Postmodern Orthodoxy: Giving Voice to a New Generation

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Gil Perl

For quite some time now, denominations across the spectrum have been struggling to speak the language of our younger adult population. In the Modern Orthodox community, the challenge has proven particularly acute with regard to the nearly three quarters of Day School graduates who attend secular universities for undergraduate and graduate study. The dissonance between the tone and tenor of their campus communities and that of the Orthodox institutions to which they return creates a sense of foreignness and misgiving that is often hard to overcome.

The difficulty in engaging Modern Orthodox Millennials, though, may stem less from a failure to speak their language and more from an inability to hear their voice. This critical demographic sees the world through a very different lens than that of their parents; they seek a very different kind of guidance than did their parents; and they often find inspiration in a very different place than their parents did. If their parents’ generation represented the heyday of American Modern Orthodoxy, this generation is engaged in the search for Postmodern Orthodoxy. The essays of Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg (Rav Shagar) recently translated and published by Maggid Books under the title Faith Shattered and Restored: Judaism in the Postmodern Age, offer English readers for the very first time, an invaluable glimpse into what exactly Postmodern Orthodoxy might mean.

First, a disclaimer. While this essay was inspired by Rav Shagar’s book, it is by no means intended as a review. I have neither the grounding in Rav Shagar’s Hebrew writings, the background in Hasidic and Kabbalistic thought, nor the familiarity with French postmodernist philosophy necessary to offer an insightful review. What’s more, Rabbi Shalom Carmy does possess all of the above, and the Afterword he penned for the volume is as fine a review as one might hope for.

My intent here is different. My aim is to approach this volume as a Jewish educator rather than as a Jewish philosopher. As such, my reading is informed less by tomes of erudite expositions on the subject matter treated by Rav Shagar in this book than by two decades of conversations with young adults burdened by many of the questions the book raises. And, for as long as I have spent talking through these issues with students, I have spent much longer wrestling with them myself. As such, this essay is less a staid review than it is a personal reckoning with the broader questions at hand.

To begin, let’s leave the volume at hand for a different piece, by a different author, which I first encountered at a very different time in my life.

As a student at Yeshivat Har Etzion in the late 90s, I, like so many young men before me, was mesmerized by the person and personality of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein. Everything about him—his intellect, his breadth of knowledge, his comportment, his diction—seemed to exist in a dimension wholly unlike any I had encountered before. And yet, for all of the awe and inspiration engendered by the daily engagement with someone so other-worldly, it brought with it, for me, a sense of distance and alienation as well. Try as I might to emulate him, he set the bar so far out of reach that the project, at times, seemed futile.

Toward the end of my second year of study, however, I experienced a pivotal breakthrough. A few years earlier an enterprising American Har Etzion student had taken it upon himself to collect Rabbi Lichtenstein’s English essays and articles to date, photocopy them and distribute them in the form of a flimsily bound, oversized soft-covered book. Despite the oddity of the stark white cover bearing no title nor any other indication of what was to be found within, for many of us this book was gold. It offered us the insight, context, and content from our revered teacher that we so desperately craved.

It was tucked away in that volume that I first found the article written by Rabbi Lichtenstein only a few years prior for the Jewish Action magazine ( Fall 1992) entitled “The Source of Faith is Faith Itself” and reprinted several times since. While the piece differed markedly from others in the volume due to its uncharacteristic brevity, accessibility, and autobiographical tone, there was something far more profound and personal that resonated with me.

Here, for the first time, I discovered an aspect of my heretofore unapproachable teacher that he and I genuinely shared; an element that made him relatable to me in a way that he never had been before. From this short article I emerged with the understanding that not only did I not have all the answers to life’s most perplexing questions, but neither did he.

What I received from all of my mentors, at home or in yeshivot, was the key to confronting life, particularly modern life, in all its complexity: the recognition that it was not so necessary to have all of the answers as to learn to live with the questions … Answers, I of course continued—and continue—to seek, and have found many … Clearly, however, faith cannot be contingent upon having all the answers … To those “struggling to develop faith,” one can, however proffer first the reassuring assertion of the religious significance of the quest per se, as in the footsteps of Avraham Avinu, they have already become mevakshei Hashem; second the prospective hope of successful resolution, as “The Lord is good unto them that yearn for Him, to the soul that seeketh Him” (Eikhah 3:25); and third, the counsel to focus persistently, in terms of Coleridge’s familiar distinction, upon faith rather than belief, upon experiential trust, dependence and submission more than upon catechetical dogmatics. Intellectual assent is normative and essential; but, at the personal level, it is generally not the key. In the final analysis, the primary human source of faith is faith itself (Leaves of Faith, vol. II, 364-67).

I found Rabbi Lichtenstein’s acknowledgement of the struggle validating; his emphasis on process over product inspiring; and his personal humility deeply comforting.

I gave this article several reads during my last few months in Har Etzion and shared it with friends and like-minded souls. Then I returned to the United States and the oversized, anonymous white volume took an honored place on my bookshelf as I assumed a fledgling place in the world of the American academy.

I don’t remember exactly when it was that I returned to this article. What I will never forget, however, is the deep sense of disappointment that coursed through my veins when I did. If I had had questions about God and Judaism as a 19-year old yeshiva day school graduate studying in a yeshivat hesder, they didn’t compare to the questions burning inside of me at this point, several years into an Ivy League liberal arts education.

And yet Rabbi Lichtenstein’s words in that article remained a beacon of strength for me: it was not so necessary to have all of the answers as to learn to live with the questions. That is, however, until that fateful day when I decided to take the volume off the shelf and read the article once again. In doing so I realized that I had fancifully remembered only half of the article: the half in which Rabbi Lichtenstein, a paragon of rationality and a tower of intellectual strength, admits that he has not successfully scaled all of the formidable challenges posed by modernity to the person of faith. What I forgot is the solace he takes in assuming that where he had failed, his teachers must have succeeded:

Regardless of what issues—moral, theological, textual, or historical—vexed me, I was confident that they had been raised by masters far sharper and wiser than myself; and if they had remained impregnably steadfast in their commitment, so should and could I. I intuited that, his categorical formulations and imperial certitude notwithstanding, Rav Hutner had surely confronted whatever questions occurred to me. Later, I felt virtually certain the Rav had, so that the depth and intensity of their avodat Hashem was doubly reassuring.

And there’s the rub. From having spent two years studying under him in Yeshiva, and from having read just about everything he had published up until that point, I was quite sure that my teacher, Rabbi Lichtenstein, had surely not “confronted whatever questions occurred to me.” Not that I was in any fathomable way smarter or more perceptive than he.

But quite simply because the cultural climate of a university campus at the turn of the millennium, with 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, were markedly different than the ones he had encountered in the 1950s and 60s.

By his own admission, Rabbi Lichtenstein largely left that world behind when he made aliyah in 1971, focusing his energy instead on the needs of Israeli society and of cultivating a generation of broad-minded talmidei hakhamim and yirei Hashem to successfully tend to them.

So just as the storm waters around me were reaching the peak of their fury, I found my dinghy precariously deflated.

While I consider myself fortunate to have strung together an alternative set of people and pieces that collectively provided guidance and support through those tumultuous years, the experience for many of my friends was different. Talented, sincere, remarkably bright yeshiva-educated young men and women set their sights beyond the pale of Orthodoxy not so much due to a crisis of faith but due to a perceived failure to be understood. For many students coming of age seeped in a postmodern cultural milieu, the key was not so much to find someone who could provide them with all the answers as it was to find guidance in learning to live with the questions.

If that was true in the Modern Orthodox world two decades ago, it is only more so today. Not only is the towering presence of Modern Orthodoxy’s original luminary, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, still sorely missed, but his outsized student, intellectual successor, and philosophical ambassador Rabbi Lichtenstein is no longer with us as well.

And while their writings have a deservedly hallowed place on the shelves of the serious Modern Orthodox student, their content for many of Modern Orthodoxy’s young and hungry minds comes up short. The Brisker dialectics, Neo-Kantian categories, Hegelian syntheses, Miltonian sensitivities, and Kierkegaardian paradoxes which dominate their writing speak with unmatched eloquence and profundity to the problems of modernity. Yet the questions plaguing the community that continues to look to these works for guidance are less frequently the questions of modernity and more frequently the questions of postmodernity.

Today’s students are less bothered by their inability to reconcile seemingly competing value systems as they are by their inability to determine whether objective value systems do—or ought to—exist at all. It is not the incongruence of their world that motivates their angst as much as its fluidity. Boundaries taken for granted only a generation ago—between private and public, leader and laity, normative and deviant, even male and female, are increasingly evaporating.

The scientific prowess of the post-industrial twentieth century—that which informed the tantalizing transition of Germany’s Torah Im Derekh Eretz to America’s Torah u-Madda—is increasingly being recast as hubris and conceit. Today, our technological know-how is no longer celebrated as a vehicle for progress toward some more enlightened future, but is seen at best as a last resort for saving humanity from itself and, at worst, as humanity’s inevitable march toward obsolescence. Indeed, in today’s world of infinite information and unparalleled opportunities for learning, our young men and women often feel that they know less rather than more.

Enter Rav Shagar.

Rav Shagar is deeply attuned to the shadows cast on the world of faith by the various elements of postmodern culture:

Due to the ensuing disillusionment and other causes, people lost faith in the idea of a cohesive world with a single, comprehensive meaning, a world governed by a clear and consistent set of principles. They also lost faith in the grand narratives, meaning the historical accounts construed largely to justify one side or another, and with this their belief in an exhaustive moral and intellectual harmony upon which one could base one’s life (Faith Shattered, 86).

He is also unafraid to call out the solutions posited by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook, Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, and Rabbi Soloveitchik as inadequate for tackling the challenges of today:

[M]odern values—at least in their accepted sense—are secular values: They place the individual in the center, shifting God from His once preeminent position and even rendering Him irrelevant. Any effort at merging Orthodoxy and modernity, then, is an attempt to unify opposites. Is it even possible? Is the price—the superficiality and reduction of religion and modernity—too high to enable such an amalgamation?

There have been several attempts at such a merger … I have discussed these proposed solutions elsewhere, and it is my contention that not a single one of them is still relevant. The present-day problem is not the integration of modernity and Orthodoxy, but rather the fact that in our postmodern world, both have been rendered obsolete (Faith Shattered, 42-43).

Instead, Rav Shagar embraces what he calls “soft postmodernism” which leads not to nihilism, as does “hard postmodernism,” but to a modest, circumscribed, and deeply intimate place of unwavering commitment and faith.

While both Rabbi Lichtenstein and Rav Shagar argue for a religious worldview that is not predicated on certainty, Rabbi Lichtenstein sees it as a necessary though unfortunate accommodation sprung from his own personal limitations, whereas Rav Shagar accepts uncertainty as an essential state of being and suggests that “possibility” rather than “certainty” ought to be the ultimate object of faith:

This is also true of faith in general. Belief does not necessarily depend on certainty, and its domain of the Real cannot necessarily be brought to bear on our everyday lives. In certain cases, the “maybe” or the belief in the possibility of a thing, is also faith in its fullest sense (Faith Shattered, 37).

This inherent lack of certainty stems from an acquiescence to the postmodern contention that any and all truths are ultimately human constructions. Armed with a heritage and a vast literature that sees humanity as containing a “spark of the Divine,” Rav Shagar’s soft postmodernism allows him to turn this seeming death knell of religious commitment—one deeply felt by so many of our young men and women—into a fountain of strength:

All truths may be the product of human conditioning, but such conditioning constitutes the medium through which the divine manifests in the world. That is why the pluralist believer does not shy away from using the revelation metaphor; though he knows there are varying and conflicting revelations, the contradictions do not paralyze him. He is willing to concede that truth is a human construct, because he knows that human constructs are true creations, manifestations of God in a world that is “filled with His glory,” not an empty, meaningless game (Faith Shattered, 116).

On the one hand, this intellectual pluralism opens Rav Shagar to an embrace of multiculturalism rarely found amongst Orthodox thinkers:

Yet I believe in pluralism, even it if differs from the pluralism of postmodernism: It is a positive pluralism, one of faith. The difference between the pluralism in which I believe and postmodern pluralism springs from the difference between uninspired relativism and a relativism open to inspiration; between a conception of postmodernism as an empty game and one that ascribes significance to it; between ascribing no weight or value to any opinion, including one’s own, and seeing value in each and every opinion (Faith Shattered, 116).

On the other hand, his attachment to his own faith—which he likens to the Little Prince’s rose which is “far more important” than all of the other roses by virtue of the simple fact that she is his—is not diminished by a world where every opinion has value (See Faith Shattered, 46).

Traditional theological debates that sought absolute, transcendental criteria to determine which belief reigns supreme are meaningless in a postmodern world, but that should not impugn our perseverance in the faith of our fathers. We must see such faith as our home, self-evident and unquestionable, and thus in no need of such tests (Faith Shattered, 117).

Indeed, Rav Shagar advocates a lifestyle that, in practice, looks more like the traditionalism of the Haredi community than the synthesis of the Modern Orthodox community. It is the motivations for such a lifestyle, though, where his conception differs from that which is commonly practiced.

I yearn for a different haredism, an authentic haredism that maintains the compartmentalist approach—currently the movement’s only possible approach, to my mind—but is not motivated by the rejection of other cultures or lifestyles or the attempt to identify them with haredism. I put my hopes on a haredism driven by an acceptance of multiculturalism that enables it to choose itself without rejecting or delegitimizing other cultures, and without becoming rigid (Faith Shattered, 59).

How, then, in this multicultural world of humanly conditioned truths, does one approach the thorny questions of Jewish life that require a proverbial stake in the ground? What do we tell the inquisitive young mind who wants to know why he or she should accept our particular brand of Judaism over another? To this, Rav Shagar offers a remarkably minimalist, yet, to some, a refreshingly honest, response:

Someone may ask: Who are you to decide what Jewish religiosity looks like? Do Orthodox Jews have a monopoly over Jewish religious literature? Indeed, we have no monopoly over the definition of who, or what, is a Jew, and I wish many more would become acquainted with the corpus of Jewish religious literature. Neither do I mind if more shelves are added to that bookcase. Indeed, my claim is far more modest, if equally firm: Non-Orthodox denominations cannot produce Jewish religious leaders, Torah luminaries, who conform to the definition of Judaism to which my colleagues and I subscribe and in which we believe. To me, this definition is sufficient, and it is what I am fighting for (Faith Shattered, 56).

Rav Shagar’s embrace of pluralism gives rise not only to an epistemic negativity—a statement of what we do not and cannot know—with which many of today’s young Modern Orthodox minds can relate, but to a positive postmodern ideology that many will find attractive as well. Such is particularly clear in his vision of a Zionist state guided by “soft” nationalism:

The desire to establish a “softer” nationalism—one that makes room for the Other, that does not look down on or disdain other nations—can be traced back to the Torah … The Torah’s objective in decreeing the memory of the Exodus is to establish a solidarity of the defeated, not the victors. Epic past triumphs are not meant to make us drunk with power; rather, they are to instill in us the faith that it is God “who gives you power” (Deuteronomy 8:17), steering us away from the temptation to believe that “my power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth” (ibid.). Aggression exerts a powerful draw, and the Torah warns against it repeatedly in its passages of rebuke. Preoccupation with power and the pursuit of authority over others stem from a dearth of faith in the Lord, blessed be He, and fly in the face of that which the Torah seeks to impart to the nation as it inherits the land: memory and the sensitivity it engenders (Faith Shattered, 185).

Here, then, are the beginnings of Postmodern Orthodoxy. Like the leaders of Modern Orthodoxy in the era that preceded him, Rav Shagar fearlessly engages the prevailing zeitgeist rather than fleeing from it. In doing so, he, like his Modern Orthodox predecessors, reformulates ideas seemingly hostile to religious sensibilities and repositions them as opportunities to deepen one’s fidelity to and faith in traditional Judaism.

What emerges, though, is different in fundamental ways. While Modern Orthodoxy focused on synthesis, Postmodern Orthodoxy is content with co-existence. While Modern Orthodoxy engaged in an externally oriented Grand Conversation that attempted to navigate the seemingly conflicting currents of East and West, science and religion, humanism and theism, Postmodern Orthodoxy turns its gaze inward toward the conflicts raging within the individual as he or she seeks out meaning and strives for relevance.

While the halakhic system’s penchant for finding an ancient answer to every new challenge served in many ways as the paradigm for Modern Orthodox thought, its Postmodern cousin seems far more content with “tzarikh iyyun” and “teiku.” And whereas Modern Orthodoxy looked to the work of Rambam, Reb Hayyim, and Rabbi Hirsch as models for rigorously pursuing Jewish life’s most sought-after answers, Postmodern Orthodoxy looks to the work of the AR”I, Rabbi Nahman, and the Ba’al ha-Tanya for guidance in living with its eternally unresolvable questions. To borrow a phrase from the educational world, while the Modern Orthodox community of a generation ago pined for a “sage on the stage,” today’s Postmodern Orthodox millennials seek a “guide on the side.”

It is deeply tragic that Rav Shagar’s premature passing predated the publication of this volume by almost a decade and that he, therefore, cannot personally tend to the cultivation of his ideas on English-speaking soil. It is also unfortunate that his writings themselves lack the systematic quality that would make them more easily accessible as foundational religious texts. Nonetheless, the essays presented in this volume offer an invaluable foundation upon which contemporary Orthodox thinkers can build a new and more resonant edifice in which to house our ageless tradition.

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.