Modern Orthodoxy- Modern meant Moral Self-transformation

Ever wonder about the nebulousness of the term Modern Orthodox? Or why no one seems to be able to move the term or the ideology forward? There is a new book by Webb Keane called Christian Moderns, featured at the Immanent Frame, that may offer some tools for thought. (I ask in advance for people not to leave in the comments the usual homiletical pabulum defining Modern Orthodoxy fit only for day school mission statements.)

Webb does not define modern in a temporal sense, rather modernity is a moral issue of self transformation. One wants to raise oneself to a new stage of autonomy, freedom, and liberation from false beliefs.  Think of modernity as a form of ethical training to think a new way. One labeled those who accept different positions as lacking rationality. Modernity, as a Protestant virtue, also implies the lack of materiality, physicality, and externalization. But if one is not striving for self-transformation then one cannot call oneself modern.

This moralization of history—a largely tacit set of expectations about what a modern, progressive person, subject, and citizen, should be…I do not try to define modernity as an objective aspect of a period of history, but rather as a feature of people’s historical consciousness. Enlightenment thought about morality, autonomy, and freedom, which became central to later secular institutions and habits.

They are asking things like: Are we there yet? How do we get there? What will it cost us? How can we get out of it? Why are others not as modern as we are? Are they going to drag us back?

Modernity is a story of human liberation from a host of false beliefs and fetishisms that undermine freedom. Conversely, those people who seem to persist in displacing their own agency onto such rules, traditions, or fetishes (including sacred texts) are out of step with the times. They are morally and politically troubling anachronisms, pre-moderns or anti-moderns.

A great deal of contemporary academic and political work tends to presuppose the moral narrative of modernity. Arguments about agency, rationality, or freedom, for instance, are often tacitly informed by the assumption that self-transformation is not only a central aspect of historical progress, but also a good that exceeds local systems of value.

Those people who reject the claims of modern agency—those non-moderns who defer to (excessively material) gods, scriptures, or traditions, for example—are subject to accusations of “fetishism.” To accuse people of fetishism is to indict them for misunderstanding their own capacities.

Now to return to the Jewish community, those authors who used the term in the 1950’s and 1960’s specifically showed their modernity by their use of Kantian philosophy and existentialism. These philosophic movements stressed autonomy, freedom, and  responsibility. This helps explain their avoidance of the myriad of other viable theological partners that did not emphasize the modernist ethos. They wanted to remove the physicality of the mizvot and say that what counts if the fulfillment in the heart.

But what about now? What happens when people are not striving for self-transformation to autonomy anymore? This is where Webb may be the most handy. If one is Modern Orthodox and does not have a moral issue of transformation then one has no way to describe oneself.

One approach is to define oneself in the negative by saying that one is not one of those “non-modern” groups. But that may not be empirical about the negated group or even about one’s own group.  The Conservative movement has a similar problem In their period of triumphalism they were embracing the modern world and could say that Orthodoxy was not embracing the modern world. Now, they simple say they are the only ones making a hybrid of modernity and tradition.

A second approach is to define oneself as rational, but that falters because rationality is not defined, as Steve Nadler pointed out on Angel. And is hard to define in the age after modernity, unless one is using Habermas, Taylor et al. More importantly, rationality is no longer seen as a moral issue of transformation.  If being modern is a simply quality that one has naturally  then one is not modern. According to Webb, one would need to work to be modern, at least as much as one works to keep up with computer/web literacy.

A different point is that many of those who want to call themselves modern Orthodox stress how they are open, sensitive, or dealing with the needs of the people. This is a definition, but leaves the problem of gaining any traction in rhetoric or ideology. Open orthodoxy has a self-definition is that open and sensitive but that has nothing to do with modern. To be modern is to speak of autonomy and freedom. They are not looking to start accusing people of fetishism.

The new open Orthodoxies are not modern but have developed a new ethos. But they have not found a means of articulation.

For example, Rick Warren offers the language of the purpose driven life; the virtue is to build a meaningful life. Here is not medieval, but now lives in the post-secular post-modern world and functions with a new ethical scale of self-transformation based on meaning in a suburban life.  Open modern Orthodox, in contrast, keep calling themselves modern as if that is to have a resonance. And their rhetoric is off, since they keep citing as their exemplars 1960’s Orthodox about autonomy, when they are striving for inclusivism (feminism, GLBT rights, acknowledgment of handicaps and psychological difficulties).

I found that similar comments to mine about Rick Warren were made in a later post to Webb, “After Purification” by Philip Gorski. Engaged Yeshivish and Kiruv has much in common with Pentacostalism and are better are playing the inclusivism card.

But this process of purification is necessarily incomplete. Humans, after all, are social and physical creatures. Thus,  processes of purification inevitably give rise to new forms of hybridity—in this case, to new texts, rituals, incantations and so on, either directly, in the form of routinized religious practices or, indirectly, in the form of heterodox religious movements, such as Pentecostalism. Gorski notes that much of the critique of the modern position has been from those returning to the classical tradition.

For MacIntyre, Hauerwas, Elshtain, Milbank and Taylor critique modern liberal secularism not from without, but from within, by drawing variously on Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas.

Does this mean that prophetic critique is the only possible form that a critique of secularism can take? That one must be a theist to be a critic in our secular age?  By no means.  Political philosophers such as…Michael Sandel, amongst others, have elaborated a powerful neo-republican critique of modern liberalism Even Jürgen Habermas, that icon of Euro-American enlightenment, has recently urged his partisans to recognize the untapped “semantic potentials” and “moral resources” still contained within religious languages and communities

Do those who formulate other position offer any alternate to modernity? Centrist Orthodoxy offers a relinquishment of autonomy and the promise of living an idealized halakhic existence Mekhon Hartman offer the modernist vision of autonomy and freedom. What do those who want something else offer? In the 1950’s, there were many rhetorical devices that made people in the Levitttowns think they were into freedom,autonomy, and rationality. But there seems to be a gnawing sense that the idealized halakhah does not not correspond to otherwise observant suburban family life.

9 responses to “Modern Orthodoxy- Modern meant Moral Self-transformation

  1. Perhaps part of what holds Modern Orthodoxy back is it is too tied to legitamating a Suburban lifestyle , perhaps it needs to focus more on personal intraspection (not define things by rigt and left ) perhaps there are many statements in Chazal which talk about Ethical refinement these teachings need to gain greater prominence and focus

  2. I like it. But I also try to recall Sander Gilman’s Jewish Self-Hatred when considering our self-definitions. Disregarding the rav and the central thinkers in and of themselves, many of us didn’t just criticize everyone else for being irrational or not modern. We were criticizing the backwards Jew, whom we imagined society rejecting.

    A friend of mine just sent me an article from the New Vilna Review,, basically outlining a chareidi conspiracy against the MO community consisting of Leib Tropper and the year in Israel. Why couldn’t the year in Israel speak (potentially) to the kind of self-transformation you’re talking about. It could–again potentially–respond to the middle class, American, ortho life on multiple levels, and not just a rational/ethical one? Meh. Just a thought.

  3. I totally agree with the first paragraph.
    But your second paragraph. I think the year in Israel was not haredi conspiracy or in contrast to their American life.
    The goal of the year is emotion and projected ideal. They need that for their American reasons, it keeps out questions, it leads to an emotive religion, and it is a peak experience that builds a type of Orthodoxy that people wanted. I recently sat on a dissertation committee for a dissertation that interviewed a Shaalavim-YU guy. The guy said that learning gives him a high, a sense of flow like playing basketball but learning is from God while basketball is not. But he knows that he will not have it once he goes to work. I see that this internal narrative is the transformation caused by the year in Israel, not a haredi plot. And I see the year and this narrative as sustaining as middle class-life. learning for a sense of flow is similar to the way some current American Pentecostalism works.

  4. I saw something very different from my time in Israel. First of all emotion and projected ideal is pretty Israeli too when I think about it. But aside from that, while I think that particular Shaalvim guy’s response was telling, it’d be ridiculous to say his it epitomizes what the year in Israel is going for. To me it’s true that a lot of Shaalvim or Gush guys try to turn their intellectual process in learning into an emotional pseudo-religious high. I personally always saw it (influenced by the Rav) as a process of l’tzaref et a habriyot, with the intellectual and personal discipline of leaning and applying the halachah. But in other yeshivahs you find people who go for the same pseudo-religious experience (again as I see it) in shmoneh esrei, where they struggle for that emotional flow in tfilah to the point that they confuse certain rishonim’s ideas of l’atzmo and l’makom.

    Sorry if my own hashkafah was injected a little in that tangent, but what I’m trying to get to is that while you do have these as general trends, what I saw in Israel was an incredible amount of freedom that was radically different from the structured and sheltered existence these kids had known all their lives. Whether they stop being observant or not, they’re far away from that middle class American household and can choose to make whatever they want to of the structure of yeshiva life. Few of even the more obedient kids would take that opportunity to simply accept more of what’s being taught. They look to make it their own, at least, or even to decide for themselves how much want it. It might not be a coherent or lasting response to the American Ortho middle-class condition, but most of the time it is necessarily a response.

  5. The freedom has become a form of Amish Rumspringa giving them a period of freedom. But that fits into life back home. They can enjoy freedom without have to leave yeshiva. I think it was discussed on Lookjed. And just like the Amish, without retooling or a new support system the majority will always return back home. And the current version is not like the austerity of the Yeshivot of the 1970’s and early 1980s. They enjoy and value spending money at restaurants and going home for passover, and buying an entire range of religious products to confirm their year. Few are opting out of the middle class life and they know in their minds that they want to live the material benefits of back home. My basic point was that, except in a few cases, it is not a right wing conspiracy.

  6. I mentioned the right-wing conspiracy as a sort of straw-man. It says more to me about how conspiracy theories are needed by some to explain why MO has its identity crisis.

    As for freedom without leaving yeshiva, that’s not true in the literal or figurative sense–the literal freedom of movement they have is much more than they did under their parents’ homes. Restaurants? That’s nothing. There are drug scandals, late night boozing, and incredible excesses with the same people later deciding to stay until midnight in the beis. I know more than one person who did leave the yeshiva permanently.

    Internal narratives are certainly at work here, and I saw them being written. The year in Israel is a much more complicated equation that any catch-all explication I’ve heard or read. Even the Shaalvim guy you heard interviewed–I’d bet had the unexpected happen often in his year in Israel even while ending up in the expected place. The internal narrative necessarily begins with them as a product of their communities–for better or worse–and ends with them in a reevaluated state. Is it right to say that because they haven’t turned down the middle class benefits, the change which clearly meant something to them really means nothing?

    • I do not think it is transformation or nothing. It meant something.
      You mentioned in the last post that you have a l’tzaref et a habriyot approach with the requisite intellectual and moral rigor. There are many MO teachers in the more American programs that do not take that approach. They take the approach of “lets give them as much as possible so that when it wears off, there will still be more left” And the students themselves take approaches of seeing themselves a sinner and putting on a black hat will help keep them from their sins. You seem to have a perfection of the self approach, many have an approach of “unless I am watched I go back to my old ways. So once again it is not even right wing as straw man, but they add all things they do because they feel it is good for them.
      Since you mention magical realism and teaching a classroom, you seem to have a humanities sensibility. Some out there approach learning Torah like an engineer solving a problem or a puzzle. They will piece everything together in their own mind and then say QED – this is the original intention They will fit history, sociology, kabbalah, and Bible into their calculations. The product will seem right wing but once again it serves the MO person’s own needs.
      There is a need for better analysis of the year in Israel than currently available.

      What should be the aspiration to replace autonomy and rationality? Why will others go along with your vision?

  7. Well I used to have the engineer’s approach to learning that seems to come along with the Brisker conceptual understanding of sugyas. That certainly is a popular trend and part of the culture’s general message.

    I guess I couldn’t buy it for that long. It was too neat, too contained in an abstract world in my head. Texts are messier than a shanna bet guy’s chakiras, and if your maskanas have no real effect on your life, again it doesn’t leave your head. The religious experience is reduced to the intellectual exercise, so they fixate on that high. Or else they invent their own historiographies throw in some kabballah… the Rav believed that for the tradition to remain relevant it must engage people intellectually. They seem to be using their heads no matter how psuedo-scientific or pseudo-scholarly they get.

  8. Also I don’t think about anyone following my vision these days but me. I could never get that Shaalvim guy to change his hashkafa because he’s concentrated his entire religious experience into what he did in the beis. It’s a shame that without that he doesn’t know what to do.

    He adopted the view because it appealed to him, but I don’t think he consciously understood why he made the choice. Since you’re asking, the only thing I could hope for the MO community is a greater understanding of itself so that they’d be a bit more conscious of where they are and what they want. Many of them don’t engage with God and the tradition as externalities, but delve internally for that projected idealism. Many of them don’t see doubt as part and parcel to a life of faith. For a religious denomination that prided itself on engaging the outside world, this has implications. An RCA rav recently sad that one should not send their kids to a secular college because of the 25% chance they’ll leave the fold. How did we get to seeing the university as the problem here and not ourselves?

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