Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Modern Orthodoxy will disappear in another generation

And now for something a little different. I did mention that I had some topics unrelated to Biblical Criticism that I wanted to discuss and this is one of them. I have a bold prediction that Modern Orthodoxy, at least as the form of Judaism I grew up with, is probably going to vanish in the next 20-30 years, roughly one generation from now. Or at very least it will go a steep decline with members leaving either to the right or to the left.

What is Modern Orthodoxy

Modern Orthodoxy is form of religion essentially founded by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. There are two ways to view it which are non-contradicting, so both exist.

The first is the idea of Torah u'Maddah which essentially means Torah and science. The goal here is to seek harmonization between what we learn through Torah and what we learn through scientific methods. Standard Modern Orthodoxy accepts notions like the big bang, a 4 billion year old earth, and evolutionary theory and harmonizes the contradicting Torah passages by explaining them allegorically. One of the premier ideas along this line is an adaptation of the Rambam's concept of miracles as being purely natural events that occur at opportune times. The Hebrew term for this would be Hashgacha Pratit. Therefore, a common Modern Orthodox tactic is to search for natural phenomena that can explain the biblical miracles. This explanation for the red sea splitting is a good example.

The second aspect of Modern Orthodoxy is more social, and deals with the religious Jew in the modern world. Whereas many of the Hassidic communities that migrated into the US sought to develop their own isolated environments, Modern Orthodoxy permits interaction with the world as a whole. You can work in secular companies with non-Jewish co-workers. You can go to sporting events, amusement parks, movies. TV and radio are perfectly acceptable forms of entertainment, and so on. However, the important part is to continue following Halacha. So you go to the amusement park or baseball stadium, but you don't eat any of the non-kosher food.

The Challenge

To me, the major challenge to Modern Orthodoxy is regarding the second aspect, that of the Jew in the modern world. While I do think that the scientific challenges to Judaism are serious, I think it's easier to rationalize them. However, I do see very strong social challenges that are already here or will arrive shortly that look to upset the idea of the religious Jew in the modern world. Let's take a look at some of them.

Modern Orthodoxy was so successful in the late 20th century (and early 21st) because there was a very strong alignment between the morals of religious Judaism and the American society it was a part of.  One example of such an alignment is the practice of circumcision. Between about 1950 and 1970, circumcision rates in the US were somewhere between 70 and 80% peaking in 1965. In 1991 this had dropped to 62% and in 2006 to 56%, with drops occurring across all regions (see here for more info.) With circumcision rates so high, moral arguments against the practice were almost non-existent. It's only very recently, and in regions where rates are low (like Europe, and the western US) where moral arguments against circumcision have started to appear.

Another moral area with a very recent and very pronounced change in national outlook is in the area of treatment of homosexuals, both regarding sexual behavior and recognition of marriage. The change occurred over a single generation, with homosexual marriage finding only 27% support in 1996 and over 50% just 15 years later. The practice was legalized in the US in 2015 with a Supreme Court decision. Modern Orthodoxy, of course, cannot sanction homosexual marriage, so here too there is a strong rift between Halacha and societal norms.

There are various other areas that are not yet problematic for Modern Orthodoxy but that look like they could be in the next twenty years or so. These include the treatment of animals with regard to Halachically valid slaughtering techniques. And the role of women as Rabbis, something that currently is splitting the community, as it split the conservative community in the 80s and 90s.

In my mind these challenges represent a fundamental difference between how a religious Jew will interact with the world in the year 2030 vs how one did in the year 1990. In 2030, views condemning homosexual marriage will be bigoted (they already are). Orthodox Jews will carry that baggage with them as they interact with the world.

What Will Happen

I predict that the exact same thing that happened with Conservative Judaism in the 90s will happen to Modern Orthodox Judaism in the 2020, and maybe a bit before. Conservative Judaism was vibrant in the 80s and 90s but then it sort of fell apart. Adherents either went to the left, towards Reform or to the right towards Modern Orthodoxy. To put it simply, Conservative Judaism, an attempt to compromise between the modernization of Reform Judaism with the traditionalism of Orthodoxy was unstable. People that valued the modernism part pushed for egalitarian minyans, relaxation of Kashrut requirements, recognition of homosexual unions and so on. The more traditional members balked at that, and were willing to sacrifice some of the modernity they were used to for a religion they felt was more "authentic."

The same thing will happen to Modern Orthodoxy. The people that value the morals of western society, will be more willing to sacrifice religious precepts to fit in with society. They will become similar to the Conservatives of the 90s, which will continue to drift left because, as we found out, Conservatism is unstable. On the other hand, the people who want to maintain traditional Judaism, will no longer be able to integrate with society as cleanly as they did previously. The morals of Orthodox Judaism no longer align with the morals of the society they live in. The result will be isolation into more and more closed communities, where you don't need to be confronted with external opinions that criticize your moral values.

We can already see this in play today among my peers (people who grew up in the 90s). The standard path for a Modern Orthodox youngster involves growing up in a community where all the family friends are MO, attending Yeshiva through high school where they only interact with other MO kids, a year in Yeshivah in Israel that caters to MO students, and finally 4 years at either YU/Stern or a university with a large enough Jewish population that they are surrounded by people like them. Hopefully that is shortly followed by marriage into the MO community. Until this point they've essentially grown up in a closed environment. The idea of a Jew in the modern world has been eliminated. It is instead the story of a Jew in a sheltered world.

As the moral gulf between Orthodoxy and the moral center of the US continues to widen, the tendency to shelter youngsters from that world will grow. Then before you know it, Modern Orthodoxy has been replaced by plain old Orthodoxy.


  1. That's all assuming that social mores continue on their current trend. Europe, though, will be Islamified in a generation, and all those issues you mentioned, homosexual marraige, opposition to circumcision, etc., will be thrown out the window. (Of course, life in Europe will be untenable for all factions of Judaism, not just Modern Orthodox). Here in the U.S., cloudy the future is. To paraphrase the Chinese, we live in interesting times.

    1. >Europe, though, will be Islamified in a generation

      No chance. They have nowhere enough numbers to pull that off. Muslims make up somewhere between 1-10% of the population in most western European countries. There's no way they reach a large enough population to "islamify" it in 4 generations, let alone 1.

      That assumes that Islam itself won't undergo changes, but it certainly will also.

    2. I beg to differ. Native European birth rates are extremely low, and millions of Muslims are streaming into the continent unabated.

    3. You can differ if you want, but your facts are wrong.

      This is 4 years ago, but the projections have not changed. (The total asylum seekers from Syrian refugees numbers less than 1 million, and these are people that are fleeing Islamization).

    4. The pew report is from 2011, before the Great Invasion had begun. In 2011 I would have given Europe till 2050-2100 to implode. While it is true that only a million has entered Europe from Syria so far, the supine helplessness of Europe is apparent for all the world to see, and rest assured, millions and millions more are on their way.

    5. You sound like a right-wing (European) fanatic. I don't buy into the hysteria.


  2. Kefira, you are absolutely correct, and it's already happening. Most modern orthodox people I know are already bemoaning the transformation happening within their own families. Children going off to israel and coming home with a black hat and insisting on cholov yisroel and separate seating at their wedding. MO is done.

    The question is whether the same will happen to the 'baal habatish' community as well. It's a bit harder to define that demographic, but I'm referring to yeshiva educated litfish guys and girls that go to college, do business in the secular world and enjoy movies and sports. Will they go the way of the MOs?

    @e - you may be correct about the increase of people who consider themselves 'islamic', but as far as fundamental islamification of Europe, I disagree. Just as you see with orthodox Jews, fundamental Christians and Mormons, children growing up with western influence tend to be pulled towards western / democratic / liberal identity. Yes, you'll always have the fundamentalist whacko minorities, but overwhelmingly human evolution will continue to trend leftward.

    Kefira, do you agree?

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  4. Rabbi J. Sacks of Britain - was more of modern orthodox. He bemoaned the move to the left and to the right from modern orthodox.

  5. Your theory is very interesting. One key item you miss is that an increasingly larger proportion of the population identifies as atheist with that category seeming to take the place of what was considered the more socially acceptable agnosticism which people unaffiliated with religion previously professed.

    However, I believe that biblical scholarship/criticism is the greatest threat to both Modern Orthodoxy and Orthodoxy as a whole. The ideas underlying biblical criticism are now easily accessible and pose a direct challenge to what, until now, has been considered one of the foundation stones of orthodox belief: the Torah being recorded in its entirety by Moses. Instead, we are forced to confront the story of the avos as some sort of post-hoc founding myth with the same being true, perhaps to a lesser extent, with the story of tetziat mitzraim as related in Shemos. Black hat charedi orthodoxy may be able to ride out the storm for a while longer, maybe even a whole generation but the handwriting is on the wall.

    Many of us have string emotional attachments to Judaism and value the family orientation as well as the sense of community and social cohesion that goes along with being a member of the community. The future, however, if there is to be one will probably be found in some form of Reconstructionist Judaism regardless of the name that it is called and I think some people already call it post-denominational Judaism.

    1. Fundamentalism offers too many emotional comforts, easy answers and other 'benefits' for individuals and their communities. I fear that the abrahamic world's religions are becoming more radicalized. Perhaps same is true for non-abrahamic religions - I do not know. The world needs a powerful dose of critical thinking, skepticism, science and other anti-superstition medicine.

  6. In Israel MO is being pulled in two directions. You have more MO (dati leumi) kids taking off their kipot, or putting on pants, while the dati leumi movement as a whole, especially its rabbinate, is becoming more & more charedi leumi. The MO movement here has always looked over its halachic shoulder at the charedim. State religious torani (as opposed to regular state religious) schools are becoming increasingly narrow-minded in their outlook. It will be interesting to see how things go.