The Brewing Modern Orthodox Schism
Last month, The Wall Street Journal published a story detailing how efforts to liberalize the Catholic Church may eventually lead to a “schism.” While the piece is specific to Catholicism, similar discussions are occurring within Modern Orthodoxy, a stream of Judaism practiced by approximately 5% of American Jews.
The Modern Orthodox movement is closely associated with the late Talmudic Master Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, who understood that strengthening Jewish identity could be achieved by synthesizing religious halakha (traditional Jewish law) with modern secular thought.
Yet the emergence of post-modern liberalism is now placing the Orthodox leadership in the unenviable position of navigating between the growing influence of “open orthodoxy” (liberal modern orthodoxy) and traditionalists who believe that secular society, as it stands today, is irreconcilable with the perpetuity of the Modern Orthodox movement.
A contested issue under consideration is the ordination of women. While the Orthodox Union (OU), the umbrella body for Orthodox synagogues, prohibits such practice, there are approximately 70 female Orthodox clergy today, many of whom were trained and granted rabbinic degrees by Yeshivat Maharat, founded in 2009 and located in Riverdale, New York.
As an alternative to the traditional Yeshiva University, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) opened its doors in 1999. YCT seeks to “set the standard” in rabbinic leadership by creating “more ritual opportunities for women” while also “shaping an orthodoxy other denominations can relate to.” To date, YCT has ordained over 150 rabbis, many of whom serve as instructors in mainstream Modern Orthodox institutions.
While valid arguments can be made in favor of liberalizing the Modern Orthodox movement, incremental marches to the left rarely occur in a vacuum and, instead, invariably trigger a progressive drift in other areas. A 2017 study of Modern Orthodox Americans by Nishma Research underscores how, in recent years, there is ebbing support for Israel among young adults. According to those surveyed, 65% of respondents 18 to 34 reported an “emotional connection” to Israel compared to 87% of those 55+ who felt similarly. The poll also points to 71% of adults 55+ engaging in Israel activism, but then dropping to 43% among the younger 18 to 34 generation. In its sampling, the Jewish Council of Public Affairs (JCPA) revealed that, when questioned about Israeli annexation/extending sovereignty, impressions among Jews educated in Orthodox schools who spent the customary gap year in Israel resemble the same pattern as the general Jewish population, with 40% opposing such a move.
The Salanter Akiba Riverdale Academy (SAR) was one of the first Modern Orthodox yeshivas to allow girls to wrap tefillin, an act usually reserved for men. Today, SAR boasts several prayer service options, including a meditation minyan and an alternative service focused on current events. Last March, Democrat Congressman Jamaal Bowman (NY) addressed SAR’s middle school. The topic of Israel was broached only towards the end of Bowman’s remarks, where he successfully deflected criticism surrounding his position on BDS and Israel’s COVID-19 vaccination policy.
Following his appearance, in an effort to live up to its stated mission of “connection to Medinat Yisrael,” SAR sent an open letter to Bowman expressing its disapproval over the Congressman’s co-sponsorship of Congresswoman Betty McCollum’s (D-MN) bill restricting aid to Israel. Yet this dramatization of fidelity to the Jewish state, while necessary, occurred following hundreds of students witnessing an anti-Israel lawmaker, whose attacks against Israel preceded his support of HR 2590, receive a hearty welcome by their yeshiva.
In his novel The Orchard, David Hopen provides readers with a dramatic look into the fictional lives of Modern Orthodox youth wrestling with the co-existence of cultural modernity and religious observance. Following high school, many Modern Orthodox teens utilize their gap year in Israel as a religious touchstone before entering university. Yet today, to keep up with American consumer culture, numerous Israeli yeshivas catering to Americans are equipped with similar luxuries afforded back home, with some campuses featuring state-of-the-art fitness centers and music studios. As a result, many youth return to the US, associating Israel with fond memories rather than appreciating its role in protecting world Jewry. More yeshivas should follow the example of Yeshivat Sha’alvim, attended by 19-year-old Nachman Daniel “Donny” Morris, who was tragically killed in the Mount Meron tragedy on April 30th. Unlike other yeshivas, Yeshivat Sha’alvim integrates Torah study and observance with active service in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).
Earlier this summer, I attended an event honoring progressive Congressman Ritchie Torres (D-NY). The fundraiser was hosted by members of the Modern Orthodox community, with over 100 people attending. As a Jewish conservative, my choice to participate was based on the knowledge that the likelihood of a Republican representing New York’s 15th Congressional District is nil, while also appreciating that the young lawmaker is bucking progressive Congressional trends when it comes to Israel. Yet the event, an apparent success for Congressman Torres, also speaks to the state of Israel advocacy among Modern Orthodox Jewry.
In fairness, the Congressman is impressive and provides a critical pro-Israel voice within Congress. Yet what about the overwhelming majority of conservative lawmakers whose sentiments are bolstered by years of crucial votes protecting the Jewish state? Personal attempts to host events promoting supporters of Israel from the political right are often met with minimal fanfare in the liberal world. Simply put, segments within Modern Orthodoxy treat US policy towards Israel as merely one small piece of the political puzzle. As a result, pro-Israel political positions are left unrewarded if not promoted alongside a liberal domestic agenda.
Growing up with a Mizrahi father who, to this day, remains religious but not particularly observant (a distinction supported by the late conservative writer Irving Kristol), a reverence for Jewish tradition and Zionism was central to our home. Today, the two foundational values which initially attracted me to Modern Orthodoxy are being challenged, due to contemporary culture’s outsize role in religious life. As a result, the movement has reached an inflection point and questions remain about its future. Will a natural cohesion emerge between open Orthodoxy and traditionalists? Or will Modern Orthodoxy continue its slow lurch to the left and force its followers to confront an inevitable schism?
Irit Tratt is a writer and pro-Israel advocate. Her work has appeared in The Jerusalem Post, The Algemeiner, and Israel Hayom.