RESPONSE: Sea Change and Seeing Change

Marc D. Angel and Judith Bleich Tradition Online | September 5, 2023

The recent republication of TRADITION’s twenty-five year-old symposium on “The Sea Change in American Orthodox Judaism” generated a “looking back” on the part of some of those original 35 authors. Judith Bleich stands by her opinions of a quarter century ago—the challenges and threat of denominational splintering pales in comparison to widespread disinterest and apathy to the Jewish message and cause. This is a challenge which we still valiantly struggle against. Marc D. Angel is still I arguing for a more intellectually vibrant, compassionate, and inclusive Orthodoxy, one which will enable the freedom to break new ground, and to arrive at novel ideas and approaches to contemporary Jewish life.

Download this digital publication of the special symposium, edited by Hillel Goldberg (Summer 1998), including 2 supplementary essays (Winter 1999). 

Judith Bleich:

Revisiting TRADITION’s “Sea Change” symposium these many years later, I am grateful to be, by the grace of God, among those contributors still ba-olam ha-zeh, and that basically I stand by what I wrote earlier. I had the opportunity to write further on those topics in my Defenders of the Faith: Studies in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Orthodoxy and Reform (Touro University Press, 2020), and I share here elements that appeared in the introduction to that work.

The transformation of Orthodoxy that has accompanied the phenomenal growth of Torah study on these shores is wondrous. In the Orthodox community, Jewish literacy is the rule, not the exception, meaningful Jewish education is virtually universal, and great numbers achieve a high degree of proficiency in textual study. And, at least equally important, with knowledge has come passionate involvement and deeply-rooted pride. Defying prophets of doom, twenty-first-century American Orthodoxy exhibits an unanticipated dynamism and boasts of variegated flourishing communities.

However, the stark reality is that the Orthodox are but a relatively small fraction of the Jewish people. The major problem confronting contemporary Jewry is not tension between traditionalists and innovators; it is the absence of any form of religious identification on the part of vast numbers of Jews. In an increasingly thoroughly secular world, allegiance to religion among twenty-first-century youth is waning. The dramatically soaring rate of intermarriage is certainly incontrovertible testimony to the loss of religious commitment on the part of contemporary Jews. As Alan Dershowitz’s son incisively noted regarding his own intermarriage, one should not refer to intermarriage as interfaith marriage, but, more accurately, as interfaithless marriage. Indeed, usually, neither party to an intermarriage has a meaningful connection to any religious faith. Questioned regarding the religious group with whom they identified, the response of far too many millennials was “None.” The challenge of denominationalism pales before that of disinterest and apathy.

Daunting as such disinvolvement may be, we are nonetheless assured—and confident—that from the ranks of the cohorts who today engage in dedicated study of Torah there will emerge passionate spirited leaders who, for this generation, as Rabbenu Bahya foretold, will be “kor’im el ha-Elokim ve-el avodato u-morim et Torato—calling [their coreligionists] to God and to His service and teaching His Law” (Hovot ha-Levavot, Sha’ar ha-Teshuva, ch. 6), who will engage even the currently distant and disaffected, and with patience and forbearance—“precept by precept, precept by precept, line by line, line by line, here a little, there a little” (Isaiah 28:13)—with enthusiasm and zeal, will convey to them the “Torah commanded to us by Moses” and restore it to its luster as “the heritage of the congregation of Jacob” (Deuteronomy 33:4).

Judith Bleich is a professor of Jewish studies at Touro University and a longtime member of TRADITION’s editorial board.


Marc D. Angel:

In my responses to the questions in TRADITION’s 1998 symposium, I focused on the increasing narrowness and authoritarianism within Orthodoxy. I argued for a more intellectually vibrant, compassionate, and inclusive Orthodoxy.

During the past 25 years, my concerns have only intensified. I think Orthodoxy, including Modern Orthodoxy, has become even more inner-directed. The Jewish People needs a creative and dynamic Orthodoxy with a grand religious vision. Our challenge is to articulate this vision and work tirelessly to implement it. The first step is to encourage independent thinking.

I recently had correspondence with a rabbinic colleague in which we discussed ideas relating to the role of women in halakha. I had offered some thoughts on how I imagined things would be in messianic times. He found my ideas somewhat interesting and then asked: do you have a source for them?

I replied: The source is my own thinking.

Our dialogue then reached a cordial conclusion.

I mulled over this conversation and realized that it reflects some of the problems I have with much discussion within the Orthodox world. It is increasingly difficult to express an idea without pinning it to an “authority” or a reliable “source.” Independent thinking is not considered to be good form.

If I had told my colleague that I had found my idea in a midrash, or a classic rabbinic work, or even in the writings of an obscure kabbalist he would have taken my words more seriously. After all, I had a source!

But shouldn’t ideas be evaluated on their own merit? A statement isn’t truer if someone said it a few hundred years ago, even if that someone was a great scholar and sage. A statement is not less true if it is espoused by someone today, who has no “source” to substantiate his or her views.

Yes, certainly, we have a proper tendency to give more weight to the opinion of sages such as Rambam than the opinion of a person who is far less learned than Rambam. We assume that Rambam (or another “authority”) was surely wiser and more knowledgeable than we are; if early sources didn’t come up with our idea, then it must be that our idea is wrong. Otherwise the previous “authorities” would have said it first.

But this line of thinking keeps us focused on the past, and doesn’t allow enough freedom to break new ground, to come up with novel ideas and approaches. I have heard it said that reliance on the authority of Aristotle kept philosophy from developing for a thousand years; reliance on the medical teachings of Galen kept medicine from advancing for many centuries. Whether in the sciences, arts or philosophy, innovation is a key to progress. An atmosphere of intellectual freedom allows ideas to be generated, evaluated, rejected, accepted. It provides the framework for human advancement.

It is intellectually deadening to read articles and responsa or hear lectures and shiurim that are essentially collections of the opinions of early “sources” and “authorities.” Although it is vital for rabbis and scholars to be aware of the earlier rabbinic literature, it is also vital that they not be hemmed in by those opinions. One needs the intellectual freedom to evaluate sources, to accept what is deemed acceptable, to reject what is objectionable…and to offer one’s own views on the topic, even if no earlier source or authority exists.

Oh yes, I have a source for these views!

Rambam wrote (Guide II:13): “For when something has been demonstrated, the correctness of the matter is not increased and certainty regarding it is not strengthened by the consensus of all men of knowledge with regard to it. Nor could its correctness be diminished and certainty regarding it be weakened even if all the people on earth disagreed with it.” Rambam also noted (Hilkhot Kiddush HaHodesh 17:24): “Since all these rules have been established by sound and clear proofs, free from any flaw and irrefutable, we need not be concerned about the identity of their authors, whether they be Hebrew prophets or gentile sages.” We rely on the proofs, not on the credentials of the author.

Some years ago, I wrote an article “Orthodoxy and Diversity” [Conversations 1 (Spring 2008)], in which I expressed my concerns.

Orthodoxy needs to foster the love of truth. It must be alive to different intellectual currents, and receptive to open discussion. How do we, as a modern Orthodox community, combat the tendency toward blind authoritarianism and obscurantism?

First, we must stand up and be counted on the side of freedom of expression. We, as a community, must give encouragement to all who have legitimate opinions to share. We must not tolerate intolerance. We must not yield to the tactics of coercion and intimidation.

Our schools and institutions must foster legitimate diversity within Orthodoxy. We must insist on intellectual openness, and resist efforts to impose conformity: we will not be fitted into the bed of Sodom. We must give communal support to diversity within the halakhic framework, so that people will not feel intimidated to say things publicly or sign their names to public documents.

When well-reasoned views are expressed, they should be evaluated fairly. Quoting “sources and authorities” does not in itself validate an opinion. Not quoting “sources or authorities” does not invalidate an opinion.

We certainly should draw on the wisdom and scholarship of others, and we should give them due credit when we learn from them and quote their words. But we should not shut off our own brains, nor feel unable to express an opinion without basing it on an earlier source. A thinking Judaism makes us better Jews…and better human beings.

Rabbi Marc D. Angel is Director of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals.


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