Why the Modern Orthodox Should Suffer the Most

I’m currently in the middle of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ superb book ‘Future Tense’1, where he sets out a “vision for Jews and Judaism in the global Culture”. Of course, though he sets out to solve a practical problem, the Chief can’t do so without discussing Jewish theology and philosophy, which is nothing short of a joy to read.

Anyway, in a section entitled “Lowering the Bar” (page 65) he says the following, after noting that Jewish identity is a matter of a shared faith for all Jews:

“…surely to guarantee continuity, Judaism must be made as easy and undemanding as possible”, since then the most people will keep Judaism, as opposed to quitting because it is too difficult. However, Rabbi Lord Dr. Chief Best-Guy-Ever Rabbi Sacks has a very different conclusion. In fact, the more difficult the better, in his opinion, and the idea that the easier the better is “untrue and misconceived”.

In his experiences, Pesach and Yom Kippur, the two most difficult Jewish holidays are the ones most adhered to. Indeed, studies come out almost every year that confirm this.

Why is this? Rabbi Sacks quotes Leon Festinger, whose theory of cognitive dissonance explains that “we value the most what costs us the most.” More sacrifice means more commitment, and though it is true that historically Jews sacrificed for Judaism because they valued it, it is also true that they valued it because they sacrificed for it.

This actually reminds me of something that Yeshayahu Leibovitz was fond of saying: The people of Israel, who felt the hand of God when He took them from Egypt, and heard the voice of God when He spoke at Sinai, soon worshiped the golden calf. So too, the Judeans who heard the words of the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel continued to sin. In contrast, however, the Jews who were tortured throughout history readily sacrificed their lives rather than convert to another religion, which would have made their lives incomparably easier.

Why is this? Obviously a strong commitment to Judaism is greater even than hearing the voice of God.

So what does this mean for us?

Rabbi Sacks points out that the groups in different religions who have the most difficult form of religion are the ones who remain the most committed. Is Modern Orthodoxy this version?

Now, all of this is not to say that we should make our lives as difficult as possible so that we can feel more committed to Judaism. Therefore, we might say, let’s stop using electricity to power our lights at night, and instead have evening prayers by candle light. So let’s be clear, we are Modern Orthodox because we think it is right, and this will not depend on the answer to our question. It is not a mitzvah to suffer by any means, and we want to avoid confusion about this.

But, having asked the question, I still think we might say that Modern Orthodoxy is the most difficult version of Judaism, if it is understood in a certain sense.

For many, modern Orthodoxy is the Orthodox way of life for those who do not really wish to commit to traditional Orthodoxy. Perhaps because they do not want to give up on movies, or dunkin donuts, or working for a big pay check, they water down our religion -but not too much- so they may ensure that the next generation does not abandon Judaism.

In this sense, modern Orthodoxy is nothing other than a way to make our lives more convenient.

However, the founders of great Modern Orthodox institutions had nothing like this in mind, and there are many among us who still view Modern Orthodoxy as an ideal to be adhered to and striven for. And this is the most difficult form of Judaism in my opinion.

As opposed to saying we will water down Halakha, we affirm our commitment to it 100%. As opposed to denouncing the secular world completely we say we will take a nuanced approach to questions of faith, and philosophy, and art, and emotion. Living a life that questions and affirms while truly living according to our faith is to my mind much more difficult than simply practicing when it is convenient, or avoiding the modern world entirely.

A person who works with non-Jews either in science or fashion or education has to grapple with what someone different has to offer, and has to ask how this changes our view of ourselves and Judaism, of our relationship with God. To pray with the same fervor after asking if God truly answers prayer is more difficult than doing so without acknowledging that the question is valid.

Modern Orthodoxy is the ideal of searching and questioning while affirming 100%. I cannot imagine something that would require more of us than this.

1Hodder and Stoughton Ltd, 2009



Filed under Miscellaneous

9 responses to “Why the Modern Orthodox Should Suffer the Most

  1. Although I agree with Rabbi Sacks premise that we shouldn’t make religion easier, I don’t agree with your conclusion that the Modern Orthodox way of life is the hardest. I believe that in every trend of Judaism one stands before two options, to use religion as a crutch, or to make life a challenge. Examples are abound, in the Conservative movement they have to balance commitment to a historical critical approach to Halacha with tradition and commitment to modernity. In the Reform movement they have to continuously balance a commitment to the ethical imperatives of Judaism and modernity with Jewish identity and continuity. In the Haredi community they have to balance a commitment to a rigid structure of religion with personal religious fervor. In each walk of life there are challenges and one cannot judge which ones are harder qualitatively speaking. The one thing that can be said is that I do agree that we should educate everyone to strive with their challenges and not disappear from them. In the words of A.J. Heschel, “This world is either a altar for God or for idolatry”, these are the two choices we have no matter which walk of life we come from. Either, as you stated yourself, Modern Orthodoxy can mean not really orthodox, or it can mean the meaningful striving towards a synthesis of modernity and Judaism.

    • Yitzchak Sprung

      Gene! Thanks for stopping by!
      I understand your point completely and I agree with you that the point of view I am offering is a subjective one, and far from scientific. Everyone has their own religious challenges, and I especially like the Heschel quote (where does he say that by the way?).
      Still, I would like to reiterate my point from the following perspective: For the Reform, halakha bows to ethics, for the conservative to historical criticism (and other elements), for some Haredim, personal religious fervor bows to the structures of religious law and custom.
      While i don’t downplay the struggles that every person has, and of course those that belong to religious people (who make the world an alter for God, presumably) these systems have solved the great contradictions, largely speaking. This is why halakha disappears in certain communities, and why personal autonomy in others, depending on what is the the stronger factor.
      However, in the Modern Orthodox world we accept the contradictions, instead of saying we will go in one way or another, and of course, this is why we are stuck in the middle between movements. Thus the (unpopular) name “centrist Orthodoxy”.
      We do not give up on Halakha or ethics, autonomy and searching or faith. I think upholding 100% of everything (which is of course impossible) is the most difficult challenge of all.
      However, i still admit that I’m arguing from a subjective point of view, so all I can do is respectfully disagree.

      • Although you say that the Modern Orthodox don’t give up on Halakha or ethics, autonomy and searching or faith, this is hardly the case, besides for most of the MO people I know that aren’t even slightly bothered by these subjects, it is impossible not to give up on one of these things because they contradict, you say that the MO don’t give up on ethics, well what about mamzerim, agunot, and homosexuals? Instead of dealing with these issues MO has bowed to an interpretation of the Halakha. What was wrong with Rackman’s Beit Din, what about the Gemara in Kiddushin that states that we don’t search out mamzerim and let them live in peace? ?Why aren’t developments happening in the Halakha regarding the status of homosexuals in Judaism? It appears in everyone of these issues modern day MO has not only defaulted towards Halakha, but a Halakha as interpreted by people who don’t share the same weltanschauung. These moves are not brave and courageous ways of grappling with modernity and Judaism, but cowardice and fearful. I understand that a synthesis cannot always come about, that some things are irreconcilable, but to hand off the individual responsibility to an anonymous institution of religion is not living with the challenge, but shrinking from it. What bothers me in this situation almost as much as the pain of the people it affects, is that those who go along with these decisions aren’t truly bothered by them. That they hold up their hands and say “What can we do? The Halakha says this”
        In the quotation I used from Heschel, although I can’t say for a fact that this is how he meant it, I meant the people who make this world an altar for God, are the ones who live in this world with this world and all the problems inherent within it, that is in my opinion is what it means to be religious, the people who make it an altar for idolatry, are the people who go through their lives never truly deciding, who bow to the authority of something which is not God (one of the radical implications of Hasidut is that God is not Halakha, that doesn’t mean that tehy contradict all the time, but some of the time they might. i.e. times for davening, if the Hasid felt himself unable to daven to God at the prescribed time, he would transgress the Halakha for God).
        And as I stated before this conflict is to be found everywhere within each movement.
        It may appear that the Conservative movement has bowed to ethics instead of Halakha, but in my opinion the ones who truly dealt and deal with these issues are bowing only to the living God. It may appear that the Reform have knelt to the universal, but then why do they continue to identify as Jews? These are the questions which every individual has to face or try to run away from.
        Regarding the Halakha and its development in modern times with the many branches of Judaism I would like to paraphrase Daniel Sperber, who writes, many compare Halakha to a stream and that although we can make the Halakha say what we want that is not going with the stream. However when a stream is about to return to The Source it may become a delta, with each new stream still flowing naturally from the main stream.
        With much respect,

  2. Yitzchak Sprung

    Hey Gene! Unfortunately the “reply” thing is limited to 3, so I will have to answer here.
    Before I respond to your points I want to mention again that my point was subjective and only true from a certain perspective, perhaps a narrow one.
    A friend of mine pointed out to me that due to my emphatic statement that Modern Orthodoxy is the most difficult stream of Judaism it might seem I am unaware there are other perspectives to be taken.
    So, let me make clear that I respect other perspectives on this matter, and I’m taking a pluralistic approach to truth here.
    However, it does seem to me that we are both stating that dealing with contradiction should be the measuring stick here. That being the case, I again affirm that Modern Orthodoxy is the most difficult, and we can continue to discuss this based on our common ground.
    If i understand you correctly, using this measuring stick, we may not say one stream is more difficult than another. I disagree with you.
    Again, I think the contradictions that inhere in Modern Orthodoxy are greater than those in other streams, where the great dilemmas are theoretically solved, since one point seems to always be the defining point of a stream.
    In Reform Judaism, if Eugene Borowitz is to be taken as the springboard, autonomy trumps all else. In Conservative Judaism, if we rely on Robert Gordis, ethical considerations control Halakha. Relating to Haredi Orthodoxy we might find in many thinkers that preserving the past according to written codes trumps all else. In regards to the Hasid, I don’t have enough information to comment, but specifically the case you have listed makes it seem that mystical-religious considerations trump Jewish law (and indeed this historically has occurred in many other cases).
    I work with these assumptions, and you may disagree with them, but they should make my point more clear.
    In Modern Orthodoxy as an ideal, contradiction is ever present, and nothing completely trumps all else.
    You may say that in practice ethics bows to Halakha, and that is true for by far most Orthodox Rabbis, but that does not mean they do not recognize the problem. If in practice one thing happens, we do not claim to have solved the problem in theory, only to have dealt with it to the best of our abilities. Sometimes this means letting the problem stand.

    I also add that the problems you have mentioned with the Modern Orthodox community may be understood as practical issues, and now isn’t the place to get into whether or not i agree with you about them. However, my point is made regarding the ideal, and not practice. I may simply say “Ein hakhi nami”: even if i do agree, it doesn’t relate to my point of the ideal, and how this is the most difficult to achieve. I agree with you that the ideal is hard to reach and is not in practice being realized.

    In sum then, in other movements the great contradictions have been solved even in theory, so that one element proves to be the most important. Why do Reform Jews not have to believe in God? Because autonomy is the most important thing. This is considered a question that is theoretically solved. This trend appears in every movement.
    However, in Modern Orthodoxy, we might say Halakha is always to be followed, but that doesn’t mean we don’t ask the questions of Job. We remain with our questions and affirm contradiction as the way of the Jew.
    Again, all of this is in regards to the ideal.
    Thank so much for taking the time to comment, and I really enjoyed fleshing this out with you.
    Still in respectful disagreement,

  3. You’re definitions of Reform and Conservative Judaism here are quite narrow, many in both movements would disagree, Gordis is not accepted by all Conservative Jews and neither in Reform circles does autonomy trump all other factors. They are a plethora of voices in each movement. Also although the individual may not be required to believe in God in the Reform movement they still will not allow Atheistic Judaism to be put under their movement. Also for that matter Humanistic Judaism is not under the auspices of the Reform movement for this same reason. Every movement post emancipation is dealing with the challenges of modernity, but every movement in its own way, and therefore different challenges arise. I agree the Reform movement in its conception might have defaulted towards the side of modernity as an automatic, but the Reform movement of today is not that case at all, they are also trying to find room for tradition, specifically where does particularity and Jewishness find their place in the universal vision, if Judaism is ethics, is it Jewish ethics? Is it ethical if particularistic? The Conservative movement started as a movement in the middle, between Orthodoxy (not Modern) and Reform, wanting to deal with precisely the same issue as MO Halakha and modernity, they deal with almost the same exact issues as the MO movement, but they are bold enough to make decisions, even decisions they may tear the movement apart, but when something needs to be done b’shem hashem nothing shouold stand in one’s way, and of course the MO are to be included here, however as I stated before I sense not a lot of tension, but a lot of indecision. I prefer the person who decides and hopes that it was the right decision then the one to afraid to make any decision. A modern Conservative thinker (can’t remember who) I can’t say if what I do today will be called Judaism in 50 years, but that can’t stop me from doing what I think is right. If that is not facing the unbearable tension, then I don’t know what is. As Heschel states, “Each one of us is addressed by God, “Where are you?” and we all answer in some form or another” A true answer is a complete answer, an answer said with the fullness and wholeness of one’s entire being, incorporating all the existential paradoxes of our nature, a half answer is and therefore not an answer at all is when we don’t answer with all our complexities and contradictions, when we only tend to one side of ourselves.
    I hope that all of us no matter which strain we profess to be keep this in mind.
    Sincerely yours,

    • Yitzchak Sprung

      Well, you may be right, and of course, I’m no expert in Orthodox Judaism let alone Reform or Conservative. These movements are of course not monolithic, and the lives of those who belong to these streams i’m sure are challenging ones. And indeed, everyone is still managing with modernity.

      I have generalized greatly, and no doubt there are still many contradictions affirmed and others left to be dealt with by all. I should be clear that though I paint with a general brush, I am aware that the real picture is highly detailed.

      Still, I stand by my point regarding theoretical contradictions and lack thereof in regards to each movement, as everything I have read (both in regard to their philosophies and histories) and all of the people I have met from these movements correspond to what I’ve written, in the general sense in which I have I have intended it.

      Though there are still many challenges to be dealt with, we may find that where there is a “solved” (important) theoretical contradiction, the answer defines much of what the movement is about, and how it deals with its future challenges (which should generally be considered derivative). I think each of the movements we’ve discussed has such a solved theoretical contradiction.

      Of course I may be wrong, either because I’m incorrect about the facts on the ground or my analysis of them.

      It has been nothing less than a pleasure Gene.
      all the best,

  4. Russ

    By founder of modern orthodoxy, do you mean Moshe Rabbeinu? And, do you really feel the most difficult denomination of Judaism is modern orthodoxy? Really? Have you ever tried blindly following a dead rabbi and his mistaken worldview? Have you ever tried up keeping a dead movement? Have you ever practiced a religion that ideologically no one else in your own denomination believes in? Now those are difficult denominations to follow!

    • Yitzchak Sprung

      Well, by “founders of modern orthodoxy” i really meant “Those leaders who best expressed traditional Orthodoxy and were the founders of institutions that serve the public known as Modern Orthodox. I was unclear, but it was much shorter…
      In regards to your questions, perhaps i spoke too soon…

  5. Anonymous

    I enjoyed the article but I don’t like being called a gentile…non Jew is preferable.

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