Modern Orthodox Judaism: A Documentary History.
Modern Orthodox Judaism: A Documentary History, part of the Jewish Publication Society/University of Nebraska Series JPS Anthologies of Jewish Thought, edited by Zev Eleff, is a superb volume. As I read its pages, I thought back to an autobiographical piece sociologist Samuel Heilman published in Response in 1975, in which he described being warned by his doctoral adviser that he would be "shunted away from the mainstream of sociology and the modern world," and that both he and his "work would be ignored" if he wrote on Jewish life in a contemporary American Orthodox synagogue.
Behind this episode lay the judgment that traditional expressions of religion in the contemporary setting were at best vestigial remnants from earlier epochs. After all, the modern age was marked, in the felicitous phrase coined by Max Weber, by a "disenchantment of the world" in which a secular ethos was triumphant. How much things have changed! As the eminent sociologist Peter Berger has "confessed" in several recent volumes, the world has become "re-enchanted" and he erred when he earlier believed that modernity was the solvent in which religious traditionalism would inexorably disappear.
Orthodox Judaism in America provides ample testimony to the truth of this last observation. While the 2013 Pew Survey of the Jewish community in the United States reported that only 10% of adult Jews in America are Orthodox, 25% of all Jews between 18 and 29 are Orthodox. The same survey reveals that Orthodox Jewish couples have a birthrate of 4.1 children per couple, as opposed to a birthrate of 1.7 children per couple for non-Orthodox Jews. All this makes an understanding of Orthodox Judaism and its history all the more important to students of modern religion and contemporary Judaism, and we are fortunate that Zev Eleff has turned his attention to presenting and analyzing this phenomenon.
It is against this larger backdrop of renewed interest in traditional religion and the exponential growth of Orthodox Jews that this documentary history takes on added import. Modern Orthodox Judaism commands special attention precisely because it illuminates the course of how a specific manifestation of religious traditionalism has evolved on American shores during the last two hundred years. The wide range of documents Eleff selects for this history indicates that traditional religious resurgence in general and Modern Orthodox Judaism in particular cannot be comprehended in monochromatic hues. For, as Jacob J. Schacter of Yeshiva University observes in his graceful foreword to the book, modern Orthodox Judaism is both rooted in tradition and open, unlike Haredi Orthodoxy, "to new ways of thinking and acting" (xxviii).
Religious traditionalism, even as it boasts of "changelessness," is not hermetically sealed off from the larger world. Instead, traditional religion constantly responds to new challenges and events. Eleff documents these twin poles of fidelity to the past and openness to the present throughout the course of this book. He provides a comprehensive portrait of the development of Modern Orthodox Judaism in this country and offers insightful and succinct introductions and analyses that frame the documents and illuminate the understanding of the reader throughout his work.
Eleff divides his anthology into three major parts. In the first part, "Orthodox Judaism and the Modern American Experience," he appropriately places the nineteenth-century origins of Modern Orthodox Judaism in the context of contemporaneous struggles between Reform and traditional Judaism. While the terms "Reform" and "Orthodox" had already appeared, Eleff notes in his preface that the lines then separating them were indeterminate. Yet even if the boundaries between "Reform" and "Orthodox" Movements were not then absolute, Eleff presents a wide range of critiques traditionalist spokespersons hurled against those who would "reform" the tradition. He also offers telling statements that reflect the personal folk piety that marked traditionalist Jews of this era. Eleff further indicates how elite traditionalist leaders and rabbis like Abraham Rice and Bernard Illowy defended the authority of the Talmud and the Oral Law against the attacks of Reform as well as how these leaders critiqued the prayer books that Reform liturgists produced. The documents include elements of the Kohut-Kohler debates of the 1880s and indicate how Sabato Morias and Jacob Schiff recognized the need for a traditionalist seminary to educate rabbis who would counter the Reform Rabbis that Hebrew Union College produced. This part of the volume concludes by setting the stage for the hegemonic battle between Conservative Judaism and Modern Orthodox Judaism for control of Jewish religious traditionalism in twentieth-century America.
The outset of Part 2, "The Contest for Modern Orthodox Judaism," features documents reflecting the assimilatory temptations America presented the millions of Eastern European Jews who flocked to America at the turn of the 1900s. They reflect how those Jews who preferred Orthodox to Conservative Judaism insisted on maintaining an allegiance to traditional Jewish observance even as they were anxious to acculturate into the American milieu. These documents highlight the defining characteristics of Modern Orthodox Judaism. Orthodox leaders of this era consciously erected borders against the "constricted traditionalism" represented by the Conservative Movement and its Jewish Theological Seminary, and this is a major part of the story Eleff presents. In so doing, he demonstrates how these leaders forged a definition of Modern Orthodox Judaism in both private domestic and public institutional and organizational realms. The establishment of Yeshiva University and the work of its founder Bernard Revel were of supreme import in this process. A responsum issued by Joseph Soloveichik forbidding attendance at a synagogue where men and women sit together reveals how Orthodox Judaism employed mixed seating as the ritualistic boundary maintenance device for distinguishing Orthodox from Conservative Judaism.
Part 3, "A Modern Orthodox Movement," traces the path of Modern Orthodoxy toward becoming an established force on the American Jewish scene. The birth of the Torah Umesorah day school movement and summer camps as the training grounds for thousands of Orthodox Jews loyal to Jewish law, the strength of Yeshiva University, the responses of Orthodox Judaism to contemporary trends and pressures, the education of a modern Orthodox rabbinate sensitive to the needs of modern American Jews, the growth of the kashrut industry, the move to greater traditionalism, and the ongoing devotion Orthodox Jews displayed towards Jewish law are all covered in these pages. Eleff also provides documentation reflecting the range of Orthodox responses to the great events of the day--the Holocaust, Zionism and the State of Israel, the Rosenberg case, the struggle to free Soviet Jewry, and Vietnam. Surprisingly absent given the comprehensive nature of Modern Orthodox Judaism are documents relating to the civil rights struggles of the 1960s or tensions over homosexuality in more recent days.
This last observation does not mean that Eleff ignores the fierce debates that have marked and continue to divide the world of Modern Orthodox Judaism. The selections drawn from Aharon Lichtenstein and Irving "Yitz" Greenberg on the one hand, and Emanuel Rackman and Norman Lamm on the other, highlight the divisions that took place between "Left" and "Right" in the Orthodox world from the 1960s through the 1980s and that remain present today. The pluralistic stances of these and other Orthodox leaders on issues like interfaith dialogue and creedal affirmations are found in the pages of this volume as well.
Given the nature of Orthodox Judaism, appropriate attention is paid to domestic matters of "Ritual Purity and Birth Control" as well as genetic testing and screening for Jewish couples. Eleff does not shy away from the thorny issue of agunot and prenuptial agreements designed to ease the pain and suffering of "chained women" whose recalcitrant husbands refuse to grant them a divorce. Nor does the volume ignore the significant inroads that feminism has made in the Orthodox world and the fierce internal Orthodox arguments that have emerged as a result. He provides the Yeshiva University rabbinical faculty's responsum condemning women's prayer groups even as he documents the appearance and defense of women clergy in Orthodox synagogues. Blu Greenberg, Avi Weiss, Asher Lopatin, Tova Hartman and other champions of "Open Orthodoxy" are featured alongside critiques of these people. Eleff significantly presents the response of the Congregation Kesher Israel Board to the charges of voyeurism issued against their rabbi in the Freundel affair. The reader grasps that the story of Modern Orthodox Judaism is an ongoing one in which additional chapters are yet to be written.
This volume, together with his authoritative Who Rules the Synagogue:? Religious Authority and the Formation of American Judaism (2016), establishes Zev Eleff as an exceptionally knowledgeable and talented scholar who is shedding light on American Jewish history in general and Jewish religious traditionalism in particular. Students of these fields are greatly indebted to him and should look forward to his further work in these areas. For the moment, Modern Orthodox Judaism stands an as an exemplary book and should be widely employed and consulted by scholars and students of American Judaism and American religion.
Brandeis University and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion
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|Publication:||American Jewish History|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2017|
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