Modern Jewish Orthodoxy
It may seem incongruous to many American Jews of the 21st
century that there were several centuries during which the Jews of this world
fared better in Muslim-Arabic lands than in the Christian West.
That was indeed the case during the lifetime of Rabbi
Moses ben Maimon, also known as Rambam or Maimonides (1135-1204). While his Guide
to the Perplexed is viewed as a tremendous work of great scholarship now,
his efforts were not well received in the German or Ashkenazi community of his
day. In fact, it was the controversy around Maimonides which led to the 13th
century rift between the Sephardic and Ahshkenazi communities and the eventual
17th century development of “Modern Orthodoxy” alongside Hasidism
(pious) and the spread of the Cabala.
The Hasidim, whose movement was founded by Israel, the Master of the Good
Name (Baal ShemTov)
in the 18th century, discarded the Ashkenazi customs and
adopted the Sephardic “minhag”. This came about because the Hasidim drew
many of their views from the Sephardic Cabalists. A Cabalist is a Jew who
studies the traditional legends of the Jews. These are called Cabala in Hebrew.
Cabalists are concerned with “the hidden wisdom” in the sacred Jewish
writings while Talmudists emphasize the more rational and logical approaches to
the sacred, the holy and the understanding of God. Today there is little dispute
among Jews along these lines. In earlier years, however, these differences led
to tremendous anger between the two communities, each declaring the other
“heretics”, a word derived from the Greek and meaning “choosers.” The
implication is that “the other side” chooses to enter into “false”
The non-Hasidic Jewish community among the 18th century Jews
followed the teachings of Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon, the “Excellency” or Gaon
of Vilna, Lithuania. He excommunicated the Hasidim because they used the Hasidic
story or tale to vilify the followers of Rabbi Elijah, who called themselves
“the opponents” or, in Hebrew, Misnagdim.
The disputes between the Hasidim and Misnagdim continued for two
centuries. Then the “enlightenment” of the Jewish community in Europe led to
the emergence of the Maskilim. These were the “enlightened” Jews in
post-Napoleonic Europe during the second half of the nineteenth century. After
the defeat of Napoleon the French and German Jews were led to believe that
European society, at least in those two countries, meant to give Jews an
opportunity to be integrated into civil society provided the Jews gave up their
religion. The “enlightened” Maskilim accepted the offer and sought to
downplay most aspects of Judaism. Thereupon the Hasidim and the Misnagdim joined
in condemning the “enlightened” Jews. It was then that orthodoxy as we know
it today was born.
Orthodoxy at first rejected science and all the arts because the
“enlightened”, including the new German Reform Jews, had initiated the
so-called “scientific study of Judaism.”
Now the great Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch (1808-1888) assumed the
rabbinate in Frankfurt and from there became a major writer, scholar and teacher
in Israel. His student, Heinrich Graetz, wrote the most comprehensive history of
the Jews to that time. That history led to the development of Modern Orthodoxy.
It should be added that Solo Baron has done for English speaking Jews what
Graetz had done for German speaking Jews.
One more outcome of the development of Modern Orthodoxy was the founding
of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America by Sabato Morais. Although Morais
was an Italian, Sephardic Jew that seminary did not lead to the ascendancy of
the Sephardim in America. On the contrary. The Ashkenazim have governed American
Jewish life for the past 120 years because their number alone has put Sephardim
into the background in Jewish affairs in this country.
Meanwhile the strictly orthodox (ortho = straight and doxein
= to believe) have become most dissatisfied with the Modern Orthodox who have
become open to a limited secularism.
All this has occurred and continues to occur even while American Jews are
committing mass “suicide” by abandoning their traditions, their history and
their culture. This does not mean that one “denomination” is more
responsible than another for this state of affairs. Those who attack Reform on
the grounds that it is responsible for our decimation in America know nothing or
little about Reform and its great achievements here. Those who blame the
“black hats” know nothing or do not want to know how much we all owe our
orthodox brethren. Those who see Conservative Judaism as the “culprit” or
blame the Reconstructionists fail to see that diversity is our strength. Our
problem is not that there are many paths within and to Judaism. Our problem is
that we have yet to educate our young of any “denomination” to the glory of
our tradition, to the majesty of our history, to the nobility of our ethics to
the “light unto the nations” which is Israel and which is their heritage.
Whether a Jew is born into our faith or is a Jew by choice, whether she belongs
to one or another branch of our great people, makes no difference in the
advancement of our cause. That cause is to keep alive the message that “out of
Zion shall come the Law and the Word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” May we
remember it always and view our fellow Jews as brethren in that great
enterprise, bimhayro v’yomenoo.