The Future of American Orthodoxy

An examination of the challenges facing Orthodox Judaism in America

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The question, however, is not whether Modern Orthodoxy will survive--in fact, it retains thousands of adherents. The question is whether Orthodoxy itself can survive as a single movement or whether, like so many Protestant denominations that have faced similar challenges, it will ultimately polarize so far as to crack. The fact that Orthodox Judaism, unlike its Conservative and Reform counterparts, does not have any strong institutional ties binding all of its factions together makes the danger of such a schism all the greater.

The Challenge of Feminism

Fifth, American Orthodoxy faces sweeping challenges from contemporary feminism. Jewish Action calls this  “perhaps the most explosive issue facing Orthodoxy" and wonders aloud whether it "will estrange feminists and their supporters from the rest of Orthodoxy." In many communities, the answer would seem to be yes. So‑called "women's issues"--whether, for example, women may organize separate prayer groups on a regular basis, or dance with the Torah on Simchat Torah, or celebrate ritually the bat mitzvah of their daughters, or wear tallit [prayer shawl] and tefillin [phylacteries]--divide Orthodox synagogues one from another in many of the major communities where Orthodox Jews live, and have divided many synagogues internally as well.

Indeed, it can be argued that these issues are to contemporary Orthodoxy what debates over mixed seating and the height of the mehitzah [physical separation between men and women in the synagogue] were to an earlier generation. Those issues turned out to be defining ones for Orthodox Judaism; in time, synagogues with mixed seating had to stop calling themselves Orthodox. Will the women's issues today prove similarly divisive? The heated rhetoric on both sides hardly hints at the possibility of compromise. The question, as Orthodoxy ponders its future, is whether "the most explosive issue facing Orthodoxy" will ultimately blow up, fragmenting American Orthodoxy in the process.

Scandals and Credibility

Finally, American Orthodoxy is currently mired in several ugly scandals that have undermined the credibility of some of its foremost lay and professional leaders. The mystery surrounding missing tape recordings of Rabbi Soloveitchik's lectures has already tarnished several reputations. Meanwhile, the far more serious scandal surrounding the alleged sexual misdeeds of a charismatic figure in the National Council of Synagogue Youth along with the alleged widespread cover‑up that allowed him to maintain his job for years, accusations against him notwithstanding, threaten the credibility of the entire Orthodox Union. So far, the impact of these scandals has been circumscribed. The long‑term damage to the movement, however, may prove more far‑reaching, just as the scandals involving television evangelists did untold damage to the fortunes of Evangelical Protestantism.

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Jonathan Sarna

Jonathan D. Sarna is the Joseph and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University.