The First Modern Orthodox Jew: Two Models

By Steven Pruzansky

Amid all the discussions about Modern Orthodoxy, its past, present and future, it is perhaps helpful to look at two different paradigms into which Modern Orthodoxy currently divides itself: one positive, and one, well, less so.

One individual grew up in a religious home, so punctilious in its observance of mitzvot and sensitivity to others that he felt stultified. So he moved to the big, bad city and became so respected there that he was elevated to leadership, notwithstanding the depravity of the place. He felt better about himself, even tried to maintain some of the observances he had practiced in his family home. Ultimately, he was spared his city’s fate not because of any personal qualities he possessed but solely because of the merit of the home he rejected. That person was Lot.

The contrasts between Lot and his uncle/brother-in-law Avraham were subtle but remarkable nonetheless. Lot could not bear the piety of that home, its insistence on the rigid worship of one God and its constant pursuit of virtuous deeds. When he abandoned Avraham, Lot—not atypically, as history has played out—went to live in a place that was the antithesis of that home. Sodom was the center of debauchery, lechery, cruelty and moral perversities. Undoubtedly, Lot concluded that he could live the life of the Sodomite while retaining the trappings of Avraham’s home. He was partially right—and he walked that tightrope in a way that is not unfamiliar to, and might even concern, many of us.

Our Sages pointed out Lot’s moral complexities. He came to Sodom, tried to blend in and eventually rose to prominence. He was appointed a judge in that immoral gutter—meaning he acculturated himself, probably attending college and law school there. Likely, he attended class on Shabbat but without writing or otherwise breaching a Shabbat stricture, and willfully absorbed all the heresy, mockery of religion and defiance of the fundamental moral norms with which he was raised—and he thought it did not affect him because he was on the kosher meal plan. He learned from the scholarly professors at the University of Sodom that God doesn’t exist and that His Bible and moral laws were man-made, and Lot then must have pitied his poor old uncle who actually believed in God and His laws and comported himself accordingly.

Lot participated in the carousing associated with that life while still thinking himself somewhat above it. He made sure that others paid his admission fee to the Friday night frat parties and Saturday football games, and probably davened at least once a day.

Rituals mattered, even if there was little internalization and his heart was not in it. He loved the Seder—we even find that he baked matzot for Pesach (Rashi, Bereishit 19:3). That didn’t require a moral sacrifice but just a cultural affinity. Perhaps, at his request, the casinos in Sodom ordered special kosher-for-Passover chips with which he could gamble. He was so at home in Sodom, and so comfortable with his dual life, that he saw no contradiction in his lifestyle and was unaware of any compromises he had made. Spiritually, he was content; professionally, he became a judge (like others could become congressmen, senators, cabinet ministers and ambassadors); but morally, he was bankrupt and, worse, he didn’t even know it. He thought he had it made when in fact he was plunging headlong to his own destruction.

When Lot saw the visiting angels, he rose to greet them, acting on the instincts that had been honed in Avraham’s home (ibid 19:1). He welcomed them in violation of the norms of Sodom—but he also did it in a half-hearted, desultory way. He didn’t run toward them, as Avraham did. He waited to see who they were and only greeted them because they appeared to him as worthy noblemen. He sneaked them into his home, lest his neighbors think poorly of him for this act of kindness. He suggested they lodge overnight without washing their feet first, so others would think they just arrived (ibid 19:2). What Avraham did sincerely, enthusiastically, with a full heart, and as part of his divine service, Lot did superficially, going through the motions, just trying to fulfill the mitzvah with minimum compliance to the technical norms.

And when the knock on the door came by the authorities and his enraged townspeople, Lot offered them his daughters’ virtue as enticement (#Lot-too?) and to demonstrate that his morals really were compatible with those of Sodom, that he really did fit in, and that his professions of piety were all external, just on the surface. He embraced some of the deeds and ceremonies but his heart was elsewhere and his inner spiritual world was non-existent.

Was Lot the first Modern Orthodox Jew? He kept what he kept, nothing more, and resented being judged. He felt that his immersion in the local culture was permissible as long as he committed no overt sins and thus rationalized his conduct as still faithful to his upbringing. Ideology and especially values were secondary to the technical performances that he, for the most part, still observed. And of course he lived in a place where there was no moral authority; indeed, he fled Avraham’s home only because he did not like to be told what to do. He doubtless answered any halachic questions he had by scouring the internet for the psak that he wanted. Eventually, he was saved from Sodom—but he disappeared from Jewish life with a peripheral role (Moav and Ammon) that found its way back to our people centuries later only through God’s machinations. But to the world of Avraham, then and there, he was lost.

That is one model of Modern Orthodoxy. There are many who indulge in modern society and embrace its values, first thinking that the immoral norms do not affect them and later that those same norms must be part of the world of Torah because, after all, they profess them. They maintain ritually connected, for the most part, and take pride in their children’s accomplishments even if they are conjoined with an abandonment of Torah commitment. It is enough that they observe (or try to observe) a ritual or two—even though their minds, hearts, values and life’s interests are elsewhere, far removed from the world of God, Torah, mitzvot, Israel and Jewish destiny. It suffices that they are good people. That model is not unfamiliar to us, and it is unsustainable.

There is a second model of Modern Orthodoxy, one that might be better characterized as Orthodoxy plain and simple and the ideal for which we should strive, and that is the life of Avraham. He wasn’t a recluse, nor did he shun or condescend to his neighbors. Indeed, they revered him as “a prince of God in our midst” (Bereishit 23:6) even if they could not fully understand or appreciate him. And that is because he struck the proper balance, as Rav Soloveitchik famously explained of the dual life of “I am a stranger and a resident among you” (ibid 23:4). Avraham knew how to be a resident and good neighbor, to encourage his fellow citizens in pursuit of virtue and to join with them to promote the common good. He supported them, did business with them honestly, welcomed them into his home graciously and even went to war with them. He lived an integrated life, but he also knew the limits of integration.

Avraham participated in his society—but he also knew when he had to segregate himself, when he had to keep his distance, even when he had to sequester himself from them lest their deviances affect himself and his family. Avraham knew the secret of Jewish life in the exile: how to be part of society while still remaining apart from it.

That is the real test of our lives. Modern Orthodoxy, as it is understood today and as the reports from the field filter in, is struggling and in some arenas floundering because it has failed that test and lost that balance—either rejecting any good about the world at large and cloistering itself within the proverbial four ells or tacking its sails to every cultural wind and construing every modern value—i.e., every modern value, without distinction or analysis—as admirable, laudable and worthy of embrace, even if they conflict with or negate basic Torah principles.

We have the model of the fully integrated Lot who eventually disappears in the haze of the aftermath of the great devastation, and the model of Avraham, “the stranger and the resident,” whose faithful descendants live until today and merit the divine blessings that are his legacy.

Which model we choose will determine our future — as individuals and as a nation.

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky serves as the rav of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck. He is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the CJV – Coalition for Jewish Values. Before he assumed the pulpit, he practiced law for 13 years. This essay first appeared on his blog,

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26 Responses

  1. Chava Rubin says:

    The hard part is to determine how to behave in a given situation. There are so many questions which will come up for an Orthodox student on a college campus, and who should he or she turn to who can help to answer all the questions and navigate the situation based upon all the factors and details of the given situation on campus. The most important thing is for every college student to have a rav who he can consult to answer his questions and help him stay on the right path.

    • If the student comes from a family that respects their rav, he/she has at least a chance of having enough of a relationship with a rav that might make a difference. If, however, the student comes from an environment in which the rav is just another hired hand, acting primarily as a social worker, then it is unreasonable to think that he/she is going to look for guidance from any rabbinic mentor. I’ll leave it to readers to attach percentages of the MO community to the two possibilities

      • mycroft says:

        If the Rav of a congregation believes that his job is to put the interests of his congregants paramount and not merely treat the job as a source of parnassah in which will enable him to learn wo doing too much for the congregants the Rav will much more likely to cause a difference in his congregants.
        People respect the Rav if he is a man of integrity and does his job and treats people with respect while simultaneously standing up for halachik principle. To quote RYBS a compliment about a Rabbi “he knows when to fight and when NOT to fight”

  2. D K says:

    Rabbi Pruzansky.
    I enjoyed your article and it’s bringing current issues that we as Jews live with into the Chumash. Still, a few parts bothered me and i would appreciate if you would be able to address the issues i had.
    You write about Lot: “Lot could not bear the piety of that home, its insistence on the rigid worship of one God and its constant pursuit of virtuous deeds.” Where is the source for this? The Pesukim only seem to say that he wanted the Gashmius of Sodom and not that he was guilty of the crimes you say of him. I agree with your defining him as a Modern Orthodox Jew but not because of his wanting to distance himself from the Mesorah, but because of his infactuation with money, pleasures, and a too-high focus on the body.
    Another thing that bothered me was the comparing him to an almost off-the-derech teenager who’s parents, ignorant of what goes on in college and university, decide to send their hormone filled son off to study. Lot sees to be anything but. He didn’t become a Hollywood director in Sodom, but a Judge. His daughters stayed virgin even in the depths of Sodom and Lot himself risked his life for Hachnassas Orchim. Hardly a 19 year old party animal which pervades your description.
    Lastly, the statement of Avraham: “There is a second model of Modern Orthodoxy, one that might be better characterized as Orthodoxy plain and simple and the ideal for which we should strive, and that is the life of Avraham.” is just simply confusing. Was Avraham Modern Orthodox or plain Orthodox? The proofs that you bring are also not clear, being that Avraham was a world leader, both in sheer power and fame, and Kiruv.
    Please explain. Thank you.

  3. Raymond says:

    I don’t really see how we Jews can live in non-Jewish society without making some compromises and accommodations to that same society. Nor do I see how it can be possible to not live in non-Jewish society, since our lives may depend on non-Jews, at least those of us who have not inherited a fortune or whose health sometimes necessitates medical care. And even if it were somehow possible to live in total isolation among only our fellow, traditional Jews, I am not sure that we would be fulfilling the Divine role assigned to us to be a Light Unto the Nations. And so all that any of us can do is to live as Jewishly as we can, but to not expect perfection. We must never forget that we live in a broken world.

  4. joel rich says:

    1.Nuance is always harder to communicate
    2.Is a movement defined by the philosophy(and who gets to articulate it- R’ A Lichtenstein or R’ Y Greenberg as an historical example) or by the demographics of those who call themselves by that name (think Conservative Judaism in the 1950’s)?
    3.The give and take in the Jewish Link leading to this piece seems to support the latter theory, at least when considering the pulpit Rabbi’s view
    Joel Rich

    • Steve Brizel says:

      One could argue for the same essay of RAL ZL that was quoted in the essays that RAL ZL was disappointed with the level of Avodas HAShen and committment to Talmud Torah that RAL ZL found in the MO world

    • dr. bill says:

      anytime when discussing human behavior, and binary choices replace a continuum, it is likely that nuance was left at the door. communities of traditional Jews exhibit many forms and some of us even defy categorization
      🙂 .

      • Steve Brizel says:

        Would you tolerate or glorify mediocrity in your line of work ? If not why settle for being an Omed as opposed to being an upwardly striving Ben or Bas Aliyah in Avodas HaShem?

  5. Steven Brizel says:

    R Pruzansky as always raises issues that others in the MO world prefer to ignore rather than face and discuss the facts on the ground

  6. Steve Brizel says:

    The real issue IMO that all of the participants in the discussion have missed is that MO ( as well as the Charedi world at least in the US) should be championing is the serious learner earner as a lchatchilah role model. As a corollary every MO community needs either a community Kollel for which funds can be raised on a communal level or a serious cadre of men who re recognize the importance of Kevias Itim laTorah. One can question whether MO can survive if being an Am HaAretz and a Beinoni in Avodas HaShem after 12 years of yeshiva education is considered a desirable role model

  7. For D K:
    Thank you for writing. It is clear from the psukim that Lot chafed under the pieties of Avraham’s home, made clear by his shepherds’ propensity for theft. So, too, his commitment to hospitality was superficial, as I elaborated. The broader point is that Lot assimilated into Sodomite society without relinquishing some of the rituals of Avraham’s home. Indeed, offering his daughters to the angels’ potential assailants displayed a misguided sense of kindness.
    By contrast, Avraham engaged with the world without losing his moral compass and consciousness of G-d. That is why he is our patriarch.

    • tzippi says:

      Rabbi Pruzansky, I think there’s a lot everyone can take to heart.
      Serious life-long learning, the 5-9 sort, is not just for the yeshivish. As one rebbi in an MO yeshiva told his boys, learning continues after shana bet.
      And similarly, even self-identified yeshivish types “[engage] with the world without losing [their] moral compass and consciousness of G-d.”

  8. Steve Brizel says:

    Mycroft- superb comment BH we have lived in such a community with wonderful rabbanim of the caliber you described as the ideal

  9. Steve Brizel says:

    I would add that all of the rabbanim that I alluded to certainly not only had what Mycroft mentioned they have also inspired their communities to grow in Torah Avodah and Gmilus Chasadim

  10. Steve Brizel says:

    Take a look at symposiums at Lerhaus and other forums where MO students and mchanchim suggest watering down or deemphasizing the importance of learning or at least acquiring the building blocks of learning Gemara in MO high schools That IMO is no different than what we see in public schools that view learning science math and great literature as the products of dead white males and will ensure that another generation will emerge grossly ignorant in TSBP but with great secular skills

  11. DF says:

    Very interesting. R. David Katz, the historian from Baltimore, gave a lecture last week (on the Parsha) that made essentially the same points as R. Pruzansky, comparing and contrasting Lot and Avraham in more or less the same ways. What contemporary educators or speakers see in the weekly reading is usually the best way to divine the current state of the public. It seems the old question of integration vs isolation is once again on center stage.

    • dr. bill says:

      DF, Last week’s parsha is enhanced by the Rav ztl’s famous explanation of Ger ve’Toshav, which succinctly describes the view of many tannaim, amoraim, rishonim, and achronim.

      • Steve Brizel says:

        Not a basis for Am Haartzus or worse masquerading as rooted in Shas Rishonim or Acharonim

      • Steve Brizel says:

        Chazal also had some rather strongly critical views on Amei HAaratzim and their antipathy to Talmudei Chachamim as well.How one relates to the surrounding world today in terms of Ger VToshav in terms of what passes for culture academia and politics may be quite different than in the mid 20th Century

  12. Bob Miller says:

    Many very religious Jews live in enclaves within what we could call today’s Sodoms. Whatever walls we put up offend the ruling class and opinion-makers. This situation looks very unstable and threatening. What should be our plan?

  13. Shades of Gray says:

    “Modern Orthodoxy…is struggling and in some arenas floundering because it has failed that test and lost that balance—either rejecting any good about the world at large and cloistering itself within the proverbial four ells”

    Which part of “Modern Orthodoxy” is being referring to as being too cloistered? Some institutions and organizations to the left of YU, to make the case for their organization’s need, have spoken about YU’s “shift towards the right” and accompanying insularity. However, I haven’t heard anyone from R. Pruzansky’s vantage point saying that some of their own sector in MO was too insular.

    Perhaps the reference is to either the phenomenon of young adults “flipping out” and leaving for a more right-wing community or for the need for Modern Orthodoxy to engage in more kiruv rechokim. It’s interesting that Prof. Adam Ferziger has flipped the usual paradigm of insularity in his 2015 “Beyond Sectarianism: The Realignment of American Orthodox Judaism” :

    “If the evolution in Haredi Orthodoxy reflects a distancing from strict sectarianism, the core Modern Orthodox versions exemplify a retreat of this sector into survivalist mode. While the Haredi yeshivas have redirected their students away from their historic introspection and toward promoting unity among Jews of all orientations, graduates of banner Modern Orthodox institutions have been drafted primarily to buttress their own educational and communal institutions.”

  14. Shades of Gray says:

    It’s also worth mentioning the positive. I was struck by this aspect when listening to a recent Tradition podcast discussing community challenges, where R. Chaim Strauchler says in the middle, “baruch Hashem we have a beautiful Jewish community”(17:00 in podcast).

    The above-referenced podcast is titled “Social Orthodoxy, Orthopraxy, and Mimesis”, and is a discussion between Rabbis Daniel Korobkin and Chaim Strauchler about each others contribution in the recent Tradition 25th anniversary symposium of “Rupture and Reconstruction”, about the methods by which faith can be taught , and how they as community rabbis face the challenge of “disillusioned” orthopraxis.

  15. Moshe K says:

    Hi Rabbi I’m a big fan of your work (especially your centurion series on YU Torah). I’m a MO believer myself, located somewhere in the YU fold but I’m bothered by your suggestion that life in Abraham and Lot’s time (between 1600-1800 BCE lminyanam) and our time is exactly the same. Technology has changed, society has changed, the world has now gone global. Is it really appropriate to suggest that history is so cyclical? Perhaps human society is progressing somewhere.

    • Raymond says:

      The more things change, the more they stay the same. Or to put it another way, there is nothing new under the sun. Also, remember that the Torah is the blueprint of creation. All that has happened since its giving over on Mount Sinai, is somehow contained within it.

  16. SteveBrizel says:

    There is a very strong response to R Pruzansky in the Jersey Jewish Links by a student at Princeton which is worth reading for its description of Torah observance at Princeton As R Velvel Zl once commented to Dr Wallach ZL Halevai there should be more like you We have a good friend who worked for many years at an Ivy League school and who noted that the same students who arrived so shtark in their level of observance had lost that level of observance by the time of their graduation . It is wrong for parents and their college age students to not expect their peers to worry about the level of observance of a a student in such an environment after at least 11 years in a yeshiva summer programs and a gap program that is what called Kol Yisrael Arecim Zeh LaZeh

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