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Orthodoxy Confronts Modernity.

IN A VOLUME THAT I published in 1973 I suggested that

Orthodox Judaism, until the past decade, exerted little effort in the area of ideology or theology; it concentrated its efforts on Halakhah, Jewish law ... Orthodox thinkers are finally beginning to stir and theology is again attracting some devotees.

My analysis has been confirmed as an increasing number of Orthodox rabbis are turning to philosophical and theological themes, much to the enrichment of contemporary Judaism and the glory of Orthodoxy. The new chief rabbi of the United Synagogue of Great Britain, Dr. Jonathan Sacks, has helped mine this newly discovered religious lode by editing a series of papers delivered at Jews College in 1989. Nine of those papers, accompanied by an introduction and epilogue by Rabbi Sacks, constitute this volume.

As in all anthologies, this one is a mixed bag of some outstanding essays as well as a few rather prosaic ones. Some contributors engage in sermonics rather than scholarship; others seem to be addressing a pedestrian laity rather than seriously studious seekers. But several are challengingly provocative.

Dr. Normal Lamm, president of Yeshiva University, eschews the term "modern Orthodoxy," preferring "centrist Orthodox." Professor Lamm invokes Rambam's famous "middle way," applying it not just to the individual's character traits but to the entire group. He writes:

This weighing and measuring and consideration of all viewpoints before deciding is the halakhic implementation of moderationism.

Rabbi Lamm describes his approach as neither compromise nor winning approval of the masses, but deliberate choosing based on stubborn commitment.

Yet, Orthodox Jewish thought is far from monolithic, as evidenced by the essay of Rabbi Reuven Bulka, who espouses the term "modern Orthodoxy," which he urges not be institutionalized but, rather, viewed as nothing more than a lobbying group within the Orthodox constituency. In Bulkas view, modern Orthodoxy is an approach to Judaism that places the accent on the relevance of Halakhah for contemporary life and the interconnectedness of all Jews. Expressing concern over the recent victories of the right-wing Orthodox, he urges modern Orthodoxy to become more assertive and "extend its ethos on a broader level" in order to prevent defections. But he also cautions against "yuppified modern Orthodoxy" that is narcissistically channeling its best brains into secular, money-generating fields and that fails to take prayer and study sufficiently seriously. Bulka exhorts modern Orthodoxy to "confront contemporary reality" in Israel and America and utilize existing categories of Halakhah to address tragic situations such as the agunah. Curiously, at least three contributions to this volume echo his sentiments about erasing the infamy of the agunah, but no one is prepared to come forth and offer a definitive solution!

Rabbi J. David Bleich, who is both a Rosh Yeshivah and professor of Jewish law at Yeshiva University, presents a totally different image of what today's Orthodoxy must be and become. He decries the failure of communication between Jews at the same time that he refuses to address non-Orthodox clergy by the title "rabbi." (The spectacle of Arab nations refusing to call Israel by its name but, rather, invoking the term "Zionist entity" immediately leaps into mind.) Avowing adherence to Rav Kook's position of "tolerance and patience," he cites Rambam's view found in his Mishneh Torah (Mamrim 3:3) that our separated brethren are like babes raised in pagan captivity who must be embraced. But he hastens to note that, in his view, this applies to individuals, not to a philosophy or institution, and that we must beware of dialogue lest it "confer a stamp of legitimacy on sectarian ideologies."

Bleich cites Rabbi Shlomo Luria that a Jew must undergo martyrdom rather than falsify even "one jot or title" of the oral tradition and law. He notes that Rambam delineates five kinds of heretics (Teshuvah 3:6, 7), one of whom is the idolater who denies the existence of a Creator, and Bleich places all who deny that the entire written and oral Torah derives from Heaven in this category of idolaters and heretics. Despite his vast erudition, Rabbi Bleich is not beyond misquoting sources. Clermont-Tonnerre and not Napoleon was the author of the famous epigram, "To the Jews as men everything; as Jews -- nothing." He egregiously misquotes the Zohar (a misquotation that I corrected some years ago in reviewing one of his books) to read: "The Holy One, blessed be He, and the Torah are one." The correct citation is, "The Holy One, blessed be He, the Torah and Israel are one" (Zohar, Leviticus, pp. 73 and 93).

Ephrat's Chief Rabbi, Shlomo Riskin, deals with "Women in Judaism" and stands in stark contrast to Bleich. He argues that women have a "duty to study Torah;" that women have the right to hold elective office; that "Jewish law developed" especially in areas of marital legislation (a "heretical" view from Bleich's perspective); that a solution can and must be found within Halakhah to the agunah tragedy. But the most that he offers is a pre-nuptial agreement that fails to resolve the plight of previously abandoned wives.

Professor David Hartman of Jerusalem's Hebrew University is his usual sparklingly insightful self. He lists the secular challenges to Judaism as: 1) Judaism vis-a-vis the State of Israel; 2) the challenge of the open market of ideas and sources of knowledge to our faith; and 3) autonomy and the search for personhood or self. Always the great student of Maimonides, Hartman reminds us that a Jew need not fear perplexity, and he insists that we must talk to all Jews if we are to influence them.

Dr. Jonathan Sacks draws the volume to a close with the startling observation that "I have not found a source in the Torah dividing Jews into damned and saved" (clearly a contradiction to Bleich's position and the sources that he marshals). But he ends on a challenging note: Jews, he suggests, have returned geographically to their land; they have not yet returned spiritually. "That is the unfinished agenda of Orthodoxy, and we have hardly yet begun." I could not agree more, and Orthodoxy Confronts Modernity is a perfect place to begin.

GILBERT S. ROSENTHAL is Executive Vice-President, New York Board of Rabbis.
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Title Annotation:Book Reviews
Author:Rosenthal, Gilbert S.
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
Words:1025
Previous Article:Interpreting Maimonides: Studies in Methodology, Metaphysics, and Moral Philosophy.
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