American Jewry’s Comfort Level: Interview with Marc B. Shapiro – Modern Orthodoxy and the Challenges to Its Establishment

“American Modern Orthodoxy consists of at least two distinct types, an intellectual and a sociological one. Intellectual Modern Orthodoxy has an ideology of joining the best of Western civilization with a commitment to Jewish law and traditional Jewish values. It is both an intellectual and a spiritual movement that sees the secular world as an opportunity to enrich the Jewish world in order to arrive at a synthesis. Like all such movements it only appeals to a numerically limited intellectual elite, those who have serious Jewish learning and also a broad secular education.”

Marc B. Shapiro remarks: “Sociological Modern Orthodoxy numbers many more people. Its followers are characterized by their interest and finding value in certain observances: Shabbat, eating kosher, and so on. This is mainly a lifestyle choice. It is a commitment to Jewish law combined with the better things in life such as fancy cars, vacations, attending sports events, and various forms of entertainment. In the United States it is nowadays possible to be fully observant and do all of this.

“These people would not feel welcome in the ultra-Orthodox community, so it is natural that they associate with Modern Orthodoxy, which has always had an ‘open door’ approach. This is so even though the philosophy of intellectual Modern Orthodoxy does not provide a hechsher [religious approval] for much of what goes on in sociological Modern Orthodoxy.

“What defines these people as Modern Orthodox is not their thought processes but the laws they keep. Their way of thinking is, to a large extent, similar to that of their non-Orthodox and even non-Jewish neighbors because they watch the same TV shows and read the same magazines. They live in the secular world while maintaining certain Jewish observances.

“The Modern Orthodox Jew of the sociological type is similar in many ways to the pre-Second World War German Jew. There many rabbis complained about how Torah and Derekh Eretz [Western culture] became a lifestyle movement without much stress on either Torah study or spirituality.

“In its present form one might call sociological Modern Orthodoxy a combination of ‘the good life’ and Jewish law. This bourgeois movement looks for quality schools for their kids, nice clothes, good kosher restaurants, and the like. This attitude of the sociological Modern Orthodox has led to criticism that they lack both intellectual and spiritual content. Theology and why they follow certain laws play little role in their thinking.”

Threats from the Left

“Modern Orthodoxy keeps most of its young in its camp, even if these have only a sociological identification. The widespread notion that Modern Orthodoxy is declining or will be defeated by the ultra-Orthodox is inaccurate.

“There are many challenges to Modern Orthodoxy from both the Left and the Right. To the Left it loses a certain percentage of youngsters to secularity. This will always be the case when one sends one’s children to secular universities.

“The threat of the Conservative movement of more than fifty years ago no longer exists. Many Modern Orthodox now view the Conservative movement mainly as self-destructive. Large numbers of people are leaving it and the movement is suffering financial strains.”

Threats from the Right

“On the other side a sizable number of religiously serious Modern Orthodox youngsters turn toward the ultra-Orthodox vision, which they consider a more authentic approach. Countering this is that in many Modern Orthodox synagogues one finds congregants who have left an ultra-Orthodox background.

“Modern Orthodox rabbis often feel that they are losing some of their best people, either to ultra-Orthodoxy or to aliyah [emigration to Israel]. American Modern Orthodox youth often go to Israel for a year or two. When they come back a significant percentage abandon their parents’ style of Orthodoxy, adopting a more rigid and more spiritually uplifting kind. In such cases the stay in Israel creates a culture gap between the generations.

“Yet Modern Orthodoxy will remain a force in American Judaism. The average Modern Orthodox Jew will not want to live an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle where his mind is closed off from general pursuits.”

Modern Orthodox Education

“The Modern Orthodox movement has some of its major achievements in education. It has become almost standard that after their high school study, pupils go to Israel for a year or two. Thus, the typical young Modern Orthodox Jew today knows much more than his parents, who went to Jewish day schools but didn’t have the Israel experience with its strong emphasis on Jewish learning. He knows far more than his grandparents.

“Even those Modern Orthodox students who go to colleges other than Yeshiva University [YU] can find Jewish learning there. There is strong Orthodox attendance at the Ivy League schools. There are also Orthodox minyanim [prayer groups] and shiurim [religious study courses] at places where one would never have imagined this several decades ago.”

Costs of Being Modern Orthodox

In Shapiro’s opinion the financial commitment it requires is the major factor preventing Modern Orthodoxy’s growth among the non-Orthodox. “Many more people find the traditional Jewish lifestyle potentially appealing. It is, however, extremely difficult to be an economically lower-middle-class person and join the Modern Orthodox world.

“If one is not affluent and yet was brought up in Modern Orthodoxy one may stay in it, get scholarships for one’s children, and make the best of things. These people don’t live the lifestyle they would like. They can’t take fancy vacations, don’t buy new cars, and live in smaller houses than they would if they were less observant.

“There are typical American Jews who begin to observe some Jewish rituals and live near a synagogue and find it appealing. They might consider taking on more Jewish commitments, sending their children to a Jewish day school and so on. Many of these are scared away when they find out the financial commitment that is entailed. Participation in camps requires additional funds and so does eating kosher.

“One major reason why some families I know move to Israel is that school tuition is free, though parents are responsible for various payments. In the United States it is against the law for the government to fund private schools. When one has four children one can educate them almost for free in Israel, whereas in America Jewish elementary day school for these kids would cost close to $50,000 a year. In high school the tuition goes up to $20,000 per child a year. Modern Orthodoxy has thus been turned into an upper-middle-class phenomenon. The ultra-Orthodox have a much cheaper school system.”

New Ideas Required

“A few years ago there were talks, for instance, in Lawrence, Long Island, about bringing back the Talmud-Torah system. Pupils would go to the public schools in the morning and thereafter they’d have a few hours each day of Jewish school. That would cut the tuition significantly.

“Such a trend would destroy the Jewish day school movement. Yet tuitions have been going up faster than inflation. Some new ideas will have to be proposed


because the burden is becoming so extreme that eventually Modern Orthodox Jews will be sending their kids to public school. I have already seen some examples of this.

“There cannot be Jewish continuity in America without day school education. Meanwhile it is said jocularly that the best form of birth control in the Modern Orthodox world is the cost of tuition. From living in the community, I know that quite a number of Modern Orthodox parents have fewer children than they would prefer.”

The Position of Women

Shapiro considers that while the position of women is discussed in some intellectual circles, their actual position in Modern Orthodoxy remains more or less the same as thirty or sixty years ago. “They function as mothers and homemakers as in previous generations. From my observations I don’t see much desire on the part of the typical Modern Orthodox woman to change this.

“The typical Modern Orthodox synagogue does not permit a woman to be president. Women have no active involvement in the prayers and services. The fact that many women have college degrees has not translated into demands that the synagogue be run differently. Also, my experience is that the typical Modern Orthodox woman doesn’t want to get up every morning at 6 a.m. to go to services or to appear in synagogue early on Shabbat (who would watch the kids?). The typical Modern Orthodox man doesn’t look forward to doing this either, but many do, because they feel it is their religious obligation. Since women’s presence is not required at public prayer, I don’t see how it will ever be a significant religious activity for women.”

Little Impact of Feminism

“Despite all the predictions it doesn’t seem that feminism, which has empowered women and given them access to secular and Jewish education, has had much of an impact on Jewish ritual in mainstream Modern Orthodoxy. It certainly has not had any real impact on Jewish law. The one issue where there has been more of an impact concerns the so-called agunot [women whose husband’s whereabouts are unknown or who refuses to grant them a religious divorce]. This has, for instance, led to prenuptial agreements becoming standard in the Modern Orthodox world. These obligate the husband to issue a religious divorce in the event the marriage breaks down.

“Women in general are more connected to religion and spirituality than men, and that has drawn them to rabbinical positions in the Conservative and Reform movements. There is no possibility that this will happen in Modern Orthodoxy.

In the educational field, however, one sees some differences from what we had in the past. Women are studying Torah at a higher level than before, and some are even studying advanced Talmud. YU offers advanced programs for women. So does the more recently established Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (though its programs are not exclusively for women). In New York there is also the Drisha Institute, the first establishment for advanced study of Jewish texts by women.

“The one field where there could be an increased role for women is as advanced teachers. They could even become, to a certain extent, halachic [Jewish- law] authorities, in particular on women’s issues. This would not, however, be within the realm of institutions. In Israel we see perhaps a beginning of women poskot [Jewish-law decisors], but in American this has not developed.”


“The one distinguishing feature that connects all types of American Modern Orthodoxy is their great commitment to the state of Israel and the Land of Israel. In their synagogues the prayer for the state of Israel is usually recited enthusiastically.

“It is probably impossible to be a Modern Orthodox rabbinic figure or leader without sharing the religious-Zionist outlook. You cannot publicly express non- Zionist views and remain part of the Modern Orthodox rabbinate.

“From my personal experience I know that in many Modern Orthodox synagogues people who have dovish positions keep this to themselves. The Modern Orthodox world has, in recent decades, been transformed into a bastion of right-wing religious Zionism, much as Israel’s National Religious Party was transformed.”

The Orthodox Union and Young Israel

“The Orthodox Union (OU) has become by far the main institutional movement of the Modern Orthodox community. It has made a great effort to ensure that there is kosher food available all over the United States. The OU is well known as the dominant provider of kosher food supervision.

“The OU is first of all a grouping of synagogues. It has a strong youth movement, the National Conference of Synagogue Youth [NCSY], that promotes Jewish education and Israel tours. It also has a center in Jerusalem that has a very active program. In addition, the OU has an office in Washington, DC, which attempts to influence congressional legislation in matters where the Orthodox have a stake, as well as in matters concerning Israel. It is competently run and successful in reaching out to the Washington powerbrokers. The average Modern Orthodox Jew may not care or even know much about the OU. Yet a typical Modern Orthodox synagogue is a member of it.

“Young Israel was at one time a very significant organization, but has lost much of its original vision. Currently, Young Israel synagogues do not have a distinctive identity. Some people even argue that, in view of the type of rabbi in many Young Israel communities, it has grown closer to ultra-Orthodoxy. It is rather ironic to recall that the movement once was famous for sponsoring Saturday- night dances where boys and girls could meet, in order to prevent assimilation.

“Young Israel should have merged with  the  OU  many  years  ago,  as they served—and to a large extent continue to serve—the same community. Unfortunately, in recent years Young Israel appears to think that it has found a new niche of activity, which is opposition to Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.”

A More Exciting Phase

Shapiro remarks that Modern Orthodoxy is presently going through a potentially more exciting phase than it was fifteen to twenty years ago. “The main catalyst for this development is Chovevei Torah, which is presenting a more liberal— one might say left-of-center—perspective of Modern Orthodoxy on a host of issues (for example, halachah, feminism, and social justice). It will increasingly challenge YU in terms of training Orthodox rabbis. Its creation is the result of a backlash against the perceived growing extremism of rabbis coming out of YU, which is supposed to serve the Modern Orthodox community.

“More and more, two types of Modern Orthodox rabbis will compete for congregations. On the one hand, there will be the more conservative rabbis coming out of YU. On the other, there will be more liberal, some might say avant- garde, rabbis who want more interaction with the wider world in terms of social justice and the like, and they will be trained by Chovevei Torah.

“One test case for this was the Agriprocessors scandal. In May 2008 their kosher slaughterhouse in Iowa was raided by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and found to employ a large number of illegal workers in addition to having many other flaws. The OU and many others in the Orthodox world stood behind the firm, although events later forced the OU to reevaluate this position.

“The  young  Turks  of  Chovevei  Torah  see  kosher  food  as  not  merely a halachic concern but an ethical issue as well. Some of the students were at the forefront of educating the public about the hypocrisy of kosher food being produced in a ‘nonkosher’ fashion. They pushed for what can be called kosher working norms, which go beyond the strict halachic standards of slaughter. The Rabbinical Council of America [RCA] also issued a statement about this, but it was the Chovevei Torah students who identified this as an issue before the mainstream rabbinic community.

“These students are also interested in broader issues of social justice. For that reason they march for human rights in Darfur. The traditional Jewish world is very insular in such matters, so we see another challenge to the old way of doing things.”

Influenced by Outside Ideologies

“This new type of Modern Orthodox Jew, while being halachic, sees himself also to some extent as postdenominational. He doesn’t fear involving himself with non-Orthodox Jewish clergy. Non-Orthodox ideologies have also had an impact on their thinking. One example is feminism. The idea for a new approach to standards of kosher food probably can be traced to the Jewish Renewal movement.

“Far fewer rabbis graduate from Chovevei Torah than from YU’s rabbinical school. But whereas almost all of the Chovevei Torah graduates would like to become community rabbis and leaders, many of the YU alumni do not look for a pulpit.

“Both the RCA and Young Israel try to prevent Chovevei Torah graduates from obtaining pulpits. These opponents of Chovevei Torah realize that if its graduates are not able to integrate into the mainstream Orthodox world, it will be a failed experiment. Yet I am confident that they will succeed, as there are sections of the Orthodox world that are a good fit for the Chovevei Torah students. Their graduates have even moved into established synagogues in Bucharest, Montreal, and Denver, to give just a few examples. Furthermore, they have become rabbis in Hillel positions that influence the next generation. One can see on their website the variety of places where Chovevei Torah alumni are serving.”

A Halachic Challenge

“The Chovevei Torah rabbis are not only an intellectual challenge, but also a halachic one to the rabbinical establishment. Matters concerning women’s role are very controversial. Some of these rabbis are followers of Prof. Daniel Sperber and believe that women should be able to read the Torah in a regular Orthodox service. They may not practice this in their synagogues, but are amenable to smaller changes such as women being presidents of synagogues or giving divrei Torah [a sermon].

“In one of their synagogues I visited, the men did not say the daily blessing of praising God for not making them a woman. There are other quasi-halachic issues that also cause controversy. Many Chovevei Torah rabbis think interfaith dialogue is acceptable. One might sum up their position by saying they are a bit more flexible when dealing with some aspects of Jewish law.

“The right wing of Modern Orthodoxy sees Chovevei Torah as a reincarnation of Conservative Judaism a hundred years ago. They view it like the Breslau Seminary of Zacharias Frankel in Germany and the Jewish Theological Seminary at the turn of the twentieth century.

“When the Union for Traditional Judaism [UTJ] split from the Conservative movement it was thought that there was a place for their new seminary, the Institute for Traditional Judaism. It has not been able to thrive because there aren’t that many traditional Conservative synagogues, that is, synagogues that are genuinely committed to halachic observance. Had it not been for the creation of Chovevei Torah, UTJ might even have been able to appeal to certain liberal Orthodox synagogues. But Chovevei Torah has filled this vacuum, and the future of the small UTJ movement seems to be in the left wing of Modern Orthodoxy.”


“Modern Orthodoxy has only limited activities in the field of outreach to the non-Orthodox. The National Conference of Synagogue Youth, for instance, does do some of this with Jewish youth in public schools and tries to give them some Jewish background.

“Almost all Orthodox outreach is done by ultra-Orthodox organizations. The major forces of Jewish outreach today in the United States are probably those associated with yeshivot such as Aish HaTorah or Ohr Sameach. Both belong to the Lithuanian branch of ultra-Orthodoxy. One also finds them on some large college campuses. They have very trendy websites. Chabad also has a strong position in the large cities, but I think it is much more influential in smaller municipalities, where they are often the only game in town. They have even opened Hebrew schools and are now siphoning off Conservative and Reform families from the mainstream synagogues.

“ArtScroll, which comes out of the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox world, has also been able to put its prayer book and Torah translations in almost every Modern Orthodox synagogue in the country. In fact, when it comes to religious literature, Artscroll dominates the English-language Orthodox world. Modern Orthodoxy has missed the boat here. One would have expected that with its large number of college graduates and the sophistication of many of its adherents, it would have dominated this field.”

American Politics

“Until about thirty years ago the Modern Orthodox community voted solidly Democratic like the overall Jewish community. Since the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980, there has been a steady political move to the Right among both the ultra-Orthodox and the Modern Orthodox. There are, however, still some groups of liberal Modern Orthodox who vote Democrat.

“The Modern Orthodox are now the main Jewish community that votes Republican. The Republicans are usually more hawkish about the Middle East than the Democrats. This fits in with the Modern Orthodox conservative mindset and specifically with the fact that Modern Orthodox often have children living in Israel and have right-wing attitudes toward it. Here the Modern Orthodox diverge from both the ultra-Orthodox—which other than Chabad do not have much of a stake in Judea and Samaria—and the non-Orthodox.

“Another important factor in their shift of voter preference is that the Modern Orthodox have become quite successful financially. Cutting taxes and the hope of school tuition vouchers are big issues for many of them. However, the ultra- Orthodox world, particular the Hasidic sector, benefits greatly from various entitlement programs, and when it comes to local politics is thus often very comfortable with the Democrats.”

Interfaith Dialogue

“In 1964 Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the most significant leader of the Modern Orthodox, published an article titled ‘Confrontation.’ He came out against theological dialogue between Jews and representatives of other religions. Rabbi Soloveitchik believed that in theological dialogue, each side will demand something from the other. For instance, Jews wanted Catholics to remove remarks detrimental to Jews from their prayers. Thus, it could be expected that the Catholics would expect some sort of theological compromise from the Jews on matters of concern to Catholics. Rabbi Soloveitchik was certainly pleased by what happened at Vatican II, but he saw a danger if Jews were involved in what should be an internal Catholic development.

“Rabbi Soloveitchik did not have a problem with dialogue with other religions on, for instance, environmental issues and human rights. During his lifetime, though, virtually no Modern Orthodox figure was willing to engage publicly in interfaith theological dialogue because of his opposition.

“Since his passing there have been breaks in this position. On the left wing of Modern Orthodoxy, some rabbis believe a different era has begun. They argue that Rabbi Soloveitchik’s fear that large parts of the Church—both Catholic and Protestant—were  mainly  interested  in  missionizing  is  no  longer  valid. In today’s dialogue no one is being asked to compromise on core theological principles.

“Also, they argue that in a world dominated by secularism, religions need to stand together to propound common spiritual values. This cannot be done without understanding the other person’s religion and theology. Also, religious people cannot engage in a neutral zone when talking about the environment and the nature of humanity. Such topics always include musings and discussions of a theological nature.”


Dialogue with Evangelicals

“When we speak in the United States about significant interfaith dialogue of Jews, it is with Catholics and Protestants, especially Evangelicals. The Modern Orthodox have a political alliance with Evangelical Christians in support of Israel. This troubles many of the non-Orthodox because the Evangelicals are strongly prolife. They are also more hard-line on Israel than, for instance, the Israeli government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was.

“Evangelicals have not only supported Russian Jews in Israel, they have also financially assisted some yeshivot. They stand strong for the Land of Israel and an undivided Jerusalem. They speak at dinners of American Modern Orthodox organizations. Evangelicals are viewed positively, contrary to the liberal churches, which are regarded as anti-Israel.

“Therefore, the Modern Orthodox are largely willing to overlook the Evangelical theology. This theology often states that in the latter days Jews will all convert to Christianity. Confronting this has been set aside because the Evangelicals are at present such great allies of the Jewish community.”

Relations with Muslims

“The Jewish community at large is not engaged in any significant discussions with the Muslim community. This often centers on the fact that it is very difficult to find Muslim leaders who will, without qualification and attempts at ‘understanding,’ condemn Islamic terrorism. This is unfortunate. Because of our shared ‘pure’ monotheism, Jews and Muslims should be natural dialogue partners. One hopes this is not simply a messianic dream.”

Comments are closed.