Modern Orthodoxy in Israel

By Liebman, Charles S. | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

Modern Orthodoxy in Israel


Liebman, Charles S., Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


Israeli Orthodoxy has a bad name among most American Jews and probably most Israelis. The rabbinical establishment, rabbinical courts, and religious parties are perceived as reactionary, fossilized, resistant to any change in the realm of religion and culture. But it would be a mistake to assume that resistance to change characterizes religious (Orthodox) Jews in Israel. Among them, new attitudes and outlooks are to be found, some congenial to the observer, others not. The most dramatic change of all is that which is taking place among the modern Orthodox.

To understand the significance of this change we must understand something of the structure of Orthodox Judaism. Orthodoxy's distinguishing characteristic is its affirmation of the binding nature of halakha (Jewish law). Jewish law like any law is subject to interpretation. And since there is no legislative authority within the halakhic system, the authoritative interpretation of Jewish law, certainly in the minds of Orthodox Jews rests with those who have a mastery of sacred texts, especially the Talmud and codes of law. This mastery requires many years of intensive study. The study itself and the milieu in which that study occurs generates a whole set of assumptions about the essence and the boundaries of halakha, about relationships between observant and non-observant Jews, about the nature of modern society and about threats to the halakhic system. The product of this system is a master of sacred texts whose reference group is composed of other masters of Jewish text. It is the praise of his peers which the halakhic authority most avidly seeks, their opprobrium which he most assiduously avoids. As a result, those with the authority to innovate or at least legitimate new modes of thought, new outlooks, new attitudes within Orthodoxy are least likely to do so.

Modern Orthodoxy is broadly defined as the effort to adapt Orthodox Judaism to modernity and to avoid the social and/or cultural isolation which living in strict accordance with halakha would seem to impose. Two groups of Jews fall under the rubric modern Orthodox. There are those Orthodox Jews who conduct much of their lives as do others of similar age, occupational, educational, and social standing. They are able to do so by ignoring those aspects of halakha which they find most cumbersome or onerous and/or by a process of compartmentalization in which they apply Jewish law to some but not to other aspects of their lives. Sometimes this is accompanied by feelings of guilt, sometimes not. The stereotypical category of the modern Orthodox are the upwardly mobile, professionally successful American Orthodox Jews who in the search to enjoy the material fruits of their own success as well as benefit from technological advances and new cultural mores take liberties with Jewish law while remaining faithful to its general mandates.

But the term modern Orthodox is sometimes used to refer to a different group and a different orientation. In the 1960s, a decade when modern Orthodoxy as a self conscious orientation reached its peak in the United States, Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, the leading figure, within the United States, in this second type of modern Orthodoxy, described it as an orientation confined to "no more than a coterie of a score of rabbis in America and in Israel whose interpretations of the Tradition have won the approval of Orthodox intellectuals who are knowledgeable in both Judaism and Western civilization." This group struggled to reconcile Jewish law and the mores and values of contemporary western culture through a reinterpretation of the Jewish tradition while maintaining rigorous adherence to halakha. Most of the modern Orthodox rabbis in the United States whom Rackman had in mind were products of, or associated with, Yeshiva University. In Israel, modern Orthodoxy was associated with the cause of religious Zionism. Whereas modern Orthodoxy and religious Zionism were never identical they shared many of the same values and many of the same adherents. …

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