Modern Orthodox Judaism: A Documentary History , part of the Jewish Publication Society/University of Nebraska Series JPS Anthologies of Jewish Thought, edited by Zev Eleff, is a superb volume. As I read its pages, I thought back to an autobiographical piece sociologist Samuel Heilman published in Response in 1975, in which he described being warned by his doctoral adviser that he would be “shunted away from the mainstream of sociology and the modern world,” and that both he and his “work would be ignored” if he wrote on Jewish life in a contemporary American Orthodox synagogue.
Behind this episode lay the judgment that traditional expressions of religion in the contemporary setting were at best vestigial remnants from earlier epochs. After all, the modern age was marked, in the felicitous phrase coined by Max Weber, by a “disenchantment of the world” in which a secular ethos was triumphant. How much things have changed! As the eminent sociologist Peter Berger has “confessed” in several recent volumes, the world has become “re-enchanted” and he erred when he earlier believed that modernity was the solvent in which religious traditionalism would inexorably disappear.
Orthodox Judaism in America provides ample testimony to the truth of this last observation. While the 2013 Pew Survey of the Jewish community in the United States reported that only 10% of adult Jews in America are Orthodox, 25% of all Jews between 18 and 29 are Orthodox. The same survey reveals that Orthodox Jewish couples have a birthrate of 4.1 children per couple, as opposed to a birthrate of 1.7 children per couple for non-Orthodox Jews. All this makes an understanding of Orthodox Judaism and its history all the more important to students of modern religion and contemporary Judaism, and we are fortunate that Zev Eleff has turned his attention to presenting and analyzing this phenomenon.
It is against this larger backdrop of renewed interest in traditional religion and the exponential growth of Orthodox Jews that this documentary history takes on added import. Modern Orthodox Judaism commands special attention precisely because it illuminates the course of how a specific manifestation of religious traditionalism has evolved on [End Page 401] American shores during the last two hundred years. The wide range of documents Eleff selects for this history indicates that traditional religious resurgence in general and Modern Orthodox Judaism in particular cannot be comprehended in monochromatic hues. For, as Jacob J. Schacter of Yeshiva University observes in his graceful foreword to the book, modern Orthodox Judaism is both rooted in tradition and open, unlike Haredi Orthodoxy, “to new ways of thinking and acting” (xxviii).
Religious traditionalism, even as it boasts of “changelessness,” is not hermetically sealed off from the larger world. Instead, traditional religion constantly responds to new challenges and events. Eleff documents these twin poles of fidelity to the past and openness to the present throughout the course of this book. He provides a comprehensive portrait of the development of Modern Orthodox Judaism in this country and offers insightful and succinct introductions and analyses that frame the documents and illuminate the understanding of the reader throughout his work.
Eleff divides his anthology into three major parts. In the first part, “Orthodox Judaism and the Modern American Experience,” he appropriately places the nineteenth-century origins of Modern Orthodox Judaism in the context of contemporaneous struggles between Reform and traditional Judaism. While the terms “Reform” and “Orthodox” had already appeared, Eleff notes in his preface that the lines then separating them were indeterminate. Yet even if the boundaries between “Reform” and “Orthodox” Movements were not then absolute, Eleff presents a wide range of critiques traditionalist spokespersons hurled against those who would “reform” the tradition. He also offers telling statements that reflect the personal folk piety that marked traditionalist Jews of this era. Eleff further indicates how elite traditionalist leaders and rabbis like Abraham Rice and Bernard Illowy defended the authority of the Talmud and the Oral Law against the attacks of Reform as well as how these leaders critiqued the...