Modern Orthodox Judaism: A Conversation

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by R. Zev Eleff and R. Gil Student

Rabbi Zev Eleff recently published a book documenting the history of American Modern Orthodoxy, titled Modern Orthodox Judaism: A Documentary History. The book is an immediate classic, essential reading on American Orthodoxy. It consists mainly of key articles (or excerpts) from history that are important in charting the historical development of the movement. It also has a foreword by R. Jacob J. Schacter and introductions and conclusions of each chapter by R. Eleff.

R. Eleff is Chief Academic Officer of Hebrew Theological College. He has rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University’s RIETS and a PhD in Jewish History from Brandeis University. He is a student of both R. Hershel Schachter and Prof. Jonathan Sarna. R. Eleff is a prolific writer and has already published four books and many articles, a number of which have appeared on this website.

R. Eleff has agreed to answer some questions about his new book on Modern Orthodoxy.


GS: Is Modern Orthodoxy a denomination or movement within American Judaism? Or, is it just a subgroup within Orthodox Judaism?

ZE: It is certainly plausible to describe Modern Orthodox Judaism as a movement; denomination, on the other hand, is something altogether different. For many decades, American Jews have referred to Conservative, Orthodox and Reform as three “denominations” within American Judaism. However, this formulation is problematic. Denominationalism, as explained by historian Sidney Mead in the Protestant context, was an acceptance that the Church was “divided into discrete bodies” and that there was an “underlying unity” that “prevented any true denomination from making … absolutistic claim[s].” In other words, Baptists and Methodists agree that both are Heaven-bound. However, members of each denomination prefer their group’s unique theological path over the other. The three major movements within American Judaism do not function in this way. Each has its own particular standards in conversion (i.e., the ability to create a new Jew), Jewish identity and the halakhic process. Important distinctions in marriage ceremonies and divorce rites have also created massive incongruities; we don’t all agree on who is actually single, married or divorced. Certain essential arenas of pluralism notwithstanding, it is very difficult for Conservative, Orthodox and Reform leaders to agree that members of the other groups are trekking along in parallel and equally agreeable paths.

Yet, I do think it is useful to view various groups within Orthodox Judaism as denominations. The Yeshiva World, Hasidic enclaves and the Modern Orthodox can agree that their respective points of view are equally valid and that the righteous among them are all Heaven-bound. Still, Modern Orthodox Jews prefer their course and the Yeshiva World their selected path rather than any Orthodox alternative. This formulation is an ideal, despite many absolutists who are unwilling to view Orthodox Judaism in this way. They would like to understand the Orthodox Jewish community in a linear form, one that is able to be plotted based on frumkeit and Heaven-worthiness. In this way of looking at it, the Modern Orthodox teeter near the edge. This is an image conjured up by closemindedness that I cannot accept.

More than anything else, an adoption of the former perspective requires a more cohesive Modern Orthodox community. In its most current incarnation, the leaders of Modern Orthodox Judaism in its formative years eschewed the opportunity to create distinctions between them and other Orthodox Jews. Over the past several decades, we have lost perspective on how to best define Modern Orthodoxy’s tenets and values. I am confident in the abilities of a new crop of Modern Orthodox leaders who will reestablish this, and empower Modern Orthodox Judaism to reclaim a firmer “denominational” role within Orthodox Judaism.


GS: Are you suggesting that Modern Orthodoxy is attempting to establish itself as a denomination, as opposed to its role in the past as an Orthodox subgroup? In this definitional activity of Modern Orthodoxy, do you mean Open Orthodoxy or a broader group?

ZE: My sense is that Open Orthodoxy as a nomenclature is losing traction. Several years ago, Rabbi Asher Lopatin, president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, moved away from this designation and embraced the Modern Orthodox moniker. Last year, a major conference at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun on New York’s Upper East Side featured many of the would-be spokespeople for Open Orthodox Judaism—but the program billed itself as “Modern Orthodox.”

Owing to this, it is entirely possible that this group will claim the mantle of Modern Orthodoxy. To my mind, this represents a new incarnation of Modern Orthodoxy, one that is not culturally in line with the more conservative brand conceived long ago by Rabbi Lamm. Rabbi Lamm’s Modern Orthodoxy flowed from the traditional beit midrash setting, espoused a high-brow culture and was frightful of fissure. The “Modern Orthodox” viewpoints of this newer iteration embrace relatively radical theologies and interfaith and interdenominational postures that were the hallmark of the so-called “Orthodox Left” of the 1960s. Far from a judgment of this contemporary group, I merely want to suggest that theirs is a program disconnected from the earlier Modern Orthodox model.

Now for some judgment: when I offer my prayers for the rise of a new Modern Orthodox leadership, I have in mind another cohort, one that aspires to the very best of Lithuanian-style yeshiva learning and academic scholarship, as well as grand moral integrity. A number of these individuals sat beside me in the Yeshiva University beit midrash, in desks in Furst Hall and developed relationships with thoughtful and sensitive scholars like Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter. Their efforts are already apparent. They are pulpit rabbis, scholars delivering important conference papers and dynamic educators. Some are simply terrific lay leaders. Certainly, I don’t think that every up-and-coming Modern Orthodox leader shares in this exact training, but the intellectual profile, I hope, illustrates the type of religious champions I have in mind.


GS: In your Preface, you note that the term Modern Orthodoxy first appeared in 1869. Is it a coincidence that this was also the decade of the Michelowicz conference that marked the beginning of Charedi Judaism and the very year in which R. Azriel Hildesheimer arrived in Berlin?

ZE: That’s a very interesting point and much related to my thoughts in the previous questions. Historians of European Judaism such as David Ellenson, Adam Ferziger, Jacob Katz and Michael Silber have taught us that Orthodox Judaism on the Continent was far from monolithic in the late nineteenth century. The same, of course, was true of Reform Judaism at midcentury. In this place and at that time, a “Modern Orthodox” theology in Europe did not develop. Yet, you raise an important idea, namely, that the fact that this sort of nomenclature was bandied about as another brand of Orthodoxy to compete with the Ultra-Orthodox in Hungary and the so-called “Hyper-Orthodox” of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch of Frankfurt is crucial for the modern need to consider several viewpoints.

Perhaps the most important lesson here is that there are always multiple outcomes in the wake of historical episodes and new conditions; rarely are matters contained in vacuums. The more ardent forms of Orthodox Judaism compelled communities—religiously and sociologically—to explore more elastic types of Orthodox Judaism. Certainly, this is a lesson for our own time: the decisions we make as individuals and as communities often have repercussions, ones that compel others to move in unexpected directions.


GS: You write about the blurred lines between Conservative and Modern Orthodox, and how they were clarified in the 1950’s and 60’s. Did one issue cause the split? Why did people feel a need for clear definitions?

ZE: No, I do not believe we can point to one defining issue or episode that split Conservative and Orthodox Judaism. Historians like Michael Cohen, Jeffrey Gurock and Jonathan Sarna have pointed to the formulation of a new and bona fide Conservative prayer book in the 1940s, the vociferous opposition to Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, controversies over agunah solutions, and the formation of the Conservative’s Rabbinical Assembly as factors that contributed toward the eventual and protracted split between the two branches of American Judaism in the interwar period. In an earlier Torah Musings article, I offered that the earnest emergence of the Committee of Jewish Law and Standards in the 1930s was an important step in the “parting of the ways” of these religious groups. Eventually, in the 1950s, State Supreme Courts were petitioned to decide between “Conservative” and “Orthodox” congregations based on whether the synagogue sported mixed pews or not. This particular position is problematic, as there were many self-described Orthodox rabbis and laymen at this moment who prayed with the Orthodox rite but in the company of their mothers, wives and daughters. In any case, I agree with other historians—most of them, my teachers—that it is more useful to describe the long period of division and redefinition rather than searching for a single moment of fissure.

Assessing the need for firmer lines of demarcation is a more interesting, and elusive question. In Catholic circles in the late 1950s and early 1960s, priests and lay leaders faced an “identity crisis.” In particular, Catholics noticed a “New Pluralism” that stressed a secular kind of cultural and political harmony. In turn, Catholics sought to create new ways to define themselves as a separate form of Christian faith. In addition, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s crusade to identify Communist sympathizers and the Civil Rights Movement that garnered greater intensity in the 1950s forced Americans to take firmer stances in critical political arenas. All of this contributed to a more rigid culture of social and political sorting. I think that Orthodox and Conservative adherents were similarly compelled in the face of more rigid political classifications and religious identity crises to rebrand themselves and their religious creeds.


GS: Is there a difference between big city Modern Orthodoxy and suburban Modern Orthodoxy?

ZE: Menachem Butler and I have recently argued (in an article on the formation of Orthodox bat mitzvah ceremonies) that there were important differences between Modern Orthodoxy in major urban centers and in the suburban frontier. In suburban settings with fewer concentrations of Jews, the Orthodox rabbinate was much more willing to participate in interdenominational organizations. More often and initially, Orthodox rabbis in these areas cooperated with Reform and Conservative leaders because the small Jewish infrastructure required this. In addition, Orthodox rabbis and laypeople in suburban communities faced greater pressure to compete with Conservative congregations than did their urban counterparts. To vie for members and worshipers, Orthodox congregations in these suburban settings embraced innovative programs like bat mitzvah at a much earlier date than did the Orthodox leaders in more established and larger Orthodox enclaves in major cities. Therefore, the social circumstances of suburban life animated Modern Orthodox leaders in these places to pursue particular agendas and exercise different sensibilities.


GS: Modern Orthodoxy seems to require an upper-middle class income just to survive. Was this always the case? Was Modern Orthodoxy always connected to financial success or were there working class Modern Orthodox Jews, as well?

ZE: Modern Orthodox economics is an understudied subject. In the 1960s, it seems to me that the first crop of Modern Orthodox laypeople were college-educated and middle-class folks. Similarly, the sociologist Charles Liebman at this historical moment defined this group as “native-born, middle-class, college-educated Orthodox Jews, who in their own rather disorganized fashion stood as a bridge between Orthodoxy and the rest of the Jewish community.” Put simply, this was the type of Orthodox Jew who found the Rav and Rabbi Lamm compelling and interesting. In those days, the costs of day schools did not rival contemporary standards, nor did every Modern Orthodox child attend a day school (often, they relied on NCSY and camp for Jewish education and a social network).


GS: We hear a lot about the long shadow of Rav Soloveitchik in Modern Orthodoxy. In your book, his presence is felt more than any other individual’s, but only slightly. You quote from a broad variety of leaders and thinkers. Are you making a point that there are additional voices in Modern Orthodoxy, some to his left and some to his right?

ZE: I don’t know if I am making a point of this; certainly, I do my best to evaluate history without imposing too much of an agenda. In 1962, Rabbi Soloveitchik referred to himself as “Modern Orthodox,” probably in response to a much-talked-about article by Milton Himmelfarb in the pages of Commentary Magazine. Afterward, the Rav never spoke for this “movement,” although its leaders consistently referred to the Rav to gain religious currency and justification.

Citations and references only go so far. The major ideologue of Modern Orthodox Judaism was Rabbi Norman Lamm. He was the first to embrace the nomenclature and develop it into a movement. In the 1960s, Rabbi Lamm was the uncontested “rising star” of Orthodox Judaism in the United States. Routinely, he served as the keynote speaker at Orthodox Union conventions, Zionist programs and other Jewish (Orthodox and non-Orthodox) forums. Certainly, Rabbi Lamm channeled much of the Rav’s thinking—for instance, Rabbi Lamm’s Holocaust theology—and involved the Rav in many of his initiatives (the Stern College Talmud Program in 1977, for example). Then again, others, in time, also helped steer Modern Orthodoxy. Rabbi Walter Wurzburger, David Singer and Rabbi Shlomo Riskin come to mind. All three were influenced by the Rav, but probably displayed more liberal points of view than their teacher.

A final point: while those students to Rabbi Soloveitchik’s “right” eschewed the Modern Orthodox designation, it is undeniable that they influenced this “centrist” community. In 1977, the Rav observed that his “more recent students were not similar to those who preceded them by thirty years. They are not prepared for any compromise.” True, he admitted, the new crop of Orthodox rabbis demonstrated a “devotion toward Torah,” perhaps “sevenfold what it was in the past.” However, it was clear to the Rav that these individuals did not share his worldview.


GS: What issues of Modern Orthodoxy have been resolved? For one, Soviet Jewry was set free. What other big historical issue has run its course?

ZE: The Free Soviet Jewry Movement was a terminal initiative. As Adam Ferziger has shown, Modern Orthodox Jews assumed a leading role in the Free Soviet Jewry Movement, a cause that agitated for the Soviet Union to “free” its Jews and allow them to emigrate. I am not sure that Modern Orthodoxy has taken up other terminal causes; most of its initiatives center on religious-cultural matters, not social justice ones. For instance, Modern Orthodox Judaism embraces the struggle over the tension between the liberal arts and Jewish tradition. This doesn’t have an endpoint. To the contrary, new scholarship emerges, compelling Modern Orthodox Jews to reengage that tension and evaluate the merits of new wisdom and its relationship to Judaism. The same might be said for Religious Zionism and gender dynamics in religious spaces.

On that final score, it is important to recognize that most issues in religious communities rarely “run their course” and fade into the background. Take women’s Talmud learning. In the 1980s, Rabbi Louis Bernstein waged a furious war against women’s prayer groups. Observers cautioned the RCA President that it was problematic to simultaneously offer unqualified support for women’s Talmud study but claim that prayer groups were too much of an innovation (the halakhic sources on their own would likely compel the reverse!).

Rabbi Bernstein did not see it this way. To him, “women’s issues” had run its course: Talmud study was to be embraced while synagogue leadership was beyond the pale. Rabbi Bernstein did not see a connection between the two. Others did, however. In 1984, Rabbi Avi Weiss delivered a speech in Flatbush; in his discourse he championed both causes—women’s Talmud and prayer groups. Likewise, the opponents of women’s prayer groups started to question the advisability of teaching women Talmud, as well, based on similar forms of logic. I am not interested here in deciding on halakhic grounds whether the two areas are in fact related. My point is that social conditions and religious politics have a way of reopening once-concluded controversies. For historians, this is what makes American religion so dynamic and compelling scholarship. For Modern Orthodox Jews and other curious people, I hope, it is what makes my new reader an important tool in negotiating the past and the present—and realizing a hopeful future.


About Zev Eleff

Rabbi Zev Eleff is Chief Academic Officer of Hebrew Theological College in Skokie, IL. He was ordained at Yeshiva University. His most recent books are Who Rules the Synagogue? (Oxford, 2016) and Modern Orthodox Judaism: A Documentary History (JPS, 2016).


  1. Perhaps another model of Orthodox Judaism in America is that until 1960 or so the overwhelming Orthodox Judaism was a Modern Orthodoxy in America. See eg The Orthodoxy in American Judaism the era of Rabbi Leo Jung by Maxine Jacobson. Thus, until then then the vast majority of ideas were MO-take for example the Orthodox writers in the Commentary Symposium of Jewish Belief from 1966 the vast majority of Orthodox writers were MO.
    How much of the change is due to a demographic change in US Jewry due to Nazi Europe is probably understated. Probably the majority of Orthodox Jews in U S today trace their roots in US to 1933 and later while the vast majority of the non Orthodox population have their roots in USfrom about 1880-1920. Appreciate the interview with Prof Eleff.

  2. Rabbi Dr Brill’s series (recently reviewed on audioroundup) is a good adjunct as his definitional approach allows one to make more sense out of all the voices calling out in this book. I’d also recommend listening to R’ Lamm
    Rabbi Norman Lamm -North American Leadership
    for his take of MO and issues needed to be addressed.

    • I have not listened to a fraction of the Torah on line that you have but to the best of my knowledge I have listened to the whole series of Prof Brill on MO. In my opinion he as well as anyone describes the basic differences, ideologies of many of those who are part of the broad MO / world. I’ m sure we all can find minor quibbles-it is easy to be a critic-but as a whole the series gives a broad summary of the issues and people that are often discussed in the blogosphere and is worth listening to.

  3. I finished reading and note:
    1.David Singer’s 1982 Tradition response (whole edition is here resonated deeply with me ( closing line “our children-my children will grow up in an orthodox world in which talk about “synthesis” will seem totally alien. No wonder then that I feel lonely – and profoundly sad.”). While I wouldn’t necessarily have used synthesis, the MO that I was taught by example in MTA and YU sadly doesn’t exist today as far as I can tell.
    2.R’ Riskin’s 1976 Grossinger’s piece on whether our emphasis is on Torah or popular culture (substitute Reserve Cut or something for the younger crowd) is still worth considering.
    3. R’ Lichtenstein’s piece on revisionism and The Rav (from right and left still rings true.) One can cherry pick a lifetime of public statements and support just about any position (but hey it’s done to the Talmud as well)
    4. Most disturbingly it seems the only voices programmatically trying to define MO today are its left wing. But then again, see 1. above

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