By Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman
When the Pew Research Center published its much-discussed survey of American Jews in 2013, the findings seemed auspicious for the Orthodox denomination. Orthodox Jews have a much younger population than the Conservative and Reform movements, as well as higher fertility rates, meaning the Orthodox share of U.S. Jewry is growing. Couple that with how the falloff from Orthodoxy appears to be declining, and it looks like Orthodox Jewish education is working.
So why did Yeshiva University (YU) feel the need to recently host a symposium in Jerusalem, titled “Modern Orthodox Education in 21st Century Israel & America,” at which presenters were asked to undergo a public and communal cheshbon nefesh (spiritual accounting) of the state of the “modern Orthodox” educational system?
The balance between “modern” and “Orthodox,” presenters said, is becoming increasingly hard to achieve.
“We are asking students to care about an engage with universal human concerns and at the same time to recognize there are distinct Jewish conventional concerns,” said Karen Bacon, the Mordecai D. Katz and Dr. Monique C. Katz Dean of Undergraduate Faculty of Arts and Sciences at YU. “We ask them to take advantage of the American passion for individual autonomy and independence, and to still be a part of the community—to build community and to recognize communal authority. That is a lot to put on the plate of an undergraduate.”
That sentiment was particularly embodied by YU President Richard M. Joel’s remark that he doesn’t have a formal definition or description of what “modern Orthodox” education is—other than “complicated.”
“We have to say what we are and not what we are not,” Joel said.
So how, then, can “what we are” be described?
“For modern Orthodox education to sustain itself, it must proactively provide an educational experience that educates toward the values it believes in,” wrote longtime Jewish educator Rabbi Scot A. Berman in a 2009 essay published in “Mosorot,” a forum of modern Orthodox discourse published by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School.
The modern Orthodox community nor its educational system are monolithic, explained Rabbi Shlomo Brody, an instructor at Yeshivat Hakotel in Jerusalem, in a separate “Mosorot” essay. The result of this diversity and the inherent dichotomy between kodesh (holy) and chol (secular) studies makes it “futile to speak of any form of ideal graduate or product” from modern Orthodox schooling.
Brody argued that the modern Orthodox educational system has long promoted specific educational ideals to its students: they should be passionate about Torah study and Jewish law; Zionist; and have an appreciation for human and life sciences as well as general contemporary Jewish life (but from a Jewish perspective).
“To speak in these generic, idealistic terms simply…obfuscates educational agendas,” wrote Brody.
Esti Rosenberg, founder of the Migdal Oz Beit Midrash for Women seminary in Israel, expressed similar sentiments at the Jerusalem symposium. She said that sometimes, “We are literally crazy. We are sending our children—and ourselves—to challenges and places they don’t need to go, and they don’t have enough tools to cope with [those situations].”
Whether it’s Harvard or Yale or the Israeli army, Rosenberg said that for years she believed the main goal of a modern Orthodox education was to give students self-confidence in their religious life so that they could maintain faith against the challenges of the modern world. But today, she said, “For some of our students it is too big a challenge.”
Sixty years ago, modern Orthodoxy meant reading Shakespeare or studying Leo Tolstoy. Today, the Internet and other areas of technology have deepened the divide between the holy and secular worlds.
“We don’t give our kids enough tools to differentiate between kodesh and chol, and to differentiate between chol and chol,” said Rosenberg, explaining that some parts of the secular world can be holy, while others are not. Her point was reiterated by symposium presenter Rabbi Meir Soloveichik in his statement that children need to know “where to draw the line.”
Take women’s issues, for instance. Public discourse on that subject usually conveys an acute blurring of the lines of modern Orthodoxy. The gentle balance between running forward as empowered women, and stopping within the bounds of halacha (Jewish law) and tradition, is a topic that Rosenberg said can be a conference all on its own. She said that modern Orthodox women, and the community that supports them, have only a handful of options—and the first is rearing women back in. The second option is to continue to challenge women Jewishly and trust that they will stop exactly where the community wants them to, and be happy with their roles. Otherwise, one can accept the reality that as some women become more knowledgeable and empowered, they will test boundaries. They will ask themselves questions that the community must address, such as, “Why should I get up on time for minyan if I am not counted?”
But it is not all “doom and gloom,” according to YU’s Joel. Rather, in looking at past explanations of the role of modern Orthodox education through the eyes of previous YU presidents Dr. Bernard Revel, Rabbi Dr. Samuel Belkin, and Dr. Norman Lamm, Joel noted that each president grappled with the balance between Torah and science in education, just as the modern Orthodox community is doing today.
“We have to build an integrated life based on Torah. We cannot remove ourselves from society or meet the expectations of a highly secular society. To achieve shlemut (wholeness)…life isn’t a religious track and a secular track, but an integrated, harmonious existence,” Joel said.
To that end, there is a need to combine the methodologies of the American modern Orthodox and Israeli national religious education systems, according to Rosenberg. She explained that while American education is too intellectual, Israeli education has been accused of being too spiritual.
Where does the modern Orthodox community go from here? In his “Mosorot” essay, Brody concluded that the flourishing of the modern Orthodox educational system will “depend on our commitment to advancing our cause and ideals, as well as having enough self-awareness to understand our challenges and opportunities.”