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Modern Orthodoxy at the crossroads


On the face of it, modern Orthodox Judaism is thriving in Canada. While other synagogues and day schools are watching their numbers contract, modern Orthodox shuls and schools are growing.

A 2013 Pew report on American Jewry painted a picture of Orthodox communities whose members are, on average, younger and more involved in all aspects of organized Jewish life than Jews in more liberal streams of Judaism.

Rabbi Chaim Strauchler
Rabbi Chaim Strauchler

While the Pew report only looked at Jews in the United States, and no similar surveys have been done here, Rabbi Chaim Strauchler, who leads Toronto’s Shaarei Shomayim Synagogue, said he sees the same trends in Canada, where his own shul has grown as young families are attracted to the ideals of community and social activism, while also craving the familiar. Shaarei Shomayim recently sponsored a Syrian refugee family and hosted forums on mental health and physician-assisted suicide. The prayer life of the synagogue, however, remains firmly Orthodox.

“The modern Orthodox community has a good balance for many people of providing a place that is… aware of the changing world and wants to contribute in a positive way to the world, but also recognizes the many treasures that we have as part of our tradition,” Rabbi Strauchler said.

But the vibrancy of modern Orthodoxy that comes from the tension of balancing the demands of secular life with traditional Jewish tenets also contains the seeds of schism.


As Reuven Bulka, rabbi emeritus of Ottawa’s Machzikei Hadas says, even the very name of the movement contains a contradiction. “Everyone has different views of what’s outside the pale, what’s not modern enough. It’s a very tricky entity.”

In a smaller community like Ottawa’s, which lacks a critical mass of modern Orthodox families, it is even more difficult. Haredi families tend to be larger than more modern ones and their yeshivas are cheaper than other Jewish schools.

However, if, as parents, you choose those options, “you’re almost guaranteeing your children are not going to be as modern Orthodox as you like,” Rabbi Bulka said.

The movement also continues to grapple with what Rabbi Strauchler calls “hot-button issues,” including the role of women in religious life and how the Bible is interpreted. And while no one foresees modern Orthodoxy in Canada suffering a serious rift, the potential for division is very real.


But first, the good news. According to the Pew report, which surveyed 3,400 Jews, modern Orthodox Jews tended to be wealthier and younger than non-Orthodox Jews. Orthodox Jews also tended to have considerably more children, than their more liberal counterparts.

Children at Netivot Ha Torah Day School celebrate Yom Ha'atzmaut.
Children at Netivot Ha Torah Day School celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut.

Toronto’s Netivot HaTorah Day School has seen enrolment increase from 500 to 630 students over the last few years, said head of school, Rabbi Jeffrey Rothman. The Orthodox elementary school has recently had a change of leadership and administration, and it has professionalized, which may explain the growth, he said. It has also sought students a little to the left and to the right of its traditional orientation.

As further evidence of its success, almost every student continues on to a Jewish high school, spends a year in Israel and then goes to university, Rabbi Rothman said.


Norma Joseph
Norma Joseph

In Montreal, modern Orthodoxy is alive and well, although it’s developing quite differently than in Toronto, said CJN columnist Norma Joseph, associate director of the Azrieli Institute of Israel Studies at Concordia University. Montreal is an anomaly – it has relatively few liberal synagogues and its Orthodox shuls attract people who may not practise an Orthodox lifestyle, she said.

This diversity has given her the freedom to pursue a professional career and be a feminist, she said. “I was able to do a number of things here that I don’t think I could have done in other cities.”

The project Joseph is most closely identified with was groundbreaking work on the problem of agunot, women held hostage by husbands who refused to grant them a Jewish divorce. Orthodox colleagues in other communities were astounded by the wide-ranging coalition of women who worked together on the issue, she said.

Rabbi Michael Whitman
Rabbi Michael Whitman

Rabbi Michael Whitman, the spiritual leader of Adath Israel Poale Zedek Anshei Ozeroff in Hampstead, Que., also sees modern Orthodoxy prospering.

“I see a lot of leadership in our community, both Jewish leadership, and even representatives in the wider community [who] reflect the ideals of modern Orthodoxy, and I think that’s very healthy.”

At his own synagogue, “our community is growing. We’re seeing an influx of young families moving into our neighbourhood.”


Rabbi Whitman, like Joseph, has taken a stand on one of the most divisive issues for modern Orthodoxy, agunah, and by extension the role of women who are empowered in the secular world but face age-old restrictions in religious life.

“Agunah is a stain on the face of Judaism, and the modern Orthodox world has basically solved it,” he said.

He has pioneered the use of prenuptial agreements to solve the problem of agunot, but he has found scant support in the wider Jewish community. “On the one side, I have rabbis to the right who say it’s not necessary… but I know the problem is in their community,” he said. “And then on the other side, some of my non-Orthodox colleagues, because they’re not bound by halachic rules the way I understand them, don’t feel there’s a need for this, and I need to say this is not a decision that affects them, this is a decision that can affect the next generation.”

Rabbi Martin Lockshin
Rabbi Martin Lockshin

The reluctance of Canadian Orthodoxy to make prenuptial agreements a standard part of marriage is symptomatic of modern Orthodoxy’s capitulation to haredi influences, said CJN columnist Martin Lockshin, an ordained Orthodox rabbi and professor emeritus at York University.

“There are still modern Orthodox leaders and rabbis who believe modern Orthodoxy is the way to go, but there has been a certain silencing of their voices because of the strength of the haredi community,” he said.


In the United States, the Rabbinical Council of America, which represents Orthodox rabbis, has repeatedly endorsed the prenuptial agreement, but Rabbi Whitman remains “a lone voice” in Canada, Rabbi Lockshin said.

“I don’t think there’s much of a fear of schism between the left and the right because the left is very weak,” he said. “I think there is a fear of schism in the United States in Orthodoxy.”

Agunot are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to women’s issues. As modern Orthodox women are beginning to be ordained (often taking the title of maharat or rabba), the movement is still working out what role women will play in religious leadership. While some congregations have been willing to hire the newly ordained women, others have decided they are not ready.


But “how do we create a community where we value our daughters the way we value our sons?” Rabbi Strauchler asks. “That’s an ongoing issue we have to discuss and think through deeply.”

The problem of biblical criticism, different ways of understanding the Torah, has also generated controversy in the United States, rabbis say. At the heart of the debate is whether the Torah, which Orthodoxy defines as the divine word of God given directly to Moses, is identical to the Torah we have today, Rabbi Lockshin said.

“People who are worried about schism often point to this problem and say this is going to lead to a split in Orthodoxy. I don’t think this has been a Canadian problem,” he said.

Rabbi Mordechai Torczyner, rosh beit midrash of Yeshiva University’s kolel in Toronto, has lectured several times recently about biblical criticism, and he agrees that it “won’t affect the bedrock faith of most people” and is unlikely to be dividing point for this country’s Orthodox Jews.

“I think modern Orthodoxy in Canada is strong, but facing serious challenges,” Rabbi Torczyner said.

Every contentious issue the movement is confronting, from the role of women to how to respond to social movements like Black Lives Matter, or even how to meld strict rules about Shabbat observance with emerging new technologies, arises because the pace of change in modern life is both rapid and widespread, he said.

As an example, he points to what once were called “alternative lifestyles.”

“In the space of just a few years, we’ve seen a radical change in the way the western world looks at those relationships,” he said. “And while there are messages that could be consistent with themes within Judaism, the reality is you’re thinking about one change and already the next one has come along. Modern Orthodoxy ends up being behind the times in terms of how to deal with the new reality.”

But some observers believe that modern Orthodoxy has the ability to adapt, although perhaps slowly.

“We’ve had it all along. It’s just a matter of owning it, so that the flexibility that a real, dynamic Halachah gives you should be pronounced and accepted,” Joseph said.

“One of the challenges [for modern Orthodoxy] is separating from the ultra-right Orthodox, who have seemed to have marketed themselves as the only true Orthodoxy,” she said. “We need to bring back the centre and own it, and to market it with a pleasure and passion and not leave it just to the chassidic or haredi movement.