I. Unpassionate Orthodoxy
Modern Orthodoxy has long struggled with generating a passion for its middle-of-the-road religious positions. Moderate stances, even when correct, are often accompanied by diminished excitement. Religiously passionate youth tend to drift to the extremes and many others turn their passions to non-religious subjects or simply drift away. How can Modern Orthodoxy create a vibrant self-identity that is positive and attractive?
Anger at extremists on the right or deviationists on the left creates passion, but of a nature that is poisonous to our characters. Additionally, it is unsustainable on a large scale and timeframe because people eventually tire of the fight. We need a positive identity that inspires us. Complex theological positions are too obscure to appeal to a mass audience and often uninspiring. We need a simple message that can be easily digested and transmitted.
A number of authors address this question in The Next Generation of Modern Orthodoxy (R. Shmuel Hain ed.), a recent collection of essays on related topics. In an impassioned article, R. Dr. Gil Perl writes that the Modern Orthodox community must ask: “What authentic Torah values, about which we are passionate, do we, the Modern Orthodox community, do better than anyone else?” (p. 276). Additionally, we “must identify authentic Torah values that are easily communicated across diverse populations and need not be tempered with moderation…” (ibid.). The danger of failing to do so could be fatal to the community. “[I]f Modern Orthodoxy is to perpetuate itself as a movement and an ideology, it must transform itself from the fox who does a little of everything and believes in a little of everything, into the hedgehog who has fewer but more focused objectives and does them remarkably well” (ibid.).
II. A Giving Community
What message can Modern Orthodoxy adopt that will inspire us–young and old, left and right–without dividing us? What will make us proud to be Modern Orthodox, give us confidence that we are truly frum and stand for something unique? I spoke with R. Steven Weil today, who gave me his simple answer that has already proven effective and needs to be brought to larger scale (no small task): chesed.
The people most involved in chesed, in volunteering to help others, are among the most proudly religious individuals in our community. Whether visiting those in the hospital, assisting the developmentally disabled, volunteering in ambulance corps or otherwise helping others, they give incredible amounts of themselves. And they receive even more.
The ba’alei chesed in our community have purpose in their lives–religious purpose. They enjoy a religion with a powerful, positive message that offers tangible results. The work is hard but incredibly rewarding. And the passion is real and easily explained.
For whatever reasons, the Modern Orthodox community has been much better at encouraging youth to engage in chesed than other Orthodox communities. I recognize the controversial nature of that statement and I do not want to imply that other communities lack ba’alei chesed. However, even if I am wrong and this is not currently the case, it can be in the future. And if I am right, we can do even better by broadening the effort as a primary communal focus.
If Modern Orthodoxy would adopt chesed as its overriding theme, the defining but certainly not sole communal trait, it can transform into a passionate community that transcends divisive issues like feminism, homosexuality and theological boundaries. Yes, we stand for specific religious beliefs and practices. But when we are passionate about helping others, we can set minor differences aside, deemphasize them, and focus on the people in need.
This is fairly uncontroversial. We are promoting old-time religion that does not need new jargon or spiritual practices. The world, we are taught, rests on three things: Torah study, worship and chesed. The Yeshiva world excels at Torah study but at great expense. The many people who fail at learning Torah drift through the community, supporters but never true members. Just about everyone can succeed at chesed, although a few will fail to find the giving gene. If only one out of a thousand Torah students develops into a real scholar, 99 out of 100 will succeed at chesed.
There will no longer be a concern that Modern Orthodoxy seems to our youth like a less authentic form of Judaism. It will stand for one of the three pillars of Judaism! We can respect the other pillars while recognizing that ours is also entirely authentic. We will still learn Torah, just like other communities also perform chesed. But our communal emphasis, our area of excellence, will be on chesed.
It will not be a boring religion but one that rewards hard work with immediate results. If the giving is emphasized as a religious act, it will be seen as an incredibly spiritual form of Judaism that breeds passion and commitment. Modern Orthodoxy will be a center of excellence and excitement, a vibrant and devoted religious community.
Every individual should be encouraged to excel where his talents lie. We will still have bright Talmud scholars who focus on their studies but also perform chesed. And we will also have scientists and lawyers and artists. There is no contradiction betwen that and emphasizing communal chesed. But when a shul will want to generate excitement and attract new members, it will start a new chesed program rather than a new class, and likely will draw more people that way.
If Modern Orthodox leaders decide to follow this route, how do they accomplish it? Perhaps I am overly optimistic but it seems quite simple. The literature and curricula are pretty much already in place. Rabbis and schools are already teaching chesed. We just need to get serious about it. We need to make it our primary focus, our defining characteristic. We need to make it the theme of every dinner, the subject of every sermon, the project of every class. We need to get real about it, acting more than talking, and celebrating ba’alei chesed as the success stories of our communities. Yes, some are already doing it. We need to do it more.
When we truly become a community of chesed, we will see devoted youth proudly continuing in our footsteps and inspired adults peeling themselves away from work and entertainment to join our good works. We will radiate religious confidence and enthusiasm, inspiration and participation. That is the direction torward a passionate and united Modern Orthodoxy.