Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Eternal Jewish People

The recent prediction by Dr. Norman Lamm about the demise of non Orthodox movements has been challenged by prominent Orthodox Jewish historian, Dr. Jonathan Sarna. He attacks Dr. Lamm on two fronts.

First this caveat. I’m am not going to address the Reform movement because they are so cut off from Judaism that they will eventually self immolate. Innovations like patrilineal descent will destroy them as Jews. Calling yourself a Jew does not make you a Jew although I’ve heard Reform rabbinic leaders define being a Jew exactly that way.

The more difficult category is the Conservative movement. They started out calling themselves Halachic and many still believe themselves to be so. Their founding fathers were well versed in Halacha. Some, like Dr. Louis Ginzburg were outstanding in this regard and recognized as Talmudic Scholars – even by some of the most Charedi rabbinic figures of their time. When Dr. Ginzburg helped Rav Eliya Meir Bloch – famed Rosh HaYeshiva of Telshe – publish a Sefer, Rav Bloch acknowledged his help in the that Sefer referring to him as HaGaon R’ Levi Ginzburg!

Given that Dr. Lamm makes his prediction following a linear track, his view is not unreasonable. It is logical to deduce that since the Conservative movement is losing members it is going the route of ultimate extinction.

But as Dr. Sarna correctly points out in an article in the Forward, linear historical projections rarely happen. Things can dramatically change to make any prediction look foolish.

Dr. Sarna points to the founding fathers of the Reform movement in America predicting the demise of Orthodoxy. They based that prediction on the minuscule numbers of observant Jews. Most American Jews were signing on as either Reform Jews or opting out of any religious affiliation entirely for the ‘prize’ of complete assimilation as Americans.

Who would have predicted then the major successes of Orthodoxy today?!

The second point Dr. Sarna makes is that triumphalist proclamations about the success of Orthodoxy are premature. He points to five major problems that can easily impede future success:

First, Orthodox Judaism in America has had trouble retaining its members.

Second, Orthodoxy in America is suffering from a severe leadership crisis. The greatest of its 20th-century leaders — Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Rabbi Aharon Kotler, Rabbi Moses Feinstein, the Lubavitcher Rebbe and others — have all passed from the scene.

Third, American Orthodoxy is experiencing a significant brain drain. It sends its best and its brightest to Israel for long periods of yeshiva study, and unsurprisingly, many of them never return.

Fourth, American Orthodoxy remains deeply divided over the issue of how to confront modernity.

Finally, American Orthodoxy is facing its worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

He elaborates a bit on these factors in the article and I think he is for the most part correct. These are all issues I’ve addressed here many times. And they do endanger the ‘species’.

But the counter to this is Jewish history itself.

Historically the odds were always against us. The existence of Torah Jewry has always been challenged by various different hardships – some of them over-whelming. What people can survive over two millennia of persecution replete with murder and torture the way the Jewish people did? We have defied all odds. This prompted British historian Arnold Toynbee to concede that the Jews were an exception to his thesis about the rise and fall of civilizations. (A concession attributed to Dr. Eliezer Berkovits's great philosophical work - God, Man and History. I believe it was in fact written in response to Toynbee.)

We have survived mighty civilizations who have conquered the world. And in every historic period we had movements that challenged Halachic Judaism. Some of them also claimed to have Halahca on their side. The Sadducees were meticulous in their observance of non Rabbinic Judaism. They were the dominant movement during the 2nd Temple era even controlling the priesthood! They were far more influential upon Israel than the Conservative movement is now. Where are the Sadducees now?

Halacha is the defining characteristic that perpetuates the Jewish people. This is what kept us going against all odds. It is what makes us unique and gives us our identity. It is the common denominator that spans all of Jewish history. The only question that remains is what form Halachic Judasim will take. That’s where Dr. Sarna’s 5 points come into play.

I have made my own predictions in this regard. I still believe them to be the best estimate of the future - if you factor in the problems raised by Dr. Sarna. There will be a new middle class of mainstream Jews that will eschew the extremes of the left and the right. The extremes will continue to push the envelope of Orthodoxy so far out of the mainstream as to be unable to put together enough of a critical mass to sustain themselves over the long term.

That said I think even these movements will - in the near term - continue to impact the mainstream in some way. In just what way remains to be seen. But as independent movement that can sustain themselves into the future …highly unlikely for both extremes in my view.

As for the future of Conservative Judaism and similar movements - like Dr. Lamm - I think the handwriting is on the wall in their present incarnation.

True - there are some contra-indications. Just this weekend the Chicago Jewish News (print edition) published a congratulatory list of graduates of all Chicagoland Jewish schools. The Conservative Solomon Schechter elementary and high school eah had a sizable number of graduates. As large or larger than any other single Orthodox school. This phenomenon could – in theory - change things if those graduates can be motivated to live as religious Conservative Jews. On the other hand – Conservative Judaism of the future may not resemble what Conservative Judaism is now. It may very well become just another version of Reform.

I don’t think they can perpetuate themselves into the future if they continue to liberalize Judaism into unrecognizable proportions. As they continue to change they are morphing into something entirely new – something that the founders of Conservative Judaism would hardly recognize. They can call themselves Conservative. But a rose can only be a rose if it not a tulip.