they feel lost. He discusses the Judaism of the past, in which people saw God in all the things they could not explain, in which the transcendental experience was – in theory at least – everywhere.[1] He correctly points out that such a world no longer exists, and to dream that it does exist is bound to engender religious crises, not to mention mental health issues.

We know this problem. We know that religion presupposes a world containing an omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent God who controls all of His creation. And if it dares to look at the world with even one half-open eye, it recognizes that this God is hiding. Rabbi Fink poses the question, as so many have before him: what do we do about it?

As the beginnings of a solution, Rabbi Fink says that we must recognize this problem. We must accept the realities of the world around us; we must enter the 21st century. For religion to cope it must recognize the world as it is: A universe well-defined by physical laws, a cosmos that is almost 14 billion years old, a planet that revolves around the sun, and a world where random mutations and the survival of the fittest genes led from single-celled organisms to complex human beings. If we must live in two different worlds, the religious and the secular, then at the very least we must not live in two different centuries or millennia, so Rabbi Fink’s suggestion has considerable merit.

Of course, Rabbi Fink isn’t the first to recognize the countless problems, practical and theological, that emerge from a religion in conflict with its time. The most famous Jew to attempt to bring Judaism in line with modernity was Rabbi Moses Maimonides. However, unlike Rabbi Fink, who declares that “we must believe” that we can reconcile modernity with “absolute fealty to the words of chazal which are binding and the halakha that flows from those words,” Maimonides was not so conservative. Maintaining consistency with his firm belief in Aristotelian science and philosophy, Maimonides believed that the ultimate service of God was the study of philosophy, which directly connected the student to the deity.[2] Additionally, the scientific basis for the Maimonidean program was deeply flawed, and clinging to the Maimonidean worldview decades later would mean clinging to ancient superstitions rather than to modernity. Later thinkers were more emblematic of the adoption of modernity combined with the absolute preservation of an ancient tradition.

The second most prominent Jewish leader to attempt to bring modernity to Judaism was Moses Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn had the advantage of living after the Enlightenment, at which point much of the modern worldview had taken hold. He was an accomplished scholar who corresponded with great philosophers like Immanuel Kant and Gotthold Lessing. At the same time, he was a staunchly conservative Jew. For all that his worldview took in the 18th century in its entirety, he remained committed to the principles of halakha without exception.

Many have followed in Maimonides’ and Mendelssohn’s footsteps, though almost none would cite Mendelssohn as an inspiration, as a leader in his generation and a light unto the succeeding ones. Frankel, Hirsch, Soloveitchik, Lamm, Weiss, and countless others all sought a Judaism which embraced modernity but insisted that Judaism remain true to a more or less rigid form of halakha. Rarely, though, did their disciples follow them. And their disciples were right.

In Maimonides’ case, they were obviously right. When Maimonides argued that the Torah addressed the challenges of its time, he implicitly recognized the need for change, even though he personally rejected any modifications to the Law. Moreover, Maimonides’ philosophy was so firmly anchored in his interpretation of Aristotelian science that the moment that the science shattered, Maimonides’ philosophy did as well.

However, even for Mendelssohn and the Orthodox, modern science must mean something. It challenges large swaths of the Bible, it questions the accepted notions of God, it calls prophecy into doubt, and it brings miracles from the realm of the incredible to the realm of the implausible. Moreover, modernity challenges us to change our practices in light of the day’s science, its historical knowledge, its archeological discoveries, its methodologies and, perhaps, even the increasing understanding that all people are inherently equal. I do not know how Mendelssohn, Hirsch and Soloveitchik handled these issues; they seemed to have had some deep abiding faith, presumably anchored in their respective religious backgrounds, that reduced the potency of these theological and halakhic problems in their eyes. Their students, though, would not follow in that path; they inevitably strayed left or right, abandoning either the secular liberalism or the religious conservatism of their teachers.[3]

Rabbi Soloveitchik is a case in point here. If you were to talk to some of his disciples, you would hear dramatically different accounts of the man they called their teacher. At the extremes, you would learn about a rabbi who entirely rejected modernity but simply pretended otherwise, or one who embraced modernity to the limits of what his station could permit.[4] This divergence of views was predictable because Rabbi Soloveitchik inhabited an unstable equilibrium (though perhaps to a lesser degree than Maimonides, Mendelssohn or Lamm), where a small shift to the left or right would lead to an increasingly precipitous slope.

I once asked a friend of mine, a student in RIETS, if he would ideally like to get his semicha exclusively from Rabbi Jeremy Wieder, a Yeshiva University rabbi known for his embrace of modernity. He responded (somewhat in jest) that Rabbi Wieder would know better than to give semicha to any student who demanded it specifically from him, because he wouldn’t want to be implicated in that rabbi’s later actions. He is right. Rabbi Wieder’s students (extrapolating from past experiences) do not want a static Judaism that has merely come to terms with reality. They want a Judaism that recognizes those terms and adapts to meet them.

I recently heard a lecture by Dr. James Kugel, former Harvard professor and expert in midrash who is well known among the Modern Orthodox for his “How to Read the Bible,” a comparison of ancient interpretation and modern criticism. He began by raising a question he is often asked: “How do you learn Tanakh?” “Like all of you do,” he responded, “I open up my Tanakh and I read the words. I read Rashi.” I could almost hear the implicit “I’m a frumme yid (observant Jew)!” But many would argue the point, because he has gone further than Mendelssohn by challenging the divine revelation of the Torah. Having challenged a foundational belief of Orthodox Judaism due to his commitment to modern scholarship, he has guaranteed that the follower of Kugel will not be Kugel.

This concludes my objections to the path of Rabbi Fink and his truly illustrious predecessors and contemporaries. My response to those objections? There are certain hovot ha-levavot, duties of the mind, that require one to act in accordance with what he believes is true. The scientific revolution gave us ways to recognize truth, and a thousand scientific journals, books and encyclopedias, plus the vast resources of the internet, gave us places to find it. I will live in this century, whether it is good or bad for religion, if only because I cannot live in the next. The Mendelssohns will come and go, and I shall greet each one as I meet him, welcoming him to the best century humanity has ever seen.

As for a static Judaism? Well, we shall see.


[1] For an in-depth discussion of this issue, see Reuven Rand, “On Bikinis and Earthquakes”
[2] Guide to the Perplexed I:23-25
[3] In an interesting example of this phenomenon, though not a typical conflict between halakha and science, last year a group of rabbis, including prominent Yeshiva University figures, signed a “Torah Declaration” that made the following argument (in brief): Homosexual relationships are prohibited by halakha; God never puts people in “impossible situations,” one of which would be lifelong homosexuality; therefore homosexuality is reversible (ergo the scientific consensus is false). On the other hand, one Rabbi Zev Farber (also Orthodox, presumably with great respect for the above-mentioned “Mendelssohns”) took the same argument in the reverse direction ( Homosexuality is irreversible; God never puts people in “impossible situations,” one of which would be lifelong homosexuality; therefore homosexual relationships are not prohibited – at least de facto (halakha loses out). While these two statements should serve to illustrate the impetus for a rabbi to choose science over halakha or vice-versa, it is worth mentioning the Statement of Principles ( that inspired both, which naturally adopts neither formulation of argument two, takes the halakhic stance against homosexuality, and remains non-committal regarding the scientific consensus. Ultimately, the Statement is a message of tolerance and compassion, not a legal responsum, and it highlights the difficulty of reconciling halakha and the modern world (as does the remarkable failure of all three statements to distinguish between male and female homosexual acts, which is akin to conflating boiling a goat in its mother’s milk with eating Haagen-Dazs two hours after a chicken sandwich).
[4] For a conservative view of Rabbi Soloveitchik, see Schachter, Hershel. Mepanenei Ha-Rav (Brooklyn, N.Y. : Bet ha-Midrash d’Flaṭbush, 2001), 212. For a survey of the issue, see Lawrence, Kaplan. “Revisionism and the Rav: The Struggle for the Soul of Modern Orthodoxy,” Judaism 48 (1999) 290-311.