Alan Mittleman ("Fretful Orthodoxy," October 2003) states that many Modern Orthodox Jews on college campuses are unsure of what they believe and why, due to a lack of intellectual intensity within the community. "Familism, solidarity, youth groups, institutional loyalties"--in his opinion, and mine, too, often substitute for theological engagement.
I am, however, dubious about several of Professor Mittleman's other observations. He presents Rabbi S. R. Hirsch's mid-nineteenth-century views on Judaism and Western culture as a successful accommodation with modernity in its time. Whatever the merits of Hirsch's theology, it was not really tested until the third generation began to attend university in significant numbers. As an expert on the work of Hirsch's grandson, Isaac Breuer, Prof. Mittleman should know better than most the desperate intellectual debility Breuer diagnosed, and sought to reverse, among his peers a hundred years ago. The state of German Orthodoxy did not improve substantially until the aftermath of World War I brought an influx of old-style Orthodox scholars from Eastern Europe.
Prof. Mittleman laments the passing from the scene of my revered mentor, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, "the Rav" par excellence for American Orthodoxy. Until fairly recently the Rav's major talmudic and theological writings were either unpublished or relatively inaccessible. If our younger generation misses his physical presence, his work is increasingly available, vigorously disseminated by his best students, and quoted and popularized to the point of trivialization. His absence is not the primary factor in the present crisis.
By and large, young Orthodox students are not interested in articulating and defending their beliefs because, like their parents before them, they are preoccupied with their professional training and social lives. Rabbi Soloveitchik used to say that the besetting vice of the middle classes is complacency, and he definitely did not except the community that placed him on a pedestal. With the waning of blatant discrimination in the workplace, and the promise of unlimited acceptance in American society, typified by the "Lieberman moment," one takes it for granted that Orthodoxy can be maintained without the need for extraordinary intellectual heroism or self-sacrifice. Having offered social and intellectual compromises to the Zeitgeist, and relying on the benign live-and-let-live neutrality of the naked academic quad, it comes as...