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Modern Orthodoxy in crisis: a test case.

IT IS NO SECRET THAT CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN MODERN Orthodoxy is in crisis. This would have surprised observers of American Judaism a half century ago who were predicting that Orthodoxy of any variety would soon be such a marginal phenomenon that there would be nothing to have a crisis about. Orthodoxy, it was believed, was fated to disappear, or at least be restricted to the cultural backwaters of American Jewry such as the Lower East Side of New York and the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. The dominant sociological model of religion posited that acculturation and social and economic mobility were incompatible with religious fundamentalism. From this perspective, it was simply inconceivable that Orthodoxy could transplant itself to affluent suburbia and retain the loyalties of the American-born and college-educated children and grandchildren of the immigrant generation. The only thing left for Orthodoxy was to die gracefully.

Marshall Sklare's Conservative Judaism: An American Religious Movement, a classic in American Jewish sociology, claimed in 1955 that the history of Orthodoxy in the United States "can be written in terms of a case study of institutional decay." For Jews eager to join the American mainstream, Sklare wrote, "Orthodoxy bears the stigma of the 'ghetto.' They feel that Orthodox procedures are out of keeping with the type of behavior expected of the middle class, that Orthodoxy will not raise their status among fellow-Jews of higher social position, and also that Orthodoxy will not help to improve JewishGentile relations." Orthodoxy, Sklare concluded, had a bleak future, dependent as it was on elderly immigrants and those left behind in the mobility process. The future of traditional Judaism in America, he declared, was in the hands of the Conservative movement. (1)

Other scholars agreed with Sklare. The sociologist-historian Nathan Glazer wrote in his American Judaism, published two years after Conservative Judaism, that American Jews saw Orthodoxy as an anthropological survival incompatible with middle-class respectability. It was thus not surprising that Orthodoxy did not appeal to the more prosperous and Americanized sections of the jewish community. In the final chapter of American Judaism, Glazer asked where American Jews could turn if they rejected the bland Judaism of middleclass suburbia and opted for a "more alive and meaningful" religion. The best answer he could supply was the "exotic" Hasidic courts of Williamsburg and Crown Heights in Brooklyn. It was symptomatic of the widespread belief in the incompatibility of Orthodoxy and mainstream American culture that Glazer believed the future of Orthodoxy rested with those whom he described as a "particularly backward and archaic group of Jews." (2)

Orthodox leaders also believed that Orthodoxy could not flourish in the United States. At the turn of the twentieth century, Eastern European rabbis argued that the individualism, materialism, and fluidity of American life were incompatible with Orthodoxy, and they urged their followers not to migrate to this "trefa land," where, to quote the Ridbaz (Rabbi Jacob David Willowski), "even the stones are impure." (3) The Hafetz Hayyim, the greatest figure in early twentieth century East European Orthodoxy, agreed. "Whoever wishes to live properly before God," he said, "must not settle in that country." (4) In America, it was noted, the Sabbath was widely desecrated, kashrut supervision was a joke, the laws of family purity were disregarded, only a handful of Orthodox Jewish schools existed, and only a few distinguished rabbis and scholars had taken up residence. While the Jews might prosper economically in America, it would be at the sacrifice of their souls. This was the theme of what is arguably the most import ant fictional treatment of the East European Jewish migration to America, Abraham Cahan's novel The Rise of David Levinsky, published in 1917. (5)

The overwhelming majority of East European immigrants to America, contrary to popular mythology, were not Orthodox. In fact, despite the idealized recollections of "Fiddler on the Roof' and other sentimental remembrances of East European Jewry, most had not even been Orthodox back in Europe, and their decision to immigrate was simply another step in their estrangement from the religious world of their fathers. "Is it not clear," Conservative Rabbi Herbert Parzen wrote a half century ago, "that those who cry out today against the secularization of Jewish life in America must seek its origins not in the fleshpots of New York, but back across the sea in the supposedly piety-bound ghettos of the Pale?" (6) The small Orthodox synagogues the immigrants established in America were not indicative of their religious practices. Rather as the sociologist Charles S. Liebman has written, they "were social forums and benevolent societies adapted to the requirements of poor, unacculturated people." Orthodoxy was the Judaism they knew, not the Judaism they practiced. (7)

Even the Orthodox in America were pessimistic about Orthodoxy's future, and for good reason. Orthodoxy seemed to have little appeal to their children and grandchildren, who were flocking to Conservative and Reform congregations, seemingly at the drop of a hat. When Immanuel Jakobovits resigned the pulpit of the Fifth Avenue Synagogue in New York in 1966 to become the Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, he recalled that the major challenge he faced when he arrived in New York in 1958 had been "to make Orthodoxy elegant and fashionable and to show that you don't have to live on the Lower East Side in squalor to be a strictly traditional Jew." (8)

By the 1960s, however, it was clear that the sociological model identifying right-wing religion with low social and economic standing was no longer credible. (9) Much to the surprise of sociologists, various forms of right-wing religion found among both Christians and Jews were perfectly compatible with higher education, economic and social mobility, and cosmopolitanism. And by the 1960s, Orthodox Judaism had transplanted itself to suburbia and had become the religion of choice of a surprising number of physicians, lawyers, engineers, academicians, and other professionals. When Marshall Sklare brought out a second edition of Conservative Judaism in 1972, he declared that the laws of religious sociology had seemingly been repealed. "Unaccountably," he wrote, "Orthodoxy has refused to assume the role of invalid. Rather, it has transformed itself into a growing force in American Jewish life. It has reasserted its claim of being the authentic interpretation of Judaism." (10)

To the surprise of the non-Orthodox who viewed Orthodoxy as an anachronism, the Orthodox now exhibited a spirit of triumphalism born of the conviction that they, and they alone, were the future of America, and that other forms of Judaism were illegitimate and doomed. This elan resulted in Orthodox "outreach" activity among Reform, Conservative, and unaffiliated Jews, particularly among the young. Now it was the non-Orthodox who felt under siege. (11)

At the same time that Orthodoxy was coming of age, Modern Orthodoxy, the branch of Orthodoxy identified with Yeshiva University and with this institution's underlying philosophy of "Torah u-Madda" (the coordination and even synthesis of traditional Judaism and western culture), was itself being challenged by a sectarian Orthodoxy centered in the yeshiva world. Modern Orthodoxy is differentiated from right-wing Orthodoxy by its approval of secular higher education, its acceptance of middle-class norms of enjoyment, social relations, and dress ("think Yiddish but dress British"), and by its willingness to grant non-Orthodox forms of Judaism a modicum of legitimacy. For the sectarian Orthodox, Modem Orthodoxy reflected an assimilationist outlook unable to withstand the pressures of acculturation and secularization.

The sectarian Orthodox were not entirely wrong. Modern Orthodox Jews have sought, often unsuccessfully, to reconcile the demands of Halakha with the attractions of American materialism, to live a lifestyle which Charles Liebman has described as "half-pagan, half-halakhic." (12) The sociologist Samuel C. Heilman, himself a Modern Orthodox Jew, agreed. The Modern Orthodox Jew, he wrote in 1979, "has learned to live with the sociological ambivalence inherent in his dualistic identity. A genuine homo duplex, burnished with a cosmopolitan parochialism, he waits for the Messiah to solve his problem." (13)

The right-wing Orthodox of the yeshiva world feel no such ambivalence. They disdain the compromises of Modern Orthodoxy, are convinced that the be-all and end-all of Jewish life is the intensive study of the Talmud, and believe that the study of literature, philosophy, and history are, at best, a waste of time, and, at worst, a threat to Torah-true Judaism. Stung by such criticisms regarding their modernity, many of the Modern Orthodox now prefer to call themselves "Centrist" Orthodox. The influence of the sectarian Orthodox on Modern Orthodoxy has involved more than semantics. Because of the relatively low salaries in jewish education, the Modern Orthodox day schools have had difficulty in filling their teaching positions with their own kind. They have been forced to hire devotees of sectarian Orthodoxy, who inevitably influence the religious orientation of their students. And during a period when American culture, as evidenced by the mass media, has coarsened, the sectarian Orthodox' rejection of the synthe sis of Orthodox Judaism with western culture resonates more strongly.

Another cause of the growth of right-wing Orthodoxy was the settling in America of Orthodox Holocaust survivors (and their descendants). The Orthodox survivors were forced to flee Europe, and they came to America not as immigrants but as emigres. Had the Holocaust never occurred, they would have remained in Europe, close to their rabbis, their yeshivas, and their synagogues, and they sought to re-construct the Jewish life they knew in Europe. Reconciling traditional Judaism with the best of western culture is for them of little importance.

Observers of American Orthodoxy have argued that the sectarian Orthodox's criticisms of Modern Orthodoxy, along with the attractions of some Modern Orthodox children to right-wing Orthodoxy, have demoralized the Modem Orthodox. Even at Yeshiva University, the leading institution of Modern Orthodoxy, the philosophy of Torah u-Madda has been repudiated by most of the faculty of its rabbinic seminary. For the Modern Orthodox, this is bizarre. Just as Conservative Judaism was surprised by the refusal of the Modern Orthodox to roll over and die, so has Modern Orthodoxy been shocked by the resurgence of an Orthodoxy which disdains higher education and western culture. "Shaken and troubled by its encounter with the postwar Orthodox," the historian Jenna W. Joselit argued, "Modern Orthodoxy has been "unable to hold its own in the face of withering criticism." "Modern Orthodoxy's stock," David Singer wrote in 2001, is "currently at an all-time low. Indeed, the movement is in deep crisis--its leaders demoralized, its i nstitutions weakened, its mass base shrinking rapidly." The spokesmen for Modern Orthodoxy have been "simply unable to stand up to the challenge presented by Orthodox traditionalism." (14)

In the mid-1990s, several prominent Modern Orthodox rabbis responded to the challenge of the sectarian Orthodox by founding EDAH (Hebrew for congregation), an organization dedicated to disseminating the classic Modern Orthodox message. The most important item on EDAH's agenda was elevating the status of women within Orthodoxy, particularly within the synagogue. Although EDAH has been successful in attracting thousands of persons to its conventions, including important rabbis and lay figures, its slogan, "the courage to be modern and Orthodox," reflects the pessimism within Modern Orthodoxy. Courage is appropriate for those facing difficult challenges, not for those imbued with the prospect of imminent victory.

The tensions within Modern Orthodoxy were exhibited on a local level in the 1990s in Congregation Ahawas Achim B'nai Jacob and David of West Orange, New Jersey, the leading Orthodox congregation in Essex and Morris counties. I have been affiliated with the congregation since 1969 and, as an academically trained historian and an observer of the sociology of American religion, I have closely watched and thought about its growth. Indeed, much of my writing on American Judaism has come from viewing developments on the ground, so to speak, in West Orange. The evolution of the West Orange Orthodox community has, I believed, been a microcosm of important trends in the history of American Orthodoxy in general and of suburban Orthodoxy in particular. (15) AABJD had been moving slowly to the right during the past three decades. The square dances and concerts with female singers of the 1970s had disappeared from the congregation's social calendar. Mixed dancing at the synagogue's annual dinner ended in the early 1980s. The prayer books and bibles used by the synagogue reflected this rightward move. In the 1970s the synagogue used the Birnbaum siddur and the Hertz chumash. These were replaced in the 1980s by the siddur and chumash produced by ArtScroll. ArtScroll specializes in printing prayer books, biblical commentaries, hagiographic biographies, children's books, and other works which reflect the anti-modernist mentality of sectarian Orthodoxy. These books are written in an execrable manner and edited by persons who disdain or are unaware of modern Jewish scholarship. Few of AABJ&D's members seem to recognize the incongruity of a congregation of college graduates and professionals using such fundamentalist religious literature. The Rabbinical Council of America, the major rabbinic spokesmen of Modern Orthodoxy, even commissioned ArtScroll to produce a prayer book suitable for their congregations. "There is no small irony," wrote the historian Jack Wertheimer, "in the fact that the RCA thus commissioned its opponents in th e Orthodox world--traditionalists who do not accept the legitimacy of centrist Orthodox rabbis--to provide its official prayer book." (16)

In their 1989 book Cosmopo1itans and Parochials: Modern Ortiwdox Jews in America, the sociologists Samuel Heilman and Steven M. Cohen spoke of the strains facing the Modern Orthodox in "combining a commitment to the parochialism of Orthodoxy with a life in the contemporary cosmopolitan world." (17) These pressures can remain latent unless a catalytic event brings them to the surface. In the case of AABJ&D, this event was the selection of a new rabbi in 1998. The selection of a rabbi is often complicated and contentious, and rarely pleasant, and this is particularly so when the congregation is Modern Orthodox. Modern Orthodoxy does not have a sharply defined ideology, distinct norms of religious praxis, and, after the death of Joseph B. Soloveitchik in 1993, clearly recognized leaders. As a result, there is no clear agreement within the congregation regarding the traits most desired in a rabbi. (18)

Depending on who is talking, the rabbi will be judged too religious or not religious enough, too inflexible or not inflexible enough, too immersed in Torah study or not immersed enough, too involved in communal affairs or not involved enough. He is admired if he stands up for what he believes, but he is also criticized if he challenges the community's religious standards, particularly the specific ways that it has synthesized Orthodoxy with societal norms. The modern Orthodox rabbi is caught between a rock and a hard place. In the words of the title of Heilman and Cohen's book, he can be a cosmopolitan and open to the secular and general Jewish world, or he can be a parochial and reflect the ethos of the yeshiva world. No Orthodox rabbi can be all things to all people.

The debate concerning AABJ&D's selection of a new rabbi forced the community to think seriously about the nature of their religious identity. The previous rabbi had been in the community for three decades, and during his tenure the congregation had grown from a handful of Sabbath-observing families worshipping in a former animal hospital to five hundred observant families praying in a multi-million dollar building. Several factors were responsible for this growth, including the riots in Newark in 1967 which emptied the city of most of its remaining Jewish population, the movement of young Orthodox families from New York City to the suburbs, and the completion in 1973 of Route 280, which provided rapid transportation from West Orange to Newark, New York City, and the more western suburbs. Added to these were the leadership and the interpersonal skills of the incumbent rabbi, who was much respected, both within and outside the congregation.

The rabbi was a "people person." He made the non-Orthodox feel comfortable, and he was able to bridge the religious differences within the congregation's increasingly diverse membership. His sermons avoided potentially divisive topics and emphasized the need for community and unity. The rabbi's highest values were ahavat Israel (love of fellow Jews) and support for the state of Israel. He also exhibited another important trait of Modern Orthodoxy: involvement in the wider Jewish community. He was active in the local Jewish federation and respected by the non-Orthodox as a person to whom they could relate. The nature of his replacement would indicate whether the synagogue would remain a quintessentially Modern Orthodox synagogue or move to the right. Moving to the left was never an option.

By 1998, AABJ&D was a different congregation than what it had been thirty years earlier. Most of its members in the 1960s were only nominally Orthodox, and until the early 1980s the synagogue ran a Hebrew school for the children of member families who did not attend Orthodox Hebrew day schools. The latitudinarianism of the incumbent rabbi was attuned to the religious outlook of the congregation's membership, for whom Orthodoxy was a matter of preference, not of practice. By the early 1980s, however, most of the nominally Orthodox had either left the congregation or their children had grown up, and the congregation closed its Hebrew school. In addition, many observant Orthodox families had moved to West Orange. This winnowing process had changed the nature of AABJ&D's membership from "fellow- traveling" to "card-carrying" Orthodox. Rabbinic tolerance of religious transgressions was no longer considered so virtuous. And, as the historian Jeffrey S. Gurock noted in 1998, congregational Orthodox rabbis "no longer feel the pressure to accommodate, or turn a blind eye towards the activities of the minority of graying non-observant members." (19)

It was anticipated that once word got out that AABJ&D was looking for a new rabbi, the congregation would receive literally dozens of applications from persons representing various segments of American Orthodoxy. It was important, therefore, that the selection process be handled as methodically and carefully as possible. To achieve this, the congregation's president appointed a committee of eight to screen candidates. The most important guideline adopted by the committee was that applicants who made the short list would have to embody the centrist Orthodox philosophy of Yeshiva University and not be right-wing yeshiva-types. Other requirements included being able to speak well, willingness to follow the current rabbi's example of involvement in the local Jewish federation and day school, and the ability to attract new families to West Orange. It was also expected that the successful candidate would be in his forties so that he would remain in the community for several decades.

The committee of eight narrowed the search to six applicants. These names were then forwarded to a larger synagogue search committee of approximately thirty persons. This latter committee included several major donors to the synagogue, and women comprised one-third of its membership. Of the six applicants who made the short list, one withdrew his application and two others were dropped from consideration. The names of the remaining three candidates were then presented to the general synagogue membership for consideration. Throughout the search process, the members of the two committees and the synagogue membership took their responsibilities very seriously.

The three candidates, along with their spouses, each spent a separate weekend in West Orange, where they spoke several times to the congregation. They also took part in a question-and-answer session so that the congregants could determine where the candidates stood on such issues as the role of women in the synagogue and the relationship of the Orthodox community to the broader Jewish world. With only the candidates' weekend visit to go by, the synagogue membership could not conclusively evaluate their intelligence, scholarship, administrative competence, and interpersonal skills, although they could evaluate their speaking abilities and where they stood on the Orthodox spectrum. As a result, much of the discussion of the relative merits of the three candidates involved symbolic issues, which to outsiders would appear frivolous but which were important to the membership. These included whether the candidates wore dark suits and hats while praying and whether their wives covered their hair (all did).

The final candidates personified three distinct rabbinic "ideal types." Candidate (1) headed a small declining congregation in a neighborhood experiencing ethnic and racial change. He was in the mold of the incumbent rabbi. During his visit to West Orange, he emphasized his involvement in the general Jewish community and his interest and expertise in pastoral counseling. He had a doctorate in pastoral counseling, and he appealed to those in the synagogue who were looking for, above all else, a pastor. He projected the same spirit of balance, equilibrium, and compromise of the incumbent. He posed no threat to the religious consensus of the synagogue's members or to the diverse ways they had reconciled the allure of modernity with the demands of Orthodoxy. He failed, however, to project the charisma and religiosity which many congregants sought.

Candidate (2) embodied another rabbinic model: the rabbi as torah scholar who could synthesize Halakha and modernity. Of the three candidates, he exhibited the qualities most identified with Modern Orthodoxy. Candidate (2) was a member of the faculty at a jewish teacher's college and the rabbi of a small Orthodox congregation in which women played a more active role than they did in the West Orange congregation. He favored women's minyans (prayer meetings) and women carrying the torah scrolls on the holiday of Simchat Torah. Candidate (2) came strongly recommended by former teachers and rabbinic mentors, who predicted that he was destined to become one of American Orthodoxy's intellectual luminaries. Although considerably younger than the other two candidates, candidate (2) was enthusiastically endorsed by those members of the search community who were seeking intellectual distinction. This, they believed, more than compensated for his youth and congregational inexperience.

The day after he met with the synagogue membership, however, candidate (2) withdrew his name from consideration. Some people attributed this to the bitter opposition to his candidacy by a small group of disaffected synagogue members. Candidate (2) was also intimidated by the myriad tasks required of a rabbi of a congregation of this size, and he feared that these would leave him little time for study, reflection, and writing. Members of the search committee who favored candidate (2) were disappointed by his withdrawal, and they felt it indicated an indifference, if not antagonism, to his intellectuality.

The third and successful candidate presented a third rabbinic image: that of the communal rov, halakhic decisor, and defender of religious truth and dogma. Although a graduate of the rabbinical school at Yeshiva University, candidate (3) had gone on for further study at a right-wing yeshiva and had married the daughter of the head of the yeshiva. His dress and demeanor projected a more right-wing outlook. In contrast to the incumbent who was clean shaven and wore a skullcap during prayer, candidate (3) had a short beard, wore a black hat during prayer, was always dressed in the dark suit and white shirt common to the yeshiva world, and sent his oldest son to study at a right-wing yeshiva.

The interview of candidate (3) with the synagogue's members revolved around whether he threatened the prevailing religious ethos of West Orange and how he would relate to non-Orthodox Jews. While in West Orange, he was asked specifically whether he would be willing to become involved in the local federation, and whether he would send his children to the local day school, a centrist institution, or whether he would opt to send them to more right-wing institutions. He stated from the beginning that he would not enroll his children in the local Modern Orthodox day school. It soon became clear after he assumed office that he was far less tolerant of non-Orthodox varieties of Judaism than his predecessor and less interested in being involved in the larger Jewish community. His view of his role as rabbi was indicated when he affixed to his office door a sign stating that he was mora d'asrah (teacher of the town), implying that he viewed himself as West Orange's ultimate authority on matters of Jewish law.

Another set of questions that confronted candidate (3) concerned the role of women, the most contentious issue facing contemporary Orthodoxy. Modern Orthodox women have demanded, either individually or through the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, a greater role in liturgical matters and synagogue governance, a revision in the traditional attitude toward agunot (women whose husbands had deserted them or were missing), and changes in Halakha regarding birth control and other matters of particular relevance to women. More important than these specific issues was the more fundamental effort of Modern Orthodox women to modify the Orthodox view of women's role as one revolving around home and family. As is true of Orthodox men, the Orthodox women of West Orange are poised between two worlds. They strongly identify with a fundamentally androcentric religion. But they also have been influenced by a modernist social ethos which strongly opposes gender differentiation in employment, education, and social life and whi ch espouses the spiritual equality of women. The Modern Orthodox mothers (as well as fathers) of West Orange have high aspirations for their daughters, and were particularly sensitive to indications that any of the rabbinic candidates were less than sympathetic to the idea that young women should be allowed to realize their full social, economic, and intellectual potential.

Candidate (3), whose image was suggestive of the yeshiva world, presented a special problem in this respect. During the interview process, he was asked his opinion of women's prayer meetings at which they would read from Torah scrolls (he opposed them), and of women wearing slacks within the synagogue building (he hoped they would wear appropriate clothing when meeting with him). The feminist disquietude was not alleviated by the new rabbi's first pre-Yom Kippur sermon. Here he emphasized the duty of husbands to buy their wives pretty clothes for the High Holy days. This offended some women in the congregation who felt they had more important roles than being the recipients of their husbands' largesse, and it reinforced the sense that he did not understand why so many Orthodox women believed they were not being taken seriously as Jews.

In his book Synagogue Life., Samuel Heilman noted that the American Orthodox rabbi was not merely a teacher and scholar, but he was also a "preacher, halakhic arbitrator, and sometimes even symbolic model Jew." (The subtitle of his book is "A Study in Symbolic Interaction.") (20) The symbolic character of candidate (3) loomed large during the selection process. Ironically, some of his support came from less observant members of the congregation. Prior to the congregational vote to select the new rabbi, a mass meeting was held at which congregants discussed the merits of the remaining two candidates and indicated their preferences. Many people indicated that they favored candidate (3) because he would encourage them to become more devout and knowledgeable about Judaism. It is unlikely that all of these intended to change their own level of religious observance. Rather, they saw themselves benefiting vicariously from having a rabbi who was more to the right.

It was here that the issue of where the rabbi would send his children to school became important. For some, it was gratifying that he opted to enroll them in institutions that were to the right of the local Orthodox day school to which they sent their own children. For others, however, the school issue indicated that the rabbi and the congregation were hopelessly mismatched, and that what they saw as a rigid right-wing mind-set was unsuited for West Orange. Thus for some in West Orange, candidate (3) was welcomed because he would challenge the religious ethos of the community, while for others he was suspect for the very same reason.

Perhaps conscious of the fact that he projected a rabbinic image different from that of his predecessor that might be troubling to some of the congregation's members, candidate (3) sought to reassure those uncomfortable with his selection. Thus he chose to speak on Torah u-Madda at the Saturday night selichot services shortly after assuming office.

This is not to say, however, that the issues involved in AABJ&D's choice of a new rabbi were merely symbolic. The community had moved to the right during the past three decades, and the new rabbi reflected this fact. Social activities within the synagogue acceptable a quarter of a century ago were no longer so. There is more study of Jewish sacred texts, and there is a group of men who participate in the daf yomi, the daily study of the Talmud lasting for about an hour. This drift to the right has been a cause and a result of the move into the community of more right-wing families. Movement out of Pleasantdale no longer occurs because right-wing families feel uncomfortable. Those who do leave for religious reasons usually resettle in Israel. (21)

One potential problem facing the West Orange Orthodox involves the children. The often dissonant relationship between Orthodoxy and modernity which characterizes Modern Orthodox communities only becomes obvious to the young while they are in high school. Most of the children of Pleasantdale do not go immediately to college. Rather, they spend at least a year at a yeshiva or a girls' seminary in Israel, where they are drawn into a religious environment considerably to the right of that with which they are familiar in West Orange. Perhaps for the first time they intellectually confront the religious compromises made by their parents and begin thinking seriously about the nature of their own commitment to Orthodoxy. This Israel experience is one of the major sources of what the sociologist Charles Selengut has called the "yeshivization" of Modern Orthodoxy. In the yeshivas, he wrote, "theological and halakhic pluralism, once the hallmark of the modernist camp, now gives way to increasingly fundamentalist and rig id interpretations of religious law and practice code." Selengut was pessimistic about the future of Modern Orthodoxy. "In the final analysis," he claimed, "it is the yeshiva rabbinical leaders who are the arbiters for Orthodoxy. Accordingly, we can expect modern Orthodoxy to take on many of the sectarian qualities of yeshiva life." This yeshivization process has not occurred without protest from the Modern Orthodox. Chaim Soloveitchik, a professor at Yeshiva University, in a lengthy and much-discussed article published in Tradition, the journal of the Rabbinical Council of America, criticized the triumph of the elite religion of the yeshiva world over the folk religion of American Orthodoxy. (22)

There were other factors besides yeshivization which have pushed Orthodoxy to the right during the past thirty years. The more that traditional moral standards appeared to be unraveling in America, the more attractive became right-wing religion, which disdained the modernist values of individualism and self-expression and sought to isolate its members from the cultural and social mainstream. The virtues of Modern Orthodoxy--its accommodation to modernity, its greater doctrinal flexibility, and its openness to social trends such as feminism--appeared as weaknesses to the more traditionalist elements. Right-wing Orthodoxy also appeared to have the formula for resisting the demographic problems plaguing American Jewry, such as divorce, intermarriage, and a low birth rate, and it benefited from the contemporary popularity of multiculturalism, which was protective of religious and ethnic movements outside the American mainstream.

What does the selection of AABJ&D's rabbi in 1998 tell us about the state of Orthodoxy? It certainly confirms the widespread assumption regarding Orthodoxy's move to the right. Here the Orthodox of West Orange are mirroring developments within American religion at large. But, not surprisingly, the coming of a new rabbi has not fundamentally changed the prevailing religious ethos of Pleasantdale Despite grumbling by those fearful that the community was moving too far to the right and in danger of going "black hat," life in Pleasantdale goes on much as before. While there has been a heightened emphasis on Jewish education, only a handful of synagogue members have been so moved to avail themselves of these opportunities. This was to be expected. It was unrealistic to believe that any one person could change the behavior and values of five hundred families. Perhaps the new rabbi recognized this when he told the local Jewish newspaper shortly after assuming the pulpit that one of his objectives was to see "serious growth" in the number of kosher restaurants in the area. Who could disagree regarding the value of corn beef on rye with Russian dressing? (23) The compromises and compartmentalization which are the hallmarks of the Modern Orthodox of West Orange remain in place and seem to be as strong as ever. One can assume that, absent a large movement of sectarian Jews into the neighborhood, change within the Orthodox community of Pleasantdale will be quite gradual.

The mini-crisis of 1998 and the coming of a new rabbi did not impede the growth of AABJ&D. On the contrary, it has continued attracting new families at an accelerating rate. The congregation is prospering, and there are an increasing number of children of congregation members who have bought homes in Pleasantdale. A full-time office manager had to be hired, and there is now talk of expanding the building, even though the last renovation was less than a decade earlier.

Ironically, this growth has undermined the personal influence of the rabbi by limiting the personal contact he can possibly have with individual families. His relationship with his congregants necessarily has become more remote, formal, and abstract. And since the primary Jewish focus of the average AABJ&D family is on the education of their children, the synagogue and its rabbi is in a losing battle for the attention (and dollars) of the synagogue's families. They also must compete with the myriad of charities which the congregation's families support.

If the events of 1998 did not change fundamentally the religious behavior of the Orthodox of West Orange, he did force them to define their religious identity. The selection of a new rabbi brought to the fore such questions as the meaning of Modern Orthodoxy, the nature of the symbiosis between modernity and Jewish tradition, and the future of the congregation and the movement of which it is a part. These are the same questions that are being asked by other suburban Orthodox congregations as well. Thus the recent history of AABJ&D is a microcosm of that of suburban Modern Orthodoxy.


(1.) Marshall Sklare, Conservative Judaism: An American Religious Movement (New York: Schocken Books, 1955, 1972), pp. 43, 73.

(2.) Nathan Glazer, American Judaism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), pp. 144-47.

(3.) Aaron Rothkoff, "The American Sojourns of Ridbaz: Religious Problems Within the Immigrant Community," American Jewish Historical Quarterly 57 (June 1968): 260.

(4.) Jeffrey S. Gurock, "Resisters and Accommodators: Varieties of Orthodox Rabbis in America, 1886-1983," American Jewish Archives 35 (November 1983): 150.

(5.) For the low level of religious observance in the immigrant generation, see Jeffrey S. Gurock, "Twentieth-Century American Orthodoxy's Era of Non-Observance 1900-1960," Torah u-Madda Journal 9 (2000): 87-107; and Jeffrey S. Gurock, From Fluidity to Rigidity: The Religious Worlds of Conservative and Orthodox Jews in Twentieth Century America (Ann Arbor, MI: Jean and Samuel Frankel Center for Jewish Studies, 1998), pp. 5-14.

(6.) Herbert Parzen, "When Secularism Came to Russian Jewry," Commentary 13 (April 1952): 362.

(7.) Charles S. Liebman, "Orthodoxy in American Jewish Life," in American Jewish Year Book 1965, 66, edited by Morris Fine and Milton Himmelfarb (New York: American Jewish Committee, 1965), p. 28.

(8.) James Yaffe, The American Jews: Portrait of a Split Personality (New York: Random House, 1968), p. 89.

(9.) Charles S. Liebman, "A Sociological Analysis of Contemporary Orthodoxy," Judaism 13 (Winter 1966): 285-304.

(10.) Sklare, Conservative Judaism, pp. 264-66.

(11.) Jack Wertheimer, A People Divided: Judaism in Contemporary America (New York: Basic Books, 1993), ch. 6. This chapter is tided "Orthodoxy: Triumphalism on the Right."

(12.) Liebman, "Orthodoxy in American Jewish Life," p. 91.

(13.) Samuel C. Heilman, "Inner and Outer Identities: Sociological Ambivalence Among Orthodox Jews," Jewish Social Studies 39 (Summer 1979): 238.

(14.) Jenna Weissman Joselit, New York's Jewish Jews: The Orthodox Community in the Interwar Years (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), p. 149; David Singer, "Rabbi Weinberg's Agony," First Things44 (June-July 2001): 40. For another someber view of contemporary American Orthodoxy, see Jonathan D. Sarna, "The Future of American Orthodoxy," Sh'ma 31 (February 2001): 1-3.

(15.) I have discussed the early years of the Orthodox community of West Orange in "Orthodoxy in Pleasantdale," Judaism 34 (Spring 1985): 163-70.

(16.) Wertheimer, A People Divided, p. 128.

(17.) Samuel C. Heilman and Steven M. Cohen, Cosmopolitans and Parochials: Modern Orthodox Jews in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), p. 34.

(18.) Charles S. Liebman, "Left and Right in American Orthodoxy," Judaism 15 (Winter 1966): 104.

(19.) Gurock, From Fluidity to Rigidity, p. 38.

(20.) Samuel C. Heilman, Synagogue Life: A Study in Symbolic Interaction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), p. 103.

(21.) For the conflict between sectarian and Modern Orthodoxy, see Charles S. Liebman, "Left and Right in American Orthodoxy," Judaism 15 (Winter 1966): 104ff.; and Samuel C. Heilman, "Orthodox Jews: An Open or Closed Group," in Uncivil Religion: Interreligious Hostility in America, edited by Robert N. Bellah and Frederick E. Greenspahn (New York: Crossroad, 1987), pp. 119-21.

(22.) Charles Selengut, "By Torah Alone: Yeshiva Fundamentalism in Jewish Life," in Accounting for Fundamentalism: The Dynamic Character of Movements, edited by Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), p. 259; Chaim Soloveitchik "Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy," Tradition 28 (4, 1994): 64-130. See also Menachem Friedman, "Life Tradition and Book Tradition in the Development of Ultra orthodox Judaism," in Judaism From Within and Without: Anthropological Perspectives, edited by Harvey Goldberg (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1987), pp. 235-55.

(23.) Jewish News, October 15,1998, p. 12.

EDWARD S. SHAPIRO is Professor of History at Seton Hall University and author of A Time for Healing: American Jewry Since World War II (1992). His article "Liberal Politics and American Jewish Identity" appeared in the Fall 1998 issue.
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Author:Shapiro, Edward S.
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
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Date:Jun 22, 2002
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