Within the Hasidic and Yeshivish communities the term “modern” is used to characterize behavior that is associated with non-Jews or Jews who are considered non-religious. Behavior that can be marked as “modern” may include dressing casually or relatively less modestly, or the mixing of genders in a social setting. In this sense of the term, the Modern Orthodox community is indeed modern, and accordingly is quite different from the Hasidic and Yeshivish communities in many areas. Modern Orthodox Jews, by and large, dress like other Americans of their social class, although some form of head covering is generally worn, but not always and not universally, by men and many married women. There are few barriers to the mixing of the sexes in social situations. Elementary and High Schools may be single sex, or have separate classes for boys and for girls in religious studies classes, but many Modern Orthodox day schools and yeshiva high schools are co-ed. Most graduates of Modern Orthodox high schools attend four-year American colleges where they often live on campus together with other students in university housing. Like most other American young adults, Modern Orthodox young adults generally rely on their own initiatives and the help of friends to find a spouse.
“Modern” has an additional meaning with respect to the Modern Orthodox community that is tied to its own self-definition as a distinctive way of being Orthodox. In this sense it refers to an identification with the modern worldview ushered in by the Enlightenment. Modern Orthodox Jews have a deep-seated belief in historical progress, which is perceived to be achieved through the application of human reason to the study of nature and to the administration of social institutions, as evidenced by technological advancement and the expansion of human freedoms and rights. Other than for the need to comply with the restrictions of Jewish law, for which accommodation is usually found, Modern Orthodox Jews are eager to be full participants in American society and to take advantage of the opportunities for education and material advancement that the modern world has made available; such involvement is indeed viewed as a distinction or achievement, one that is attributed by its thinkers and ideologues as even having a religious value. Modern Orthodox Jews accordingly have greater levels of higher education than Hasidim and Yeshivish Jews, and are fully integrated into the professions and almost all areas of commerce, technology, and even government.
The embrace of progress also affects Modern Orthodox views of Judaism. Although there have been recent trends to the contrary (discussed below), Modern Orthodox Jews have generally rejected aspects of traditional Jewish life that struck them as irrational or “superstitious” and not rooted in Jewish law, and have worked to attenuate traditional gender distinctions, most notably with respect to women’s Torah education, with aggressive steps being taken in recent decades to afford young women the opportunity to study Talmud and Jewish law at an advanced level. Modern Orthodox Jews have also adopted the Enlightenment confinement of religion within certain boundaries, hiving off large areas of life, such as career and recreation, from the reach of religion.
Like the Hasidim and the Yeshivish community, Modern Orthodoxy has enjoyed considerable success in recent years. However, its total population has not increased all that much, as the nominally Modern Orthodox – those who identified in earlier surveys as such but had low levels of Jewish education, synagogue attendance, and community involvement – have generally disappeared. The result is a more intensely committed community. The rate of growth of the Modern Orthodox cannot be expected to come close to that of the Chasidic and Yeshivish communities, as Modern Orthodox Jews marry later and have fewer children, although their birthrate is considerably higher than that of non-Orthodox Jews. According to the UJA-Federation study, the mean number of children for Modern Orthodox women ages 35-44 in the New York area is 2.5.13 A constraint on the growth of the community is the high cost of being Modern Orthodox. Tuition at Modern Orthodox schools, which is far higher than the tuition charged by Hasidic or Yeshivish schools, is a major strain on family budgets, as is the accepted standard of living, which includes sending children to summer camps and to post high school gap year programs in Israel, vacations, and a house in a Modern Orthodox neighborhood. The Modern Orthodox community does not have the same array of social welfare organizations found in the Hasidic and Yeshivish communities. A relatively high proportion of Modern Orthodox men work as professionals and in management positions, and are not in a position to employ members of their community who are in need of a job.
While a traditional but modern life clearly is attractive for many Jews, the hybrid notion of being both Modern and Orthodox can be a volatile mix that produces specific strains. One example is the clash between rabbinic authority and the values of individual autonomy and equality. Modern Orthodox rabbinic authorities have repeatedly emphasized in recent years the need for laypeople to submit in all matters of Jewish law to the authority of accepted rabbinic masters they consider to be authentic transmitters of the tradition (mesorah). Many members of the Modern Orthodox community, however, wish to consider issues regarding Jewish law and theology on their own, taking advantage of their own literacy in halachic literature, easy access to digitized textual sources, and online discussions of such topics. This has led to considerable debate, often acrimonious, regarding the role of women in religious life. It is likely that this issue as well as the acceptability of homosexuality, will continue to divide the community for many years to come.
Unlike the Yeshivish community, which has hundreds of yeshivot and kollels, the Modern Orthodox community has long had one dominant institution of higher education, which enjoyed, up until fairly recently, little or no direct competition. That institution is Yeshiva University, whose core programs are two undergraduate colleges, one for men and one for women, and a yeshiva, the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), in which a large portion of the male undergraduate population studies and which has post-graduate programs for further advanced study and for ordination. Over the past several decades, RIETS has undergone a transformation that has given it more of a Yeshivish character than a Modern Orthodox one. This turn has alienated the portion of the community that is proudly Modern Orthodox in its religious views, and has led to the creation of a small assertively Modern Orthodox rabbinical school that describes its philosophy as “Open Orthodox,” and which has an affiliated educational institution for women that provides a form of ordination. The emergence of this second rabbinical school and the competing orientation of Open Orthodoxy has generated a great deal of acrimonious debate within the Modern Orthodox community regarding the boundaries of Orthodox belief. Adding urgency to the debates within the community is a sense of crisis over the sizeable number of younger members of the community who are giving up Orthodox practice.14