Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Problem With Modern Orthodoxy

[Disclaimer: I don't presume to know everything about Modern Orthodoxy or labels in general. If I get anything wrong, I do apologize. Let me know and I'll try to fix it.]

No, I am not going to post about the Sneetches again, but I am going to argue that the term "Modern Orthodoxy" is one of the more meaningless labels we Jews plaster onto each other.

The concept behind Modern Orthodoxy sounds clear - some sort of synthesis of Torah and the modern world, right? But what does this mean in practicality? Is it YU's Torah U'Mada? Is it Bnei Akiva's Torah v'Avodah? Is it something else entirely?

The truth is, the history of it doesn't matter much when it comes to how it's applied nowadays, because the fact is that people aren't analyzing what it means when they call someone "Modern Orthodox." The issue which arises is that Modern Orthodoxy covers a huge range of religious levels, from those who loiter around the more modern end of the spectrum and those who hang out on the more Orthodox end. And some prefer to take a stroll every now and then, spending some time on the more modern side of things, some time on the more orthodox side. Some sit on a seesaw, rising and falling from one extreme to another. And still some perfer to picnic somewhere in the middle.

The point is that the term Modern Orthodoxy can be and is applied to all of the following people:

A. The girl who goes to a co-ed school, very co-ed camp, wears tank tops and shorts when it's hot enough, sweat pants when it's cooler - skirts to school, probably, hangs out with a lot of guys, not at all shomer negiah, keeps shabbos and kosher.

B. The girl who goes to a single-sex high school but still hangs out with guys, wears pants when she's not in school, short sleeves, not quite shomer negiah, is otherwise in keeping with halacha (for the most part).

C. The girl who has a bit of co-ed in her life but not a ton, wears skirts the cover the knee, sleeves that cover the elbow, shomer negiah, cares about and keeps halacha.

I was going to add D, the girl who has absolutely no co-ed in her life, but to be honest, I have never met anyone, even on the more yeshivish side, who has never had any sort of friendship with a guy (which doesn't mean such people don't exist, I just have yet to come across them). So I'm not sure how much D is actually an ideal as opposed to a reality.

Even while making this list, I felt a certain amount of disgust with myself. For one thing, notice that I am judging these people based on two main principles: mode of dress, level of co-edness. Nothing about the girl's (and you can imagine this list for a guy, as well) connection with God, with the Torah, etc. No ideology involved there at all. Of course, you would think that if one cared enough about halacha, she would try more to keep it. I think that is assumed when such judging occurs, and I think that while this is usually somewhat valid, it should also be done with care and caution. It is good to be open minded about why people do what they do instead of assuming you know.

But benefit of the doubt is not the point of this post (although it's good to remember that it is a principle in Judaism, for all those who are genuinely concerned with following Jewish principles). The point is that if you were to tell someone you have a Modern Orthodox friend, what would that mean? Would that person think your friend is like girl A? or B? or C? Or something in between? Or something else?

Notice how none of the descriptions in my list have anything to do with principles of an ideology. It's all about externals. Because I think that Modern Orthodoxy has lost its ideology. It seems to have become this loose term to describe people who are not Conservative Jews - they're definitely Orthodox, but are not Yeshivish...

Isn't that insane? To presume to lump together everyone in between Conservative and Yeshivish? Don't you realize how wide - how vast - that spectrum is?

And that is why, in my opinion, Modern Orthodoxy, as a term, means nothing. As the idea it once was - does that still exist? But that is not how the term is thrown around. The idea is no longer connected to the name.

So if I were to call myself Modern Orthodox...what would that mean? What would I be saying about myself? I don't think I would be saying very much. All I'd be saying is...I am more modern than Yeshivish.

I was going to propose a new label called "Orthodox Jews Who Keep Halacha," but even that is problematic, because define "keeping halacha." Halacha according to whom? Keeping halacha means different things to different people, just like being modern means different things, being frum means different things, being machmir means different things.

The problem with labels is that they spawn new labels. Once you name a group of people, you've got to also address the subgroups. And the subgroups of that. And the subgroups of that. You see how it's never ending?

I am increasingly frustrated with being labeled "Modern Orthodox." Because it says absolutely nothing about who I am or how I practice Judaism. I am frustrated with my own list of stereotypes. No one should fall into a list of types.

Why can't I just be seen as a Jewish girl who keeps and genuinely cares about halacha and the Torah, without being stamped with a label? I'd like not to be defined by a term. I'd like to be defined by who I actually am.


Ari said...

Great post. Agree that buttonholing / pigeonholing someone based on externals is pretty shallow. Ignore the herd. It's a big world out there and the issues we think are so important are really very petty.

Josh M. said...

If you don't like the term, don't use it. (I don't contest the validity of your rant, though.)

Erachet said...

Ari - Ignore the herd. It's a big world out there and the issues we think are so important are really very petty.

Great comment. :)

Josh M. - True, though no one can stop other people from using it. But I suppose it's a good idea not to let it bother you (and, erm, by you, I mean me) what other people think and/or say, just as long as you know what you believe.

Josh M. said...

Right :-)

Frayda said...

I love this post. I am going to try and come up with some more types for you.

G said...

How you define yourself is how other people (real people, people who know you and care about you) will end up defining you.

So relax and be yourself...whoever you want that to be.

Erachet said...

Frayda - :)

G - Thanks.

Northern Light said...

A very valid internal debate...seemingly about externals! And what if girl A takes eight shiurim a week and is intent in her davening and serious about her progress--does that make her less modern orthodox because she wears tank tops?
I tend to use the lables people say they prefer for themselves, and try very hard (often fail) not to PUT lables on, because I know that I'm one of those Category B girls that the C girls may consider too modern and not deserving of the term "orthodox"! Down with lables!!