Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The State of Modern Orthodox Belief

What do Modern Orthodox Jews believe? Like other religious groups, there is an official belief (or ranges of belief) and then there is the real situation in the trenches, where some follow the "party line" and others deviate. Without taking a scientific survey, it is difficult to accurately gauge what people believe. However, it is less difficult to learn what beliefs people are teaching. Oral teachings are difficult to collect because there are so many teachers across the world. The written word is easier to track. In this respect, there are two recent books that I think show where mainstream Modern Orthodox belief is today. Yes, there are those who teach beliefs that are farther to the left of these books and those that are farther to the right. However, it is my unproven contention that these books are fair representations of mainstream, centrist Orthodoxy.

The first book is R. Barry Freundel's Contemporary Orthodox Judaism's Response to Modernity. The book is a few years old. R. Freundel divides the world of belief into multiple sections and offers a brief but thorough overview of contemporary Modern Orthodox thought. No controversial topic is overlooked and his confidence and eloquence allow him to present an Orthodoxy that is both traditional and thoughtful. I suspect that this book began as a primer for converts and/or returnees to observance but it really serves as an excellent reference for everyone.

The second book is R. Chaim Navon's recently published Genesis and Jewish Thought. R. Navon addresses a wide variety of topics in depth, quoting from numerous sources and discussing prooftexts. The book is nominally based on Genesis but is much more about Jewish thought.

Click here to read moreDespite the two books' similarities, they differ greatly in style. I would call R. Navon's book ponderous if that did not carry a negative connotation; it delves into topics and discusses them at length, taking readers deep into the discussions between thinkers throughout the millennia. R. Freundel's book stays on the surface of the topics. His book is easier to read without too much mental strain. R. Freundel's book also covers more ground and is a more thorough overview of contemporary thought.

The similarities and differences between the two books can be seen if we compare how they treat two topics that appear in both books.


After an introduction, R. Freundel points out the importance of the land of Israel in the Bible and the importance of the messiah (and the attendant return to the land of Israel) in our prayer services. He then turns his attention to Israel in the thought of Nachmanides, and points out that even those who disagreed with Nachmanides still reserved a special place for the land. He then turns to modern (secular) Zionism, with a brief history and critique of Zionism and post-Zionism. R. Freundel then discusses religious anti-Zionism, non-Zionism and Zionism, pointing out their influences in contemporary Orthodox circles. He shows how manifests itself on the decision of whether or not to recite tachanun and/or hallel) on Israel Independence Day, offering an explanation for his practice to omit the former and recite the latter with a blessing.

R. Navon begins his discussion of the land of Israel by arguing the point that Israel is not the natural homeland of the Jewish people, where we belong no matter what, but a temporary home that we lose if we do not follow God's law. He demonstrates this from a number of texts. Israel is unique in that God's presence is greater there. R. Navon then points out other unique aspects that have been emphasized by scholars (traditional and non-traditional) throughout the ages, such as Israel's climate, fruitful land, culture, providence, inherent sanctity, and connection to the Jewish people.

The Problem of Evil

Why is there bad in the world? R. Freundel begins by showing that this question is asked by the greatest biblical figures. He then describes the proper response in Jewish practice to tragedies. Sometimes, good things come out of terrible tragedies. Only after that, he discusses the various answers that have been offered throughout the ages to the problem of evil, and groups them into seven categories: 1) evil is a response to sin, 2) most evil is the results of human acts, 3) God limited Himself in order to allow the world to come into being, 4) this is the best of all possible worlds, 5) evil presents a challenge for people to meet, 6) evil purifies us of our sins, 7) God sometimes punishes us collectively by hiding His face. R. Freundel then analyzes the book of Job in depth, offering his unique insight into the biblical text.

R. Navon posits that the question of evil is based on the fundamental assumptions that 1) God is the ultimate in goodness and truth, and 2) He enjoys ultimate power and strength. Evil in the world seems to undermine the unity of God. Therefore, belief in God's justice is not undermined by the Holocaust because God's justice is part of our definition of God. R. Navon offers a number of proposed solutions to the problem of evil: 1) apparent injustice will be resolved the world-to-come, as explained in two talmudic passages, 2) Maimonides divides the evil in the world into three categories: a) evils stemming from the fact that we are material beings (i.e. this is the best of all possible worlds), b) evils that men inflict upon each other, c) evils that we inflict upon ourselves. There are three weaknesses to these positions: i) they are based no the assumption that God does not intervene in nature, ii) the question remains why God does not intervene to prevent injustice, iii) is it true that this is the best possible world?, 3) there is no answer available to people. R. Navon builds on this last position based on the existential teachings of R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik (and Emmanuel Levinas).

Both books deal with the important questions facing a Jew in today's world: the Bible and literary and historical studies, morality, women's roles, etc. I found R. Freundel's book to be an easier read and more comprehensive, and R. Navon's book to be a broader survey that is intellectually provocative. In general, I believe that they both present a worldview that is representative of today's Modern Orthodoxy.

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