Is There a Future for Modern Orthodoxy?

In his 2005 book Sliding to the Right, Dr. Samuel Heilman examines Orthodoxy today and the trends that have shaped it and likely will continue to shape it for the foreseeable future. While Heilman concludes that the future is uncertain, he also unsurprisingly informs us what his title already said: Orthodoxy is becoming more right wing.

He chalks this up to too many factors to list here, including the fact that the Orthodox community remains ambivalent to post 1960’s American culture, that schools have replaced parenting more and more as the primary educators of Orthodox culture, and that the teachers in those schools and yeshivot are generally (and increasingly) of a Haredi philosophical outlook.

All of this means that instead of celebrating culture of a non-Torah origin as a means to help better serve God or as something that causes a positive and creative struggle for Jews who are committed to keeping halacha, the Orthodoxy of the future may disdain the accomplishments of man, disdain knowledge that comes from outside of the Torah and Rabbinic writings, and therefore disregard autonomous decisions formed on information not found in the aforementioned writings. This approach to knowledge and the kind of leadership that would be based on it could have negative consequences for our community in the future.

If we give up our autonomy and begin to recognize Rabbis as the sole possessors of true knowledge, we may face endless negative ramifications. Taking this approach to its logical conclusion, we may begin to ask rabbis legal, financial, and medical questions, which could easily lead to disaster. If we think all medical information is available in the Torah, then why refrain from asking a rabbi to perform brain surgery? Indeed, I recently spoke with a reasonably intelligent person who told me he would have no problem receiving brain surgery from his Rabbi, who has no medical training.

In my opinion, we should oppose this kind of extreme trend for the obvious reasons that information and culture which do not originate in our canon or texts can be positive even in a religious sense, and that autonomy and free choice are among those things that make us human and allow us to serve God at all.

What, then, should we do to reverse these trends? Heilman has some suggestions for us in his concluding chapter called “Towards a Post-Modern Orthodoxy,” but I felt that his conclusions were not concrete enough, and i came away wanting more. However, we do find some beginnings of serious solutions to our problem.

First, more of us should read this interesting and well-written book. We should examine our problems in depth and try to create our own solutions.

Second, let’s start to take part in culture with an end to actually improving ourselves as people and Jews. Dr. Heilman quotes Dr. Haym Soloveitchik as saying that Modern Orthodox Jews might learn a lot of Torah, but we don’t know anything about the high culture we purportedly think is important. Instead, as Heilman points out, we are more likely to engage in a middle class pop culture, which is a little hard to defend in excess.

To counter valid critiques, we need to be more involved in cultivating the values we claim to hold and more aware of the fact that important relaxation can devolve into wasting time. I don’t think we need to all agree on what “high culture” is, and what kind of activities may qualify for it, but we do need to pursue our own perceptions of this concept.

Third, people should stop sending their kids to Charedi yeshivot and schools, or make sure to shift the educational matrix from the school to the home. If right-wing schools are the only ones available, it’s still possible to instill Modern Orthodox tradition and values at home, though without a doubt this will take an incredible amount of time and effort.

Heilman points out that the dearth of Modern Orthodox educators in local day schools, yeshivot, and other educational programs is often filled by leaders with a Haredi philosophical outlook, so this problem is starting early and continuing throughout our educations. How do we solve this? I don’t know, but I think that emphasizing that Judaism should come from the home may be the right place to start.

As someone who values Modern Orthodoxy, I found the trends noted in this book to be troubling. For those who feel the same way, we have much to study and discuss. Heilman’s in-depth study is a probably a good starting point for a Modern Orthodox renaissance, or at least for the preservation of our movement.