Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Future of Denominational Judaism

Ezzie Goldish has a very insightful post on the future of Orthodox Judaism. He discusses many of the factors impacting its future growth and/or attrition. His post is actually a response to an earlier post written by Rabbi Gil Student on his blog Hirhurim. The question is whether Orthodoxy is growing or shrinking.

Demographic studies apparently show that Orthodoxy is shrinking over-all. This means that more people are leaving it than are coming into it whether by birth or by choice. This came as a bit of a surprise to me considering the success rate of Orthodox outreach over the last 40 years and the high birth rate of Orthodox Jews relative to other denominations.

I thought about it for a moment and realized that this should not be all that surprising. The attrition rate is probably higher now than at any time in history. The OTD factor is probably at an all time high. Sex abuse in Orthodoxy is a far bigger problem than anyone ever realized and easily contributes to it.

The internet has provided the means for many Orthodox Jews who privately question their own beliefs to find answers that have led them away from those beliefs. This is true across the board from the most Charedi to the most modern Orthodox.

As the financial health of many of its more right wing segments continues to deteriorate - that can easily contribute to the numbers of their children who go OTD.

Jewish educational costs across the board are putting more pressure on parents than ever and thoughts of public education supplemented by private religious education in some modern Orthodox circles are once again on the table as an option. A disastrous one in my view. With some notable exceptions I believe most young Orthodox children who go to public school in a society where the vast majority of their peers are in a parochial school end up becoming non observant as adults. That will be a contributing factor if it gains any steam.

At the same time, there has never been a larger population of Torah educated Jews than there is now. As noted - Orthodox Jewish family size is typically much bigger than other segments of Jewry. That will very likely grow exponentially over the next few generations – despite all of its problems. And the explosion of Kiruv over the last few decades is unprecedented. It continues with great success. So how is it possible that Orthodoxy is losing so many people overall? Can it really be that the numbers leaving Orthodoxy is that much greater than those coming into at? Especially over time as Orthodox families grow exponentially?

Statistically it seems - the answer is yes. But I think that the there is another reason for that statistic that might help explain it. It depends how Orthodoxy is defined. It’s possible that by using the broadest possible definition of it - it will include people who are only nominally Orthodox but not observant. They or their parents may for example be members of an Orthodox synagogue without really being observant.

When I lived in Toledo back in the 50s there were three Orthodox Shuls. But less then a Minayn of observant Jews in the entire city! This may be true in many small towns all across America. In short there may very well be a great number of Jews who define themselves via a membership to a Shul that are in actuality not observant at all – not to say anything about their children who have little or no Jewish education – many of whom intermarry.

Once you factor all of that into the equation one can see how it is possible to see shrinking numbers.

If one limits the definition of Orthodox Jews to observant Jews we may arrive at a different statistic. That still does not eliminate many of the factors I raised above. We still have an attrition problem. But I have to believe that we are growing rather than shrinking even though our numbers are still small relative to other denominations. But sometimes it’s not about numbers but about the trends.

I have read many articles that cite studies showing that statistically - Orthodoxy is the fastest growing movement in Judaism. It would an oxymoron to say that when the attrition rate is greater than its growth. But when Orthodoxy is properly defined, I believe that statistic is undeniable. Certainly as a percentage of the whole Orthodoxy is gaining on other denominations.

The Conservative movement - once largest Jewish denomination in America is now a shadow of its former self. Their numbers have been plummeting. Their shuls have been either closing or combining with other shuls as memberships in both are shrinking. The Reform movement has surpassed them by leaps and bounds. They are struggling with all of this right now and I do not see any of their proposed solutions as turning the tide.

While the Reform movement is bigger than ever - that is only because they have redefined themselves in several ways that automatically increase their numbers. One way is by accepting patrilineal descent which neither Orthodox nor Conservative Judaism accepts. Another factor is that Reform Judaism does not require a formal conversion. If one lives like a Jew or simply says they are a Jew – they are a Jew. Gentile spouses of intermarriages are welcomed into the fold as Jews too, if I understand correctly.

They may think that redefining Judaism increases their ranks but they are in fact defining themselves out of Jewish existence. Before long Reform Judaism may very well have more Halachicly non Jewish members than they do Jewish ones - if that isn’t already the case. Add to that the fact that they do not require any Mitzvah observance at all and before long they will have little resemblance to anything Jewish at all. They might counter by saying that living culturally as a Jew still makes one a Jew. Well, I’m sorry. Eating Gefilte fish does not make one a Jew.

On the other hand Orthodoxy - as defined by those who are sincere about Mitzvah observance - has unprecedented numbers. Observance is the primary defining characteristic of Orthodoxy.

Some Orthodox leaders have expressed sadness at the decline of the Conservative Movement. They see it as a last bulwark against complete assimilation into Jewish oblivion. I understand their concern and even share it to that extent. That was much of the motive for their founding rabbis – to conserve Judaism.

But have they succeeded? Or have they contributed to the problem by their overly permissive attitude in Mitzvah observance? The answer may be found in the regret many current Conservative leaders have expressed in allowing their members to drive to Shul on Shabbos. They now realize that permitting it may be one of the most significant factors responsible for their own demise.

The Reform Movement too is in crisis despite their numbers. They realize that their own move away Halachic observance has been disastrous for them. Once you remove any overt expression of Judaism and substitute Jewish ethics as your definig characteristic, you have in essence transformed yourself from a Jew to an ethical humanist. Why even bother with the term Jew?

Judaism requires Mitzvah observance as well as ethics.

My understanding is that their rabbinic leaders are divided There are those who feel that a return to observance albeit voluntary is essential to their existence as Jews. On the other side is the old guard who stand by the founding principles of the movement rejecting all Mitzvah observance as archaic and unnecessary. My guess is that nature will take its course and only those who practice the Mitzvos will have any chance of surviving into the future. I think it is far more likely that the more observant of Mitzvos one is - the better chance that they will ultimately become Orthodox and that their offspring will survive into the future as Jews.

My prediction is that a few generations from now the Jewish people will in fact be post denominational. Only those who are observant and transmit that observance to their children via intensive education will perpetuate Judaism into the future. Others will assimilate out and their offspring won’t care or even know if they are Jewish.