03/24/2012 09:40 pm ET Updated May 24, 2012

The Time Is Now: Renewing Orthodoxy for the 21st Century

The best way to understand a religion is through its prayer book. It is the prayer book that contains the written yearnings, desires, dreams and hopes of generations of adherents to that particular faith. One can explore the intimate and the public expressions and articulations of the theology through a careful analysis of the prayers presented therein. The Jewish prayer book, the siddur, is no exception to this rule. The siddur with its references to Scripture, Oral Tradition and liturgical poems is an exploration through the varied ways Jews have understood themselves, their relationship to God and to the world through every time and place they have lived.

It is during one of the central ritual moments of the prayer service that we find a striking quote from the Book of Lamentations. Upon returning the Torah scroll to the Ark the congregation recites together, "Turn us back, O God, to You, and we will return. Renew our days as of old" (Lamentations 5:21). We have just finished the public reading of the Torah and as we place the scroll back in its place, we pray for both a reinvigoration of our relationship with God, a blossoming of our connection to the Divine, but also more: a renewal of what once was. Yet, this renewal is profoundly much more than simply a restoration of previous days. The Hebrew term used here to describe the renewal is hadesh, coming from the word meaning to innovate, to create, to discover and to bring forth new ideas and new interpretations. This one line presents both a remarkable paradox while simultaneously succinctly capturing the true weltanschauung of Orthodox Judaism, one that is sorely needed in our day and age.

We are living in a time where babies risk infection, even death, because some insist on a particular practice as part of circumcision that is no longer relevant and indeed dangerous. We are living in a time where the presence of women is less and less tolerated, even erasing the very image of a victim of terror simply because she was a woman. We are living in a time where those seeking to join their fate with the fate of the Jewish people and become members of the living Covenant of Israel are repeatedly denied and harassed or their conversions are even retroactively annulled, thereby inflicting untold psychological, spiritual and emotional pain on them, their families and children and their communities. In short, we are living in an era marked by obscurantism and a narrowing of intellectual, spiritual and experiential boundaries.

This, of course, is not the only time Orthodox Judaism has faced this challenge. Indeed, in almost every age there are those who seek to amputate the "renewal" from the "old" and to preserve the way things are, as if Judaism is an exhibit in a museum display case, in defiance of the needs of the generation. The great 19th century rabbi of Frankfurt Am-Main, Germany, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, wrote the following about his time and place:

"What if the overwhelming pressure of the centuries and their accumulated burdens had, in the end, allowed for the rescue of only the outward forms of the Law, but not its spirit? What if Israel, banished from the life of mankind at large and estranged from the world, had stopped thinking about the world and life, and thus, in recent years, had no longer given thought to them in its study of the Law? And if, indeed, it had deemed itself fortunate to have rescued at least the Law's external forms? What if laws full of vitality had come to be ruled by a spirit of lifelessness which turned them into mummies, and if the fear of being led astray by intellectual inquiries had frightened off any such efforts, just as birds of prey are chased away from a dearly beloved corpse?" ("The Nineteen Letters," pp. 143-145)

This unfortunate depiction of much of 19th century German Orthodox Jewish life -- an approach to Judaism that was deeply unconvincing to the vast majority of German Jews -- is in sharp contradistinction to that championed by Rabbi Hirsch himself and by others later in the 20th century American context and today as well. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the brilliant scholar and rabbinic leader of Modern Orthodox Judaism in the 20th century, described the process of Jewish law and its application as one of marked creativity and of originality. He wrote:

"Halakhic man [a person living a life bound by Jewish law] is a man who longs to create, to bring into being something new, something original. The study of Torah, by definition means gleaning new, creative insights from the Torah. ... This notion of hiddush, of creative interpretation, is not limited solely to the theoretical domain but extends as well into the practical domain, into the real world." ("Halakhic Man," p. 99)

The Jewish world is in desperate need for an Orthodoxy that is responsive to the needs of the generation; for an Orthodoxy that understands yesterday's battles are not the ones of today. We need an Orthodoxy that has its pulse on the zeitgeist of the time and, while modeling an unwavering commitment and fidelity to tradition, can apply that tradition in creative, original and innovative ways that meet the need of the era and the call of the time. The need is great and the time has to be now. If we sit idly by we risk the marginalization of not only those most affected by the increasing stultification of Orthodoxy, but we risk the marginalization of the Torah itself; its marginalization in the eyes of fellow Jews, of our society and in the public square at large, and to allow that to happen might indeed be the greatest desecration of God's name possible.