The Failure Of Modern Orthodoxy

Kobe emails: I grew modern orthodox (“MO”), attending the schools, camps, NCSY, Bnei Akiva, year in Israel, college Hillel, etc., and so a majority of my friends and acquaintances are MO. Although I am not from NY, I spent many years there during and after college, lived in yet another large MO community before I was married, and currently live in another one. As such, I have an intimate knowledge of what goes on in the lives of my MO friends and acquaintances, both married and unmarried, who are in their mid-twenties to mid-thirties. And I have a secret to tell you, one that pains me because I often feel spiritually alone and because it speaks to the failure of our community:


Now clearly I am generalizing. Surely there are many MO young men and women to whom keeping halakhah is an apriori priority, but in my circles (and again, I probably know hundreds of MO young adults who reside in many different US cities) they are few and far between. I can barely think of any friends who grew up MO and are currently MO (as opposed to those who became charedi in Israel) who would, for example, refuse to carry anything in their pockets (or push the stroller) because there is no eruv (even though we read every Friday night in the “bameh madlikin” that it is a “hilchta rabta l’shabta – a great law of Shabbat). Not turning the air conditioner on Shabbat? Not pushing the elevator button? Not a chance.

Now the levels of being “not frum” run the spectrum from totally irreligious (work on Shabbat, eat shrimp) to others who are lax on observance but would never, for example, not keep a kosher home or drive on Shabbat. Most are probably closer to the latter then to the former. But if I had to guess, I would say that 95% of my friends eat dairy/fish out, and over 30% of them would eat totally treif (of course on vacation, the number rises to 99% and over 50%). Very few daven every day or say brachot before and after eating. In terms of the laws of niddah, I obviously don’t know but one could speculate.

Of course these MO young adults would never, ever, become Conservative or Reform. They are still, in most cases, part of the MO community, come to shul on Shabbat (even if it is only in time for the Kiddush club; but go to a MO shul on a weekday morning and you will barely see anyone 25-35), and socialize with their MO friends. And they will send their kids to Orthodox schools and will generously give tzedakah.

Now I have written this anonymously because I can anticipate the responses to this essay – you are a hypocrite because you yourself do (or don’t follow) such and such, or that I am acting self-righteous and judging people based on my personal definition of “frum”, or that being “frum” is defined by many things, and while someone might not keep shabbos at least they don’t cheat in business like the frummies.

While all this might be true, it misses the point: The empirical evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates (at least to me) that a majority of young MO adults, both male and female and both married and single, who went to yeshivas for 12 years and then a year in Israel, and most of whom were frum for most of their lives, no longer follow the halachot of Shabbat, kashrut, and most others. While they are often members of the MO community, keep a kosher home, and invite guests for Shabbat meals, these are social mechanisms, and when it comes to actually keeping the halacha, they are no longer frum.

To decipher what went wrong is beyond the reach of this essay, but let me make one suggestion. The flaw is not the concept of modern orthodoxy. You don’t have to isolate yourself from modern culture to be frum, and you don’t have to keep chumras to lead a religious lifestyle. The failure is an educational system (both parents and teachers) that taught us gemara and halachah, but failed to reach our souls to explain why we should accept ol malchut shamayim, why when we are on a business trip in Vegas and no one is around we should still keep kosher and put on tefillin. That we should keep all halacha because it is a package deal – committing to a religious life is the path that God wants from us.

MO young adults are not atheists or even agnostics, they just don’t keep halacha because it is inconvenient and they believe it is unnecessary or silly – they just don’t want to. And that is the failure – it has not been sufficiently instilled in us that by not checking our blackberry on Shabbos, by committing to following the halacha as best we can, we will lead better lives.

I share this with you in the hope that it will elicit discussion as to how to change our educational priorities, so that we may all be inspired to follow God’s Torah to the best of our abilities.

JOE emails: In other words, the kids turned out just like their parents.

Renana May writes: I agree with you totally. I wrote about it, as well.
No it is not because of the parents. This is totally unfair to say. The parents gave up a lot to send the kids to day schools, Israel living in a frum communities. They really bought the goods the sharleten Rabbis sold them, covered with hips of guilt…The parents disserve better and so did their kids.

Let’s take R…. for an example, he never liked being a Rav he always acted as a CEO and got paid as such. Fine. When a band or a company produces defective products… the first one to be called on it is the head of the company.

Our Rashey Kahal are thieves. They are in the money business rather then in the Emunah business. They are the one’s who promote Ganv’s to sit on the board. They are the one’s who M’Kasher the Sheretz (Shiksseh wives). What do you think it does not effects the students don’t they see the hypocrisy? ]]>

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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