Modern Orthodoxy Has Its Costs – Not Just Financial

February 17, 2015

Source: The Jewish Week


It follows that if Modern Orthodoxy is elitist, it is also very expensive. Some writers have begun to notice as well: according to a widely-discussed article by Dmitriy Shapiro, families can find themselves struggling even with annual household incomes as high as $300,000. That such large incomes are barely sufficient is only part of a larger problem. The other side of the coin is that Orthodox parents, as stated by the OU’s Nathan Diament in the Shapiro article, are “driven to higher paying professions,” specifically law, medicine, and finance. A community that constrains the career choices of its young people incurs a cost that cannot be measured only in dollars and cents.


That is, the pressure to produce high earners discourages and marginalizes those members of the community whose calling is in music, literature, the visual arts, or the performing arts. The problem is not only that creative types will likely be unable to afford the Modern Orthodox lifestyle; the community itself tends to marginalize those who pursue artistic careers, viewing them as irresponsible. Some creative types will gravitate toward the rabbinate or Jewish education, careers that can offer a creative outlet, financial incentive in the form of tuition reductions, and social acceptability. Many will either give in to the pressure to pursue a stable, lucrative career, or leave Orthodoxy behind.


Some will move to Israel, where artistic careers are more acceptable and where, despite the economic challenges it poses, Jewish religious education is free. The Jewish state is also home to a variety of high schools and colleges for the visual arts specifically geared to Orthodox students. Yarmulkes and other Orthodox paraphernalia are ubiquitous in Israel’s music scene—from classical on down—which in turn has been tapping into Jewish liturgical and poetic traditions.


In Israel, the head of a yeshiva is also a best-selling and award-winning novelist. In America, we get excited about holiday-themed a capella parodies, newly (and briefly) observant reggae artists, paint-the-parsha programs, and novelists who do not know the difference between Tosafot and the Tosefta but know and use a dozen Yiddish words for genitalia.


A reader might be tempted to ask: “So what?” As long as Modern Orthodoxy is producing rabbis, teachers, and enough big earners to support the community’s infrastructure and personnel, does it matter that it is not producing playwrights, poets, and pianists?


It does. Modern Orthodoxy is, or ought to be, a rich and challenging lifestyle that profoundly engages a broad range of thick Jewish experiences. It has a great deal to offer the Jewish world and the broader religious world. But without a vibrant creative class, there is no communal unpacking of that experience, no collective expression or catharsis, no mirror to show the community how it looks from the outside, no legacy of the community’s unique contributions.


Is there a remedy, or will Modern Orthodoxy export and outsource creativity to Israel? Let this important conversation begin.


Read more at The Jewish Week.

Updated: Feb. 25, 2015