Over Pesach I spent some time considering how to crystallize the vision I wish to present of what I believe Modern Orthodoxy should be. With the help of God and lots of free time, I believe I was able to put something together to share with readers of this blog.
In order to appreciate what Modern Orthodox should have become, one must look both at the history that led to the creation of the concept and at the leaders most frequently identified with the movement. Through an understanding of what made their approach unique and different from the predominant Litvish/Chasidic model of the time, one can get a clearer sense of where those who call themselves Modern Orthodox should be holding in terms of personal beliefs and practice.
The first thing is to quickly review history. Over the last two hundred years, Judaism has undergone changes not seen since the times of the Second Temple (may it be speedily rebuilt). Specifically, the creation of movements that claim to be authentic expressions of Jewish religious belief which reject much of what Judaism has stood for since matan Torah. Until the Reformers and Conservatives came onto the scene, one generally knew what "real" Jewish practice consisted of. Either one fulfilled the requirements or one did not. The Reformers and Conservatives completely changed this paradagm by insisting that one could be an observant Jew without observing Torah and mitzvos.
In addition, the 1800's also saw the creation of the concept of Biblical Criticism, the idea that the Torah was the work of several human authors which was sloppily edited into one book by Ezra HaSofer. In addition, the advancement of science and archeology also challenged many Torah truths that until then had remained essentially unchallenged.
Now, there were and are two ways to confront these challenges to the Torah's authority and authenticity. The Eastern European approach was relatively simple: Given that the Torah is true, science, archeology and the Reformers must be false. And that's it. It is not much different from a person sticking his fingers in his ears, closing his eyes and shouting "Na, na, na, I can't hear you!" For the right person, this approach can be quite effective but it has the obvious limitation in that anyone with an inquisitive mind and a desire to reconcile obvious fact with the Torah's version of things will be unable to answer the difficulty questions the Reforms, critics and scientists ask.
The second approach, therefore, is to refute the opponents of Torah on their own grounds, using their own tools against them. This is much in the spirit of the mishnah in Avos that tells us that we must know how to respond to heretics. This approach characterized the early models of Modern Orthodoxy.
The first leader to look at would be Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch. Interestingly, although Modern Orthodoxy claims him as one of their "founding fathers" he himself did not identify himself as such. Indeed, to this day those who faithfully follow in his Torah Im Derech Eretz approach do not associate themselves with the Modern Orthodox community but are faithful members of the Agudah instead.
Rav Hirsch's historical position was a difficult one. Faced with a strong, growing Reform movement that was making tremendous inroads amongst Germany's well-educated Jewish population, he created a system of intellectual Torah Judaism that could stand up to and force back the efforts of the Reformers. Reading his written works, and especially his commentary on the Torah, one can see that his aim was to authenticate all of the Torah's words as well as the Oral Law which itself is based in the Written Torah.
A different approach was taken by Rav Azriel Hildesheimer and the Berlin Rabbinical Seminary. Rabbonim trained at this institution were expected to have received a higher secular education before enrolling in studies at the school. The idea was to train Jewish leaders who would be able to show that the Torah is true without flinching from the challenges of science and philosophy. In addition to Rav Hilderheimer, Rav Dovid Tzi Hoffmann and the Seridei Aish also continued in this philosophy. One could be a devout Jew and yet be aware of the real world and its challenges.
The final leader of distinction to mention is the Rav Joseph Ber Soloveitchik. What makes his contribution to Modern Orthodoxy so distinct and important are his lineage and his intelligence. In terms of the former, here was a scion of the Brisker dynasty, one of the pre-eminent Jewish families in the leadership of the Torah world. When he chose to become a leader of Modern Orthodoxy he was saying, in effect, that Modern Orthodoxy and the Brisk philosophy were not contradictory and that Brisk could evolve into Modern Orthodoxy. In terms of his intelligence, it was his towering mental ability that allowed him to see beyond simplistic models of Torah behaviour and develop the idea of a synthesis that could incorporate the modern world into the Torah notion of things.
What all these giants had in common was a desire to use the real world to enhance the learning of Torah. If science had something to add to our understanding of a subject, then it was necessary to learn it. If studying history increased our ability to discern how a particular halachah developed, then that was also a good thing. The idea that the outside world was separate from the Torah and that the two should never meet or mix was rejected in favour of a belief that the entire world, being a creation of God, plays a role in our understanding of His Divine plan for us.
What is apparent from this is that real Modern Orthodoxy is not about lenient personal behaviours or emotionless intellectual inquiries. Rather it should be about vigorous and rigorous Jewish belief and practice rooted in a Judaism that is supported, rather than threatened, by the outside world and its knowledge.