Modern Orthodoxy and the Right

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imageDuring the time of unity in which we find ourselves, due both to the war in Israel and the Tisha B’Av season, I want to review an interesting comment by R. Norman Lamm. R. Lamm’s sermons are fascinating for many reasons. He is a master of the sermon, both stylistically and with profound midrashic insight. Dating from his time as a pulit rabbi, his sermons show his leadership intuition, his messages for personal and communal direction. The publication of these edited sermons in Derashot LeDorot (so far, four volumes) is an important contribution.

On Parashas Pinchas, while discussing zealotry (in a 1975 sermon titled “Great Ideas Are Dangerous”), R. Lamm explains why he believes Modern Orthodoxy should not cut itself off from the right despite the many disagreements and the frequent heated rhetoric of which R. Lamm would later become a regular target. He insists on a balance, joining together with the right but being conscious of its extremes.

He writes (vol. 4, pp. 157-159):

[W]hat is true for the State [of Israel] is true for Judaism. We have survived to this station because of the self-sacrifice of countless zealots, the historical successors of Pinhas.

That is why I am not overly anxious for our camp, what we call “Modern Orthodoxy,” to cut off from the “right wing.” The “yeshiva world” and the “hasidic world” are reservoirs of passionate commitment, without which we are wishy-washy, wan, weak, and wavering. Of course I am unhappy with many of their policies. But our very survival may well depend on the degree to which we can become inspired by their zeal and learn to bring passion to our own commitments, no matter how much we may disagree with them on specific issues.

However, even in the Torah itself we find hints of apprehension that, like all great ideas, kana’ut has an “other side,” that of destructive fanaticism. The other side of a warm-blood is a hot-headed one. In our sidra, Pinhas is praised and rewarded and yet if we study the verses of today’s sidra carefully, we can find in them tell-tale signs of reservation and hesitation about zealousness. Our Rabbis (Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 9:7) were much more explicit when they said that Pinhas acted “against the wishes of the Sages”…

So, in all aspects of contemporary life, we must seek out kana’ut, but by keeping it confined and restrained and in the context of love and peace, we will avoid the “other side” of fanaticism.

As I have said, I admire the zeal of our right-wing. But emor–we must become upset and indignant when it is thoughtless, abusive, uncivilized. At that point, it can well become destructive and self-defeating.

Of course it is not easy to propose clear formulae on how to determine when zeal shades into fanaticism, when passion becomes poisonous.

But if we are conscious of this potential danger, if we are aware of how destructive great ideas can become, then we will be able to latch on to greatness and avoid the snares and ppitfalls of “the other side.”

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 Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five 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.


  1. I cant believe that R. Lamm was still saying this after the Aguda launched a campaign of character assassination against him as part of their decades long war against YU and not a single charedi leader had the decency to stand up and defend him.

  2. Actually, the character assassination directed at Rabbi Lamm (when Rav Svei called him a soneh yisrael) occurred well after he delivered this sermon, which he gave in the mid-1970s. I had actually read this sermon in Rabbi Lamm’s collected sermons before Parshat Pinchas a few weeks ago, and like Gil was very impressed with how fresh and relevant his words are to today’s times.

  3. Things are a little more complicated because self-ghettoization as a means for ideological purity is a central part of the chareidi hashkafah. Which is fine when living in the golah. But when living in a state of Jews it takes on an entirely different hashkafic meaning, regardless of whether you consider it a Jewish State or not. And this came to a head last Israeli election, flared up again as the Shaked Committee wrapped up, and is really only on hiatus during the current war.

    One side sees it as a battle for ideological purity. And therefore the chareidi can refer to the draft as “shmad”, as though missionaries were involved. The other sees it as one for Jewish unity, and this refusal to participate in the common Jewish enterprise, and in the case of the Religious Zionists — to hear their mode of Torah observance compared to an abandonment of the faith — reinforces the idea that the chareidim already cut themselves off from the majority.

  4. R Lamm was declared a sonei yisrael in the 90’s decades after the sermon. Am I missing something?

  5. It was Sonei Hashem, based on Rabbenu Yonah.

    R’ Lamm’s non-response was perfect.

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