What really troubles the authors is the ethos of the secular university itself, which may be summed up in Kant’s still arresting phrase, sapere aude—dare to think! The penchant of the university for “unyielding skepticism” and for Cartesian nostrums about the need to purge oneself of all preconceived notions before pursuing truth is the most potent threat to the well-being of Orthodox youth. As a result, “Orthodox students in secular universities often find themselves attacked simultaneously by a myriad of challenging ideas. From day one Orthodox students often find themselves on the defensive in an attempt to ascertain what it is they believe, why they believe it, and whether they should believe it anymore.” Precisely what practitioners of liberal education would count as success, the authors regard with grave suspicion—as well they should, if their aim is to preserve a traditional culture. But, one might ask, if one’s aim is to preserve tradition, why go through a liberal education in the first place? Why think that you can have it both ways?
The desire to have it both ways, particularly with respect to education, is foundational to Modern Orthodoxy. Modern or “Neo” Orthodoxy, an intellectual product of the nineteenth century, was premised on the belief that one could live both according to Torah, in all of its full traditional rigor, and the “way of the land”—that is, the higher culture of modern Europe. The architect of Orthodox modernization, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, was of that Jewish generation that first began to taste university education. Hirsch was confident that traditional Judaism could hold its own against both radical religious reform (as practiced by his classmate and erstwhile friend at the University of Bonn, Abraham Geiger, the architect of Reform Judaism) and contemporary intellectual fashion. Unlike the traditionalist rabbis of Eastern Europe, Hirsch believed that the Enlightenment emphasis on education, religious tolerance, and rights was advantageous to Jews. He did not, as it were, pray for the defeat of Napoleon. He welcomed the unsteady strides toward emancipation in his native Germany. The Jewish future should not be held captive by the Jewish past. Judaism was more than the folkways of the ghetto. Although maximal observance of Jewish law remained the sine qua non of Judaism, the intellectual foundations of Judaism could be articulated anew in the idiom of the present age.
Although Hirsch did not complete his university education, he imbibed its ethos, writing affecting apologetic tracts in excellent German. His literary-theological project draws heavily on the Romantic currents of contemporary German thought to show how the Torah shaped the Volksgeist of the Jewish nation and how archetypal, natural man is completed by observing the Torah. Hirsch armed Orthodox youth with a rather sophisticated theology, which validated their participation in secular life and gave them intellectual tools to parry as well as celebrate its culture.
As Modern Orthodoxy took root in theology-averse America, it became a style rather than a coherent intellectual vision. Orthodox Jews built institutions, entered the professions, and established themselves solidly in the ranks of the middle- and upper-middle classes. As barriers against Jewish enrollment in the Ivy League fell, Orthodox Jews followed their coreligionists into Harvard, Yale, Princeton, et al. By the mid-1990s there was already a backlash. A group of five Orthodox students at Yale sought an exemption from the university’s residence policy, claiming that compulsory residence in the dorms would expose them to promiscuity. They filed suit against the university, essentially bringing Yale up on a morals charge.
The present pamphlet focuses little on moral-sexual matters. Rather, its concerns go to the heart of Hirsch’s synthesis itself. On its view, the intellectual values of liberal education as such are invidious to Orthodoxy. Take Jewish Studies, for example. Orthodox students might be drawn to such classes in order to “validate the beliefs with which they were raised or ‘to get credit for learning Torah.’” What they find, however, is a “majority of professors [who] are Jews themselves but may have unorthodox views on the nature of the Torah and the Jewish people.” Given the fact that only about seven percent of the Jewish community is Orthodox, it is not a surprise that the majority of Jewish professors are non-Orthodox. What is surprising, however, is the liberal anti-Orthodoxy of their views. Jewish Studies, far from being a safe intellectual haven from the wild seas of secular education, turns out itself to be a storm center. The authors refer to the most popular course at Harvard University in 1999, Professor James Kugel’s class on the Bible, which enjoys an enrollment of nine hundred students. (The authors refrain from mentioning Kugel, an impeccable scholar and traditional Jew, by name.) The professor, wearing a “large, black kippah,” nonetheless went on to relay the current theories of biblical criticism on the human authorship of the Torah. The combination of apparent piety and troubling heterodoxy “only served to confuse Orthodox students even further.”
How should Orthodox parents and students cope with these alarming temptations? The authors do not rise to a Hirschian solution for their Hirschian problem. Their first line of defense is sociological rather than theological. Throughout the pamphlet they advocate more intensive socialization, partial isolation, and increased distance. “Our first step in preparing our students to successfully meet these challenges must be to redouble our efforts to produce stronger yeshiva high school kids whose eyes have been opened to the beauty of yiddishkeit and who have both an intellectual and a deep emotional attachment to it.” Parents must not take their children’s commitment to a “halakhic lifestyle” for granted; they must deepen the child’s emotional attachment to traditional Jewish life.
Similarly, parents must not view the existence of Hillel houses, even those with provision of kosher food or traditional worship, as a panacea. Where is the kosher food served? Is it close to where students live? If not, they might be tempted to attend the nearest cafeteria when in a hurry. Indeed, the premium that Hillel puts on inclusiveness and the acceptance of all Jewish choices relativizes Orthodoxy, degrading it to just another lifestyle option. The authors relate an anecdote about an observant girl who was active in the Orthodox minyan when she entered college, but graduated “as a Reform Jew and president of Hillel’s JbaGel (Jewish Bisexual Gay and Lesbians) group.” Hillel, in their view, counts this as a “success story.” The organization thus may be bad for an observant Jewish student’s spiritual health.
At the same time, the pamphlet’s authors warn Orthodox students not to go on the offensive and seek to convert other Jewish students to the “beauty of a halakhic lifestyle.” The active recruitment of non-Orthodox Jews (known as kiruv, literally “bringing near”) has “on numerous occasions resulted in disaster.” In an effort to show nonobservant students that Orthodox Jews can be just as fun-loving and “normal” as they, the Orthodox students frequently bend their halakhic practice or introduce illicit innovations, such as mixed seating sections in their prayer groups. Kiruv work may be too dangerous for the average Orthodox student who, lacking answers for his curious interlocutor’s questions, comes to question the adequacy of his own faith. It seems, then, that the Orthodox student should withdraw and leave such efforts to the “trained kiruv professionals.”
A mood of fretfulness thus pervades the pamphlet. The tactics it advocates—emotionalism and disengagement—attest to a failure of intellectual nerve. There is a theological vacuum behind the anxiety. Although the authors gingerly suggest that the yeshiva high schools expose their students to “potentially troubling theories such as evolution and the Documentary Hypothesis,” they also recognize that the high schools might “lack the resources to successfully implement this proposition.” Better, then, for it to be dealt with by the intellectual and spiritual leaders of Modern Orthodoxy. They are the ones who ought to “articulate sophisticated responses to the complex questions” raised by contemporary Bible scholarship, Jewish Studies, and so forth. But who are these leaders today? Modern Orthodoxy has no one approaching the stature of its late leader, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. And does the posture of waiting for authorities to work out strategies really befit people who are products of the modern university? Should they not have learned to think for themselves, especially in an area touching intimately on the quality of their own faith?
There is a cautionary tale here about the neglect of theology. Modern Orthodoxy for too long has relied on sociology—familism, solidarity, youth groups, institutional loyalties—instead of intellectually sophisticated apologetics. It has written off the bolder elements of its own Hirschian legacy, let alone any ongoing engagement with modern philosophy, in favor of an increasingly otherworldly fundamentalism. Its synagogues have jettisoned the hoary Hertz Pentateuch, which, to be sure, was florid in its Victorian prose but also honest in its confrontation with modern scholarship, in favor of the rigidly fundamentalist Art Scroll translation. Likewise, Modern Orthodoxy’s immense success in building up a socially vibrant culture in the American suburbs has distracted it from the requisite intellectual task of providing depth and justification for its way of life.
Perhaps American multiculturalism and postmodernism have blunted the urgency of the need. Perhaps the thunder on the Orthodox right has made adherents of Modern Orthodoxy nervous about the deep engagement with culture that good theology requires. Perhaps durable American optimism has persuaded them that you can have it all, contradictions be damned. Whatever the case, the result is the melancholy dilemma reflected in the “Parent’s Guide to Orthodox Assimilation on Campus”—eager participation in the American dream, accompanied by unsettling American nightmares.
Alan Mittleman is Professor of Religion at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. He is also Director of "Jews and the American Public Square," a project initiated by the Pew Charitable Trusts.