I noticed a trend a few years ago of people speaking about the experience of Modern Orthodox (MO) high schools starting to seem more like NCSY Shabbatonim, with a focus on the experiential, fun, and social elements of religious life. I’ve talked about it with a few friends, including administrators in some of these schools in the US, and they generally agreed that this did indeed seem to be increasingly the focus and orientation of what was considered a successful MO school.
Then I came across this interview with Rabbi Dovid Bashevkin where he makes the point quite explicitly (watch minutes 1:04-1:14). The video praises the experiential turn in American MO day school education, presumably away from what was otherwise a focus on academic or intellectual content.
There is something, I think, in the focus on experiential religiosity that’s very appealing and exciting. It’s certainly true that we need and value the heart and neshama of a lived Torah life where there’s excitement in shul and meaningful engagement in learning, and it will certainly as Rabbi Bashevkin says, be more accessible than the heavy intellectual content that is often at the core of a yeshiva day school education. And yet something about what’s happening does not sit well with me, and I’ve tried to think about why.
Here’s a theory. For a generation one trend in the MO community has been a move to orthopraxy (a focus on correct action more than correct belief) as a way to comfortably inhabit and accommodate Modern Orthdoxy’s ‘modern’ cultural desires. This meant ensuring that as long as the halachic boxes were ticked, that the right behaviors were observed, the larger spiritual question, what’s in the spirit of the law, or the spiritual inside the law, did not have to be addressed, or could at least be left aside. This meant that the wonders of modern culture, from food to movies to travel experiences to sports to elite university (and this is only the beginning of the list), could be enjoyed while still practicing Orthodoxy. Of course this bifurcation did not have to be true, and may very well not be true for some, though my impression is that it is more normative than the ‘higher’ version of religious life that raises up the chol and makes it kodesh.
If one takes this sociological description as true, I wonder if this left many feeling an emptiness, that something was missing. The result was a move, as Bashevkin describes, to a more meaningful experiential religiosity. The need to be filled was not a cognitive one, or about greater commitment, but about an experiential core, an emotional resonance that had gone missing. A necessary corrective was needed, to be sure, but insofar as it was a response to the lack of emotion and experience of religious life, I think the question that bothered me was: has there been an overcorrection in that direction? And, what might that overcorrection come at the cost of? I think what concerns me is that it leads to a religious practice that lacks the discipline or habit that is part and parcel of building a full life because of its dependence on an emotional/spiritual/experiential core.
A slightly different version of this line of thinking is that the emotional/experiential turn really isn’t a problem at all, rather what doesn’t sit well is the lack of balance with a Torah life that has strong notions of obligation and discipline. It’s hard to both be disciplined and experientially open, and the MO world is swinging back and forth, living in either/or rather than both/and.
If true, the question would be about how to reintroduce discipline and obligation, which is to say, how a community learns to live once again with greater limits and boundaries. This is not an easy thing, but it is a path, I think, that would lead back to a stickier religious experience, one that can sustain itself over time, and life’s ups and downs.
And, yet I also wonder if I’m either just too cynical, or, perhaps too old. I’d grant that the latter is true regardless.
(My gratitude to Hillel Rapp, Aaron Katchen, and David Block for their feedback on these ideas. Of course, all ideas as expressed are my own.)