On Modern Orthodoxy

Yeshiva University’s ‘World of Tomorrow’ Conference

On Sunday 22nd October 2017, Rabbi Sacks participated in a public conversation with Rabbi Ari Lamm as part of Yeshiva University’s ‘World of Tomorrow’ Conference, held under the direction and leadership of its new President, Rabbi Dr Ari Berman.

Listen to the audio recording of the full conversation with Rabbi Lamm, which includes the clip featured in this video.

Rabbi Ari Lamm:

I’d like to play a little game called underrated overrated, where I’d like to throw out something – a thing, a person, a topic – to you, and I’d like you to opine on whether you think it’s overrated, properly rated, or underrated. (Of course, feel free to pass.) The first one is: underrated/overrated, modern orthodoxy? Start slow.

Rabbi Sacks:

The phrase “modern orthodoxy” is overrated to the nth degree. I urge you to find another label. Let me tell you why.

Number one, as you’ve already worked out, nothing is less modern than modern. Are you with me? I mean, in the 1960s we were modern. By the 1970s we were already postmodern, and then now we’re into retro, which is the modern form of being before modern. So, just ditch-

Rabbi Ari Lamm:

Modern orthodoxy classic.

Rabbi Sacks:

Yeah. Just ditch the “modern”. It just doesn’t do anything for anyone. It’s like the word “congregant”. You know the word “congregant” in the Oxford English Dictionary tells us it’s only used by Jews. Well, like the word “decorum”. Do you remember the days when there was decorum? Only Jews ever spoke about it. Everyone else just did it. We spoke about it.

So, the word modern is terrible, but let me remind you what is wrong with that phrase. If you, in America, get up and say, “I am a Modern Orthodox Jew,” you have just defined yourself as a minority of a minority of a minority. Because in America, Jews are a minority. Among American Jews, Orthodox Jews are a minority, and among Orthodox Jews, modern Orthodox Jews are a minority. You have just painted yourself into a corner that is not even daled amos by daled amos [4×4 cubits].

How did I define us? I said, “We are the Judaic voice in the conversation of humankind,” and the second we did that we were part of the majority. I was a voice on the BBC, and the British press, and we did at least as well with non-Jews as with Jews. When Jews see non-Jews appreciating Judaism, they say, “Hang on. If the goyim like this maybe there’s something in it after all.”

So, I would urge you to just ditch it totally. I actually coined the phrase of “Judaism engaged with the world,” but you’ll find a better phrase. One way or another, this is a phrase that is long past its sell-by date. If you continue to use it, you will endlessly find yourself arguing, “How many degrees are we to the right of open orthodoxy? How many degrees to the left of Charedi orthodoxy?” And you will end up with what Sigmund Freud rather nicely called, “The narcissism of small differences,” or what in Hasidus they call katnus demochin.

You’re bigger than that. We are part of the tradition that’s twice as old as Christianity, three times as old as Islam. That has survived every superpower that ever sought to destroy us. That is still young. Still full of energy and ideas. We deserve something better than “modern orthodoxy”. Could we, Mr. President, offer some prize to anyone who can come up with a better phrase than “modern orthodoxy”? Okay? You’ll announce that in your next whatever it is. Right.