Professor Alan Brill
Seton Hall University, New Jersey
In my current book-project, on the ‘Varieties of Modern Orthodoxy’, I explore the differences between Orthodox groups entering modernity and the wide variety of interactions between modernity and traditional religion. My research at Yarnton Manor focused on what the word ‘Modern’ might mean in the expression ‘Modern Orthodoxy’. The term was first used in the United States in the early 1960s to refer to ‘a small alienated minority’ of ‘no more than several score intellectuals’. But by the late 1970s the term was associated with a sociological group of tens of thousands of adherents.
My first question within the larger one of what is ‘Modern’ about Modern Orthodoxy is: when did modernity start for observant Jews? Doreen Rosman begins her book, The Evolution of the English Churches: 1500–2000, with a bold explanation for why she commences her survey in early modern Europe: ‘People’s passage from this life to the next and their entry to heaven were […] matters of major concern’, and since most believers did not expect to enter heaven without working for their eternal reward, they joined religious lay organizations such as confraternities, as a context in which they would appeal to saints for admission to the beyond, engage in magical rites, and practise esoteric wisdom. Modernity as a movement changed that major
preoccupation of early modern forms of religion, and initiated what we nowregard as modern discussions about religion.(1)
For Jews, modern religion began with the generations following the Enlightenment, occurring around the 1770s in England, France, Italy, Prague, Surinam and elsewhere. One could start the discussion of the transformation of traditional religion with figures such as David Levi, who in England produced translations of the Hebrew rites. But many in this transitional era still mixed the late Baroque with their own modernity, such as the Baal Shem of London, his Baroque kabbalistic magic and role as a faith healer with modern freemasonry and mesmerism.(2)
For a more clear and emotive example of the change, one may look to Shmuel David Luzzatto (also known as Shadal, 1800–65), the scholar, poet and biblical exegete who adhered to the school of thought in which Judaism should be explored through the scientific method. A child of the Enlightenment, he negated the early modern world and therefore abandoned the Kabbalah of his forefathers. Shadal’s biographer recounts the moment when he turned his back on his father’s type of orthodoxy:
In Nissan 1814 […] his mother lay fatally ill with pleurisy (inflammation of the chest membrane). His father, a believer in Kabbalah, prayed in the appropriate kabbalistic manner; however, he saw that his prayers were to no avail. He then thought that if his son, a pure lad, were to pray in the kabbalistic manner, this would be of greater help. Therefore he instructed his son in the appropriate manner of prayer, to raise the soul through various Worlds, then to the Sefirot, and eventually to the Creator himself. Shadal, however, refused to pray in such a way – even though this was a request from his father concerning a life-threatening condition of his mother.(3)
Shadal explained how he ‘no longer believed in this creed and therefore could not pray in the manner [that his father wished]’. He and his contemporaries offer the clearest definition of the ‘modern’ in ‘Modern Orthodoxy’ at the end of early modern Europe – no more focus on death, the world to come, esotericism or ritual. From the early nineteenth century, an acceptance of modern scientific cosmology became a major criterion for entry into modern society. People worried less about the journey of their souls into the next world than about this world.
I must reiterate that my question is not about the origins of the modern Jew, of which there are many fine historical explorations, or about the beginnings of modern reforms in the Jewish religion, but about the foundation of modern forms of the traditional religion. In other words, when and how did traditionalist religion engage with modernity?
A second question my work seeks to answer is, if we say that by the early nineteenth century in Italy, for example, Jews such as Shadal had the characteristics of Modern Orthodoxy, why is it often claimed that the movement started 150 years later in New York in the 1960s? Further, why did the term come to be applied to other groups such as the British United Synagogue, Religious Zionists and Hirschian Neo-Orthodoxy?
In order to resolve this confusion it will help to break Modernity down into distinct phases or aspects, using the British sociologist Anthony Giddens’s three stages of modernity: Enlightenment, Modernism and Late Modernity. Briefly, Enlightenment refers to the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century turn to reason, science and autonomy, and the fight against the old regime and traditionalism. Modernism is the enthusiastic embrace in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries of urbanization, easy transportation, individuality and the new understandings attained through the social sciences. Late Modernity is the late-twentieth-century practice of risk management in the face of fragility and complexity reflected in globalization, consumerism and the spectre of genocide, combined with a return to more traditional, Evangelical forms of religion.(4)
Anthony Giddens notes that the Enlightenment stretches roughly from the mid-seventeenth to the early nineteenth centuries and is characterized by dramatic revolutions in Western thought and culture, particularly in the areas of science, philosophy, society and politics. Kant defines ‘enlightenment’ as humankind’s release from its self-inflicted immaturity by using its autonomous reason rather than relying on authority, tradition and a belief in miracles. Moses Mendelssohn defines Enlightenment as ‘modifications of social life, the effects of the industry and efforts of men to better their social condition’.
Although the Enlightenment is often represented as opposed to religion, it can more accurately be seen as critically directed against various (arguably contingent) features of religion, such as superstition, enthusiasm, fanaticism and supernaturalism. The effort to advocate a religion purified of such features – a ‘rational’ or ‘natural’ religion – is more typical of the Enlightenment than a convinced opposition to religion as such. Modern Orthodox thinkers similarly argue that superstitions are contingent rather than essential parts of Jewish teaching. Jewish followers of the Enlightenment also advocated the study of modern sciences, culture and languages.(5)
The second of Giddens’s three epochs, ‘Modernism’, is applied to the period beginning somewhere between 1870 and 1910 and continuing into the 1960s. This era therefore includes the emergence of the social sciences and anthropology, Romanticism, early Existentialism, naturalist approaches to art and literature, politics, social sciences and evolutionary thinking in geology and biology. It also includes the beginnings of modern psychology and the sense of growing disenfranchisement of religion from the established institutions. The culture of this era witnessed the rise of individualism and therefore alienation. In different ways, classical social thinkers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries thought that religion would either disappear or weaken with the expansion of modern institutions, resulting in a ‘secularization thesis’ captured in the title of Freud’s work, The Future of an Illusion.
Modern Orthodoxy, as a movement, flourished from around 1940 until 1975 (or perhaps until 1990) and was based on the response of a specific group to this high modernity, and can be defined as a philosophical phase arising from the integration of modernity and Orthodoxy, similar to the way in which Modernism in art or literature was a phase in the history of art and literature. Modern Orthodoxy emulated and wanted to adapt this moment of high Modernism. Its members sought to face the intellectual challenges of the day by commenting on and integrating the modernist masterpieces of literature and philosophy into a form of Orthodoxy that they cast as a champion of democracy, liberalism and individualism. Among those who took on this lofty aspiration were Rabbis Eliezer Berkovits, Walter Wurzburger, Norman Lamm, Michael Wyschogrod, Emmanuel Rackman and Irving Greenberg. They were the first generation of American leaders of Eastern European descent who used the term Modern Orthodox to differentiate themselves from non-intellectual immigrant Orthodox Jews.(6)
In the late 1970s many began to consider that the ideology of Modern Orthodoxy was no longer designed for a ‘tiny articulate minority’ (Rabbi Walter Wurzburger’s phrase), but central to the community’s ideal of integrating modernity into a full observance of Orthodoxy. Teachers in Modern Orthodox high schools envisaged the full integration of secular and religious studies. So was Modern Orthodoxy as modern as Modern Orthodox ideologies thought? Bruno Latour argues that many people continued living their lives without a self-conscious sense of change, and that those who defended traditional religion made preservation their concern, irrespective of any engagement with modernity. Talal Asad argues that secularization is an independent ideology which makes possible science, tolerance and liberalism.
But instead of a binary structure of tradition versus secular, many people experience percentages of both, meaning secularization may not be the opposite of religion. Individuals may wear a secular hat in public or professional affairs and a religious one in the family and community settings, allowing them to combine different modes of life.(7)
The term ‘modern’ was retrospectively applied to other Orthodox groups and movements for two opposite reasons. The first was that many of the classics of twentieth-century social science conflated the changes of the eighteenth century with those of the twentieth century. The other was that laymen and even rabbis knew little of the Modernist forms of Orthodoxy in other countries.
Finally, one must ask if the Modern Orthodox of the past twenty years who do not engage with Modernist issues ought to be called modern? Anthony Giddens argues that we are living in the world of Late Modernity that ‘has the feeling of riding a juggernaut’ or ‘erratic runaway’. Things are now so fragile and precarious that we must strive, in the words of the sociologist Ulrich Beck, to manage the risk and uncertainty as best we can. One means of doing so is to return to the absolutes of religion as a personal choice. Many social observers have noted how late modernity with its quest for security has been kind to Evangelicals, Fundamentalists, Mormons, Orthodox Jews and most other forms of highly committed religion. The Engaged Evangelicals, who select a limited modernism combined with a more literal faith, are the fastest-growing Protestant group in the world, seemingly offering an answer to contemporary needs. Evangelicalism is a thriving religious perspective that embraces modernity, while accepting few of the harmonizations with high culture offered by more modernist approaches to
At the onset of the 1990s, American Modern Orthodoxy moved towards The halakhic concerns and talmudic study of Centrist Orthodoxy. It flourished in enclaves of college-educated professionals who were not part of the modernist world in the narrow sense, since attending college or a professional school no longer meant accepting mid-twentieth-century liberal Modern values rather than Orthodoxy.
People continued to call themselves Modern Orthodox and attended both college and professional school, but this more recent form of Modern Orthodoxy left out of the discussion the commitment of 1960s modern Orthodoxy to synthesize the challenges of modern philosophy, science and democracy. They could function as doctors and lawyers without needing to engage with high modernism. Many members of the new Centrist Orthodoxy call themselves modern in the sense of Late Modernism: modern without high modernism.
Scholarship, Hirsch and Jacob Katz/
A complete answer to what is modern about Modern Orthodoxy requires a reexamination of much of the earlier scholarship. To give an example:
Jacob Katz (1904–98), who sought to understand Judaism through social history, regarded Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch as neither traditional nor conservative, in view of his: 1) deviation from traditional precedent; 2) cultural adaptation to Western dress, language and style of ritual; 3) rejection of mystical ideas for nineteenth-century rationalism; and 4) new symbolic mode of biblical explanation based on a closed and complete system of modern concepts.(9)
Katz adds a fifth criterion to these. Following the modernist sociologist Karl Mannheim, he claims that in order to be modern, one must feel that one is undergoing a transformation from the traditional to the modern. Without this self-consciousness one has not truly entered modernity. In this, Jacob Katz blurred the individualist modernism of the twentieth century with that of the Enlightenment nineteenth century. Sadly, because of his criterion of selfconsciousness, he excluded non-self-conscious communities such as British and Italian Jewry. Clearly, much scholarship on Orthodoxy needs to be rescrutinized.(10)
My research reframes the question of how to define the modern, by identifying multiple modernities. Modern, in a broad sense, encompasses every group that has shifted from an other-worldly focus. But in the narrow sense it should be limited to the concern with High Modernity in the mid-twentieth century. Jews who are both modern and Orthodox have been around since the 1770s. But, modern Orthodox Judaism in the narrow sense was a mid- to late-twentiethcentury phenomenon, even though we continue to use the term for twentyfirst- century communities whose Orthodoxy is somewhat different. It remains to delineate the multiple – at least fifteen – different types of Jewish ideologies who regard themselves as both modern and Orthodox in the broad sense.
- Doreen Rosman, The Evolution of the English Churches, 1500–2000 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
- David B. Ruderman, Jewish Enlightenment in an English Key (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000).
- Shmuel David Luzzatto, ‘Autobiografia di S.D. Luzzatto (Autobiography of Samuel David Luzzatto), Translation into English by Sabato Morais’, The Jewish Record, Philadelphia (3–10 August 1877).
- Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age (London: Polity Press, 1991).
- Ulrich L. Lehner and Michael Printy (eds) Companion to the Catholic Enlightenment in Europe (Leiden and Boston, Brill, 2010); Ulrich L. Lehner, ‘What is Catholic Enlightenment?’, History Compass 8 (2010) 166–78.
- Alan Brill, ‘The Thought of Rabbi Walter Wurzbuger’, Tradition 41:2 (2008) 1–35.
- Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993); Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003).
- Christian Smith, American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).
- Yosef Salmon, ‘Jacob Katz’s Approach to Orthodoxy – The Eastern European Case’, Modern Judaism 32:2 (2012) 129–54.
- David Kettler and Volker Meja, ‘Karl Mannheim’s Jewish Question’, Religions 3:2 (2012) 228–50