Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Has Orthodoxy Triumphed?

There is an interesting article on Cross-Currents by Eytan Kobre which in essence tries to say that Orthodoxy is often accused of Triumphalism but unfairly so. Triumphalism is the attitude expressed in a near gloating fashion that ‘our side’ has won the war of ideas and practices over those of others who differ and compete with us.

Mr. Kobre turns to a recent interview of Dr. Norman Lamm who went out of his way not to sound triumpahlist by lamenting the fact that Conservative and Reform Judaism were dying a not so slow death.

He was subsequently attacked by spokesmen from both movements precisely for sounding triumphalist.

The truth is that aside from saying that he laments it, he did nothing more than describe a very real situation. He was not gloating at all. Is it triumphalist to see the facts on the ground - analyze them - and base a prediction on them? I don’t think so.

The question is has Orthodoxy indeed triumphed? If it has - how so? And what does it look like?

I think it has. But I am not gloating about it nor should I.

Before I go on I should add that there is a triumphalist attitude within Orthodoxy itself. It is one that exists in certain Charedi circles which says that Modern Orthodoxy is dead and Charedism is the wave of the future. There was a time where – sadly – I thought the same thing. But as most people know by now, I do not think Charedism has triumphed at all. I don’t even think it can survive in its current incarnation.

Because of the move to the right Charedism does seem to be winning the hearts and minds of our youth and producing its own very large numbers. They will point to exponentially growing numbers and speak triumphantly about themselves.

But it is not true. Their economics threaten them. Their negative attititudes about secular education threatens them. Their dropouts threaten them. Their lack of transmitting proper attitudes towards non Jews threaten them. Their inability or unwillingness to fully deal with sex abuse in their community threatens them. All this and more tells me that they are celebrating too early.

My own view as most people who read my blog regularly know is that a modified version of Charedism will survive that will include tolerance and acceptance of right wing modern Orthodox Jews – a sort of new Centrist Orthodoxy. While Hashkafos will still be somewhat different lifestyles will be almost identical. That is the wave of the future and I think it is a triumph of Orthodoxy about which we should celebrate. How did we do it?

I would suggest that it is in large part attributable to the emphasis on a formal Torah education for our children at the earliest levels and continuing beyond high school. Children are taught from day one how to be religious by both word and by example. Parents lead the lives they preach. Ritual observance is so ingrained that it becomes - for better or worse -almost rote. The vast majority of Jews who were raised religiously stay that way and raise their own children that way.

The second factor which I believe is almost as important is the environment. We tend to live in groups – Orthodox Jews tend to choose neighborhoods that consist of other Orthodox Jews. This is a function of two things. One is the need to be able to walk to Shul on Shabbos . Secondly Orthodox Jews like to be in the company of like minded people with similar values and cultures. It is a lot easier to socialize with friends on Shabbos – a day that is most conducive to socializing. Add to this the tendency of Orthodox families to have more children and you have a ‘formula’ for the kind of success we’ve achieved.

Meanwhile -as Dr. Lamm pointed out Reform Judaism while growing - can hardly be defined as Jewish anymore – especially since their adoption of patralinial descent which adds non Jews to their ranks and calls them Jewish. You can call a camel a horse all day long. It’s still going to be a camel. If you are going to redfine Judaism the way Reform does what about it makes it Jewish? The fact is that many Reform leaders actually recognize that and are encouraging voluntary Mitzvah observance – a concept thoroughly rejected by their founding fathers. But voluntary Mitzvah observance won’t work.

The Conservative movement has an entirely different problem. They are hemorrhaging numbers. Their leaders recognize it. But their solutions are going to fall short.

One of their solutions is their late recognition of the importance of Jewish education and establishment of a Conservative religious school system. The other is their recognition that neighborhoods of Conservative Jews akin to those of Orthodox Jews do not exist. Because of their ‘Kula’ permitting driving to Shul on Shabbos Conservative Jews destroyed that concept. Conservative Jews are spread far and wide choosing to live in neighborhoods that are not particularly Jewish – let alone religious. Why live in a Jewish ghetto?

Conservative leaders now believe that those ‘ghettos’ are what kept Orthodoxy vibrant and growing. They are now urging their flock to create those kinds of neiborhood communities. That won’t work. Nobody is moving. Even if they were that would not be enough. They have lost too many generations who have sought full integration into the culture and have assimilated to the point of nearly losing any Jewish identity. That’s what non observance of Mitzvos will do to you in a free society such as ours.

I once feared that their Solomon Schechter Schools would provide a real challenge to Orthodoxy and create a new ‘religious’ Conservative Jewish community that followed Halacha enough to make them indistinguishable from Orthodox Jews. That has happened. But not to the extent that one can call it a successful turn around. Unless I am mistaken the number of Conservative Jews who are like that is relatively small in comparison to those who are nominally Conservative but not really observant of ‘Halachic’ Conservative Judaism.

Is it triumpahilst to recognize these facts? I don’t think so. I actually believe the founding fathers of the Conservative movement meant well. But their plan didn’t work. It did substantially increase their numbers - and they still outnumber Orthodox Jews. The trend of each, however, is in opposite directions.

Rabbi Avi Shafran wrote a beautiful article a few years ago in Moment Magazine asking Conservative Jews to ‘come home’. I recall agreeing with everything he wrote. His description and criticisms of Conservative Judaism as no longer able to claim being Halachic are quite true in my view. Respected Conservative thinkers have argued the same thing.

What will become of those Conservative Jews who seek Halachic Judaism and can no longer find it in their own movement? This is one of the reasons I am saddened by the new developments in left wing modern Orthodoxy. Integration into left wing modern Orthodoxy would be a natural move for them. But if the left keeps pushing the envelope - they may end up where the Conservative movement started over 100 years ago. As a sincere attempt to conserve Judaism for the masses. But that is a separate issue.

We Orthodox Jews still have a great many problems to solve. At the same time we should be proud of what we have achieved over-all in the years since the Holocaust. But we should never ever gloat about it!