Friday, October 04, 2013

The Survival of Judaism

Rabbi David Wolpe - Photo Credit: Slate
I don’t really know much about Conservative Rabbi David Wolpe, other than he was named the most influential rabbi in America by Newsweek Magazine and is often interviewed by the media about the Jewish perspective on issues of the day. But I must say that I like what he has written in a recent article in the Washington Post (republished in the JewishJournal). It was in response to the recent comprehensive study of Jews in America  by the Pew Research Center.

His take on the study is similar to mine. Orthodox Jews are winning. Even though they are only 10% of the total Jewish population while Conservative and Reform Judaism comprise 53%, he freely admits that they (we) are on the ascendancy and cheers us on (albeit with some unstated reservations – with which I may or may not agree).  But he wonders if non Orthodox movements can survive into the future.

His answer: It cannot. At least not in its present diluted form. He correctly identifies the problem. Non Orthodox movements focus primarily on Judaism’s societal obligations and very little on ritual obligations to God.  Here is how he puts it: 
‘Being an ethical person’ while central to Judaism, is not uniquely Jewish.  ’Fighting for social justice’ while central to Judaism, is not uniquely Jewish.  Wearing Tefillin, praying in Hebrew, Torah study, Kashrut, Jewish communal adherence and activities — these things (while not necessarily limited only to Jews) are activities that keep the core of the tradition alive. As Jews have left the latter and profess the former, adherence weakens.  It requires a massive, sustained and serious effort to move the etiolated Jews of good conscience to the passionate Jews of ritual involvement. 
I could not agree more. One of the things I often fight for on this blog is for Orthodox Jews to recognize our ethical obligations to society.  Far too many of us will focus intently on the quality of an Esrog and yet will be less than fully committed to social justice (Tikun Olam). But the reverse is true for far too many non Orthodox Jews…and even their rabbis. Those rabbis will often speak about social justice and rarely speak about the importance of putting on Teffilin. Rabbi Wolpe makes a very important point which I will repeat: ‘Being an ethical person’ while central to Judaism, is not uniquely Jewish.  

This is the crux of the problem with non Orthodox movements… and it is why Reform Judaism has done a ‘180’ with respect to doing Mitzvos. Although there is debate in Reform Judaism about it, the trend seems to be to encourage people to do as many of the ritual Mitzvos as they can. Even though they do not consider Halacha binding, they realize that without it, Judaism loses its uniqueness and even its identity. I have in the past expressed my strong approval of this new trend for many reasons. Not the least of which is that it makes it a lot easier to reach out to them.

Rabbi Wolpe correctly surmises that if his movement is to survive, it must embrace both sides of the issue – the social justice side and the ritual side. In what has to be the most important part of his essay - he cites the absolute need for Jewish education:
Judaism asks a great deal of its adherents.  Judaism is a behavior-centered tradition.  It is primarily enacted in a language strange to most American Jews (Hebrew) and requires an extensive education to understand its fundamentals. Americans are not distinguished by diligence in acquiring cultural literacy.  That which is continually diluted will eventually disappear.
What has been obvious to Orthodox Jews in America for decades is now obvious to non Orthodox Jews… or at least their rabbinic leaders.

Here’s is the problem. And as an intellectually honest person, I would not be surprised if Rabbi Wolpe agrees. There is unfortunately not enough motivation on the part of non Orthodox Jews to follow through. Jewish education costs money. A lot of it.

To most Orthodox Jews that is not an obstacle, difficult though it may be. Most of us pay the back breaking tuitions that are asked of us by day schools and Yeshiva high schools. We may squawk about it. We may have to tighten our belts. We may try and get better scholarships than we are offered. But the bottom line for the vast majority of Orthodox Jews of any Hashkafa is that we will send our children to religious day schools.  We know that without it in our day and age, the chances of remaining observant are severely reduced.

The people that Rabbi Wolpe ministers to do not have that kind of commitment. Although the Conservative Movement has belatedly tried to institute a religious school system by creating the Solomon Schechter schools, they have not really succeeded with their mainstream – and have not grown. Rabbi Wolpe’s has good intentions. But I doubt that there will be any kind of mass realization among non Orthodox Jews about the necessity of a Jewish education for the continuity of their movement.

I therefore suggest that the best way to preserve the future of Judaism is through Orthodoxy and its educational institutions. While I may –as I said – have some of the same issues with some of the more issues in Orthodoxy as does Rabbi Wolpe… issues that I write about often, I do not see a better option for our future.

That does not mean we just sit back and gloat. We should not in any way be triumphalist. We have a lot of work to do. Including but not limited to improving what is taught and how it is taught; improving attitudes fostered in the school; implementing an across the board Chanoch L’Naar Al Pi Darko approach to education; and in how to pay for all of it. But without it, I don’t see how Judaism can survive. And as an intellectually honest person, I don’t see how Rabbi Wolpe could disagree.