Monday, January 23, 2006

Modern Orthodox Theology, or Lack Thereof

In an October 2003 article in First Things, Dr. Alan Mittleman reviews a pamphlet that was circulating at the time about the religious dangers that Ivy League colleges present to Orthodox students. In it, he presents a broad critique of the lack of intellectual production in the Modern Orthodox world:

A mood of fretfulness thus pervades the pamphlet. The tactics it advocates—emotionalism and disengagement—attest to a failure of intellectual nerve. There is a theological vacuum behind the anxiety. Although the authors gingerly suggest that the yeshiva high schools expose their students to “potentially troubling theories such as evolution and the Documentary Hypothesis,” they also recognize that the high schools might “lack the resources to successfully implement this proposition.” Better, then, for it to be dealt with by the intellectual and spiritual leaders of Modern Orthodoxy. They are the ones who ought to “articulate sophisticated responses to the complex questions” raised by contemporary Bible scholarship, Jewish Studies, and so forth. But who are these leaders today? Modern Orthodoxy has no one approaching the stature of its late leader, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. And does the posture of waiting for authorities to work out strategies really befit people who are products of the modern university? Should they not have learned to think for themselves, especially in an area touching intimately on the quality of their own faith?

There is a cautionary tale here about the neglect of theology. Modern Orthodoxy for too long has relied on sociology—familism, solidarity, youth groups, institutional loyalties—instead of intellectually sophisticated apologetics. It has written off the bolder elements of its own Hirschian legacy, let alone any ongoing engagement with modern philosophy, in favor of an increasingly otherworldly fundamentalism...

Perhaps American multiculturalism and postmodernism have blunted the urgency of the need. Perhaps the thunder on the Orthodox right has made adherents of Modern Orthodoxy nervous about the deep engagement with culture that good theology requires. Perhaps durable American optimism has persuaded them that you can have it all, contradictions be damned. Whatever the case, the result is the melancholy dilemma reflected in the “Parent’s Guide to Orthodox Assimilation on Campus”—eager participation in the American dream, accompanied by unsettling American nightmares.
A few issues later, Rabbi Shalom Carmy responded:
By and large, young Orthodox students are not interested in articulating and defending their beliefs because, like their parents before them, they are preoccupied with their professional training and social lives. Rabbi Soloveitchik used to say that the besetting vice of the middle classes is complacency, and he definitely did not except the community that placed him on a pedestal...

Modern Orthodox spokesmen are rightly disturbed and embarrassed by the inadequacies reported in Prof. Mittleman’s article. A few decades ago that would not have been the case. Defection on the way to Americanization was common; vitiated practice and invincible vagueness about belief and conviction were not a cause for alarm but the best that could be achieved under unpropitious conditions. If we are disinclined to regard such debility with equanimity, that may be a tribute to the higher standard of commitment associated with the impact of a more strenuous Orthodoxy. From my perspective that is a good thing.
If I understand correctly, he is acknowledging the problem and saying that the fact that people are noticing it is a good sign.

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