Inspired by R. Josh Yuter’s excellent reading list, I’m sharing my own set of impactful readings that, I think, characterize Modern Orthodox thought. There’s Torah, theology, halachic theory, extended grappling with inyana de-yoma from science to Bible criticism to feminism, and a little bit of history.
A few criteria I used to navigate the ideologically tricky terrain of Modern Orthodoxy:
- I start in the twentieth century. Of course, there are seminal works from the formative period of what we today call Modern Orthodoxy, arguably dating back to the late 18th century. However, the boundaries of the various responses to modernity in the course of the 19th century are complicated. Instead of delving into those waters, I’ve started around the turn of the twentieth century.
- I’ve preferred works that belong methodologically to Jewish thought over those that belong to Jewish history, with the exception of the last two volumes. Largely this is a deliberate focus on ideas (including halachic and other types of Torah ideas) over historical analysis. In part this is also because historical (and sociological) work on Modern Orthodoxy is vast and entangled with other considerations, in particular interaction with other movements.
- Whenever possible, I’ve selected works that appear in both Hebrew and English. I’ve also favored works that are readily available for purchase (at a reasonable price) or for download, meaning that they’ll be accessible to most.
- I assume that the American Modern Orthodox and Israeli Dati-Leumi (Religious Zionist) communities are regional subcultures of the same movement. I realize this is debatable, but I’m taking the view that they’re contiguous.
- Orange text links go to Amazon or another bookseller; click on the book cover for the publisher page, where there is one.
1. Rav Kook, Orot (אורות הקודש)
The profundity, originality, and influence of Rav Kook’s thought really cannot be overstated—on Religious Zionism/Israeli Modern Orthodoxy in particular and on Israeli history and cultural development generally. The density of his language can be difficult and has meant that his works were not swiftly translated. However, a substantial selection of his writing is now freely available in the original and English translation on Sefaria. It’s difficult to select just one to recommend, but Orot, first published in 1920, is both seminal and a perfect introduction. It’s centered on Eretz Yisrael and includes thought on the relationship between Jewishness and universalism. [Here on Sefaria in Hebrew and English.]
2. R. Dr. Y. D. Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man (איש ההלכה)
Briskers are known for their reluctance to set down their halachic thought in writing, preferring to write minimally and usually more conceptually/philosophically. Halakhic Man, then, is the tip of a very large Torah iceberg that comes to represent the ethos at its base, deep in the sea of Talmud. It’s a seminal statement on the meaning and existential experience of accepting ol malchut shamayim (the yoke of heaven) by the towering figure of American Modern Orthodoxy. It was originally written in Hebrew; I’ve read it in both languages and can attest that it’s stylistically similar in both, meaning that if you find the language opaque in English, it’s going to be the same in Hebrew, and vice versa. Probably the most influential of the Rav’s books, there are so many others that I could have put here: you could start by adding Lonely Man of Faith and Halakhic Mind (the latter is a personal favorite, though many readers find it difficult to get through; it was never translated into Hebrew).
3. R. Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein, Leaves of Faith, Vol. 1
Rav Lichtenstein bridges the worlds of American and Israeli Modern Orthodoxy in a way few can. Educated in the US (he was born in Paris during WWII) at Chaim Berlin by Rav Hutner and Rav Ahron Soloveitchik (brother of Yosef Dov), he earned semicha (rabbinic ordination) from the Rav at Yeshiva University. (He later married Dr. Tovah Soloveitchik, the Rav’s daughter.) Rav Lichtenstein also earned a Ph.D. at Harvard in English literature (his dissertation was on Henry More, published here). In 1971, after serving as Rosh Yeshiva and Kollel at YU for several years, he heeded the call of Rav Yehuda Amital (another giant of Modern Orthodox thought) to join him at Yeshivat Har Etzion. Rav Lichtenstein is thus a conduit of the heights of American Orthodox thought to the very center of Israeli hesder yeshivot (Zionist yeshivas in which students serve in the army). He’s a bridger of worlds, too, in Leaves of Faith, a series of essays (there’s also a Part 2) exploring the purpose and nature of religious commitment in a modernized world. Another impactful volume of Rav Lichtenstein’s writing is his book on teshuvah (repentance), Return and Renewal.
4. R. Dr. Norman Lamm, Torah uMadda
The concept of Torah u-Madda, “Torah with Science” (or Secular Knowledge), supports the integration of traditional Jewish learning, based on Divine revelation, with secular thought, based on human reason and perception. Here in 2022, Torah u-Madda has the sense of being eclipsed, a result of its own unsustainably lofty ideals. Lehrhaus, a major online venue of Modern Orthodox thought in English, ran a symposium about its evolving nature last year, and the flagship journal Torah u-Madda, founded in 1989, ended publication in 2021. While getting semicha and a Ph.D. is a high bar to set, let alone integrating the two very different modes of inquiry, I think the concept of Torah u-Madda is still a bedrock principle of Modern Orthodoxy (and one that drew me to it). It is a defining difference between Modern Orthodoxy and the Charedi (“Ultra-Orthodox”) sector. Plus, you may have noticed there are a lot of Rabbi-Doctors on this list. Rav Norman Lamm’s book on the topic is a consummate expression of this ideal.
4. Rav Eliezer Berkovits, Faith After the Holocaust
The life and thought of Rav Eliezer Berkovits reflect all the major events and topics of Modern Orthodoxy. Born in 1908 in what was then Hungary, he came of age on the eve of World War II, meaning that he was still able to obtain a landmark Modern Orthodox education: he received semicha from the Dor Revii (Rav Moshe Shmuel Glasner), an innovative halachic thinker and a founder of Mizrachi; went on to the Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin where he learned under the world-bridging Rav Yechiel Weinberg; then got a Ph.D. in philosophy at the university of Berlin. Rav Berkovits’s theology and halachic theory are fascinating and important, but perhaps most foundational is his articulation of a complex, Orthodox Holocaust theology, which centers on the idea of hester panim.
5. Dr. Nechama Leibowitz, Studies in Torah
Nechama Leibowitz’s life straddles the worlds of pre-war Europe and pre-state Israel: born into a scholarly family in Riga (which had heavy German cultural influences even after its Russification), she moved as a teen to Berlin and earned a Ph.D. from the University of Marburg, Germany with a dissertation about German Bible translation. She and her husband made aliyah in 1930 and she taught for many years at a teachers’ college, later becoming a professor at Tel Aviv University (and teaching widely elsewhere). Nechama Leibowitz became synonymous with intensive Chumash study in the mode of the classical commentators, but directly and carefully engaging the text first. She did so by sending out weekly gilyonot (study sheets), which students and the interested public would return to her for corrections. Not only did she renew Torah study in the Orthodox community, she influenced the study of Tanach in Israel more broadly. Known as the teachers’ teacher, her influence is now, justifiably and happily, pervasive. Her study sheets were published, with updates, as עיונים בתורה (Studies in Torah), and the full, original gilyonot are available online in Hebrew and in English.
6. Dr. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Judaism, Human Values, and the Jewish State (יהדות, עם יהודי ומדינת ישראל)
The other Leibowitz, Yeshayahu (he’s the older brother of Nachama) is quite a different character: contentious, challenging, harsh, and polarizing. He can’t be said to be representative of Modern Orthodoxy, or anybody other than himself, really; but despite being out of the mainstream, his Jewish (as opposed to political) ideas have had such a profound, often diffuse, effect that he can hardly be omitted. Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s big Jewish idea is that submission to the will of G-d is absolute; the very second you try to find a reason for a given mitzvah, you’ve failed. (It’s more complicated and interesting than that obviously reductionist statement, and you should definitely go and read it; I promise it will challenge you and make you think, even if you completely disagree.) This might sound like a right-wing notion, but no, Leibowitz was known for being a leftist gadfly. A biochemist by profession and public intellectual by inclination, his idiosyncratic views push the envelope of Orthodoxy and demonstrate its valuation of critical thinking.
7. R. Dr. Menahem Elon, Jewish Law: History, Sources, Principles (המשפט העברי: תולדותיו, מקורותיו, עקרונותיו)
Chief Justice Menachem Elon’s massive, and definitely not cheap, work (three volumes in Hebrew, four in English) nevertheless makes the list: it’s absolutely foundational to understanding how halacha was applied once the Jewish state came to be. The application of halachic ideas and ideals to current situations, especially in the context of Jewish state-building, is central to Modern Orthodoxy and there’s no better way to see it in action than to read the thought of the architect of Mishpat Ivri, “Hebrew law.” Mishpat Ivri is how halacha interacts with Israeli civil law, a relationship that’s even more complicated than it sounds, and utterly fascinating.
8. Dr. Tamar Ross, Expanding the Palace of Torah: Orthodoxy and Judaism (ארמון התורה ממעל לה – על אורתודוקסיה ופמיניזם)
For a serious grappling with the halachic and hashkafic ramifications of feminism, philosopher Dr. Tamar Ross’s landmark book is a guiding light. She addresses head-on not just the pragmatic solutions but the philosophical problem represented by the changing status of women to Orthodoxy. Considering that women’s status in halacha is a (the?) current dividing line in Orthodoxy and even within the precincts of Modern Orthodoxy, this topic couldn’t be more central to our community. For a broad introduction to Dr. Ross’s thought, not limited to feminism, see Tamar Ross: Constructing Faith. Expanding the Palace of Torah is also available on Scribd (English) and Kotar (Hebrew), both by subscription.
9. R. Dr. Haym Soloveitchik, Rupture and Reconstruction
You could try to explain Modern Orthodox without recourse to Rupture and Reconstruction, but you wouldn’t get very far. The identification of the shift from mimetic tradition (the handing down of halacha from parents to children in the lived context of home and shul) and its replacement with book-learned halachic practice has its ground-zero in R. Dr. Haym Soloveitchik’s seminal essay. The new edition includes material in response to critical appraisals made since the essay’s original publication in 1994.
10. R. Jonathan Sacks, Ceremony and Celebration
The late Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of Britain, is a masterful writer, and my personal pick for experiencing his brilliant synthesis of Torah values and Western thought is his book on the holidays, Ceremony and Celebration: Introduction to the Holidays. His signature confidence and moral clarity, as well as learned chiddushim (new points), are all on display here. Other entry points I’d recommend are A Letter in the Scroll or The Great Partnership.
11. R. Dr. J. J. Schachter, “Facing the Truths of History”
Yep, this one is an article. J. J. Schachter hasn’t given us books, but his clarion voice, full of yirat Shamayim, is an important and empowering one for our community and it’s on full display in his 1998 article, “Facing the Truths of History.” It is, contra many responses, not a straight-up vindication of historical truth and standards of evidence, but a sensitive consideration of what emet can and should mean to Orthodoxy.
(Another great way into his thought is the article, “Halakhic Authority in a World of Personal Autonomy.”)
12. R. Dr. Natan Slifkin, The Challenge of Creation: Judaism’s Encounter with Science, Cosmology, and Evolution
R. Dr. Natan Slifkin, who personally (and publicly) made the move from the Charedi sector to Modern Orthodoxy, addresses the question of what to do when science and Torah seemingly conflict about scientific facts. Part of this discussion involves our relationship to Chazal and what it means for them to have had less scientific knowledge than we do today. His exploration is laden with texts, many of them that I hadn’t before seen in connection with this topic. In The Challenge of Creation, he addresses with originality not only Maaseh Bereshit and the age of the earth, but also evolution and a host of related matters.
13. R. Dr. Marc B. Shapiro, The Limits of Orthodox Theology
R. Dr. Marc Shapiro has been a strident, and impeccably learned, voice for intellectual integrity in Modern Orthodoxy. The Limits of Orthodox Theology challenges, on historical bases, the primacy of Rambam’s Thirteen Principles as a Jewish catechism for Orthodoxy. Also impactful is his Changing the Immutable, which covers the topic of halachic will and how the way poskim (halachic decisors) make decisions is culturally conditioned. For a (Modern Orthodox) counterpoint, see the introduction to R. Dr. J. David Bleich’s With Perfect Faith.
14. Rav Shagar, Faith Shattered and Restored: Judaism in the Postmodern Age
Rav Shagar (Shimon Gershon Rosenberg) represents a home-grown, Dati-Leumi response to the cultural conditions of postmodernity, especially relativism, individualism, and the parodic. His writing is somewhat ethereal without being academic; he engages with sophistication but without the encumberment of theoretical jargon. Though influential only in certain subsectors of the community, Rav Shagar is an important voice for understanding how Modern Orthodoxy might grapple with questions of personal faith, agency, and authenticity. His work draws deeply from Hasidic thought and shows the significance of Neo-Hasidism outside of the traditional Chassidische community. In Hebrew, start with his לוחות ושברי לוחות: הגות יהודית נוכח הפוסטמודרניזם [בכותר]
15. R. Dr. Chaim Saiman, Halakhah: The Rabbinic Idea of Law
R. Dr. Chaim Saiman, a law professor and dayan (rabbinical court judge), manages to capture the soul of halacha and the significance of shakla va-tarya (dialectical argument) in the Talmud in this masterful book. It’s not easy to do in general, and especially in English, but he does it—in clear, exciting prose no less. This one also made my list of 54 Essential Reads in Jewish Studies; it’s a true crossover.
16. R. Amnon Bazak, To This Very Day: Fundamental Questions in the Bible Study
There have been numerous responses to academic Bible criticism from within Orthodoxy, including the important volume of the Orthodox Forum series, Modern Scholarship in the Study of Torah and R. Dr. Joshua Berman’s recent Ani Maamin: Biblical Criticism, Historical Truth, and the Thirteen Principles of Faith, but R. Amnon Bazak’s is among the most compelling and intellectually edifying. It’s also a joy to read for any curious reader of Tanach. It’s not available in English (yet?), but his companion volume on the Oral Torah, נצחוני בני: שאלות יסוד בלימור תורה שבעל פה is also eminently recommendable. R. Bazak is a Ram at Yeshivat Har Etzion.
17. Torah and Western Thought: Intellectual Portraits of Orthodoxy and Modernity
Edited by R. Dr. Meir Y. Soloveitchik, R. Stuart W. Halpern, and r. Shlomo Zuckier
As we come towards the end of the list, I have two summative books to recommend, this intellectual history and analysis being the first. Not only does it introduce many of the figures mentioned above, it focuses on the impact of their ideas. A chapter each is devoted to: Rav Kook, R. Yitzchak Herzog, The Soloveitchiks of the Rav’s generation, Dr. Nechama Leibowitz, R. Immanuel Jakobovits, Rav Yehuda Amital, R. Dr. Norman Lamm, Dr. Isadore (Yitzchak) Twersky, and Rav Aharon Lichtenstein.
18. R. Dr. Zev Eleff, Modern Orthodox Judaism: A Documentary History
If you’re the kind of reader who likes to get into the guts of history, this book is for you. And even if you’re not, you’re bound to find documents of interest to you reproduced in this indispensable sourcebook. It organizes responses to particular cultural moments into readable back-and-forths that take you back to great debates in American Modern Orthodoxy. The material deals with the interaction between Modern Orthodoxy and the Reform and Conservative movements; assimilation and cultural accommodation; self-definition and institution-building; gender roles and sociology; and Zionism and politics.
Do you have a favorite to add? A quibble or a thought? Tell me about it…as you know I’m always tinkering, updating, rethinking…
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