Modern Orthodox Judaism

From Academic Kids

Modern Orthodox Judaism (or Modern Orthodox, also known as Modern Orthodoxy and sometimes abbreviated as "MO") is a movement within Judaism that attempts to synthesize Orthodox Judaism with the secular modern world in its interactions with it. In the United States its leaders are generally associated with the world of Yeshiva University with its motto of Torah Umadda ("Torah and Knowledge/Science"). Modern Orthodox Judaism in America feels close to the Religious Zionist Movement and the Mizrachi party in Israel which they regard as their religious counterparts and ideological allies.



Modern Orthodoxy comprises a fairly broad spectrum of movements each drawing on several distinct, though related, philosophies, which in some combination provide the basis for all variations of the movement today; these are discussed in detail below. In general, Modern Orthodoxy holds that Jewish law is normative and obligatory, while simultaneously attaching a positive, inherent value to interaction with the modern world. In this view, Orthodox Judaism can “be enriched” by its intersection with modernity; further, “modern society creates opportunities to be productive citizens engaged in the Divine work of transforming the world to benefit humanity”. At the same time, in order to preserve the integrity of halakha, any area of “powerful inconsistency and conflict” between Torah and modern culture must be avoided. [1] (

Modern Orthodoxy traces its roots to the works of Rabbis Azriel Hildesheimer (1820-1899) and Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888). Hirsch’s Torah im Derech Eretz (תורה עם דרך ארץ – “Torah with the way of the Land”) is a philosophy of Orthodox Judaism which formalises a relationship between traditionally observant Judaism and the modern world. Hirsch held that one should accept the integration of halakhic Judaism with secular education and culture not only as necessary, but as positive. "Judaism is not a mere adjunct to life: it comprises all of life... in the synagogue and the kitchen, in the field and the warehouse, in the office and the pulpit... with the pen and the chisel" [2] ( Hirsch's vision, although not unqualified, extended to the sciences as well as to (German) literature, philosophy and culture. Torah im Derech Eretz remains influential to this day in all branches of Orthodox Judaism. Note that Neo Orthodoxy, the movement directly descended from Hirsch’s Frankfurt community, regards itself as positioned, ideologically, outside of contemporary Modern Orthodoxy.

A closely related paradigm is that of Torah Umadda (תורה ומדע - "Torah and secular knowledge") a philosophy concerning the interelationship between the secular world and Judaism, and in particular between secular knowledge and Jewish knowledge. The resultant mode of Orthodox Judaism is referred to as "Centrist Orthodoxy". Torah Umadda, as formulated today, is to a large extent a product of the teachings and philosphy of Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-1993), Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University. In Rav. Soloveitchik's thought, Judaism, which believes that the world is "very good", enjoins man to engage in tikkun olam. "Halakhic Man" must therefore attempt to bring the sanctity and purity of the transcendent realm into the material world [3] ( Centrist Orthodoxy is the dominant Modern Orthodox paradigm in the United States, while Torah Umadda remains closely associated with Yeshiva University.

Religious Zionism, a third movement within Modern Orthodoxy, draws largely on the writings of Abraham Isaac Kook (18641935). “Rav Kook” saw Zionism as a part of a divine scheme finally to result in the resettlement of the Jewish people in its homeland, bringing salvation ("Geula") to the Jewish people, and the entire world. In Rav Kook’s thought Kodesh and Chol (sacred and profane) play an extremely important role. Kodesh is the inner taam (taste or reason) of reality - it is the meaning of existence; Chol is that which is detached from Kodesh and is thus neutral, without any meaning. Judaism is the vehicle whereby we sanctify our lives, and "attach all the practical, secular elements of life to spiritual goals which reflect the absolute meaning of existence - God Himself" [4] ( To the right of Religious Zionism, there are also those who view engagement with the secular as permissible, and encouraged, insofar as this benefits the State of Israel. Here, secular knowledge has a practical, as opposed to philosophical value. Religious Zionism is the dominant Modern Orthodox paradigm in Israel. See also Mizrachi; Bnei Akiva.

Comparison with other movements

Various, highly differing views are offered under the banner of Modern Orthodoxy, ranging from traditionalist to revisionist. In addition, some elements of Haredi Judaism ("Ultra-Orthodox Judaism") appear to be more receptive to messages that have traditionally been part of the Modern-Orthodox agenda. At the same time, Modern Orthodoxy’s left wing may appear to align with more traditional elements of Conservative Judaism. Thus, in clarifying its position, it is useful to discuss Modern Orthodoxy with reference to other movements in Judaism.

Haredi Judaism

Although there is some question as how precisely to define the distinction between Modern Orthodoxy and Haredi Judaism, there is basic agreement that they may be distinguished on the basis of three major characteristics: [5] (

  • Modern Orthodoxy adopts a relatively inclusive attitude stance towards society in general, and the larger Jewish community in particular.
  • Modern Orthodoxy is, in comparison, accommodating, “if not welcoming” to modernity, general scholarship and science.
  • Modern Orthodoxy is receptive toward Israel and Zionism, viewing the State of Israel (as opposed to the Land of Israel) as having inherent Jewish significance.

There is an often cited contention that Modern Orthodoxy also differs with Haredi Judaism as regards observance of traditional Jewish laws and customs [6] ( This view is largely anecdotal, and is based on individual behaviour, as opposed to any formal, institutional position: “There are at least two distinct types of Modern Orthodox.. One is philosophically or ideologically modern, while the other is more appropriately characterized as behaviorally modern… [The] philosophically Modern Orthodox would be those who are meticulously observant of Halakhah but are, nevertheless, philosophically modern….The behaviorally Modern Orthodox, on the other hand, are not deeply concerned with philosophical ideas... by and large, they define themselves as Modern Orthodox [either] in the sense that they are not meticulously observant [or] in reference to… right-wing Orthodoxy.” [7] (

It is true though, that the two movements differ in their approach to Halakha as regards strictures (chumras) and leniencies (kulas); this, however, represents a specific difference in application as opposed to a general difference in ideology. Both Modern Orthodoxy and Ultra Orthodoxy regard Halakha as Divine in origin, and as such, no position is assumed without justification in the Shulkhan Arukh or in the Acharonim. In the Modern Orthodox view, however, "severity and leniency are relevant only in circumstances of factual doubt, not in situations of debate or varied practice. In the latter situations, the conclusion should be based solely on the legal analysis". In the Haredi view, on the other hand, "the most severe position... is the most likely basis for unity and commonality of practice within the Orthodox community and is therefore to be preferred". Further, "such severity... results in the greatest certainty that God's will is being performed." [8] (

Conservative Judaism

In some areas, Modern Orthodoxy’s left wing may appear to align with more traditional elements of Conservative Judaism -- some on the left of Modern Orthodoxy have even allied with the formerly Conservative Union for Traditional Judaism -- however the two movements are completely distinct. Modern Orthodoxy, in line with the rest of Orthodoxy, holds that Jewish law is Divine in origin, and as such, no underlying principle may be compromised in accounting for changing political, social or economic conditions. In contrast, "the Conservative Movement maintains that the purpose of the law in the first place is largely to concretize moral values, and so the specific form of the law can and should be changed if it is not effectively doing that" [9] ( Even those on the right of Conservative Judaism hold that "[t]he halakhic system, historically considered, evinces a constant pattern of responsiveness, change and variety. Conservative Judaism did not read that record as carte blanche for a radical revision or even rejection of the system, but rather as warrant for valid adjustment where absolutely necessary" [10] ( Conservative Judaism thus holds that Poskim should make use of literary and historical analysis in deciding Jewish law, and may (should) reverse decisions of the Acharonim that are held to be inapplicable today. As such, Modern Orthodoxy does not view the process by which the Conservative movement decides halakha as legitimate, and disagrees with many of Conservative Judaism’s halakhic rulings, particularly as regards issues of egalitarianism. See further on the Orthodox view and the Conservative view. Modern Orthodoxy clearly differs from the approach of Reform Judaism and Reconstructionist Judaism, which do not consider halakha to be obligatory.

Origins of the term

It is not exactly clear precisely when the label "Modern Orthodox" came into existence and when it began to be applied to and combined with "Judaism" to form the widely used description "Modern Orthodox Judaism". What is known is that by the end of the 1900s it had become a means of self-definition for those modern highly westernized Orthodox Jews residing mainly in the United States who did not wish to identify with the more stringent and outwardly more religious-looking Haredi and Hasidic camps to their right (labelled as "Ultra Orthodox").

Origins of the movement

In Europe during the early 1800s, before the rise of the formal Reform Judaism movement, some people may have referred to any changes in strict Jewish law as a "reform". At that time, as now for the Orthodox, if it was still within the bounds of Jewish law, then it may have been a case of chumras ("strictures") being dropped in favour of kulas ("leniencies"). However, if it became a case of the abandonment of Jewish law -- meaning no justification, either lenient or strict, could be found or derived from the Shulkhan Arukh (the definitive "Code of Jewish Law") -- then most of the "reforms" that eventually became associated with Reform Judaism were rejected outright by the Orthodox. However, a number of acceptable reforms did occur amongst some Orthodox groups:

  • In Western Europe, having a sermon in the vernacular language, such as German or English.
  • Acceptance of lighter more modern styles of dress and fashion in the work place and professionaly, including less head-coverings for men and women when not worshiping in synagogue or at home.
  • Having the bima ("Altar") (a platform from which the Torah is read) in the front of the synagogue instead of near the center.
  • Accepting Zionism as a political movement.
  • Having ordered services with a choir.
  • Adding a prayer to the siddur (Jewish prayerbook) for the welfare of the nation in which the congregation existed, or having varying versions of certain older prayers.

Some Jews had a perception of Judaism as "static and unchanging" and that each of the above reforms may be a "violation" of Jewish law, and thus forbidden. Others thought that Jewish law was never "static" and could change as long as there is room for kulas ("leniencies") in Jewish law itself, or that these strictures were never enshrined in Jewish law to begin with. To the latter, the above examples of changes were justifiable, and perhaps necessary; that although these were changes in the Jewish tradition of recent centuries, they were not a violation of classical halakha.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch stated:

"it is foolish to believe that it is the wording of a prayer, the notes of a synagogue tune, or the order of a special service, which form the abyss between (reform and orthodoxy)... It is not the so-called Divine Service which separates us, (rather it) is the theory - the principle.
The subordination of religion to any other factor means the denial of religion: for if the Torah is to you the Law of God how dare you place another law above it and go along with God and His Law only as long as you thereby "progress" in other respects at the same time?" (S.R. Hirsch, Religion Allied to Progress.)

Modern forms of textual criticism

Some Modern Orthodox scholars may acknowledge insights provided by some tools of modern textual criticism into Judaism's sacred works and rabbinic literature. However, it also maintains that the Torah is of divine origin, and has been transmitted with almost perfect fidelity from the time of Moses until today. Modern Orthodox Jews often study academic biblical criticism but rely on traditional authorities for normative interpretation of the Torah. The documentary hypothesis is only of academic interest for observance.

Modern Orthodoxy is ambivalent, at best, about the use of academic criticism for other books of the Hebrew Bible because if one allows these techniques to be used here, one might then be tempted to eventually look at the Torah in this light as well. Orthodox Judaism makes clear distinctions between the books of the Hebrew Bible, holding that the first five books - the Torah - are of a special nature, being directly dictated by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. The rest of the books of the Bible, the Neviim ("Prophets") and Ketuvim ("Writings") are also considered holy, but are less direct transcriptions of God's will. As such some forms of higher criticism of these book are sometimes considered acceptable. A certain amount of Modern Orthodox acceptance of higher criticism for non-Torah books of the Bible can be found in the Soncino Books of the Bible series, and in the Pentateuch and Haftarah by Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz, both works which are widely used in the Modern Orthodox community.

Criticism of Modern Orthodoxy

Modern Orthodox Rabbis have been criticised for attempting to modify Jewish law and the Codes of Jewish Law in the name of adapting Judaism to the needs of modern world. Haredi groups have sometimes compared Modern Orthodoxy to the beginnings of Reform Judaism in Germany.

Furthermore, many spokesmen have offered highly differing views under the banner of Modern Orthodoxy, ranging from highly traditionalist to radically revisionist. In addition, some elements of Haredi Judaism appear to be more receptive to messages that have traditionally been part of the Modern-Orthodox agenda. As such, generalisations of Modern Orthodoxy are harder to draw then they were at its inception, around 50 years ago.

Important figures

Many Orthodox Jews find the intellectual engagement with the modern world as a virtue. Examples of Orthodox rabbis who promote this worldview include:

  • Marc D. Angel - former president of the Rabbinical Council of America
  • Yehuda Amital - A Hungarian survivor of the Holocaust, Rabbi Amital emigrated to Israel in 1944, and resumed his yeshiva studies in Jerusalem. During the War of Independence, he served in the Hagana armored corps, taking part in the famous battle of Latrun. Subsequently, he took an active role in the development of Yeshivat Hadarom, where he was involved in the formulation of the idea of yeshivat hesder. Following the Six Day War, Rabbi Amital founded and assumed leadership of Yeshivat Har Etzion. He is a dominant public figure in Israel who is widely respected on matters of religious and national concern.
  • Eliezer Berkovits - philosopher, author of many works including Not In Heaven: The Nature and Function of Halakha and Faith after the Holocaust.
  • Tsvi Blanchard - Director of Organizational Development at CLAL.
  • Benjamin Blech
  • Shalom Carmy - professor of Jewish Studies and Philosophy at Yeshiva University; a prominent Modern Orthodox theologian
  • J. Simcha Cohen, presently rabbi in West Palm Beach, Fl., formerly rabbi of the Melbourne, Australia, Mizrachi community. Author of a series of Modern Orthodox response collections.
  • Barry Freundel, Rabbi of Kesher Israel Congregation in Washington, DC, author of several works including 'Contemporary Orthodox Judaism's Response to Modernity.' Rabbi Freundel appeared on television as a panelist on religion in an early episode of Da Ali G Show.
  • Shmuel Goldin, Congregation Ahavath Torah, Englewood, N.J.; Chair, Shvil Hazahav
  • Irving Greenberg - Founder of CLAL; engaged in creating a pluralistic theology and inter-denominational cooperation.
  • Steven Greenberg - Senior Teaching Fellow at CLAL. He received his B.A. in philosophy from Yeshiva University and his rabbinical ordination from Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. He is the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi.
  • David Hartman - director of the Shalom Hartman Institute, Jerusalem. Working from a Maimonidean framework, and based on the works of his mentor Joseph Soloveitchik, he is engaged in creating a pluaralistic theology and inter-denominational cooperation. Author of many books including A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism.
  • Donniel Hartman
  • Norman Lamm - Rosh Yeshiva, Yeshiva University ; Orthodox Forum; author of Torah U-Maddah. One of the leading voices for the validity and importance of Modern Orthodoxy.
  • Daniel Lapin involved in the Pacific Jewish Center in Venice Beach, California and the founder of Toward Tradition, a group promoting stronger ties between observant conservative Christian and Jewish communities.
  • B. Barry Levy - former professor at Yeshiva University, now professor at McGill University. His work attempts to reconcile modern day biblical scholarship with Orthodox theology.
  • Mendell Lewittes - Author of Jewish Law: An Introduction.
  • Aharon Lichtenstein - Lichtenstein grew up in the United States, earning Semicha at Yeshiva University, and a Ph.D. in English Literature at Harvard. He is committed to intensive and original Torah study, and articulates a bold Jewish worldview that embraces modernity, reflecting the tradition of his teacher and father-in-law, Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik. In 1971, Lichtenstein answered Rabbi Amital's request to join him at the helm of Yeshivat Har Etzion. He is a source of inspiration for a wide circle of Jewry, for both his educational attainments and his intellectual leadership. Author of Leaves of Faith - The World of Jewish Learning, and By His Light: Character and Values in the Service of God.
  • Haskel Lookstein - Congregation Kehilath Jeshrun, NY
  • Michael Melchior - Affiliated with Meimad
  • Adam J. Mintz - Former Rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue, New York, NY
  • Emanuel Rackman - Chancellor Bar Ilan Univ, Israel ; member of Edah; former president of the Rabbinical Council of America, and author of One Man's Judaism. A leader in defending the rights of agunot, women who are prevented from receiving a divorce under Jewish law.
  • Shlomo Riskin - Formerly rabbi of the Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan, he emigrated to Israel to become the Chief Rabbi of Efrat.
  • Herschel Shachter - one of Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik's most prominent students, dean of the Katz Kollel at the Yeshiva University-affiliated Rabbi Isaac Elchanon Theological Seminary (RIETS). Has published several works attempting to established a definitive view of Rabbi Soloveitchik's Weltanschauung.
  • Rabbi Saul Berman - director of Edah, a Modern Orthodox advocacy organization.
  • Marc Schneier - Rabbi of The Hampton Synagogue, NY
  • Joseph Dov Soloveitchik - Known as "The Rav", he was effectively the spiritual and intellectual guide of Modern Orthodoxy in American for the mid-20th century. He is the author of "The Lonely Man of Faith" and "Halakhic Man," an outspoken Zionist, an opponent of extending rabbinic authority into areas of secular expertise, and a proponent of some interdenominational cooperation, such as the Rabbinical Council of America participation in the now-defunct Synagogue Council of America. He was known as a stern, even depressed, leader who stressed greatly the anguish and pain of religious life.
  • Joseph Telushkin - Author, teacher, lecturer.
  • Avi Weiss - Rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale Bronx, NY. Author, teacher, lecturer, and perhaps the Jewish community's best examplar of activism.
  • Dr. Joel Wolowelsky - Yeshiva of Flatbush; Orthodox Forum
  • Dr. Michael Wyschograd - Prof. Religious Studies, Univ. of Houston
  • Rabbi Alan Schwartz - Rabbi of Congregation Ohab Zedek (OZ) on the UWS (Upper West Side, Manhattan) and professor of Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University's undergraduate colleges

Modern Orthodox advocacy groups

There are a few organizations dedicated to furthering Modern Orthodoxy as a religious trend: The largest and oldest are the Orthodox Union (Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations), which sponsors youth groups, kashrut supervision, and many other activities and its rabbinic counterpart, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA). Both have Israel and diaspora (outside the land of Israel) programs.

  • Edah,with its slogan of: The Courage to be Modern and Orthodox, is a non-membership advocacy operation. It is seen as representing the left wing of Modern Orthodoxy.
  • Meimad is a political/intellectual alternative to Israel's highly nationalistic religious parties or those hostile to modern secularist values
  • The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA) a forum for enhancing the roles of Orthodox Jewish women within the Orthodox community, and reducing Orthodox religious disabilities against women. Considered a far-left organization by Orthodox mainstream.

See also

Modern Orthodox Congregations

  • Beth Sholom ( Congregation in Potomac, MD, USA
  • Kehilat Orach Eliezer ( in New York, NY, USA
  • Kesher Israel ( Congregation in Washington, DC, USA
  • Ohab Zedek ( Congregation in New York, NY, USA
  • Lincoln Square ( Synagogue in New York, NY, USA
  • Pacific Jewish Center ( Synagogue in Venice Beach, California, USA

External links and references



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