Modern Orthodoxy

Sitting in shul, I raced through Edward S. Shapiro’s (he is the father of Marc B. Shapiro) 2005 collection of essays — We Are Many: Reflections On American Jewish History And Identity.

Here are excerpts of Shapiro’s essay in the Summer 2002 edition of Judaism magazine:

The tensions within Modern Orthodoxy were exhibited on a local level in the 1990s in Congregation Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob and David of West Orange, New Jersey, the leading Orthodox congregation in Essex and Morris counties. I have been affiliated with the congregation since 1969 and, as an academically trained historian and an observer of the sociology of American religion, I have closely watched and thought about its growth. Indeed, much of my writing on American Judaism has come from viewing developments on the ground, so to speak, in West Orange. The evolution of the West Orange Orthodox community has, I believed, been a microcosm of important trends in the history of American Orthodoxy in general and of suburban Orthodoxy in particular. (15) AABJD had been moving slowly to the right during the past three decades. The square dances and concerts with female singers of the 1970s had disappeared from the congregation’s social calendar. Mixed dancing at the synagogue’s annual dinner ended in the early 1980s. The prayer books and bibles used by the synagogue reflected this rightward move. In the 1970s the synagogue used the Birnbaum siddur and the Hertz chumash. These were replaced in the 1980s by the siddur and chumash produced by ArtScroll. ArtScroll specializes in printing prayer books, biblical commentaries, hagiographic biographies, children’s books, and other works which reflect the anti-modernist mentality of sectarian Orthodoxy. These books are written in an execrable manner and edited by persons who disdain or are unaware of modern Jewish scholarship. Few of AABJ&D’s members seem to recognize the incongruity of a congregation of college graduates and professionals using such fundamentalist religious literature. The Rabbinical Council of America, the major rabbinic spokesmen of Modern Orthodoxy, even commissioned ArtScroll to produce a prayer book suitable for their congregations. “There is no small irony,” wrote the historian Jack Wertheimer, “in the fact that the RCA thus commissioned its opponents in th e Orthodox world–traditionalists who do not accept the legitimacy of centrist Orthodox rabbis–to provide its official prayer book.”

…By the early 1980s, however, most of the nominally Orthodox had either left the congregation or their children had grown up, and the congregation closed its Hebrew school. In addition, many observant Orthodox families had moved to West Orange. This winnowing process had changed the nature of AABJ&D’s membership from “fellow- traveling” to “card-carrying” Orthodox. Rabbinic tolerance of religious transgressions was no longer considered so virtuous. And, as the historian Jeffrey S. Gurock noted in 1998, congregational Orthodox rabbis “no longer feel the pressure to accommodate, or turn a blind eye towards the activities of the minority of graying non-observant members.”

…Candidate (3), whose image was suggestive of the yeshiva world, presented a special problem in this respect. During the interview process, he was asked his opinion of women’s prayer meetings at which they would read from Torah scrolls (he opposed them), and of women wearing slacks within the synagogue building (he hoped they would wear appropriate clothing when meeting with him). The feminist disquietude was not alleviated by the new rabbi’s first pre-Yom Kippur sermon. Here he emphasized the duty of husbands to buy their wives pretty clothes for the High Holy days. This offended some women in the congregation who felt they had more important roles than being the recipients of their husbands’ largesse, and it reinforced the sense that he did not understand why so many Orthodox women believed they were not being taken seriously as Jews.

Here are excerpts of Shapiro’s essay, “Orthodoxy in Pleasantdale” (a version of this was published in the Spring 1985 issue of Judaism):

It is not surprising that many of Pleasantdale’s Orthodox population are scientists because science poses less of a threat to traditional Judaism than do the humanities. One wonders whether religious fundamentalists gravitate to the sciences or whether science-oriented individuals find it easier to accept the intellectual demands of Orthodoxy. The scientific orientation of the Orthodox is responsible, in part, for the community’s intellectual flaccidity, a characteristic that…afflicts Yeshiva University…

The social background and religious commitment of Pleasantdale’s Orthodox determines the character of their children’s religious education. Actually, “education” is a misnomer. There is very little desire for education per se. Instead, education is viewed in its most pragmatic and instrumental sense. For the Orthodox, the university is a place where their children can be trained in a profession as expeditiously as possible. There is little understanding of the university years as a time for playing with ideas, for intellectual challenges, and for ideological dialogue. In fact, education, in contrast to professional training, is suspect since it is seen as a threat to religious pieties and could lead to intermarriage. This anti-intellectualism is strengthened by the social background of many of Pleasantdale’s Orthodox, which leads them to place in inordinate importance on financial success. Thus, many of Pleasantdale’s young end up at Touro, Stern College, or Yeshiva College, the triad of New York’s Orthodox colleges, where they will be safe from intellectual contamination…

…Status among the Orthodox comes in part from being more religious than one’s neighbor. This results in continual religious bickering…

…The laity are constantly on the alert for rabbinic religious transgressions that can be a source of status for themselves (”I am even more religious than the rabbi”). (pg. 146)

…If support for blacks is an ineluctable result of Jewish values, then one would expect that the most Jewish of American Jews — the Orthodox of Brooklyn — would be the most sympathetic towards blacks. The exact opposite, however, is true. Secure in their Jewish identity, they do not require close relations with blacks to define it. Their Jewishness rests on more substantial grounds.

…If the most Jewish of Jews are the least receptive to blacks, the Jews most supportive of blacks have often been alienated from Jewish culture and religion. (pg. 240)

…One can imagine the psychological impact on blacks of Eric Hoffer’s comparison of blacks and Jews. The example of Jews, Hoffer wrote, “shows what persistent striving and a passion for education can do…even in the teeth of discrimination. This is a fact which the Negro vehemently rejects. It sticks in his gullet… The Jew impairs the authenticity of the Negro’s grievances and alibis. He threatens the Negro’s most precious possession: the freedom to fail.”

…Jews needed blacks to authenticate their image of themselves as liberals, but blacks did not need Jews to authenticate their image of themselves as blacks. (pg. 243)

Blacks have resented Jews not because they did not do enough for them but because they did too much. (pg. 244)

In academia there is not one black scholar, apart from Julius Lester, a convert to Judaism, whose major field of interest is Jewish studies.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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