American Orthodoxy

A Modern Orthodox Hedgehog for a Postmodern World: Part 2

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Gil S. Perl

EDITORS’ NOTE: For Part 1 of this article, see here.

In Part I, we suggested that the Modern Orthodox community would be well served by identifying its Hedgehog Concept, that is, a transcendent Torah value which the Modern Orthodox community is uniquely positioned to actualize and around which its adherents and institutions can rally. After laying out prerequisite criteria for such a concept, including a rich textual tradition that has yet to be fully explored, we suggested that the concept of Or Goyim may well fit the bill.

From Or La-Goyim to Or Amim

As noted in Part I, a Hedgehog Concept imbues an organization (or in this case, a denomination) with an additional layer of focus, purpose, and passion. That sense of mission offers every newcomer a lens with which to view the world, and a goal to which they ought to aspire. The Hedgehog Concept is why the young mother raised on the preeminence of Talmud Torah (Torah study) willingly holds down a full-time job in addition to caring for her six kids so that her husband can continue to learn in Kollel (full-time adult Torah study program). It’s why the young father formed from the crucible of Bnei Akiva and Hesder chooses to raise his family within missile range of Gaza. To achieve a status similar to that of Talmud Torah in the yeshiva world or Yishuv Eretz Yisrael (settling Israel) in the Dati Le’umi world, therefore, a Hedgehog Concept for Modern Orthodoxy must resonate with the community’s younger generation.

For young adults steeped in a postmodernist culture, however, the notion of a “light unto the nations” likely strikes a rather dissonant chord. In a world where uncertainty is the only certainty, it is often hard enough to arrive at a set of immutable truths that we, ourselves, hold self-evident. Charging every Jew not only with eking out his or her own path to truth, but with steering others off their chosen paths and onto ours seems likely to cause our young people to recoil rather than to engage. If, as Lyotard would have it, the essence of Postmodernism lies in “incredulity toward metanarratives,” then refocusing our Judaism on the story of our selection by God as a “Kingdom of Priests” whose national telos is “to perfect the world under the Sovereignty of the Almighty” seems like a strategy doomed to fail.

The placement of a letter, however, can make all of the difference.

Simply stated, the phrase Or La-Goyim has, at best, tenuous roots in our mesorah. It appears nowhere in Tanakh, nowhere in Talmudic or Midrashic literature, and – save for a single instance in the commentary of the Abravanel (Isaiah 49:6) – it doesn’t appear (as far as I can see) in the literature of the Rishonim either. The phrase, as it appears in the words of Isaiah, contains the letter lamed before the word “or,” not before the word “goyim.” As such, it signifies possession rather than direction. Its meaning is not “to,” but “of.” God, through His prophet, is calling on the Jewish people to be a “light of the nations,” not a “light to the nations.”

I the Lord, have summoned you in righteousness, And I have grasped you by the hand. I created you, and appointed you as a covenantal people (le-berit olam), as a light of nations (le-or goyim). (Isaiah 42:6)

He said: ‘It is too light a thing that you should be My servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the offspring of Israel; I will also make you a light of the nations (u-netatikha le-or goyim), that My salvation may stretch to the ends of the earth.’ (Isaiah 49:6)[1]

From this more accurate reading, a softer concept emerges that works quite well with postmodern sensibilities. The resonant call of Or Goyim for the 21st century is not to proselytize, but to publicize. It seeks not to convert, but to converse. Rather than take its cue from Aleinu’s liturgical call to “to perfect the world under the Sovereignty of the Almighty,” as perhaps Rav Hirsch and Netziv did, this softer call emerges from Hodu’s introductory instructions to “praise Hashem, call in His name, proclaim His deeds among the nations,” and its closing call to “tell of His glory amongst the nations, His wonders amongst the people.”

It jumps off the page of the siddur just a few paragraphs later when the word “kol” – meaning “all” or “everyone” – is repeated twelve times in the second half of Ashrei, beginning with a vision of all of God’s creations and righteous ones thanking and blessing Him by “telling of His kingship” and “speaking of His might” so as “to make known to all of mankind His might and the majestic glory of His kingship.” As Rambam writes in his Sefer HaMitzvot (Positive Mitzvah #9) with regard to the mitzvah of Kiddush Hashem, “the essence of this mitzvah is that we are commanded to publicize (le-farsem) this true belief in the world and not to fear any harm that may hurt us [as a result].”

Or Goyim, then, is a charge to take the treasure chest of wisdom, guidance, and instruction that comprises our mesora, proudly place it on the proverbial table of global discussion, and help others, unfamiliar with it, to understand its content. As such, it need not get bogged down in postmodern questions of subjective versus objective truth, rationality versus irrationality, and reality versus irreality or hyperreality. My mesora is my truth. The rhythms of halakhic life are my reality. My calling is not to convince you of their certitude, but to humbly offer you a glimpse of their beauty.

Still, the unfortunate reality is that in modern Jewish parlance – both in English and in Hebrew – the word goyim has an inescapably pejorative connotation. More than describing those who do not share our faith and beliefs, it all too often conveys a whiff of racial superiority that is anathema to the up and coming generation of Modern Orthodox Jews. Therefore, I suggest we look not to Isaiah 42 or 49 for this concept’s most effective appellation, but to Isaiah 51 instead:

Listen to Me, My people, and lend Me your ear My nation, for teaching shall go forth from Me, in a moment I will bring my justice as a light of nations (Or Amim). (Isaiah 51:4)

While Or Amim cannot survive in a world of radical postmodern pluralism, it is poised to thrive in a deconstructed world of postmodern multiculturalism. Radical pluralism often leaves no space for professions of faith or assertions of truth of any kind, and thus the conversations and exchanges necessary for Or Amim to take root and blossom are all too often muted and repressed. In a society, however, which explicitly honors a multiplicity of voices – even if none have privilege over the other – the opportunities to actualize the ideal of Or Amim are limitless. Indeed, in a world paradoxically defined by access to infinite information and yet crippled by the confines of echo chambers, Or Amim calls on the Jewish people to make sure that their heritage is on full display in this unprecedented marketplace of ideas, and that its reach extends well beyond its local audience.

When actualized in a multicultural world, the ideal of Or Amim has the power to energize and inspire the full breadth of the community to view their daily interactions with the world around them as an opportunity to fulfill the Divine Will. Jewish doctors seek out opportunities to offer uniquely Jewish insight into the dilemmas of end of life issues and universal healthcare. Jewish geneticists publicly offer a Torah perspective on the roles of man, God, science, and the act of procreation. Jewish lawyers find forums to infuse a Jewish Law perspective into debates over privacy, intellectual property, and the rehabilitative vs. punitive role of punishment. Jewish artists and musicians infuse their work with an explicitly Jewish spirit and disseminate it well beyond the confines of the Jewish community. Jewish salesclerks and technicians spend less time apologizing for their early departure every Friday afternoon, and more time inviting their associates to join them for a Shabbat meal and experience the joy and serenity of sacred time and space.

And, while there are undoubtedly Jews who do all of the above today, the concept of Or Amim transforms the behavior from de facto to de jure. Much as the Hedgehog Concept of kiruv (outreach) ensures that the Chabad shaluah doesn’t bemoan his remote outpost thousands of miles from the Jewish vibrancy and vitality of Crown Heights, but relishes it as his or her opportunity to do what he or she was put on Earth to do, so the concept of Or Amim ought to inspire the Modern Orthodox doctor or cashier, hedge fund manager or plumber, guitarist or marketing associate to see their daily engagement with secular society as a unique opportunity to fulfill the retzon Hashem (will of God) in ways that few, if any, others can. In doing so, the bifurcation and duality that so often plagues the Modern Orthodox experience – Judaic Studies and General Studies, Torah U-Madda, secular and religious, work and home, personal and professional – begin to melt away. In its place rises a more holistic religious weltanschauung that encompases all facets of a Jew’s daily life.

Educating an Or Amim

If the charge of Or Amim is for the Jewish people to offer the rich teachings of Jewish tradition to the wider world, then the Jewish people’s knowledge and understanding of its own teachings are a necessary prerequisite. And while such might seem obvious, the reality is that when Judaism does make an appearance in today’s American public square, it is often in the form of cultural phenomena that have no real basis in the vast corpus of Jewish law, lore, or literature: bagels, lox, kosher = blessed by a rabbi, Chanukah presents, etc. It also comes in the form of decontextualized platitudes and soundbytes that often stray quite far from their original intent (e.g., mi-dor le-dor, tikkun olam, tzedek tzedek tirdof, etc.).

Or Amim aspires to something deeper, more substantive, and more authentic. At the same time, one of Judaism’s most salient characteristics is its tolerance, or perhaps even encouragement, of disagreement and debate. Thus, there ought to be no assumption that Or Amim plays out in any uniform fashion. Judaism doesn’t have one script. Its contributions to the issues of the day will undoubtedly vary depending on the contributor, the context, his or her background, and his or her predilections. Judaism, however, has always insisted on arguments grounded in its texts. As such, Or Amim performed ke-dat u-ke-din (according to Jewish law) ought always be able to answer the question of “mena hanei milei” or “menalan” – from where in the tomes of our tradition does this teaching, this insight, this argument, or this perspective emerge?

Rigorous Jewish education, therefore, remains as necessary as ever in a community that rallies around Or Amim. As much as the internet has brought with it unprecedented access to Jewish texts and Jewish ideas, those who see themselves as called upon to share the Torah’s depths with the wider world cannot rely on crowdsourced translations and summarized approximations to achieve their lofty goals. Instead, both boys and girls raised in such communities must gain the language and analytical skills necessary to access our texts in their original form. They must also gain familiarity with what type of information one can find where in our massive library, lest Google direct them to Orhot Hayim when what they were looking for was to be found in Orah Hayim.

The educational demands of Or Amim, however, fundamentally differ from that of Torah U-Madda. In the former, a student must be able to ground their practice, beliefs, and values in the texts of the mesora (or, at the very least, know where to look in order to find such grounding) and bring such texts to bear on real-world situations. In the latter, knowing those Torah texts is just the beginning.The real work comes in integrating such texts and ideas with those from other cultures and societies. A noble endeavor, for sure, but beyond the reach of way too many. The flexibility of Or Amim to be applied in different ways by different people in different circumstances can allow for different students who have mastered such texts with different levels of sophistication, nuance, and breadth to each feel successful in carrying out their community’s sacred mission. The rigidity of a Torah U-Madda framework, however, sends those who are incapable or uninterested in its lofty intellectual ideals to seek spiritual satisfaction elsewhere.

Although an Or Amim framework still demands a high quality secular education, the primary function of such study is as a portal into broader society, its culture, and mores, rather than as a portal to knowledge of God.[2] We might say that Torah U-Madda is, at its core, interdisciplinary, while Or Amim is multidisciplinary. The former seeks an often elusive state of harmony and integration, while the latter allows for cacophony and dissonance. And, while the synthesis of Rabbi Belkin and Rabbi Lamm might still be the ideal for those suited to its call, with a refocus on Or Amim as Modern Orthodoxy’s Hedgehog, unsuitability is no longer a barrier to entry.

That having been said, to take full advantage of Or Amim’s power to energize and elevate the Modern Orthodox community, changes to the way in which it educates its youth ought to be made. First of all, it requires what we might call a refinement of its curriculum. For young Jewish adults to become passionate about their unique capacity to fulfill God’s mandate to become an Or Amim, they must first fully understand that such is His mandate. We must do so in a way that speaks not just to a student’s intellect, but to the core of her identity. Or Amim can’t be taught in a special shiur, a high school elective, or even a mandatory year long class on the topic. It must be integrated into all aspects of a child’s Torah learning throughout his or her educational journey. To do so doesn’t require replacing the core Yeshiva Day subjects of Chumash, Navi, Mishnah, and Gemara. But it does mean that in selecting which sefarim, mesekhtot, and perakim (books, tractates, and chapters) to learn, schools make a point of including the texts upon which this value is based.

Raising a generation on the importance of Or Amim means sensitizing teachers and administrators to the importance of delving deeply into the berakhot (blessings) of Avraham Avinu, the Av Hamon Goyim (father of many nations), and their promise that his descendants will be a blessing to the inhabitants of the Earth. It means focusing on the story of the Ten Plagues not only as a means toward achieving freedom from bondage but (Ex. 7:5) “so that Egyptians should know that I am the Lord.” It means that in addition to emphasizing the centrality of the Beit HaMikdash (Temple) in cultivating the relationship between God and the Jewish People, the secondary role ascribed to it by none other than King Solomon himself, must be duly noted as well (Kings 1 8:41–43):

Or if a foreigner who is not of Your people Israel comes from a distant land for the sake of Your name – for they shall hear about Your great name and Your mighty hand and Your outstretched arm – when he comes to pray toward this House, hear in Your heavenly abode and grant all that the foreigner asks You for. Thus all the peoples of the earth will know Your name and revere You, as does Your people Israel; and they will recognize that Your name is attached to this House that I have built.[3]

And it means that when King Solomon concludes his dedication speech by asking God to (Kings 1 8:57–60) “be with us as He was with our fathers” and “to incline our hearts to walk in His ways… so that all the nations of the world will know Hashem is God, there is no other,” students in a Modern Orthodox school should tingle with a sense of pride and purpose, feeling as if Solomon were talking directly to them and giving them their mission, should they choose to accept it.

Likewise, the curriculum of a Modern Orthodox Day School that wishes to raise a generation  passionate about Or Amim has to spend time unpacking the concepts of mamlekhet kohanim, goy kadosh, and am segula. Rather than avoid the sensitive and complex questions regarding “chosenness” that ought to emerge from rituals like the daily recitation of birkhot ha-Torah, teachers in Modern Orthodox Day Schools ought to engage them and challenge students to consider the question of “‘chosen’ for what?” They ought to explore the sugyot  (sections) of kiddush Hashem (sanctifying God’s name), the contours of darkei shalom (laws intended to prevent hostility between Jews and their neighbors), and the intricacies of sheva mitzvot benei noah (the seven Noahide Laws). It should ensure that students recognize the passages in their daily tefillah (prayer), and throughout the tefillot of the yamim nora’im (High Holy Days) that echo this call to arms.

Just as the book of Joshua, with its narrative of Israel’s conquest, has a special place in the curriculum of Dati Le’umi schools, so ought the book of Isaiah to have a special place in the Modern Orthodox curriculum. If a product of a Dati Le’umi school in Israel ought to take pride in the fact that each and every time we open the Aron Kodesh we say “ki mi-tzion tetze Torah,” (the Torah comes forth from Zion)  the product of the American Modern Orthodox school ought to be equipped to offer a gentle reminder of how that verse (Isaiah 2:3), in its original context, begins:

And the many nations shall go and say: “Come, Let us go up to the Mountain of the Lord, to the House of the God of Jacob; That He may instruct us in His ways, And that we may walk in His paths.” For instruction shall come forth from Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem (ki mi-tzion tetze Torah u-devar Hashem mi-yerushalayim).[4]

In addition to tweaking the points of emphasis in its curricular content, Modern Orthodox schools would do well to consider the pedagogical implications of engaging kids in the value of Or Amim. Critical as it is that the full-fledged pursuit of Or Amim take place only after one has “filled their belly” with rigorous Torah learning, in order to truly prepare and excite the next generation about fulfilling their mission as an Or Amim, Modern Orthodox Yeshiva high schools could benefit from creating circumscribed yet authentic opportunities for their students to experience the encounter which this mitzvah requires.

To do so, teachers, borrowing from the Project Based Learning playbook, can create learning experiences for students in which they master a small area of Torah content and then share their learning with an authentic audience outside of the Jewish community. Whether it be using social media to share the experience of Shabbos with those debating the merits of powering down, or offering insight into bal tashchit (do not waste) to a legislator working on conservation, the merits of such experiences are twofold. Not only will they afford educators the opportunity to guide students in how best to convey Jewish ideas – passionately, respectfully, and humbly – in non-Jewish spaces, but like Project Based Learning in all subject areas, the real-world application and the feedback from authentic audiences will often inspire students across the academic spectrum to put their best foot forward in ways that classroom tests and assessments simply do not.

Lastly, the fulfillment of Or Amim would benefit from opportunities for “specialization” within Torah learning as students advance through their undergraduate and graduate years – and beyond. Today, most post-secondary Torah learning opportunities, whether they be in Yeshivot or Seminaries, Jewish colleges, University Hillels, or shul adult-ed programs, are designed to promote Torah generalists. All students in a particular yeshiva, in a particular year, learn a particular mesechta. The staples of shul adult-ed classes are Daf Yomi and, more recently, Tanach Yomi, classes on Parashat Hashavua (weekly Torah portion), and the like. For the student who has seven to ten years to devote to such study, this is the surest path to producing bona fide talmidei chachamim.

For most of the post-high school population of the Modern Orthodox community, however, for whom Torah learning is either a full-time engagement but limited to a year or two at most, or a part-time avocation that enriches and complements their full-time occupation, this approach may not be the most effective in advancing the aims of Or Amim. In addition, then, to the opportunities to expand one’s breadth of Torah knowledge, there ought to be opportunities to strengthen one’s command of particular areas of Torah that are germane to one’s unique position in life. That is, lawyers ought to be able to regularly access in-depth – and in-person – shiurim on the conceptual and practical elements of the Torah’s view on tax law, criminal justice, intellectual property, inheritance, and a host of other relevant legal matters. Current or aspiring medical professionals ought to have regular access to accomplished teachers of Torah who can guide them on Jewish medical ethics and the practical halachot of healthcare. Current or aspiring business owners need to learn the intricacies of Jewish labor law, the halakhot of finance, the Torah ethics of marketing and competition, to name just a few. Current or aspiring communal professionals ought to deeply understand the Torah’s conception of communal priorities, the obligations of tzedaka (charity), and the ethics of agenda-driven fundraising.

All of the above are adjustments, rather than overhauls. Yet, when done in concert with one another and across communities, the long term impact on developing young men and women who are passionate about their mission as ovdei Hashem (servants of God) could be extraordinary.

A Hedgehog for Modern Orthodoxy, Not for the Modern Orthodox

One final word of caution. Encouraging the cultivation of a Hedgehog Concept for American Modern Orthodoxy runs the very real risk of exacerbating the identity politics rampant in society today. The quest to define what Modern Orthodoxy is, can quickly become a quest to define who is Modern Orthodox. It can be taken as an opportunity – or as an excuse – by some to sharpen party lines and to further splinter an already fractured global Jewish community.

If understood, and conveyed, properly, however, Or Amim ought to have the opposite effect. Or Amim is being posited as a defining element of Modern Orthodoxy, not as a means of defining who is Modern Orthodox. That is, the Modern Orthodox community ought to feel no sense of ownership over the concept nor ought it to engender any sense of exclusivity. Rather, the Modern Orthodox community ought to see itself, by virtue of its geographic and socio-economic realities, as particularly well-suited to carry out this vital, ancient charge of the Jewish people. Recognizing such an opportunity ought to energize and excite many in the Modern Orthodox community.

At the same time, the renewed focus by the Modern Orthodox community on this ideal ought to foster a deep sense of connection between self-identified members of the Modern Orthodox community and those Jews who identify differently but who, despite the way they dress, what they eat, the shul in which they do – or don’t – daven, are similarly engaged in bringing authentic Torah ideas to the larger world. Much as Chabad, as a community, might be uniquely positioned to carry out the Torah ideal of kiruv, they don’t own it. Their emphasis on kiruv stems from a deeply held belief in the theurgic power of mitzvah performance to bring the world closer to redemption. Whether the instigator and inspiration for the performance of a mitzvah comes from within the Chabad community or from without, however, has no bearing on the value of the act itself. As such, Chabad shluchim themselves ought to feel a sense of kinship to others in the Jewish world who are similarly engaged in revitalizing traditional Jewish life for Jews. They are both engaged in the – or one of the – most precious of God’s commands.

Or Amim ought to be approached from a similar vantage point. A bareheaded Reform Jewish colleague who articulates a well-sourced Jewish view of communal responsibility for the underprivileged, and a Jew with pe’os (earlocks) tucked around his ears who can explain to his associates the sanctity that Jewish Law accords to physical touch, ought no longer to be seen as just a member of the same people as their Modern Orthodox co-religionists, but as soulmates equally engaged in fulfilling one of life’s most noble causes. And those Jews who live cloistered in Jewish enclaves whether in Kiryat Motzkin or Kiryas Joel, and therefore cannot actualize Or Amim to the same extent, ought not to be seen as “less than,” but as “different than.” There are opportunities to fulfill facets of the Divine Will that their particular circumstances offer to them which Jews living in Boca or Bergenfield don’t have. And, to return to Collin’s terms, they ought to create “resource engines” to drive their Hedgehog Concept, the same way that Modern Orthodox communities ought to create the infrastructure necessary to drive their own. Instead of exacerbating communal rifts, doing so can serve to heal them while energizing a new generation to passionately pursue a life of Torah learning and Torah living.


[1] Translations are my own.

[2] To be distinguished, importantly, from secular studies in other communities where its function is solely as a gateway into a profession.

[3] New JPS translation.

[4] Translation is my own.