The struggle to blend Orthodoxy and modernity

'Torah and Western Thought: Intellectual Portraits of Orthodoxy and Modernity' edited by Meir Soloveichik, Stuart Halpern and Shlomo Zuckier (MAGGID BOOKS AND STRAUS CENTER FOR TORAH AND WESTERN THOUGHT)
'Torah and Western Thought: Intellectual Portraits of Orthodoxy and Modernity' edited by Meir Soloveichik, Stuart Halpern and Shlomo Zuckier (MAGGID BOOKS AND STRAUS CENTER FOR TORAH AND WESTERN THOUGHT)

Orthodox religions, including Orthodox Judaism, believe that a religion’s core values are timeless and immutable. In the 20th and 21st centuries in the western world, on the other hand, we often feel that our values surpass those of our forefathers, believing we have more respect for rights, freedoms and civil liberties, and for minorities, women and strangers in society. While traditional Judaism emphasizes the importance of the group, modernity emphasizes the status of the individual.

Thus, creating a Judaism that’s both Orthodox and modern is a challenge. Torah and Western Thought: Intellectual Portraits of Orthodoxy and Modernity is a collection of intellectual biographies of 20th-century Orthodox Jewish leaders who have tried to bring together these two value systems. Many of the thinkers discussed in the book, most of the essay authors, and all three editors have taught at some point at Yeshiva University. In that sense, the book is, at least in part, an attempt to portray Yeshiva University as being in the forefront of the struggle to blend Torah and modern thought.


All the essays are well written, providing useful examples of how each thinker dealt with the modernity/tradition problem. They manage to avoid being “lives of the saints” that applaud and admire without analyzing or evaluating.

Yael Unterman’s piece on Prof. Nehama Leibowitz, the famous Israeli scholar and teacher of Bible who died in 1997, may have even gone too far in the opposite direction. Unterman claims that Leibowitz’s work “may be scrutinized for its lack of correspondence with the 21st-century zeitgeist, which is a notable obsession in western society with the self… Leibowitz’s Torah, it can be argued, lags behind that of those contemporary teachers… who take on the search for meaning, wholeness and belonging.”

As a student of Leibowitz myself, I still respect and teach her methodology, and I take issue with this assessment of her contemporary relevance. The skills that she brought to the close reading of texts should still be important, even to Jews who search for meaning, wholeness and belonging.

The subjects of the book include nine males, all Orthodox rabbis, and Leibowitz. In addition to deep Jewish education, almost all of them had extensive university education. (I count seven PhDs among them.) Two of the thinkers, Rabbi Abraham Kook and Rabbi Yehudah Amital, never studied in a university, yet still struggled meaningfully with modernity and tradition.

It must have been difficult to choose whom to include. Every scholar in the book was born between 1865 and 1933. This may explain why no Israeli-born thinkers are included, even though some of the most interesting approaches to Orthodoxy and modernity are now found in Israel. Before World War II, modern Orthodoxy hardly existed in Israel. The first two Ashkenazi chief rabbis of Israel, Rabbi Kook and Rabbi Isaac Herzog, had something to say about Orthodoxy and modernity and so are included in the book. Later holders of that office were not, perhaps because none of them contributed significantly to the discourse on this.

In discussing modern times, one of the editors, Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, argues that combining secular wisdom and Orthodoxy may have become more difficult in the last few decades. Until recently, he writes in a short introduction to the book, the university world believed “that the knowledge it safeguarded and transmitted was vital to the moral and spiritual survival of civilization; that faith and reason must go hand in hand; and that not only does religion enhance the pursuit of wisdom, but the fear of God is the very beginning of wisdom itself.” Today this is hardly the case.

All 10 thinkers are Ashkenazi Jews, despite the fact that, as some scholars like Prof. Zvi Zohar have argued, Sephardi Jews often made significant, creative and less self-conscious contributions to the blending of modernity and Orthodoxy. Sephardi rabbis generally were not as concerned about distancing themselves from the liberal Jewish movements, and thus, Zohar and others argue, they innovated without fearing a backlash.

It is true that before World War II, Ashkenazim constituted around 90 per cent of world Jewry. But including Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel, the first Sephardi chief rabbi of the State of Israel, or Rabbi Joseph Messas, who also lived and taught in Israel but was of North African origin, for example, would have provided balance.


A time line at the beginning of the book contains helpful geographical and chronological information. It highlights one interesting experience almost all of the subjects shared: they were immigrants, Jews who left continental Europe and moved to an English- or Hebrew-speaking country. The two exceptions are Rabbi Isadore Twersky, who was born and died in the United States, and Rabbi Norman Lamm, who was born in the United States and still lives there.

Immigrants know that values change when they come to a new place. Some immigrants reject those changes and continue to pine for the values of the old country. But most Jews who moved to North America, England or Israel, came to appreciate at least some of the values of their new home. Perhaps it makes sense that they would also be willing to consider that values could change over time, and that new ways of thinking about old issues might be required even among the Orthodox.