How Did We Get Here?

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I. How Did We Get Here?

While my blog posts on Post-Orthodoxy have met with heated opposition by many commenters here, they seem to have struck a chord with others. In particular, Dr. Jeffrey Woolf seems to accept the general premise about this massive change in our community, even if differing with me on how to precisely define it (link).

He recently asked a question that I found myself repeating today after seeing a report of a statement that R. Avi Weiss issued about his Maharat now being a rabbi and using the title Rabbah (link): How did we get here? Dr. Woolf doesn’t literally ask this question but he addresses it.

Click here to read moreHe suggests that the large-scale abandonment in Modern Orthodoxy of the field of Jewish Thought, the lack of serious confrontation with the theological dilemmas of our day from an informed Orthodox perspective, has led to the situation of many Post-Orthodox thinkers surrendering, even partially, to Non-Orthodox approaches (link). Where were the serious treatments of the Biblical Criticism of our day? Who has defended Orthodoxy against Post-Modern critiques? The deafening silence was essentially an abandonment of the flock, leaving students to figure it out on their own, and many have not.

II. Two Dinim of Post-Orthodoxy

I don’t disagree with Dr. Woolf’s description of the situation but I think his diagnosis of the cause is off the mark. We can see this by comparing theological elements of Post-Orthodoxy with social aspects. Two major socio-halakhic issues of Post-Orthodoxy are gay rights and women’s participation in the synagogue. On the latter, the leadership of Modern Orthodoxy did, in fact, lead. They wrote papers, gave many lectures and issued halakhic rulings. On gay rights, we recently witnessed a confrontation in YU but it was certainly not the first. There is a whole literature on the subject (some of which I listed in a recent post – link).

Did any of that stem the tide of Post-Orthodoxy? No. The reason is, as Dr. Alan Brill has pointed out (link), that we are dealing here with a societal trend, a moment, a mood. It was inevitable.

III. The Inevitability of Post-Orthodoxy

The Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Teshuvah 6:5) asks why Egyptians were punished for enslaving Jews when God had told Avraham, he decreed, that they would (Gen. 15:13). He answers that the decree was on the Egyptians in general, not on individuals who each could have personally resisted. God foresaw a trend, a force of history that did not force any individual but never the less changed the world. What we are dealing with today is similarly a force that is sweeping across the world. Individuals can resist it but it was inevitable that many would be swept up by it.

Individualism, distrust of authority and organized religion, sympathy with the outsider, the allure of religious experimentation and more — these are part of a force of history pushing against the Orthodox tradition. Some Post-Orthodox Jews are able to walk the fine line but many will and have crossed it (for example, violating the Rema in Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 1:1 by appointing a woman as rabbi of a synagogue).

Because it was inevitable, we can’t look to see where the Modern Orthodox leadership have lost in Post-Orthodox circles and identify those issues as failures. Instead, we have to estimate how bad it would have otherwise been. Maybe by not confronting Biblical Criticism they lessened its impact on our community.

IV. Did Leadership Hurt?

Modern Orthodox leaders led on social issues but not on theological issues. On which set did they lose more? I suggest the social. It could be for other reasons but, perhaps, the very act of protesting made the problem worse. Or, we could look at it and say that it would have otherwise been much worse. Social issues could have torn the community in half but, because of the strong leadership, only a small portion has turned Post-Orthodox.

In the end, this analysis of what caused the split in Modern Orthodoxy is irrelevant. It is inevitable and has been happening for at least a decade, although we see its pace quickening today. Popular history has it that the “Treif Banquet” marked the split between Reform and Orthodox in the US. The truth is much more complex. But if we are looking for a “Treif Banquet” of our time that defines the start of Post-Orthodoxy, I suggest that it was the ordination last year of a Maharat (now Rabbah).

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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