Published in The Jerusalem Post on October 18, 1998
I asked the tele-journalist Yaron London several days ago to define for me the core values which make-up the world-view of today’s ‘secular’ Israeli; what London terms *hofshi* (free) Jews. Well, London told me, *hofshi* Jews espouse democracy, enlightenment, humanism, social justice, civil and human rights. Funny, I responded, those are some of my core beliefs as well. And I’m an ardently religious, yeshiva-educated Jew.
This telling exchange took place last week at an intellectual retreat devoted to redefining ‘modern orthodoxy’, dubbed the “Lavi Conference”. Some 200
‘moderate’ Religious Zionists gathered to discuss re-taking leadership in the Orthodox world; winning it back from the forces of mysticism, messianism and narrow-mindedness that have taken hold of the religious community.
The imperative to offer a model of Orthodoxy that is both truly religious without compromise, and concurrently fully enlightened in the modern, secular sense of the term — was at the root of conference discussions.
The good news stemming from the conference is that the groundswell is there. Thousands of thoughtful Orthodox Jews are taking important, bold initiatives in advancing the status of women; in infusing film, journalism and the arts with refreshing religious creativity; in making religion part of the struggle for social justice and democratic norms at all levels of Israeli society; in redefining the relationship between religious and secular out of mutual respect and a religiously-rooted reevaluation of ‘Klal Yisrael’ as a halachic obligation.
The further good news is that people involved here are mainstream and authentic within the world of Religious Zionism: young rabbis who are prominent graduates of Mercaz Harav yeshiva, hesder yeshiva deans, key figures within the state religious educational system, respected academics and university presidents, even many people who are right-wing in their political orientation. It is not just the lefties of Meimad.
The bad news is that the movement, if you can call it that, has no natural nor nascent leadership.
In the devout world, such leadership is critical in providing religious legitimacy and sanction. And yes, the rabbis were there to murmur general good wishes to conference participants: Rabbis Bakshi-Doron, Lau, Amital, Bin-Nun, Lichtenstein, Riskin, Shear-Yashuv Cohen and others less-well-known to the general public.
But in practice, the ‘Modern Orthodox’ gathered at Lavi broadly-agreed to resist the smothering embrace of today’s rabbinate, to move ahead faster, sensing that the rabbis are insufficiently educated in the parlance of, or attuned to the needs of, the generation.
Just how many rabbis are there, after all, who have published significant articulations of halachic norms and principles on social justice issues like labor relations, privatization, the balance between personal rights and national security or national values, democratic behavior, business ethics, or the tensions between artistic creativity in filmmaking and halachic strictures regarding modesty, truth-telling and defamation? How many have truly sought to understand the depth of sincerity in Orthodox feminism and to grapple with its conflicts?
Not too many. While the literature in this field is growing, the senior and tone-setting halachic decision-makers have spent their years intensifying knowledge in traditional areas of halachic behavior – *teffilin, succa, and hametz*. Few *gedolim* yet have taken on the challenge of teaching and applying Jewish ethics and Talmudic norms to a high-tech-driven world of consumerism, infinite communications and unlimited freedoms.
Bereft of leadership in meeting the contemporary challenge, people are escaping into religious mysticism, where Chassidic and Sephardic kabbalistic soothsayers instruct their followers how to run every mundane aspect of their lives, right down to the color of car they ought to buy.
Unfortunately, then, broad rabbinic minds of community-wide authority capable of dealing deeply with the profound dilemmas of modernity and faith for which the ‘Modern Orthodox’ seek guidance and inspiration – just aren’t yet at hand in this country. Perhaps a generation down the line.
Which leaves the audacious ‘Movement Towards Religious Modernity’ vulnerable to errors of enthusiasm and rashness — and to right-wing criticism. Yaron London is just waiting with open arms, he candidly admitted this week, to embrace all the drop-outs from religion he hopes and expects will emerge from the opening-up of the Orthodox community. “I hope you succeed’, he told the conference participants, “so that religion and religious people ultimately will disappear”.
We need not fear Mr. London’s forecast; intellectuals have been prognosticating for 200 years that God is dead and religion is in its last, gasping throes of demise. The Orthodox faith community should look ahead with confidence, take the risks and rise to the challenge. After a two-century late start, I believe it will emerge more resilient and relevant than ever from its confrontation with modernity.