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Book Review: Contemporary Orthodox Judaism Responds to Modernity by Barry Freundel

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In 1992, Vice President Dan Quayle made a famous speech in which he decried the lack of what he called “family values” in American society. Quayle was talking to all segments of American society. Yet, Rabbi Barry Freundel, rabbi of Kesher Israel synagogue in Washington DC and a professor at the Baltimore Hebrew University and a teacher of mine, believes that these values can be learned from Judaism. Freundel notes, in fact, that much of Quayle’s speech was paraphrased from a sermon he gave on the pulpit and brought to Quayle by his speechwriter, then a member of Freundel’s synagogue.

In this age of modernity and secularism, many Jews see secular values as their values. Rabbi Barry Freundel sees this as a serious problem. Hence, he hopes to educate his fellow Jews, both religious and secular, in the values of traditional Judaism (which Quayle’s speechwriter refers to as “family values”) in his book Contemporary Orthodox Judaism’s Response to Modernity.

I had an undergraduate course with Rabbi Freundel and so reading this book was a refreshing review of that course and a wonderful reexamination of Rabbi Freundel‘s insights.

Rabbi Freundel shows a wonderful array of perception in his book. In his chapter on Israel, he decries the lack of Jewish values in the secular educational system and notes, with despair, that the only major American immigration to Israel (albeit still tiny) is of Orthodox Jews because, without a religious basis, Israel loses its meaning. As a recent immigrant, I can certainly attest to Freundel’s insight about Israel. If only he were here to bring some of that rabbinic insight to Jerusalem! Freundel rightly notes that “removing the Judaic quality of the state removes much of the rationale for its existence and for people continuing to put their lives on the line to maintain it. After all, why risk the dangers –  unless there is an ideological component challenging people to make so great a sacrifice?”

While insightful, some of Freundel’s discernments show the reactionary nature of contemporary American Orthodoxy. As the title notes, Orthodox Judaism is responding to modernity. By responding, there are times, such as in the case of women, in which Freundel seems to ignore the stagnation of halakhic development and ignores the reactionary nature of much of contemporary American Orthodoxy. While noting that the blessing thanking God for not making “me a woman” was initially a reaction to Christianity and not intended to be misogynist, Freundel notes that the corresponding blessing “who has made me according to His will” said by traditional women, was instituted only in the past millennium and was instituted for a different reason than its predecessor blessing. Yet, despite acknowledging that the blessing “who has not made me a woman” was written by humans and responded to a situation that does not exist anymore, no suggestion is made of amending the blessing to reflect positive values that are not offensive to women.

While, in certain circumstances, Rabbi Freundel talks about the pluralism of views in the Orthodox world, at other times he falls short. While Freundel personally follows the view of the majority of modern Orthodoxy in accepting brain death (the position of Rabbi Moshe Tendler of Yeshiva University), he also illustrates to his readers the opposing view of Rabbi J. David Bleich and Rabbi Hershel Schachter, also of Yeshiva University, who oppose the classification of brain death as a valid halakhic definition of death.

When discussing the controversial issue of abortion, Freundel stakes out a middle ground, in which he rejects the extremism of both the pro-choice and the pro-life position. Yet, he provides the reader with a discussion of the divergent positions held by the classical commentator Rashi and Rambam. In applying their positions to modern times, he illustrates the equal validity of the positions of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, who prohibits the abortion of a Tay-Sachs baby, vs. the position of Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, who would permit it in certain cases. Yet, perhaps because those positions are less controversial in the interdenominational debates, he does not extend the same pluralism to his discussion of the position of women in Orthodox Judaism.

Rabbi Freundel claims that “Beyond the borders of Orthodox acceptability are… [services] that allow women to be called to the Torah, and, perhaps, also to lead some limited parts of the service.” A handful of Freundel’s colleagues, such as Prof. Daniel Sperber (a professor of Talmud at the Orthodox Bar-Ilan University in Israel), have openly advocated women layning Torah in mixed settings in Orthodox minyanim. Freundel would also have to argue that services such as those held at Kehillah Orath Eliezar (KOE) and Darchei Noam in New York City or Shira Hadasha in Jerusalem, despite being sanctioned by several Orthodox rabbis and some of the greatest living scholars of Jewish philosophy, are outside the boundaries of Orthodox acceptability. While the Orthodox community is still debating the legitimacy of such services, to completely read them out of Orthodox at such an early point in the debate, shows a partisan position of Freundel which challenges an otherwise pluralistic attitude.

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  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    Very nice job…

    I have a suggestion and a question. Not all of us would know that the term “layning” means chanting the Torah at the altar. You might want to also explain a bit what certain prayers are, like the blessings recited in the morning that include thanking G-d for “not making me a woman” or “according to His will.”

    Finally, I have a question. Did the author of the book deal with Sephardi or MizraHi customs at all?

  • mike perkins

    I just read this book two or thre weeks ago. A great book that I highly reccomend.