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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.

Freundel also shows a partisan bias in his discussion of conversion. While he notes that conversion requires a commitment to Jewish observance, as well as immersion in the mikvah (ritual bath) for both men and women and ritual circumcision for men, he fails to explain why he would not recognize Conservative conversions which meet the aforementioned criteria. While the Talmud only requires that “a few of the ‘light’ commandments and a few of the ‘heavy’ commandments” be told of a potential convert, most Orthodox conversions today require the potential convert to be fully observant – a much higher burden than the Talmud (Yevamot 47a) sets out. Freundel does not adequately explain this nor the contradiction between the Talmudic passage and his outright rejection of all Conservative conversions. Of course, as a spokesperson for American Orthodoxy, as a partisan in the debate, this polemic may not be adequately explainable.

While devoting the first 30 chapters to general topics of theology and halakha, Rabbi Freundel chooses to conclude his work with an important essay on the Holocaust and Jewish survival. Concluding with a challenge about the meaning of God in the aftermath of the enormous destruction that was Churban Europe — the destruction of European Jewry — Freundel raises some questions that he can not answer. Yet, at a time in which European anti-Semitism is resurgent and civilized and educated people justify radical Islamic terrorism which threatens Jews in Israel and around the world, the questions raised by the Holocaust must confront all Jews today with a new urgency.

Freundel calls for Jews to return to the values of their heritage, as the Holocaust — to have any meaning — must teach us the value of every Jewish soul. Freundel notes that while Jews may have heartfelt disagreements with one another, it is imperative that such discourse is for the purpose of healing, rather than hurting. At a time in which there are leaders in Israel who call for the death of Israel’s Prime Minister, Rabbi Freundel’s call for healing poses an important call for each of us.

It is fitting that Freundel concludes his book on Orthodoxy’s response to modernity with the observation that “Any ideology such as that of the Nazis or contemporary terrorists, that promotes and even glorifies mass murder of innocents must be combated as vigorously as possible on every level: militarily, economically, and perhaps most importantly, ideologically." As Freundel goes on, "It is only by presenting a better and more ennobling vision of existence and by winning people to that vision that we can finally do away with the threat that we face.”

Freundel notes that “the sanctity and infinite worth of life as the core value of contemporary society must be preached, taught, and reiterated.” Freundel concludes by explaining that these points “can only be accomplished if we allow ourselves to base our own lives and the underlying philosophy of our society on appropriate objective values,” — such as those which Freundel lays out.

Hopefully, if we can incorporate some of the values described by Freundel, we will be able to do a small part to rebuild what was lost in the Holocaust and rebuild the dream of the Jewish people in the Jewish homeland. Now that’s what I call “family values.”

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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.

  • Benyamin Yosef

    Rabbi Freundel was in charge of the Beth Din in Washington
    DC and handled Beth Din disputes, conversions, and other matters. Also be cautious
    of using the Beth Din of America for your GET, conversion or other religious
    issue. Both Rabbi Shlomo Weissmann and Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz have seruv’s
    against them. Prior judges on this court have had a multitude of problems. Read
    more about it at thebethdin dot com. Too many Beth Dins and Rabbis are corrupt
    and dishonest.