There exists a wide and well-founded perception that Orthodox Jews don't live in or meaningfully engage the contemporary world. Even so-called "modern Orthodox" Jews who often have post-graduate degrees and hold positions in the most rarified strata of the professional world, often live bifurcated lives.
When the workday is done, we return to our religious and intellectual Orthodox ghetto where we neatly divide the world into "Jews" and "non-Jews," and classify all knowledge and ideas and values as either "Torah-based" or "secular." Torah-based is considered relevant to religious life, and appropriate for our religious energies; anything that is secular is just the opposite.
As a result, we tend to not grapple with or engage in religious terms the phenomena and events that lie outside our highly circumscribed arena of religious relevance.
One of the most appalling expressions of this tendency appeared in a recently published memoir that Rabbi Moshe Meiselman wrote about his uncle, the late Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik--a figure of giant scholarship and leadership who is regarded as having been the intellectual and spiritual father of 20th century modern Orthodoxy. Concerned that Soloveitchik is often portrayed as having had broad interests and that he brought his religious vision to bear on issues outside the immediate Orthodox world, Meiselman writes, "Some people have portrayed [my uncle] as the universal man, deeply concerned with the universal moral and social issues of the day. . . . This is absurd . . . in all of [his] concerns he was extremely parochial."
It is horrifying and frightening that Meiselman believes that he is flattering his uncle with these words. Whether they are an accurate representation or not, they keenly reflect Orthodoxy's "relevance" problem. The problem becomes all the more acute, of course, as we move rightward along the Orthodox spectrum, where higher education is eschewed altogether and social contact with non-Jews virtually doesn't exist.
There are two primary reasons for this isolationist worldview. The first is historical. Centuries of physical and spiritual persecution have ingrained the message that the people of the world and their ideas threaten the integrity and even the survival of our people and our ideas. Thus, withdrawing from the outside has become a retreat into safety.
And even today, in an era free of overt religious oppression, many Orthodox Jews (along with other Jews and people of other faiths) still feel besieged by the values and ideals of the "outside." It is understandable that they would regard contemporary attitudes toward sexuality, materialism, and moral relativism as threats to traditional religious values. As a result, the reflex of intellectual, social, and religious wall-building persists.
But this historical explanation can account for only so much. It cannot explain, for example, the near total absence of Orthodox involvement in general social action, or our refusal to engage in any kind of serious theological dialogue with non-Orthodox Judaism (the vast majority of the religious Jewish community). It cannot explain why we tend to battle rather than engage the most promising developments within our society (for example, the advancement of the position of women in the intellectual and political realms). It cannot explain why, to most of the world, Orthodox Judaism does not matter.
Ultimately, the explanation for all of this is rooted in the same absolute commitment to tradition that is our strength. Because of that commitment, we have been unable to distinguish between changing religious law (which Orthodoxy approaches with the greatest caution), and changing our understanding of and attitudes toward the ultimate objectives of our law. It doesn't come naturally to us to think in new and different terms, to ask, "How does my observance affect not only me and my family, but also the world at large?"
This problem is compounded by the fact that a community deeply committed to tradition tends not to possess a mechanism for religiously examining ideas that arise outside the tradition. And the truth, of course, is that if we were to conduct such evaluations, we would realize that non-Jewish Western society has generated many important ethical ideals, such as tolerance, democracy, and equal rights.
We would recognize that modern scholarship has much to add to our understanding of scripture and of Jewish history, and we should also be thinking about the religious and intellectual issues that non-Orthodox Jewish movements have been grappling with. All of these would require changes in our traditional thought and attitudes--changes laden with exciting potential.
Our general reluctance to make these changes has hampered our effectiveness and diminished our relevance as a religious community. Non-Orthodox Jews rightly ask, "Of what ultimate value is a religious community that speaks only to itself? Of what relevance is a religious community that does not engage with the political and intellectual events of the day, and that has nothing to say to the world outside itself? What's the point of being part of a religious community that ultimately does not matter?" These are critical questions. This is where the new vision for Orthodoxy must begin to build.
The familiar response from conservative Orthodox colleagues that even the slightest change in our religious philosophy places us atop a slippery slope that could ultimately lead to our dissolution should not be dismissed casually. But the recognition that irrelevance will also lead us to dissolution must likewise be understood. We need to find the correct balance between tradition and change if we are to escape a fate of chronically unfulfilled potential.
We must think about the things that we do, and what we hope to achieve through doing them.