Guest post by R. Eli D. Clark
Rabbi Eli D. Clark lives in Bet Shemesh, Israel. He served as Halakha editor of the Koren Sacks Siddur and also practices international tax law.
Who is Modern Orthodox? This is an old question (one playfully addressed on Hirhurim here). But in comments to a recent thread on this site, posters disagreed whether certain prominent YU roshei yeshiva are “Modern Orthodox” (MO). This suggests that we lack a consensus definition of MO. The question is why?
In popular discourse, one encounters various definitions of MO. For some, MO refers to the non-yeshivish wing of Orthodoxy. This is based on a simple division of the Orthodox community into two camps. On this view, if you are not haredi, you are MO.
In 1991 Chaim Waxman, the sociologist, distinguished between “behavioral MO” and “philosophical MO.” The behavioral MO Jew basically keeps Halakha, but tends to be lax on the finer points, especially those at odds with modern society. Stereotypically, these are Jews who play ball on Shabbat and go mixed swimming; the men listen to women sing, and the women wear pants and do not cover their hair.
In contrast, the philosophical MO Jew marries firm commitment to Torah and mitzvot to Western values that the mainstream ideology of the yeshiva world rejects. Waxman names two: (1) a positive attitude toward secular culture, and (2) Zionism. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks adds: (3) cooperation with the non-Orthodox. Based on recent history, one might add: (4) advocacy of increasing the religious role of women.
To briefly expand these points: (1) ascribes religious value to secular culture beyond the practical utility of secular education for parnasa purposes; (2) ascribes religious value to the restoration of Jewish political sovereignty over the Land of Israel, separate from the Jewish State’s role as a physical refuge for Jews and home of talmud Torah; (3) is not about kiruv, but conduct that takes account of the needs of the non-Orthodox and promotes communal unity; and (4) promotes women’s involvement in halakhically approved activities.
Although Waxman never says so explicitly, the philosophical-behavioral dichotomy can also be described as dividing between an elitist-intellectual MO and a vulgar MO.
Waxman also gives an alternative name to the philosophical MO: “Centrist Orthodox” (CO). This term was actually coined by Rabbi Norman Lamm, who was probably trying to distance himself from the syncretistic connotations of MO. For Lamm and Waxman, CO is just a new label for the old philosophical MO. But the term has since taken on a life of its own.
Some, such as Professor Alan Brill, now divide the American Orthodox community into three wings: haredi, CO and MO, where the CO straddle the ideological divide between right and left. In other words, in addition to being stricter in halakhic observance, the CO are more skeptical of the MO values described above. Some call this middle camp “gray” or “gray hat,” connoting a kind of diluted version of haredism.
According to Brill, CO has a more conservative religious ideology than that of philosophical MO. Moreover, beginning in the 1980’s, children from MO homes have become increasingly CO, partly as a result of their study in Israel post-high school. As a result, a generational shift is gradually condemning the philosophical MO to extinction.
But there are problems with Brill’s analysis. While the changes he documents are real, they seem minor relative to the overall continuity between philosophical MO and CO. Moreover, the generational shift suggests that this new ideology is nothing more than a new generation’s version of their parents’ MO, sort of a MO 2.0. Third, Brill sees CO as a uniquely American phenomenon; yet there are striking parallels in the Israeli equivalent of MO, which has also shifted toward more scrupulous observance of Halakha, more obedience to rabbinic authorities and more distance from secular culture.
Why the MO of the 60’s and 70’s changed is a question deserving a separate post. But the changes MO underwent point to larger cultural trends that include rising affluence, a more assertive rabbinic class and changes in the zeitgeist. In any case, no one will argue with Brill’s central point – that the MO community has moved right over the last 40 years.
So who is MO? R. Herschel Schachter? R. Mordechai Willig? Does it matter? On the level of bragging rights, it does. (As a YU undergraduate, R. Aryeh Klapper once joked that the entire series of MO Gedolim cards would comprise exactly two cards.) But on a substantive level, the classification means nothing. What is important about Rav Schachter is not whether, on a MO scorecard, his ardent Zionism compensates for his skepticism about secular culture. What matters is where he stands on those issues. I am not interested in calculating his MO batting average.
In fact, denominational labels obscure nuance and discourage precision, but we use them because they are a quick and convenient form of communication. However, their value dissipates if we define the same terms differently. So let us try to agree what we mean by MO (or CO). Then we can go back to arguing about important issues, like what Rav Soloveitchik said to my brother-in-law on May 12, 1979 about brain dead women rabbis.