The Future of American Orthodoxy

An examination of the challenges facing Orthodox Judaism in America

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Leadership

Second, Orthodoxy in America is suffering from a severe leadership crisis. The greatest of its 20th‑century leaders--Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Rabbi Moses Feinstein, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson--all have passed from the scene, and no worthy successors have emerged. Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, Rabbi Soloveitchik’s son‑in‑law and now the Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivat Har Etzion, in Israel, has recently acknowledged and bemoaned "the current dearth of first‑rank gedolim [giants]" in America. "One can think," he writes, "of no indigenous American gadol certain to be remembered with wistful awe a century hence ... of no giant majestically bestriding the contemporary scene and securely moving American Orthodoxy into the future."

Perhaps for this reason, American Orthodox Jews increasingly look to Israeli rabbis and yeshivah heads for direction. When a young American Orthodox Jew speaks of "my rebbe," chances are that he is referring to someone in Israel. One cannot help but wonder, however, whether Israeli Orthodox leaders really understand the American Jewish scene well enough to exercise leadership here. Historically, at least, religious movements that cannot count on indigenous leadership to direct them have not fared well in America--at least, not for long.

Brain Drain?

Third, American Orthodoxy is experiencing a significant brain drain. It sends its best and brightest to Israel for long periods of yeshivah study, and unsurprisingly many of them never return. Even those who do come back and succeed feel a spiritual longing to return to the Holy Land, and count the days until they can do so. Thus, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, one of the most successful American Orthodox rabbis of recent decades, left his congregation in New York in order to make aliyah to Efrat. His success at building that community is remarkable, but in the meanwhile his former congregation grievously declined and American Orthodoxy lost one of its most dynamic leaders.

One can think of literally dozens of similar examples: remarkable Orthodox men and women who might have transformed American Jewish religious life but preferred to cast their lot with Zion. This may be terrific from an Israeli perspective, but can a movement that sends its most illustrious sons and daughters there truly expect to triumph here?

Confronting Modernity

Fourth, American Orthodoxy is deeply divided over the issue of how to confront modernity. There is nothing new about this: Jeffrey Gurock has shown that the tension between "accommodators" and "resisters" in Orthodox life dates back to the 19th century. Parallel debates have animated many other American religious movements. Indeed, such debates have also often proved salutary: each side checks and balances the excesses of the other.

The problem is that, in the absence of broadly respected leaders, the fault lines between modern and right‑wing Orthodox Jews have deepened. In one particularly vitriolic attack, Rabbi Elya Svei, a prominent member of the right‑wing Agudat Israel, characterized Yeshiva University's President Norman Lamm as "an enemy of God" --a charge that he subsequently refused to retract. More broadly, Modern Orthodox Jews--including, recently, Senator Joseph Lieberman--have found themselves written out of Orthodoxy altogether by some right‑wing critics. No wonder that Professors William B. Helmreich and Reuel Shinnar, in a recent analysis, described Modem Orthodoxy as "a movement under siege."

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Jonathan Sarna

Jonathan D. Sarna is the Joseph and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University.