In Search of Modern Orthodoxy

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In introducing his embrace of Rav Shagar, Rabbi Dr. Gil Perl details his personal journey of being initially excited, then disappointed with the writings of our teacher, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein. In the essay cited by Perl, Rabbi Lichtenstein explained that, when facing moral, theological, textual, and historical difficulties with Judaism, he relied on the continued faith of his teachers—Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner and Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik—who likely had similar questions, in order to maintain his own.

Perl was ultimately dissatisfied with this approach, as he was seeking certainty of faith rather than reliance on someone else’s presumed resolution. In addition, he thought it unlikely that Rabbi Lichtenstein did in fact grapple with the same quandaries that he was facing. Rav Shagar answers Perl’s crisis by asserting that postmodernism rejects certainty in many areas, including faith, and Perl’s crisis no longer loomed large. Perl could also now integrate the dilemmas of the academy into his Judaism.

Gil Perl is a friend and a former colleague at Kohelet Yeshiva High School. My comments therefore come out of deep respect for him.

While the personal journey is touching, both the crisis and its resolution are problematic. Perl’s faulty understanding of the Modern Orthodox agenda, which he incorrectly attributes to Rabbi Lichtenstein, sets the stage for his future disenchantment with it. His choice of the postmodern Rav Shagar as an alternative is deeply concerning, as well.

During my own crisis of faith, I happened to be reading the Rav’s Lonely Man of Faith. In a footnote, the Rav rejected the need for rational proofs for God and forcefully reminds us not to get trapped within the framing of the dominant philosophies of our day. A good portion of Lonely Man of Faith still makes use of various modernist philosophers, including Kant and Hermann Cohen, to build the tension between the majestic Adam I and covenantal Adam II.

We do not begin with Kant, just as the Rambam did not begin his philosophical oeuvre with Aristotle. Instead, we begin with our experiential relationship with God. The Kuzari (1:11-13, 25) formulated this relationship as focusing on the personal God of our forefathers, who redeemed us from Egypt, rather than on the philosopher’s God, derived by logic as the creator of the world. That is the internal Jewish framing, which ought to be the starting point for every Jewish thinker.

Perl’s depiction of Modern Orthodoxy applies a modern framing, describing the endeavor as the “merging,” “reconciliation,” and “resolution” of Torah and general culture. His quest aims for “certainty.” Perl expects Rabbi Lichtenstein, one of the leading intellectual leaders of Modern Orthodoxy over the past several decades, to smooth the rough edges of modernity and “succeed” in integrating it with Judaism. In fact, Perl describes Rabbi Lichtenstein’s lack of answers as a “failure.”

But this analysis is built on a fundamental misunderstanding of Rabbi Lichtenstein’s approach. Instead of seeking reconciliation or resolution, Rabbi Lichtenstein used the words “confluence and conflict” in the title of one of his numerous essays on the manner of integrating Judaism with modernity. At the most basic level, Rabbi Lichtenstein never assumed that we must adopt the modern project, its obsession with reason and its rejection of blind faith.

Conflict between religion and modernity is thus inevitable. The central question for Rabbi Lichtenstein was: “How much?” When Rabbi Lichtenstein described relying on his teachers, he did not mean that he relied on their intellectual successes in answering questions of faith posed by modernity. He meant that he looked to his teachers as exemplars of perseverance in the face of difficulties. Regardless of the questions, they continued.

We do not know if they had answers to the questions, or even if they asked the same questions we are facing. That is Rabbi Lichtenstein’s point.

Even if the challenges that Perl faced in the academy were new, pertaining to its “unrelenting emphasis on deconstruction and relativism, its wholesale embrace of previously countercultural social mores, and its perspective-altering breakthroughs in science, technology, psychology, anthropology and history,” Perl’s new questions would not change the argument of Rabbi Lichtenstein’s essay. (For a further fleshing out of this point, see Aaron Segal’s analysis of this essay of Rabbi Lichtenstein’s.)

We also might do well to consider Rabbi Lichtenstein’s feelings regarding postmodern trends within Judaism. While in his formative years, Rabbi Lichtenstein did not grapple with the questions of postmodernism, he definitely had opinions on Rav Shagar, calling his approach an “exercise in narcissism,” and was concerned that the approach could lead to deification of the self.

Moving from the philosophic to the educational, Rav Shagar’s approach is, I believe, harmful rather than helpful. In his essay on Kabbalat Ol Malkhut Shamayim, Rav Shagar reconstitutes the traditional understanding of weightiness and obedience as a postmodern faith of “self-acceptance, meaning accepting my life as part of reality, of the will of God,” that “its existence is as God created it.”

While Shagar later tries to integrate this concept with free will and human growth, he cannot do so convincingly. As Levi Morrow notes, any resolution would either face difficulties or else allow for an “anything goes” attitude, incorporating all sorts of contradictions in the name of postmodernism.

While those who accept the principles of postmodernism might revel in such confusion, it is difficult to accept. With this version of “acceptance of the yoke of Heaven,” the individual never truly becomes a servant of God, although he is now equipped with a fundamental philosophy to pat himself on the back for his mediocrity.

Further, not all intellectual movements are equal. While the Enlightenment and modernity broke communal bonds and the concept of essential religious obligation, they also led to great scientific advances and increased self-understanding. In its wake emerged a messianic drive toward realizing utopian visions: “Make everything scientific and understood, remove difference and conflict! We want truth!”

Postmodernism, on the other hand, correlates with increasing rates of mental illness anddrug use in the U.S. population. Postmodernism corrodes the human psyche, leading to a desperate cry for help. Even with soft postmodernism, which finds truth in everything, humans become complacent, and choices lose their importance and meaning—no decisions are meaningful when all decisions are good. One religious thinker and a psychologist suggest that the postmodern removal of the meaning of life has created an existential-psychological void that craves to be filled, but the person no longer has the values or character strength to choose wisely. Actions have consequences, whether we like it or not.

While completely anecdotal, my experience has been that those who promote Rav Shagar’s philosophy tend to view halakhah as more malleable than it truly is, in service of providing self-fulfillment in the endless search for personal meaning. Halakhah becomes clay in the hands of the potter to serve this end. I have not seen Rav Shagar’s philosophy lead to greater observance, commitment, and sacrifice.

But observance, commitment, and sacrifice are precisely what our goals must be. As Deuteronomy 10:12-3 puts it:

Now, Israel, what does the Lord your God demand of you? Only to revere the Lord your God, to walk only in His paths, to love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and soul, keeping the Lord’s commandments and laws, which I command you today, for your good.

Educational challenges change from generation to generation, and educational leaders generally have great leeway in choosing the proper approach for their community and time period. To be sure, the process is not always smooth, as any eighteenth century hasid would testify.

The philosophies that end up out of bounds are the ones that begin with a different source of truth and undermine the heteronymous nature of the Torah. Rav Shagar’s starting point and source of truth is the “self” instead of the Torah and his approach therefore undermines the Torah’s heteronomy. If the current generation struggles with accepting the yoke of Heaven, we need to figure out a better way to deliver the message, but should not fundamentally change it.

The tension-filled approach of the Rav and the nuance of Rabbi Lichtenstein may not speak to the current generation. There are other options. As an alternative, I would like to recommend the thought of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. First and foremost, his source of truth is Judaism as he looks to Tanakh in developing philosophic principles. Rabbi Sacks evencriticizes the Rav’s Lonely Man of Faith for not fully reflecting the Jewish sources.

Second, he understands that some of these philosophies correlate with unarticulated different modes of thinking about the right and good life. People with different consciousnesses actually end up talking past each when discussing topics like moral behavior or Jewish unity. It is therefore quite helpful that Rabbi Sacks devotes much ink to contrasting Jewish values with the errant ways of other philosophies. While he integrates much material from other philosophies, he does so to shed light on internal Jewish values.

Third, his writings address pertinent issues of the day and simultaneously inspire its readers to greater action. His use of accessible language enables easier internalizing of the ideas.

Modern Orthodoxy does not assume that Torah is defined by modernity, but rather that Judaism is engaged with the modern world. The Jewish challenge is to be a light to the nations, a charge which includes proper modes of military engagements and the messy challenges of building a polity.

We are supposed to show that the moral life of kindness and generosity, a fair justice system, strong families and communities, properly channeled sexuality, a commitment to God’s commands, cleaving to His ways, and sanctity lead to human flourishing. At moments like this we are supposed to double down on this agenda instead of being caught up in the milieu.

Observe them faithfully, for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples, who on hearing of all these laws will say, “Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people” (Deuteronomy 4:6).

The challenges of each generation require its leaders to find new formulations for traditional Jewish values. Instead of trying to contort Judaism into the latest philosophical trends as Shagar aims to do, we need to promote those like Rabbi Sacks who present Judaism articulated for the current challenges.

It is my hope and prayer that we are successful.

Rabbi Rafi Eis is the Executive Director of The Herzl Institute and the Director of a semicha program at Yeshivat Har Etzion.