“Modern Orthodox Judaism: A Documentary History” by Zev Eleff— Documenting Modern Orthodox Judaism— Memory and Practice


Eleff, Zev. “Modern Orthodox Judaism: A Documentary History”,  (JPS Anthologies of Jewish Thought), Jewish Publication Society, 2016.

Documenting Modern Orthodox Judaism— Memory and Practice

Amos Lassen

Before we have a look at Zev Eleff’s monumental study of modern Orthodox Judaism, let me say a little bit about myself and my relation to Judaism. Having been raised as an Orthodox Jew, I realize now that there are so many questions I should have asked but didn’t. When I was growing up, we did not ask questions about religion— we just accepted what we were supposed to do and not think about it. I did not leave Orthodoxy for any specific reason—it just so happened that I found myself in places where Reform Judaism spoke to me more directly than any other faction of the Jewish religion. I have always considered myself to be something of a hybrid of the two branches of Judaism. The most important thing is that I am satisfied with where I am. When I was growing up there was no Modern Orthodox Judaism (in fact, there was not much conservative Judaism either in New Orleans).

In his study of modern Orthodoxy, Zev Eleff shares a collection of documents that dates back to the early nineteenth century and comes forward until the present day and what we see is a diverse and multi-dimensional portrait of how Orthodox Judaism has attempted to respond to the cultural changes and challenges that have occurred with the evolution of Jewish and secular lifestyles in the United States over the course during the last two hundred years.

Every religions faces making sense out of and engaging with the human condition at the particular times and places where we, as adherents, find themselves. Unlike those religions that are opposed to relatively extreme religious approaches that can cause them to isolate themselves from their surroundings or completely incorporate the current trends extent within society, Modern Orthodoxy, works at maintaining some kind of balance between tradition and modernity—which some feel is a contradiction in terms. Eleff shares reflections of how Orthodox Judaism has addressed “changes in liturgy, the divinity of the Torah, the delineation of various Jewish denominations, aesthetics of places of worship, attitudes towards secular education, women’s ritual and leadership issues, interfaith dialogue, Friday night programming, sexuality and family matters, genetic testing, Zionism, the bat mitzvah celebration for young women, commemorating the Holocaust, Zionism, Soviet Jewry, and addressing the terrible dilemma of helping women whose husbands refuse to grant them a divorce”. It seems that no stone is left unturned and just to give you an idea of what is covered here, the table of contents is twenty-three pages long.

The documents included are those that reflect the ongoing soul-searching and important concerns in which institutions and their leaders have engaged in their attempt to adjust and yet preserve Judaism’s traditions over the years. We get consistent integration of several points of view regarding many of the issues addressed thus allowing us to see the complexity of issues and the sincerity of purpose that those dealing with them have. We see something of a decline in the relatively broad ideological religious approach that has been categorized as Modern Orthodoxy and this can be seem in the documents from the 1960s to the 1980s. Important and significant changes in the movement’s key leadership is one of the reasons for the leaving behind moderate, centrist positions in favor of a sharper delineation of the left and right wings of the group. Much of what we read in the book’s last chapter shows that attempts on the part of more liberal and progressive elements within Modern Orthodoxy, claim to be the heirs of this particular tradition.

In the documents that we see in the book, we become aware that change affects culture and we get the impression that immigration from more traditional and even repressive societies to the openness and personal freedom of the United States, is followed by the general relocation of Orthodox Jews from urban settings to suburban environments and this has played a major role in empowering many to think that past approaches and practices must be altered, regardless of the long-standing demands of religious tradition. When these developments meet the new technology and social media, the integrity of Modern Orthodoxy is tested. Reading documents like those collected here helps us to understand and identify with Modern Orthodoxy and to be prepared for what is yet to come. Today modern Orthodoxy is popular and in fact, I live just three blocks from a Modern Orthodox synagogue and I have enjoyed several of the programs and services that I have attended there yet for whatever reason, I do not feel as at home there as I do in the temple that I am a member of.

Writer Zev Eleff gives us an extensive selection of primary texts documenting the Orthodox encounter with American Judaism that led to the existence of the Modern Orthodox movement. We see that the movement grew out of conflict with Orthodox Judaism and this is especially in the early responses from traditionalists’ feelings about Reform Judaism in its early stages and incidents and events that helped define the differences between Orthodox and Conservative Judaism in the early twentieth century. We also have here texts that explore the internal struggles to maintain order and balance once Orthodox Judaism had separated itself from other religious movements. I remember all too well what happened when my home synagogue decided that it wanted to allow mixed seating during services. Most of the congregation was in favor of this but there was a small group of traditional Orthodox members that fought this idea and it even reached the Louisiana Supreme Court.

This book brings together published documents with seldom-seen archival sources that trace Modern Orthodoxy as it developed into a structured movement and established its own institutions as it came into contact with critical events and issues, Some of which helped shape the movement and others that caused tension within it.

The introduction explains how the movement began and took hold by putting the texts into historical context and short introductions to each section helped to take us through the documents contained therein. Reading this allows us to deal with the issues, especially those of “identity and ideology, religious practice and social behavior, rootedness in tradition and openness to new ways of thinking and acting that define Modern Orthodoxy.”

I do think it is possible to stress too much how important this book is. I keep it on my desk so that I can check it regularly as I deal with questions and situations. Through its use we can learn about the complex issues of identity and ideology, religious practice and social behavior, tradition and openness and new ways of thinking and acting. Can there possibly be anything else to ask for?

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