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Modern Orthodoxy and the Jewish Ideal: Ruderman Fellows Visit the Straus Center

22 Ruderman Fellows join Rabbi Dr. Dov Lerner at the YU Straus Center to study the ancient origins of a ‘modern’ movement.

On June 16th, 2023, fellows of the Ruderman Program for American Jewish Studies at the University of Haifa came to Yeshiva University to hear Rabbi Dr. Dov Lerner, Clinical Assistant Professor at the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah & Western Thought, speak about the history of Modern Orthodoxy and Yeshiva University’s role as America’s premier institution for Jewish education.

The Ruderman Master’s Program was founded with a fervent mission to bridge the gap between Israeli and American Jewish communities and strengthen ties between Israel and U.S. Jewry. It covers a range of issues pertaining to American Jewish life and American society. As part of the program’s curriculum, Ruderman Fellows embark on a ten-day trip in the United States to visit important sights, attend lectures by prominent scholars and meet with American Jewish leaders. This year’s Ruderman cohort is made up of twenty-two exceptional thinkers from a wide range of technical and academic backgrounds, including entrepreneurs, biomedical engineers, educators and award-winning artists. Together with Dr. Bar Guzi, Academic Coordinator for the Ruderman Program, the fellows joined Rabbi Lerner at the Straus Center.

Rabbi Lerner opened the conversation by discussing the historical circumstances that precipitated the rise of Modern Orthodoxy, starting with the repercussions of Jewish Emancipation in the modern period. Beginning in 1791 with Revolutionary France’s full emancipation of its Jewish subjects, other European powers gradually followed suit of the course of the Long 19th Century. Discriminatory laws were abolished and Ghettos were opened up, and for the first time avenues of substantial participation in general culture opened up for European Jews. Naturally, this led to strong disagreement among Jewish leaders as to how Jewry should collectively approach its newfound liberty. Traditionalist elements actually opposed Emancipation, justifiably concerned that it was enabling Jews to assimilate in Christian society more freely.

On the other hand, reformers were frustrated with Orthodox elements for hindering Jewish integration into general society. Heated debates regarding around the implementation secular education in Jewish schools, the birth of Zionism and the role of women in Jewish religious life were born, hot-button issues that are still discussed and debated to this day. Modern Orthodoxy in America, Rabbi Lerner explained, descends from a group of leading German Jewish thinkers such as Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) and Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer (1820-1899) who mediated between traditional Jewish life and Judaism’s broader role in general society.

Rabbi Lerner then discussed each of the aforementioned debates respectively, using the thought of his late teacher, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z’l as a prism through which to identify a mainstream Modern Orthodox outlook to each issue. Rabbi Sacks’ approach to Modern Orthodoxy in general asserts that the movement represents not a novel avenue of cultural integration, but rather a return to ancient and neglected ethical system of social and civic engagement unique to Judaism. “This,” Rabbi Sacks’ asserted. “is the central Jewish project: constructing a society radically unlike any that had existed before and most that have come into being since. It poses a fundamental question: can we make, on Earth, a social order based… on respect for the human person as ‘the image of God’?” In Rabbi Sacks’ approach, Judaism was designed to actively participate in general culture, providing the ethical components needed to construct an equitable and just society. Throughout the Biblical period, Rabbi Lerner explained, the Israelites “wrestled with this challenge, sometimes succeeding, often failing, but never losing sight or the task, the call, the dream.” However, after the destruction of the First Temple, Judaism experienced a substantial loss of its political power. In successive generations, Judaism’s role in general culture waned as persecution forced communities to become more insular, with notable exceptions, such as in Medieval Spain, where political Jews like Shmuel HaNagid (993-1096) partnered with neighbors to construct societies. Following Emancipation, Jews were provided with unparalleled opportunities to join in society-building projects and reassume their ancient role in general culture, sharing unique Torah insights with the world to help ameliorate the human condition.

Institutions such as Yeshiva University and the Ruderman Program, Rabbi Lerner asserted, help develop worldly leaders that are strongly rooted in Jewish tradition, the kind of leaders that reflect Judaism’s ideal of ethical social engagement. You can learn more about the Straus Center and sign up for our newsletter here. Be sure to also like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Instagram and connect with us on LinkedIn.