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Modernity And Tradition


Rabbi Berel Wein

The major challenge to all religions and certainly to Judaism over the past two centuries has been the religious reaction to the problems raised by modernity. Modernity encompasses but is not limited to technological progress, a global economy, ideas of personal and national freedom and a search for a more equitable distribution of wealth and well being amongst all human beings.

This centuries–old struggle of modernity to improve the lot of humans has created a much more literate world, a better educated population, wealth and a leisurely life never before known in the history of civilization and a much more powerful citizenry dealing with government leadership.

Modernity has also brought catastrophic wars of devastation and death of tens of millions of seemingly innocent people. In many cases, its search for equality and fairness has only resulted in dictatorship and stifling cruelty. The expected lifespan of human beings has been greatly, though unequally, lengthened and has now more than doubled over the past century alone. But the modern world is certainly not a happy place.

Psychological dysfunction abounds in all levels of human society. Sexual freedom is destroying any sense of family loyalty and moral behavior. Automobiles kill tens of thousands of people every year. The specter of nuclear annihilation overrides all political and diplomatic as well as military decisions and policies.

The modern world is terribly complicated and its horrors and failures are too well documented to be ignored. Yet none of us would be willing to revert back to life as it was known in pre-modern times. Hence, the unease and frustration that are the hallmarks of our time and society.

In the religious Jewish world, coming to grips with the issues and challenges that modernity poses has proven to be a nettlesome problem. No universal satisfactory, one size fits all, answer to the clash of traditional Jewish life with the new modern world has proven completely effective - and as a result, there is a very wide spectrum of responses to the modern world within the religious Jewish camp.

These range from an attempt – really impossible on a practical level but nevertheless championed as being the panacea to all our problems – to ignore, or at the very least, oppose the introduction of the ideas and tools of modernity into religious Jewish society. Banning television and the Internet – seemingly good ideas in theory - from our homes seems to have accomplished little as far as alleviating the problems and weaknesses that persistently exist within religious Jewish society.

Embracing modernity in all of its aspects and culture has been adopted by other sections of Orthodox society. While these policies that encourage the abandonment of traditional mores and demand more leniency in halachic decision-making bring journalistic approval and noisy notice to those who push this agenda, in truth very little is accomplished for Judaism or Jews on a meaningful personal level.

So most of Orthodoxy finds itself somewhere in the middle. We live in a modern world, but with great reticence and unease. We are disturbed by the excesses of modernity that we witness daily and yet we realize that we cannot go back to the world of the shtetl and the mellah. And we therefore feel trapped and frustrated, dissatisfied with our religious and general behavior and looking for some sort of panacea that will comfort our angst.

There have been numerous attempts to reconcile Jewish traditional life with the values and even lifestyle that modernity introduced into the world. German Orthodoxy in the nineteenth century led by rabbis Hirsch, Bamberger and Hildesheimer, each in his own way, attempted to square the circle of modern German life and continue Jewish tradition and Torah observance.

Though these great leaders were successful on a local level in their communities their attempts and solutions did not resonate in the rapidly secularizing Eastern European Jewish society and certainly not in the Sephardic world. Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin of Salant attempted to face up to modernity with his Mussar movement. Though again successful on a local level and for a period of time in the Lithuanian yeshivot, it has all but completely disappeared in our time.

The Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel, both products of modernity and examples of the horrors and wonders that the modern world can create, have only complicated the issue of how to deal with modernity. Banning higher education for women, while at the same time expecting them to be major breadwinners, hardly seems to be a logical or practical policy.

It may very well be that there is no general national or communal answer to this difficult problem and that dealing with the modern world and all of its complications, and yet retaining tradition and Jewish values and observances as the core of our essence, is a personal matter that each and every individual will have to decide for one’s self. Sometimes it is most challenging to be Jewish.
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