American Orthodoxy

A Modern Orthodox Hedgehog for a Postmodern World: Part 1

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Gil S. Perl


Modern Orthodoxy is in need of a Hedgehog Concept.

Jim Collins, the best-selling business writer, coined this term almost two decades ago when he looked at companies that made the leap from “good” to “great.”[1] More often than not, these organizations had something at their core that they passionately believed they did better than anyone else in the world. And their success resulted in large measure from orienting the organization’s “resource engines” toward this singular goal.

While Collins didn’t extend his analysis to the realm of religion, a brief glance at the sub-denominations that constitute contemporary Orthodoxy suggest the same might well be true. That is, each of them seems to have an authentic Torah value at their core, which they believe they do better than anyone else in the world. The Yeshiva world has talmud Torah. The Hasidic world has dveykus. The Dati Le-umi world had yishuv Eretz Yisra’el. Chabad has kiruv. Though each community advocates full-fledged adherence to all 613 mitzvot, a single value is elevated above the rest. And, more often than not, the community’s schools and shuls, their curricula and customs, their choices of where to live, who to marry and what professions to seek are all oriented towards this particular goal. Like in the business world, this focus becomes a point of pride for members of each community and fuels a passion for their chosen way of life that often translates to the next generation.

American Modern Orthodoxy has no Hedgehog. Whether by design or by default, it emphasizes moderation in all things. A little bit of this and a little bit of that, but not too much of anything. The result has been painfully clear in our schools and our shuls for quite some time now. It’s hard to be passionate about a little bit of anything.

Some might contend that Torah U-Madda (Torah and secular knowledge) is Modern Orthodoxy’s Hedgehog. I have argued elsewhere, though, that Torah U-Madda is fatally flawed as a Hedgehog Concept because unlike the Torah values at the center of the other sub-denominations, Torah U-Madda can only be actualized by the community’s intellectual elite. While the Yeshiva community’s Hedgehog of Talmud Torah (Torah study) also falls within the intellectual arena, it can be fulfilled through the study of an Artscroll Mishnah, reviewing Chumash with Rashi, or by writing a check to one’s local Yeshiva or Kollel.[2] It’s a far cry from the academic aptitude and higher order thinking necessary to synthesize the worlds of secular learning and culture with that of Torah and mesorah (tradition), as demanded by the ideology of Torah U-Madda. Indeed, one could well argue that on an average day in a Modern Orthodox Yeshiva day school, each student engages in the mitzvah of Talmud Torah – the Hedgehog Concept of the Yeshiva World – through their study of Chumah, Navi, Mishnah, or Gemara. Very few, however, despite the school’s rigorous dual curriculum, engage in the act of Torah U-Madda.

Perhaps more importantly, though, when I first presented this idea at the Orthodox Forum in 2010, someone raised this very contention. And, before I could respond, a reply came from a far more qualified authority: Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, who quite literally wrote the book on Torah U-Madda. He stated rather emphatically that “Torah U-Madda is not an ideology, it’s a pedagogy.” That is, Torah U-Madda is a means toward an end. It’s a way of arriving at knowledge of the Creator through the avenues of science and the arts. It’s not an end unto itself nor was it ever intended to be. The goal of Torah U-Madda is an intimate knowledge of and relationship with God. The study of Shakespeare and Milton, Kant and Kierkegaard, molecular biology and quantum mechanics, coupled with Rambam and Rav Chaim, Penei Yehoshua and Pitchei Teshuvah, may well be the most sophisticated, nuanced, insightful, and inspiring way to arrive at such. But even the founding fathers of Modern Orthodoxy would agree that there are other paths and other methods for getting there. Torah U-Madda, then, becomes a point of privilege for those select few who can achieve it, and is either discarded or distorted by those who cannot.[3]

As such, if Modern Orthodoxy is to succeed in stoking the flames of religious pride and passion so that the next generation is eager to embrace and extend it, the search for a Hedgehog must go on.

Identifying the Hedgehog

At its most basic level, a Hedgehog Concept for Diaspora Modern Orthodoxy must qualify as an “authentic Torah value.” That is, it must be something that all streams of Orthodoxy recognize as part of the Divine Will, even if their community chooses not to highlight it. Kiruv, for example, is recognized as furthering the Divine mandate even in the dati yishuvim of Yehuda and Shomron, while yishuv Eretz Yisrael – in some form – is regarded as a Torah value even in the Chabad outposts of Phnom Penh.

In addition, it must be something that capitalizes on Modern Orthodoxy’s unique positioning at the intersection of religious and secular, isolation and immersion, fidelity to the past and faith in the future.

For this Hedgehog Concept to energize movement, it must also be a Torah value that is, for lack of a better word, transcendent. It must provide fertile ground for intellectual exploration in both the theological and halakhic realms; be actionable in a wide array of scenarios and circumstances by a different types of people; and must speak both to those steeped in the current intellectual and cultural ethos and those who are not.

Lastly, this value has to hold some degree of preexisting pre-eminence in the minds of Modern Orthodox Jewry. It must be something to which the present and historical culture of Modern Orthodoxy accords particular weight.

In Part 1 of this essay I will suggest that a compelling case can be made that the value of Or Goyim (light of the nations) fits the above definition remarkably well. In Part 2 I will offer a description of how it could look in practice if the Modern Orthodox community were to take this idea to heart.

Historical Roots

Israel was called in His exalted name for His honor and His dominion; in order that His honor and His dominion will be revealed through them across the entire world. And if it is impossible to reveal the honor of His dominion in any way other than this (i.e., through exile), we must not protest, for it is for this purpose that we were created.

And it is like a human king who constantly engages his troops in the labor of war – night and day they know no rest! – and they are put at risk and suffer casualties. They cannot protest even the slightest, for such did not stem, Heaven forbid, from evil intentions of the king. Rather it is because he must expand his kingdom, and his rule in the provinces depends upon it, and they [the troops] enlisted for the express purpose of protecting the kingdom with their bodies and souls.

So it is with the King of Kings, the Holy One Blessed Be He. He created His world for the express purpose of filling all of creation with His honor, as I wrote in Bereishit (2:4). And it is for this purpose that we were taken to be His nation and His servants: so that this purpose would come to fruition through our hands. As such, no matter what circumstances are necessary for us to arrive at such, we must not protest even the slightest.

This is a transcendent call to arms. It identifies Or Goyim not merely as another mitzvah, but as the primary task of the Jewish people, the purpose for which they were created, and the singular vehicle through which the world can arrive at God’s intended telos. It is both larger than life and the essence of life. It offers direction, meaning, and mission to a Jew’s time upon this Earth, not to the exclusion of other mitzvot, but as a way of framing and encapsulating them. And, perhaps most radically, it implies that the Torah’s loftiest ideal can only be achieved by those who are “expanding His kingdom” beyond the cloisters of the Land of Israel, thereby spreading “His honor and His dominion…across the entire world.” In other words, according to this text, the act of winning honor for God amongst societies of the Diaspora ranks amongst the Torah’s highest callings; one for which a Jew ought to spare no expense and fear no sacrifice.

If forced to guess, a learned reader might suggest this text has Hasidic roots. due to its vague similarity to the Lurianic idea of uncovering the Divine sparks scattered throughout the world. Others might suggest a Western European origin. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch is one of the few Torah luminaries over the past two hundred years who was known to extol the virtue of Or Goyim seemingly over and above the Zionist ideal. Given no other context at all, though, it would not be surprising if many well versed talmidei hakhamim (Torah scholars) suggested that this passage derives from a work that is not “Orthodox.” Roshei Yeshiva don’t talk this way. Orthodox communities don’t act this way. It’s not a perek (chapter) in the Rambam or a siman (clause) in Shulchan Aruch. It’s not what we teach in our schools or preach in our shuls.

It would surprise them, no doubt, to learn that the author of this paragraph was not just a Rosh Yeshiva, but the Rosh Yeshiva. It was written by Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (Netziv), Rosh Yeshiva of the world’s largest and most renowned yeshiva for nearly half of the 19th century. And it isn’t tucked away in an unpublished manuscript. It is sitting on the shelf of every Yeshiva, in the Devarim volume of Ha’amek Davar, perek 29, pasuk 1.[4] Even more surprising, perhaps, is the fact that this passage is not a singular aside or tangential comment by any means. It is but one of many comments running throughout Netziv’s Torah commentary that emphasizes the unique and powerful role of Or Goyim in Jewish life.

For example, Avram has his name changed to Avraham, according to Netziv, not to reflect God’s blessing that many nations will descend from him, but to reflect

God’s instructions to Avraham that His will is that he [Avraham] share his knowledge in order to be a father to many nations, so that they will come to recognize God. And for this he was called ‘av hamon goyim,’ like a father who sets his son [on the path] of proper thinking. (Ha’amek Davar, Genesis 17:4)

In the book of Shemot (Exodus), this individual instruction to Avraham becomes the destiny of the entire Jewish people. Neztiv therefore explains that the sefer is referred to in the geonic Halakhot Gedolot as the “Second Book” not merely because it finishes the story of the Jewish people’s transformation from a family clan into a nation, but because it is part and parcel of the creation story:

Meaning, the purpose of the world as a whole was that there would be one nation, God’s portion, His people. And this was not fulfilled until Israel was taken out of Egypt and arrived at their purpose, to be worthy of becoming a light unto the nations and to strengthen them regarding knowledge of the God of the Universe…this is the purpose of creation which was created for His exalted honor. (Ha’amek Davar, Introduction to Exodus)

And, if the Jewish people became worthy of this noble task when they stood at the foot of Har Sinai, they further committed themselves to it standing atop of Har Eival:

Just like at Har Sinai there were burnt offerings and peace offerings and rejoicing over having been taken as God’s nation and into His service, so too at Har Eival, which is where we were chosen as a “covenantal people.” Like Isaiah the prophet said (42:6) “I created you and appointed you as a covenantal people, a light of nations.” Meaning, to engage all nations in the covenant (which is faith) so that they abandon paganism and adopt monotheism. And a covenant was already established on this matter with Avraham our forefather, as I wrote in Bereishit (17:4), and today it was established with all of Israel. And it started at Har Eival with the writing of the Torah in seventy languages. But this noble purpose would only ultimately be reached through exile and diaspora… And because it is now that they merited this task of the honor of God being revealed through them throughout the world, they therefore were commanded to build altars and to rejoice. (Ha’amek Davar, Deuteronomy 27:5)

As Netziv was developing, teaching, and writing these ideas in the tiny Lithuanian hamlet of Volozhin, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch was penning very similar sentiments in the enlightened German city of Oldenberg:

Indeed, Yisrael’s loss of its outward glory will appear to you now as being part and parcel of its destiny through which God’s providence was to be manifested. Moreover, Yisrael’s mission was not hindered by its exile, nor was its greatness diminished, for it became evident that “greatness” has different meanings and Yisrael’s state of dispersion opened a new and unique field for the fulfillment of its mission.

…Is it not the highest level of human greatness to be the bearer of the Almighty’s teachings regarding God and man’s mission? To teach, by one’s destiny and way of life, that there is a higher goal than wealth and pleasure, science and culture, and that all these should serve as a means to the fulfillment of that goal?… After all, Yisrael has no other task than to acknowledge as its God the One Who calls and educates all human beings to His service, and to make Him known as such, through its destiny and way of life![5]

The notion that Jews are called upon to share the Torah’s teachings with the world at large, and that doing so speaks to the very essence of a Jew’s mission in this world, was expressed not only in the Yeshiva world of Netziv and the Neo-Orthodox world of Rav Hirsch, but in 19th century Hasidic circles as well. Reb Nosson of Breslov, the great scribe and teacher of the Breslover community following the death of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, records the following in his Likkutei Halakhot:

Yet, in truth, it is known that all of the worlds were created only in order to recognize and know the Exalted One, as it says in the Zohar (2:42, 2:5) “in order to know Him.” Therefore everything was created so that the Jewish people would accept His Torah, which is the holy knowledge with which one recognizes and knows the Exalted One. And therefore all greatness and royalty is reserved for Jews who perform His will, who merit this knowledge for which everything was created. And therefore only they are called “man,” as our sages said, because one who doesn’t have [proper] knowledge is an animal in the form of a man, as explained in the beginning of the Torah as written above. And for this reason everyone is obligated to engage in settling the world (yishuv ha-olam). That is, in bringing true knowledge to others – for this is the essence of settling the world as is explained there and as I mentioned above. And when the Jewish people merit to do His will, they are obligated to try with all of their power to bring this knowledge to the Nations of the World as well, as it is written “tell of his Honor amongst the nations, etc..” And it is written “proclaim His wonders amongst the nations, etc.,” and likewise in many other verses. (Yoreh De’ah, Laws of Redeeming the Firstborn, 5:13)

Visionary and creative as Netziv, Rav Hirsch, and Rebbe Nachman were, they certainly did not invent the notion of Or Goyim’s pivotal role in the thought and practice of observant Jewry. It is latent in Abaye’s interpretation of the command to love God that we must make God beloved amongst His creatures,[6] in R’ Hanina’s homiletic that the windows of the Beit Hamikdash are narrow on the inside and wide on the outside in order to let the light shine outward onto the world,[7] and in Rashi’s comment that Shabbat is intended as a sign “for the nations” of God’s relationship with the Jewish people.[8] It is made explicit when Rambam writes that the essence of the mitzvah of Kiddush Hashem is to “publicize this true faith in the world” and when Seforno interprets the Jewish people’s call to be a “kingdom of priests” as a call “to teach and instruct the entire human race to call in the name of God.”[9] In other words, these 19th century authors inherited a long, though often dormant, mesora that stretches back to the concepts of am segulah (chosen people) and mamlekhet kohanim (kingdom of priests) in Exodus and Deuteronomy. The mesora works its way beyond the iconic verses in Isaiah and the universalist motifs of the book of Psalms, ultimately manifesting itself in eschatological passages of our liturgy and the halakhic and aggadic material of Hazal. And as much as we know today of that mesora, there is undoubtedly much more that has yet to be uncovered.

20th Century American Modern Orthodoxy

Despite the fact that the American Modern Orthodox community that blossomed in the second half of the 20th century drew heavily on both the Eastern European world of the Yeshiva and the Western European world of Torah Im Derekh Eretz, the concept of Or Goyim did not retain the hallowed place it had in the worldviews of Rav Hirsch and Netziv. Instead of focusing on what Judaism could give to society, a niche claimed by and quickly associated with Reform Judaism, American Modern Orthodoxy, under the banner of Torah U-Madda, focused on what it could – or should – get from the society around it.

Twentieth century Modern Orthodox thought, therefore, is dominated by the largely unspoken question of how best to navigate and marshal the intellectual and cultural opportunities offered by modernity’s unprecedented advances in philosophy, science and technology – in a context of unprecedented political freedom and tolerance – in order to strengthen one’s personal avodat Hashem. Thus the central motifs in the writings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Rabbi Norman Lamm, and Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, amongst others, are the development of one’s relationship with God through teshuva (repentance), prayer, and Torah study; on finding the proper balance between ethics and law, intellect and experience, autonomy and submission, individual and community; and on which elements of the broader culture to let in and which ones to keep out.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s Kol Dodi Dofek offers an illustrative example of the contrast. Much like Netziv, Rabbi Soloveitchik refers to two “covenants” forged by the Jewish people prior to their entry to the Land of Israel. Whereas Netziv locates these covenants at Har Sinai and then Har Eival, Rabbi Soloveitchik locates the first one in Egypt prior to the exodus and the second one at the foot of Har Sinai. Far more important than the location of the covenants, though, is their content.

Netziv sees the covenant at Har Sinai as the Jewish people’s induction ceremony. It was where they were “betrothed” to God and informed of what it looks like to live as God’s people. As described above, though, it was only at Har Eival that they received their “mission.” It was at that second covenant that they were called on to be an Or Goyim.

Rabbi Soloveitchik’s understanding of the pre-conquest covenants, as articulated in Kol Dodi Dofek, is quite different. The covenant in Egypt was about national solidarity forged by the shared experience of oppression and hardship. This is where the Jewish people became distinctly aware of their “otherness” and keenly sensitive to the plight of their brethren. This is what Rabbi Soloveitchik calls the Covenant of Fate. Once this covenant was in place, the Jewish people were ready to be elevated through the Covenant of Sinai, which he calls the Covenant of Destiny. And whereas one might have expected a Covenant of Destiny to continue the themes of “Yisrael’s mission” as articulated by Rav Hirsch, or the higher “purpose” as spelled out by Netziv, Rabbi Soloveitchik moves in a different direction completely. The Jewish people’s destiny, according to Rabbi Soloveitchik, is to freely and passionately draw near to God. 

How does destiny differ from fate? In two respects: fate ‎means a compelled existence; destiny is existence by volition. Destiny is created by man himself, ‎who chooses and makes his own way in life. Fate is expressed in a teleological sense, in a denuded ‎existence, whereas destiny embodies purpose and objectives. Shared Fate means an inability to ‎rebel against fate. It is, as with the tragedy of Jonah the prophet, about the lack of alternatives to ‎escape the God of the Jews; “And God hurled a great wind into the sea, and there was a mighty ‎tempest in the sea, so that the ship was about to break apart” (Jonah 1:4). Shared Destiny means ‎having free will to strive for a goal (a decision freely willed to be sanctified to an ideal) and a ‎yearning and longing for the Master of the Universe. Instead of the blind fate that pursued him, ‎Jonah in the end chose the exalted destiny of the God of Israel. “I am a Jew, and I fear the Lord, ‎the God of the heaven” (Jonah 1:9)‎[10]

This, in a word, has been the project of American Modern Orthodox theology. It has sought to move beyond an existence forged by fate, by actively leveraging the freedoms of modernity in order to construct a life of sanctity and proximity to the Creator of the World. Its focus has been on shaping its own destiny, rather than the destiny of those around them.

Perhaps the most glaring absence of the concept of Or Goyim emerges from the pages of “Confrontation,” Rabbi Soloveitchik’s influential essay on interfaith dialogue. The piece is best known for the restrictions that Rabbi Soloveitchik put, and which the Rabbinical Council of America later adopted, on what subject matter should or should not be engaged in an interfaith context. However, there is no mistaking the fact that Rabbi Soloveitchik, in the same essay, clearly articulates those areas in which we ought to join forces with our non-Jewish peers:

We, created in the image of God, are charged with responsibility for the great confrontation of man and the cosmos. We stand with civilized society shoulder to shoulder over against an order which defies us all. (p. 20)

This obligation for the betterment of mankind, however, is decidedly universal in Rabbi Soloveitchik’s thinking. That is, our obligation is no different than the obligation of monotheists of other religions, which is precisely why we can band together to carry them out. In areas, though, where Jews differ from Christians, we must, according to Rabbi Soloveitchik, keep to ourselves. In this dichotomy it is hard to find space for the concept of Or Goyim; that is, the notion that we, as Jews, are uniquely obligated to bring the core values of Torah Judaism to the world at large. If these are universal values relating to the human condition, then, in Rabbi Soloveitchik’s conception, it would seem that others are as obligated as we are. If they are particular values relating to one’s relationship with God, then, according to Rabbi Soloveitchik, they don’t belong in the public square. In fact, Rabbi Soloveitchik goes so far as to say that the story we must tell the Christian community is less about our sense of duty to “to perfect the world under the Sovereignty of the Almighty,” and more about our need to remain distant and apart.

As a charismatic faith community, we have to meet the challenge of confronting the general non-Jewish faith community. We are called upon to tell this community not only the story it already knows – that we are human beings, committed to ‘the general welfare and progress of mankind, that we are interested in combating disease, in alleviating human suffering, in protecting man’s rights, in helping the needy, et cetera – but also what is still unknown to it, namely, our otherness as a metaphysical covenantal community. (p. 20–21)

It is interesting to note that some forty years after Rabbi Soloveitchik wrote “Confrontation,” his great nephew, Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveitchik, took up the issue again in an essay entitled “A Nation Under God: Jews, Christians, and the American Public Square.” After building upon the foundations of his uncle in arguing that there is, in fact, a place for Jews to engage Jewishly in the public square, the younger Soloveitchik makes a move his uncle did not:

The Jewish people, as God’s representatives here on earth, are uniquely obligated to ensure that society continues to define itself as one that is under God; but the truth is that the Rav’s writings indicate that this is also a universal obligation incumbent upon all “men of God.”[11]

Indeed, the Rav did see it as a “universal obligation.” The time may have come, however, for the Modern Orthodox community to refocus itself on the fact that we “as God’s representatives here on earth, are uniquely obligated” to carry this mission forward.

Some might justifiably argue that the passionate Zionism of American Modern Orthodox communities will create an impenetrable barrier for a Hedgehog Concept that is inherently suited for the Diaspora. Those communities, though, would do well to consider both the paucity of actual olim (émigres) from the United States each year[12] and the newly documented ideological frailty of those who stay behind.[13]

Others may argue that the original vision of Or Goyim was an eschatalogical one. It was offered as a prophetic vision of what God would bring about in the End of Days, not a vision for action in our day. It may be so. But such arguments are at least equally valid, if not more so, regarding the earliest sources for Zionism. If they have been overcome once, they can be overcome again. The most compelling objection, however, might simply be that Or Goyim won’t resonate in the minds and souls of today’s youth. A Hedgehog Concept that doesn’t tug at the heartstrings, is no Hedgehog Concept at all. How then, the Modern Orthodox community might embrace such an idea in a way that authentically actualizes its ancient ideals while simultaneously appealing to the postmodern sensibilities of Modern Orthodoxy’s up and coming generation, will be the focus of Part II.

For part 2 of this article, see here

[1] Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t (New York: Harper Business, 2001), 90.

[2] And even so, the extreme emphasis on a value that is ultimately cognitive in nature has disenfranchised its fair share of young people in that community over the years.

[3] Rav Aharon Lichtenstein famously quipped “In this setting, the Rambam frequently does not so much compete with Michelangelo as with Michael Jordan, or even, lamentably, Michael Jackson.” See his Leaves of Faith, The World of Jewish Learning, vol. II (New York: Ktav Publishing, 2004), 324.

[4] Translation is my own.

[5] Joseph Elias, The Nineteen Letters: The World of Rabbi S.R. Hirsch(New York: Feldheim, 1995), 198.

[6] See Yoma 86a.

[7] See Vayikra Rabba 31:7.

[8] See Rashi on Exodus 31:13.

[9] See Seforno on Exodus 19:6.

[10] Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “Kol Dodi Dofek, The Vision of the Religious Zionist Movement; Loneliness and Separateness 6.” Sefaria.

[11] Meir Soloveichik, “A Nation Under God: Jews, Christians, and the American Public Square,” The Torah U-Madda Journal 14 (2006–07): 81.

[12] According to the Jewish Agency, there were 3,052 new olim from the United States in 2018. According to Brandeis University, the total Jewish population of the United States is 7.5 million.

[13] See Nishma Research, The Successes, Challenges, and Future of American Modern Orthodoxy, November 4, 2019.

Gil Perl is the CEO of the Ades Family Foundation and the Founding Head of School of the Jewish Leadership Academy in Miami. He has a BA from the University of Pennsylvania, an MA and PhD from Harvard, and rabbinical ordination from RIETS.