Modern Orthodoxy

Dr. Gerhard Falk

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


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” religion.

    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.

Shalom u’vracha.

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