Modern with a Capital 'M'
About 15 years ago, the phrase “Modern Orthodox,” which had been
used to describe Orthodox Jews affiliated with Yeshiva University, the Orthodox
Union, Young Israel and other similar institutions and organizations, was replaced
by the locution “Centrist.” Recently, though, “Modern
Orthodox” has made a comeback, and appears frequently in both the Jewish
and, as a result of Senator Lieberman’s vice-presidential campaign, the
Indeed, Edah uses this term, albeit in a slightly modified manner in its slogan,
“The courage to be modern and Orthodox.” In so doing, Edah
has decided to use a lower case “m” in the word “modern,”
as do many others who write about Modern Orthodoxy. I, however, deliberately
choose to use a capital “M.” Let me explain why.
To be “modern Orthodox” means that our Orthodoxy is modern and
that our modern life is Orthodox. As modern Orthodox Jews, we check our
Donna Karan dresses and Armani suits for sha’atnez; use Davka and
Bar Ilan computer applications to learn daf yomi and research medieval
responsa; employ a cell phone and the Kotel Cam to give our children
studying in Israel a Rosh Hashanah blessing; go to movies, keep up-to-date on
the latest music and best-sellers, and enjoy nouvelle cuisine – but only,
of course, if they are glatt kosher. Indeed, the modern Orthodox Jew fully
resides in the twenty-first century while adhering to our timeless Torah and
To be “Modern Orthodox,” though, has one important additional
feature: Modern Orthodox Jews —modern with a capital “M” —do
more than modernize our Orthodoxy and ensure that the modern twenty-first century
lives we live are Orthodox; we have a strong affirmative commitment to modernity
and certain of its values which we strive to infuse with sanctity. To
the Modern Orthodox Jew, “Modern” is not simply an adjective modifying
“Orthodox”; rather, it also connotes an extra-halakhic allegiance
to certain modern values apart from, in addition to, and – to state the
obvious – not in conflict with our Orthodoxy. Let me discuss a few
The Modern Orthodox Jew is strongly devoted to democracy, an allegiance
that arises primarily out of our secular values. Our intense devotion
to democratic political systems is not grounded in what we learn in the yeshivah.
It emanates, rather, from Hobbes, Locke, Mill and Burke, from Adams, Madison,
Hamilton and Jefferson, from the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg
Address and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream.” And
it is reinforced daily by what we read on the front pages of our newspapers
and see on our television screens.
The Modern Orthodox Jew not only recognizes the evil in despotic or segregationist
political systems, but also opposes theocratic governments that impose a “State
Religion” to the exclusion of others. We understand that despotic,
segregationist, and theocratic systems diminish the value of those they subjugate.
We support the democratic ideals of freedom of speech and freedom of religion
as basic rights of all peoples. While those among us may differ about
how extensive these freedoms should be, we earnestly embrace the idea that the
lack of such freedoms results in tyranny and oppression.
The Modern Orthodox Jew believes in being an actor in history. We are
avid Zionists not only because we believe God gave the land of Israel to the
Jewish People, but also because we cannot sit back passively and wait for God
to lead us to the Promised Land. We applaud and feel a strong kinship
to those, Orthodox and not, who built and continue to sustain the State of Israel.
We send our children to study there so they can learn first hand to love Medinat
Yisrael as we do.
The Modern Orthodox Jew believes in the inherent value of secular education.
We and our children study in universities not only because such study
enables us to make a living, but more importantly, because it opens up to us
the grandeur of our God-given world. We value literature, music, history,
psychology, mathematics and science because they speak to our soul as they enlighten
our minds. Torah study is, of course, of prime importance, but our definition
of “sacred” includes much wisdom that cannot be found in our religious
The Modern Orthodox Jew also believes in intellectual honesty and scientific
methodology. Other than our faith in God and the few other essential beliefs
posited by our sages, we believe little that cannot be proven through logic,
control groups, blind studies, statistics and all the other modes of modern
rigorous thinking and proof. For example, when confronted with scientific
facts that contradict facts posited in the Talmud, we cannot side with those
who argue that both are right and the facts have changed from the time of the
Talmud to our times. Instead we ask: “Where is the scientific proof
- that is, proof that can be tested and challenged - that these facts
have changed, that what was scientifically true in generations before us, has
now been altered?”
The Modern Orthodox Jew refuses to reject that which has been proven true;
refuses to accept answers whose truth cannot be proven; refuses to be intellectually
dishonest even in the face of contradictions that appear to challenge aspects
of our belief system. Rather, when scientific discrepancies arise we side
with those who argue that the rabbis of the Talmud were experts in Torah scholarship
and not in science; that in their halakhic debate and decision-making, the rabbis
used the best scientific knowledge available to them. And, when the science
relied on by rabbis of earlier generations has been proven false, Modern Orthodox
Jews believe that, in appropriate situations, the halakhah based
on such science must be adapted to reflect the true scientific facts, in order
to ensure that halakhah is emet, an indispensable ingredient
of Torah. Mosheh emet ve-torato emet.
The Modern Orthodox Jew believes in tolerance. We may disagree strongly
with much of what our brethren in other Jewish denominations believe and practice,
but we believe it is necessary and proper to treat them as we wish to be treated
by the society in which we live. We therefore reach out to and interact
with all Jews and their leaders with love and respect.
The Modern Orthodox Jew is not afraid to admit that we are sometimes influenced
in our Jewish observance by some of the moral, ethical and political norms of
the communities in which we live. For example, those Modern Orthodox Jews
who are also Orthodox feminists admit that we have been motivated, in part,
by the rise of secular feminism over the last quarter of a century. We
do not hide, nor are we ashamed of the fact, that we have been affected by modern
values that whisper in our ears and echo in our hearts that women deserve an
equal place in our world, including our Jewish world. We are proud of
our attempts to sanctify that which has not been traditional.
In this last instance, of course, there are, at times, tensions between what
we believe as feminists and what halakhah demands of us; we must
accept that there are certain cases where the Modern and the Orthodox cannot
co-exist. And, when reconciliation between the two is impossible, halakhah does,
as it must, take the day. But when, through effort, the two can exist
side by side or be blended into a new synergistic element, we strongly believe
that it is of prime importance to expend as much effort as possible on such
a task despite the brickbats that are thrown at us.
Being a Modern Orthodox Jew—modern with a capital “M”—presents
serious challenges. It means living in two worlds with strong, though
not equal, commitments to both. It means having different and sometimes
conflicting allegiances and values. It means grappling with issues that
some of our compatriots can ignore. It means sometimes living with doubt,
stress and angst. But it also means partaking of all that is good in God’s
Joseph C. Kaplan practices law in New York. He has been a frequent contributor
to Jewish publications such as Sh'ma and the Baltimore Jewish Times.