Contemporary Orthodox Judaism's Response to Modernity

By Diamond, James S. | Shofar, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

Contemporary Orthodox Judaism's Response to Modernity


Diamond, James S., Shofar


Contemporary Orthodox Judaism's Response to Modernity, by Barry Freundel. Jersey City: KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 2004. 333 pp. $22.95.

There is a corollary to the truth that "you can't tell a book by its cover" and that is: "you can't tell a book by its title." This title of this readable book raises expectations of a study of an extremely important issue in modern Jewish intellectual history, namely a treatment of Orthodoxy not as praxis but as a principled response to modernity. After all, Reform and Conservative Judaisms are almost always explicated in this historical and cultural context. But a presentation of Orthodoxy as one other outcome of the encounter between Jewish religionists and the principles and values of the Enlightenment, that is to say, an exposition of Orthodoxy as a post-Emancipation phenomenon-this has not been done sufficiently if it has been done at all. With Orthodoxy now arguably the healthiest of Jewish religious ideologies on the contemporary post-modern scene, it would be useful to be shown just how in intellectual terms it constitutes a response to modernity, what principles underwrite its response, and how these principles differentiate it from those of the varieties of non-Orthodoxy.

That is not what this book is or does. What we have here is a thoughtful and lucid articulation of a modern "centrist" Orthodox perspective on a range of issues that concern many Jews and some non-Jews today. The author is the rabbi of the major Orthodox synagogue in Washington D.C., Kesher Israel, and this book is clearly the fruit of his years of teaching, preaching, and counseling in that distinctive community. The issues Rabbi Freundel engages are, in the beginning chapters, theological, where he outlines a modern Orthodox view of, inter alia, God, the Bible, Halachah, prophecy, and prayer, following which he moves to matters that are particularly topical these days, such as mysticism, afterlife, astrology, end of life issues, conversion, abortion, women, and sex. He chapters are short but not superficial, and very carefully researched, as the footnotes at the end of each testify, as do the texts of biblical, Talmudic and midrashic sources for each that are printed at the end. Altogether there are 31 such mini-essays. Essentially the book is a smaller, modern Orthodox version of the encyclopedic, more pluralistic and academic compendium Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought, co-edited by Arthur A. Cohen and Paul Mendes-Flohr (The Free Press, 1987).

Could this book be used in a university course such as "Introduction to Judaism" or "Jewish Law and Ethics"? The author suggests in his introduction that it can (p. …

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