Conventional wisdom has it that the Modern Orthodox movement can be traced back to a single figure — Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the 19th-century German theologian who argued that a balance was possible between a belief in the divine authority of scripture and citizenship in the modern world.
The reality, say the organizers of a conference on Modern Orthodoxy set to take place at The University of Scranton next month, is far more complex.
“Depending on how you count, Modern Orthodoxy can be said to be 10, 12, 15 or even 25 varieties,” said Alan Brill, a Yeshiva University professor of Jewish thought and one of the conference organizers. For Brill, who taught a broad survey course on the intellectual history of Modern Orthodoxy at Y.U. in 2004, locating the movement’s origins in Germany is to lose sight of many of its other sources, including the 12th-century rabbi-philosopher Moses Maimonides, Sephardic thinkers and domestic trends in 19th-century America.
Though comparable gatherings have been held in recent years at Israel’s Hebrew University and at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, scholars say that the Scranton conference promises to be the first of its kind in the United States.
“There have certainly been conferences on such questions as ‘How Do We Strengthen Modern Orthodoxy?’” said Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University and the author of the award-winning 2004 book “American Judaism.” “But this is the first conference I can recall that is focusing on the history of Modern Orthodoxy — what it is, what it was, what its central moments were.”
The conference, co-organized by Brill and Marc Shapiro, a Jewish studies professor at Scranton, will run from June 13 to June 15 and explore the Modern Orthodox movement from a host of perspectives. The opening panel, titled “Religion in the Post-War Era,” will seek to contextualize Modern Orthodoxy through comparison with analogous Protestant sects. The conference’s second day will focus mostly on contrasting the Israeli and American scenes, drawing distinctions between Modern Orthodoxy and Religious Zionism. The third day will feature a panel on the Jews of England and a final session with papers on medicine, Soviet Jewry and the Vietnam War — all from Modern Orthodox viewpoints.
In the paper he is to deliver, Sarna will argue that what are regarded today as American Judaism’s three main streams (Reform, Conservative and Orthodox) originally sprang from just two. In the early years of the 20th century, “there was Reform and everything to the right of Reform,” Sarna told the Forward. “Conservative and Orthodox split from one another. What had been one movement became two.”
Though the conference is centered largely on the period between 1940 and 1970, Shapiro emphasized that the dates are to a degree arbitrary, in part because Modern Orthodoxy continues to be in flux. “There are so many different models of Modern Orthodoxy,” Shapiro said. “Some — like those that offer expanded roles for women — can even be said to be 21st-century creations.”