Is there a definition[1] of "Modern Orthodox(y)" that either

  1. has wide acceptability[2] or
  2. has the support of an expert (say, a renowned rabbi some consider Modern Orthodox, or an anthropologist who's studied the Orthodox, or …)?

You may assume "Orthodox(y)" is defined. That is, I'll very gladly accept definitions like "Modern Orthodox(y) is Orthodox(y) which …" without further elaboration on the definition of "Orthodox(y)".

I expect there will be more than one good answer.

[1] Note that I am asking not for an ostensive definition (such as a list of characteristics) of (the) Modern Orthodox(y), but for an intensional definition of "Modern Orthodox(y)". That is, for example, if "Modern Orthodox(y)" is defined without reference to a certain characteristic, then, even if 100% of the Modern Orthodox have that characteristic as opposed to 0% in other groups, that wouldn't be part of an answer post below.
[2] Such acceptability would itself need to be demonstrated, of course. A weak but valid answer might be "I've asked twenty people, and they all agree that the following definition is widely accepted among Group X. …". A stronger one might be "This study indicates that the following definition is widely accepted among Group X. …".

  • I have checked Wikipedia, but it is not helpful. It discusses Modern Orthodoxy without clearly stating any definitions.
    – msh210
    Commented Dec 30, 2013 at 6:45
  • Ironically, the "modern" in Modern Orthodoxy comes from the historical era of "modernism", which because of a decline in cultural education, appears to unknown among most modern orthodox Jews, and they believe it to mean "modern" as in current, which is always changing.
    – avi
    Commented Dec 30, 2013 at 8:13
  • see here for an argument that it should have been called "post-modern orthodoxy" lookstein.org/articles/soloveitchik_posek.htm
    – avi
    Commented Dec 30, 2013 at 11:21
  • What of the issue surrounding the positions of "yeshivish" and "shira chadasha" relative to "modern" orthodoxy? @msh210, would you consider either of these within your personal definition? Commented Dec 30, 2013 at 15:29
  • 1
    @msh210 Wikipedia Has the Definition in the very first line, what are you asking? "a movement within Orthodox Judaism that attempts to synthesize Jewish values and the observance of Jewish law, with the secular, modern world." this comment was moderated for language
    – avi
    Commented Dec 30, 2013 at 16:24

4 Answers 4


Echoing others, the answer to this question is elusive and is likely to remain so:

We are beset by many problems. And our thorniest and perhaps most disabling problem is, curiously, an "identity crisis" — perhaps a sign of our youthfulness as an ideological movement. Objectively examined, what binds us together as a separate entity is our full commitment to the Torah tradition — and our openness, at the same time, to the wider culture of the world about us. To use the two dreadfully inadequate words which normally describe us as a distinct group, we are both "modern" and "orthodox." I shall be using these terms only with the greatest hesitation. "Orthodox" is almost a pejorative; it implies a stifling and unthinking narrow-mindedness. And "modern" is amusingly pretentious; it adds nothing to the validity or invalidity of a proposition. Jacques Maritain recently referred to this as "chronolatry," the idolatry of what is newest or latest in time.

(Source: Rabbi Norman Lamm. "Modern Orthodoxy's Identity Crisis." Jewish Life May/June 1969: pages 5–8. Also in Seventy Faces: Articles of Faith, volume 1.)


The features of this new, emerging modern Orthodox American Jew are as yet not clearly defined. There is something elusive, deeply ambiguous, about his whole personality; for who is this modern Orthodox Jew? We may define him as one who desires "to adhere faithfully to the beliefs, principles and traditions of Jewish law and observance without being either remote or untouched by life in the contemporary world," and who recognizes the mutual demands of traditional Judaism and of modernity ... But is the Orthodoxy of the modern Orthodox Jew, itself, in some sense modern? Does it reflect, in some significant manner, the impact of modernity?

(Source: Lawrence Kaplan. "The Ambigious [sic] Modern Orthodox Jew." Dimensions of Orthodox Judaism. Page 242.)

The difficulty, it seems to me, is that we are looking for a prescriptive definition to a term whose origins and usage are descriptive. For every one for whom we find articulating a more or less coherent ideology we find another who appeals to realities of contemporary life to rationalize a moderation of convenience (and note that both quotes associate the adjective "modern" with its "contemporary" connotation, in opposition to some of the assertions made here) and given the historical realities of Orthodoxy in America it is hard not to assume the latter preceded the former. As such I believe the best definition of Modern Orthodoxy is one that utilizes general characteristics, an option you have precluded, but even this is far from ideal (especially since some see MO as an ideology while some adherents are not as ideologically driven).

Nevertheless over the last decade (or so it seems to me) the MO community does seem to have coalesced into a more coherent movement despite the challenges outlined above and perhaps soon a critical mass will be achieved in which an ideological definition will trump the old status quo.

  • Amazing, the only content in this answer that actually answers the question, is the same content as the first line of the Wikipedia article, which we were explicitly told does not contain the answer!
    – avi
    Commented Dec 31, 2013 at 14:30
  • Also, the fact that there is an identity crisis because people's behavior does not match their ideals, does not mean that the ideals are not defined.
    – avi
    Commented Dec 31, 2013 at 14:49
  • 1
    @Avi- 1) Although related, neither source describes the "identity crisis" in terms of a conflict between ideal and practice. 2) I had not read the Wikipedia article 3) The content of my answer "that actually answers the question" is where it points out that the question as formulated is unlikely to receive a definitive answer and supported the claim with sources and reasoning for why this is so. This is Wikipedia page is surprisingly deficient in this area.
    – Yirmeyahu
    Commented Dec 31, 2013 at 16:17
  • I see, I thought your answer was with the line 'objecitvely examined'
    – avi
    Commented Jan 1, 2014 at 7:52

Modern Orthodoxy has its roots in R' Hirsch's "Neo-Orthodoxy", which was defined by Torah im Derech Eretz. Modern Orthodoxy is actually defined by R' Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and the slogan, "Torah U'Madah". (Although R' Soloveitchik did not actually create this label in his writings, nor did he coin the term.)

There are three works of R' Soloveitchik which define Modern Orthodoxy: Halakhic Man, The Lonely Man of Faith, and The Halakhic Mind. In Halakhic Man, R' Soloveitchik expresses the 4 amot of halacha, and how it is very down to earth, this world endeavor. A sort of spirituality through legalism. In Lonely Man of Faith, R' Soloveitchik compares the "two stories" of Bereshit, comparing and contrasting Adam I and Adam II, and explains how we need to emulate both. Adam I and Adam II can be seen as a parable for Torah (Adam II) and Mada (Adam I). Lastly in The Halakhic Mind, R' Soloveitchik describes the historical relationship between strict science and philosophy, and how that same relationship can be applied to halacha.

The phrase "Torah U'Madah" generally captures the definition of Modern Orthodoxy. Where secular studies, and world sciences, (i.e. G-d's creation) becomes a spiritual uplifting influence on the harsh legalism that is pure Halacha.

The other culturally defining aspects of Modern Orthodoxy such as Zionism, and women studying Talmud are outgrowths of the central core, which is "Torah U'Madah".

R' Joseph B. Soloveitchik was the "Rosh Yeshiva" of YU (Yeshiva University). YU, as a school, has the slogan of "Torah U'Madah" and with that phrase they have defined Modern Orthodoxy. The phrase was first coined by Bernard Revel, president of Yeshiva College, which is the undergraduate school of Yeshiva University. Before R' Soloveitchik, the precise meaning of Torah U'Madah was unclear, but with his teachings, it gained its definition.

R' Lamm, president of YU, once rebranded Modern Orthodoxy as Centrist Orthodoxy. But he later regretted it, as he was quoted in 2010:

I quickly saw that it was totally misunderstood. “Centrist” does not mean that you have Conservative and Reform Judaism on one side and “real Judaism” on the other and we are somewhere in the center. That is nonsense. Rather, it means that we are the center within the Orthodoxy community. I now try very much to discourage the use of the word “Centrist,” because it has been misunderstood.

And he later explained:

Some sociologists distinguish between “Modern” and “Centrist” Orthodoxy – which is narishkayt (foolishness). Of course there are varieties within Modern Orthodoxy, just as there are varieties within Charedi Judaism; none of us is monolithic. But there is absolutely no essential difference between these titles in terms of the group they describe.

However, today because of Open "Orthodoxy", who also claim to be Modern Orthodox, yet do not come from YU, and are more social justice oriented, YU and Lamm prefer the term Centrist Orthodox.

The Rav and his teachings however, are still the main defining element of Modern Orthodoxy, despite the fact that many people do not live up to the standard.


There is no answer to this question. I was once at a Pesach program where this question was front and center. Shiur after shiur and session after session tried to answer it. The problem was, every single answer had a problem. College? "Frummies" go (to Touro College). Working in the outside world? "Frummies" do too (programming, accounting, finance, et cetera). Bringing in Rav Hirsch and Rav Soleveitchik doesn't really help because in reality neither of their lives are congruous with most people who affiliate Modern Orthodox. The medinah? I don't think the Merkaz HaRav guys would place themselves in any way in the Modern Orthodox camp.

My attempt at an answer was less one of an answer, and more of a case scenario. Your son gets a full ride to Harvard, and at the same gets into the highest shiur in Lakewood (think Rosh Yeshiva track). Which one makes you prouder, and which one is the final choice? If you say Harvard, you're Modern Orthodox. If you say Lakewood, you're not.

  • 1
    I think your discussion group had too narrow (and possibly negative?) view of modern orthodoxy. In America, at least, following RYBS is the hallmark of Modern orthodoxy, and YU is its academic center. Israeli groups may view the whole label as too pejorative to want to associate with.
    – Yishai
    Commented Dec 31, 2013 at 1:11
  • Modern Orthodoxy only exists in America and where Americans have transplanted. In Israel, Religious Zionism though similar is a very different thing.
    – avi
    Commented Dec 31, 2013 at 14:48

A practical answer that I was once told, is that Modern Orthodoxy today goes for a few ideas.

  1. Torah u'Madah

  2. A belief that Medinat Yisrael is a good thing and a sign of moshiach coming.

  3. That men and women can have working relationships.

  • 3
    These seem to be characteristics not definitions.
    – Double AA
    Commented Dec 31, 2013 at 20:55

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