Friday, January 04, 2008

An Agenda for Modern Orthodoxy

R. Barry Gelman, author of the recent book Irresistible Judaism, presents an agenda for Modern Orthodoxy in the current issue of The Jewish Week (link). What follows is my summary of his points (in bold) along with my comments:

1. Be more active in the general Jewish community in order to change the world and, while we are at it, reach out to non-Orthodox Jews.
1b. This includes reaching out to those with non-observant lifestyles (homosexuals? intermarrieds? - he's unclear).

Click here to read moreThis is fine in theory but in practice it is more complicated. How do we do this without compromising on our religious principles and exposing ourselves and our children to non-traditional influences? Do we want our children to attend classes or events with children of the opposite gender who are non-religious, sexually active (depending on their age) and scantily clad? Do we want them hearing Torah insights from non-Orthodox rabbis? Do we want our adults, some of whom have tenuous religious commitments themselves, to be in those situations?

2. Speak out on the major cultural and ethical issues of the day.

I agree with this provided that it is done in a Mussar framework and receives the appropriate emphasis within a full ethical education. We cannot have our agenda set by the secular media, whether in fact or in appearance. It is a disaster waiting to happen, in terms of youth leaving tradition, if Modern Orthodoxy becomes all about the cause du jour.

3. Be inclusive and sympathetic (i.e. lenient) in halakhic rulings.

Yes, but only on an individual level and not on a communal level. We do not want to set low standards in order to accomodate the exceptional case. Instead, we need to educate rabbis and laypeople that leniencies often exist for extreme cases. Most importantly, we need to emphasize the Divine in Jewish law and that it is not infinitely malleable. This was an important point that R. David Zvi Hoffmann made in regard to a proposal for conditional marriages that would eliminate the problem of abandoned wives: we may never concede that the temper of the times overrides halakhic concerns because that, alone, distorts Jewish law and promotes an antinomian agenda (Melamed Le-Ho'il 3:22:51).

3b. Allow local rabbis to set their communities' agendas

I am very sympathetic to this but we must also recognize that not every rabbi is fully competent to decide on complex matters of law. It is a time-honored tradition to have world-class authorities who are consulted by local rabbis on difficult halakhic questions. Additionally, we now live in a global village and many issues are simply no longer local and a broader perspective needs to be applied.

4. Address issues of developing complete religious personalities, where the spiritual meanings behind the religion impact on our daily lives.

Agree, but see 2 above.

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