Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Why I Am "Modern Orthodox"

I get very annoyed at how "modern" is thrown around like an insult. Conversion candidates seem to feel this struggle more acutely than the frum-from-birth crowd. 

Baalei teshuva are probably in the same boat as the conversion candidates, but at least they're still Jewish at the end of the day. Even the people who act like "modern orthodox" is a slur will still recognize the BTs as "Jews." But choosing to convert "modern orthodox" is a hard choice for many conversion candidates. 

In the quest for the "unquestionable conversion," conversion candidates are feeling pushed further and further to the "right" of orthodox Judaism. Each chumrah feels like another piece of armor to protect against others' questioning their Jewishness. [But note that more people convert "modern orthodox" or "just plain orthodox" than any other group, and people in modern orthodox communities are usually not the ones whose Jewishness is questioned. It is usually the ultra-orthodox communities these candidates seek so hard to join.]

I've chosen to stop looking for the unquestionable conversion. As far as I can tell, they're ALL questionable. So instead, I will take the time to find the community that is best for me hashkafically. And that is the modern orthodox community. 

But what are people insulting when they call people "modern"? It seems that the insult version of the phrase emphasizes the word "modern" orthodox. I know that my own stereotype of the "bad" kind of modern orthodox is someone who keeps kosher and Shabbat, but not much else. In many ways, a kind of "culturally orthodox" person. I think that the groups who are so opposed to modern orthodox Jews have this perception.

But that is not who I am. And that is not who the other modern orthodox people in my community are.

So what IS modern orthodoxy to someone who is often mistaken as being "too frummy" for the MO crowd? [Apparently the most common first impression that people have of me is "frummy" and "super frummy."]

I don't believe that the "secular world" is evil and to be avoided. I don't believe that there is a clear line "bein kodesh l'chol." Torah is everywhere I look. Interactions with people who've never even heard the word "Torah" may teach me more Torah than a two-hour halacha shiur. Television shows or movies can do the same. Working in a secular profession in a secular workplace allows me to be a kiddush Hashem in addition to being it being yet another source of Torah. 

Put another way, ANYONE can be "modern," no matter their hashkafah. There are even some people who call themselves "modern yeshivish," despite the fact that many people's stereotypes of yeshivish would negate the ideas of "modern"-ness.

I think that insulating myself and alienating the non-Jewish aspects of my life would remove many of the best Torah sources in my life. 

As a convert, I think this will be even more important in my life. Alienating my family would be a chilul Hashem. I have this family because Hashem has decided it is the best family for me. The same for the friends from my "prior" life (granted, I've been "Jewishly affiliated" basically my entire adult life). I also do not believe that the experiences of my pre-orthodox life are less valuable because there was "less Torah" in it.

We are the product of our experiences. I must be just as discerning in the "secular" things that I see and do as I must be in the things labeled as "Torah." That requires the opposite realization that maybe things labeled as "Torah" are bad influences. People, groups, and ideas that are even more damaging than any R rated movie...promoting hatred, fear, and sinas chinam.

In my opinion, modern orthodoxy is about being willing to see Torah in everything, and that allows me to see the inherent value in everything. I consider people, things, and ideas individually, rather than shutting them out as groups based on stereotypes. By extension, that is why I hesitate to accept the halachic "ruling" of those who would "pull" my conversion for working in a secular profession, owning a television, or using the internet.

But I really prefer the term "just plain orthodox." Too bad everyone insists on making me choose a box.


  1. Like most things going on in Orthodoxy today, the term "modern" as something negative goes back to Europe and Yiddish. Go to and place מאדערנישע or מאדערנע and the like in the text search. Aside for all the late 20th century Satmar periodicals, there are loads of results from pre-War Europe. Here's a book called "The 'Clever' Child, or, the Modern Ignoramuses" (linkVilna 1923).

    Then as now, people who considered themselves modern consider that a good thing, and a lack of modernity not a good thing. And the reverse was true as well.

  2. Interesting take on the very disputed meaning of the term.

    By your definition, don't you think that Chabad could be labeled as "Modern Orthodox"? I constantly hear sermons at Chabad about how we shouldn't shun technology, the internet, the secular world, etc. For Parshas Noach, the rabbi at the Chabad I go to spoke about Noach not wanting to leave the teivah. He said that Noach valued the spirituality of the teivah and didn't want to face the real world. So, Hashem had to force him out. Likewise, we have to go out into the secular world and interact with it even if we don't want to...

  3. "I've chosen to stop looking for the unquestionable conversion. As far as I can tell, they're ALL questionable. So instead, I will take the time to find the community that is best for me hashkafically. "

    Wise decision!!

  4. I clapped when I read this post! Seriously. I have been trying for weeks to put this very thing into a post myself and it seems I just struggle with how to explain myself.

    Another thing I've been thinking is that some people who are ffb have this need to become more "strict" in their observance because as they were born observant it isn't so much a stretch for them to be so. That logic is flawed on many levels--but the biggest problem I perceive is that is sets up this false ideal that Judaism is more so about will-power than anything else. And granted it takes much will-power to live life as a Jew, but that isn't the sole object of Judaism. It's more like a bi-product or a indirect fact.

    If one wants to master the art of self-control there are many legitimate methods for that; both religiously and irreligiously. Making a point to be more diet-conscious, choosing to see the better in humanity, donating more time or money to charity, exercising several times a week... these are all great ways to become a better person who is more in control of their passions. It doesn't make you a Jew.

    The passion and dedication to live a Jewish life comes in many forms and looks different to every individual because what it takes for me to be a competent person is different than what it might take for me. Perhaps TV points you to Hashem in some fashion, and perhaps it destroys my ability to relate to Hashem. (for random example). These are all things that will change person to person and can't be decided by any other than the individual.

    Judaism has a certain order to it--much like our American government. And there is no denying that this is a main principle of Judaism. However I suspect that a lot of the differences come up with the issue of self-government. As in, are the rules and so forth there to entirely govern us because we are incapable of making our own good decisions, or are the they to give us some clearly defined boundaries to work with-in so that we can make our own decisions?

    There are many sub-cultures within the culture of Orthodoxy and it can be very confusing. But is seems that even within every sub-culture is a divide--those who think that absolving themselves of the responsibility to self-govern by giving all aspects of their life to the ones above them to decide for them, is the best way to be Jewish. Others feel that to pass off the clear responsibility set on each one of use as individuals to think for ourselves is the worst way to be Jewish.

    As a person going through conversion--someone who came here by her own will and without any external governemtn leading her here--clearly the former ideals doesn't strike me well. But, not everyone agrees with me in that respect.

    Now in regards to conversion--it is a TREMENDOUS jump to go from the life of a non-Jew to the life of a Jew. It is, I dare say, much more of a work than any "observant" Jews jump from observancy to "ultra observancy". I mean granted it's no contest, but I think a lot of ffbers feel the needs to still be "more Jewish" than converts. And the best way to be more than another is to always hae the upper hand by assigning yourself the role of gauging when they have fulfilled your ideal of who they should be.

    Now please forgive any typos. I am busy and shouldn't be commenting right now in the first place, much less editing... but I couldn't resist this topic! :)

  5. I think this says it well, though it's Avi Weiss and he's talking about Open Orthodox (although I have to admit that the way he writes it, it sounds like regular Modern Orthodox to many divisions...)

  6. >my own stereotype of the "bad" kind of modern >orthodox is someone who keeps kosher and >Shabbat, but not much else

    Curious now, what do you mean by "not much else"? Keeping kosher, shabbat and family laws are the main thing...
    What more would you like? Tznius, shomer negiah, and further to no internet/no tv?

    1. Originally posted: December 7, 2011 at 10:43 PM

      Anonymous: I am thinking of the people who half-heartedly keep Shabbat and kashrut (until it's inconvenient or they're drunk enough), but dress like hookers and have one-night stands with dates. My perception is skewed to my own age-range, I'm afraid.

  7. Yup, that's my perception of "modern," too, as it's used as an insult around these parts. I have spent the last couple of years shouting at my kids (trying to be heard!) that this yeshivish leaning town is NOT all there is to Yiddishkeit and that there is a niche for them somewhere. I doubt they believed me, but my son came home from Israel a few weeks ago wearing a kippah srugah (crocheted kippah) and a yeshiva he's in love with. I teased him, but really, couldn't be prouder!

  8. Maybe my perception is different, because the first place I was ever exposed to "religious" (read Orthodox) Jews was in Israel, but I know lots of folks who might be described as "bad modern orthodox," who were absolutely pivotal in influencing and encouraging me to find my derech. Thank G-d for (and namaste to) these bad boys and gifls who showed me that Judaism can work for me, where I am, right now. Gam zu l'tovah.

  9. When I wennt to the BD a few weeks ago they pulled out a letter I had sent about a year previously describing myself as 'modern orthodox' and said it concerned them... I had to defend my use of the term.

  10. > but dress like hookers and have one-night stands with dates

    By this you mean - date and wear sandals/shorter skirts in the summer and swimware at the beach?
    I actually see this as a positive thing. First, I dont see Jewish women in skirts as more jewishly-committed
    than Jewish women in pants... Skirts are just more traditional in most communities, that's it...
    Second, to me a lack of neurotic attitude to sex is a positive thing... First it is healthier, second
    Judaism does not see sex in a negative light, and third being sex-obsessed to me is essentially the same thing
    as being obsessed with lack of sex, just two sides of the same coin.

    1. Originally posted: December 8, 2011 at 8:23 PM

      When I say hooker, I don't use it lightly. I mean dressing like the girls at my beach town school mid-summer. Halter tips, barely-there shorts, necklines that go below the breasts. I'm not saying they dress this way all the time, but thy they wouldn't think twice about it when the weather is warm. And I don't mean "dating" as a catch-all. I said one night stands and I meant casual sex with strangers.

      Some of the "questionable" qualities you listed above are things I would do, like date. (Though I can't date yet.) And I wear flip flops basically every day. I would also wear swimwear, but at a single-sex beach.

  11. You may find this interesting:

    1. Originally posted: January 10, 2012 at 1:50 AM

      Hersh: is that intended as an insult? Because I don't see what other reason you would have for posting that here. If it was not an insult, I'm curious to know why you thought that post was related to this post. I just don't see the connection.

  12. I think there is a big mistake that both sides have gotten wrong.
    It is called plan B.
    The ultra orthodox don't want to admit that it exists. And the modern orthodox dont want to think that what they do is any less than A.
    But plan B exists and everyone more or less engages in it.
    Things like shomer nigiah and shmiras eiynayim and much more are clear halachos. You cant be lax in them and call it plan A.
    It is plan B. In galus we are often trapped into many less than desireble things. We do teshuva for them on Yom kippur fully knowing we will go back to the same way. Yom kippur represents our better selves, the way we would rather be, even though we fall short of it all the rest of the year. And even when we fall short we are cognizant of a better way anda better future when Moshiach takes the tumah away.
    This is plan B. And Hashem loves his plan B people.

  13. "ANYONE can be "modern," no matter their hashkafah."

    Well, yes, provided they are, among other things:
    -cisgender, and
    -single, or married to an opposite-sex spouse who also wishes to convert.

    If, like me, you are a trans queer person happily married to someone who is agnostic and not interested in being religious herself while supporting my desire to convert and become more observant (and no reason apart from that to even CONSIDER divorcing), then Orthodoxy of any sort has no place for you.

    Heck, until Conservative Judaism acknowledges and accepts the existence of transgender people (and transgender Jews), the ONLY option for someone me Reform, no matter how much we might want to convert otherwise.

    I'm happy with the process I'm going through with my Reform rabbi, but it's worth pointing out that your point about "everyone can be modern orthodox" is deeply flawed. Not even all JEWISH people could be modern orthodox, since there are queer and trans Jewish people who aren't converts.

    1. Response 1 / ?
      Hi, Kate. I hear the frustration, pain, and anger in your voice. And I understand why it's there. Unfortunately, I think you've taken my words a bit too literally and then gone a bit too far in expressing your frustration. In this context, I spoke of being modern in the orthodox world. After all, the examples are about the yeshivish world. However, the reform, conservative, etc, movements are by definition modern: they believe in the value of the secular world. So yes, anyone in the Jewish world can be "modern."

      As for your frustrations, I don't think it's fair to say that the orthodox world doesn't acknowledge or accept transgender people. It certainly accepts that trans people exist, though it doesn't quite know how they fit into the orthodox gendered rubric. That problem isn't new either. There are debates in the Talmud about how halacha applies to people who I believe are intersex, but there's a good argument that it means trans people. But history and halacha aside, I know several trans orthodox people, including two who are converting. It's not my place to grill them about it, so I don't know how they're navigating these questions. But they're here. [I can't speak to the conservative movement's acceptance of trans people simply because I don't know.]

      As for your comment that you must be straight to be orthodox, I think it is disrespectful to ignore the large numbers of bi orthodox Jews, especially when you seem to be so aware of the variety of human gender and sexuality. Bisexualty continues to be ignored or, worse, denigrated as nonexistent within the queer community. It is also not impossible to live an androgynous or asexual orthodox life (especially as a biological female). Likewise, lesbian relationships are not prohibited by many authorities, though they aren't encouraged. I know several lesbians who converted, most of whom are now married to women and still orthodox. And there are definitely orthodox Jews-from-birth lesbians.

      Your primary orthodox problem is actually that you have an uninterested spouse. That's the far larger problem, in my opinion. That's a total nonstarter. (In other words, I don't think being transgender is an automatic no.) And if your spouse isn't matrilineally Jewish already, then you also have a total bar to a conservative conversion.

    2. Response 2 / 2
      I just read last Shabbat a great book about a (non-orthodox) transwoman navigating some of the orthodox world: Through the Door of Life by Joy Ladin. She discusses her interactions with the orthodox world at Yeshiva University and Stern College, and I was quite surprised by their acceptance and kindness (minus the -relatively respectful by trans employers' standards- initial "WTF?").

      Why aren't you happy in the reform movement? Is it just because you feel rejected by the other movements? If that is the case, I think you should give the reform movement a fair chance on its own merits. You might find that it's the perfect fit for you, regardless of these other issues. I think people should convert in the movement that is the best fit, not orthodox by default. It sounds like you would probably be unhappy in the orthodox movement because of the lagging failure for full trans acceptance, so why would you want to belong to a group like that? The orthodox don't seek converts. If you want to be fully observant of traditional halacha, you can do that as a reform Jew (as much as is possible with a non-interested spouse). And in fact, you'll find more acceptance of the choice to do that in the reform movement than in most conservative communities.

      Quite honestly, the orthodox movement doesn't "have a place" for many people. There is racism, discrimination for mental health issues and disabilities, infertility shame, and who knows what else. But orthodoxy doesn't have a patent on that: those problems, including trans acceptance, are present in a lot of the world. Orthodoxy is made of people; mostly socially conservative people. You probably also aren't joining the Republican party, though there are exceptions within the Party too. I don't think it serves you to remain angry with the orthodox. It is what it is, and your anger won't change it. Not having an orthodox conversion will not stop you from living a full and fulfilling Jewish life, but staying angry about it will. I hope you find the community that loves you for you.