I recently had the honor and privilege of addressing the Yeshiva University graduating class of 2016 at their commencement ceremony. Speaking before this audience prompted me to consider, as I believe we all should, what the core mission of modern orthodoxy is today. We live in a world where it seems that the only thing that is constant is that things are constantly changing. Every day we read about new technological advances, many of which pose a whole host of ethical and moral questions to society at large. Every day we read about new questions of personal identity, some of which Erica Brown discussed when she addressed our community in May.
We live in a challenging world where many of the prevailing values of secular society are at odds with those that we are taught in our Yeshiva day schools. When confronted with a challenge between secular and Halachic values, many Jews instinctively respond in one of two ways. Some retreat from these conflicts and pretend that they don’t exist, because for them, these challenges are too daunting to confront. Others simply accept secular society’s norms and values, believing that that is what a modern Jew must do. However, I believe it is incumbent upon each of us who define ourselves as modern orthodox Jews to seek a third option, that which I believe is the golden path.
The core mission of modern orthodoxy is not to retreat, not to accept, but to confront, to contemplate and to critically analyze the issues that others dare not approach. Our mission is to evaluate this great world that God has given us in all of its complexity, through the lens of Rabbi Akiva and Rebbi, through the lens of Rava and Abaye, through the lens of Rashi and the Rambam, and through the lens of Rav Chaim and Rav Soloveitchik, as we understand that Torah values remain constant in this ever-changing world. The core mission of modern orthodoxy is to take up this challenge to not be a bystander to history, but to be an upstander to shape and transform the future of our world and of the Jewish people, to share an authentic Torah voice to the issues of the day with fellow Jews and with the world at large.
The truth is that this mission is not new. It is not, as some might suspect, simply a necessary phenomenon of the last few hundred years, in the so-called “modern” world. Rather, this holy pursuit is as old as the time when the Torah was given. As God prepared the Bnei Yisrael to give His people His precious Torah, he shared His mission with Moshe by uttering the words, “V’atem tihyu li mamlechet Kohanim v’goi kadosh,” or “and you shall be for Me a kingdom of Kohanim and a holy nation.” What are we to understand from this directive to be a “kingdom of Kohanim?” The function of the Kohen is to serve as a bridge between God and the people. The Kohen instructs the people. The Kohen offers sacrifices to God on behalf of the people. The Kohen is a conduit for God’s blessing to the people. It seems then from the pasuk above, that Hashem’s mission for the entire Bnei Yisrael is to elevate ourselves such that we may emulate the Kohanim, and serve as a bridge between God and the nations of the world. In order for us to be an effective bridge, we must understand and engage the world. We must speak the language of those around us and be able to communicate with the world, so that we can share the authentic Torah voice amongst the nations. This is something that we can do, and this is something that we must do, because nobody is as equipped to do it as we are.