Monday, April 04, 2016

An Attempt to Export Failure

Image cross posted from Cross-Currents
I have been a fan of Rabbi Emanuel Feldman ever since I heard about him many years ago. He is one of the true heroes of Orthodox Judaism. He did in Atlanta what few Orthodox rabbis in his situation were able to do. In 1955, an era where many old line Orthodox Shuls were removing the Mechitza that separates men and women he installed one in his Shul after being hired a few years earlier.

Needless to say there were detractors. His initial attempt was rebuffed and the Mechitza removed the next day. Undaunted, Rabbi Feldman put his job on the line threatening to leave if the Mechitza was not reinstalled. It was and remains there to this day. How one may ask did he dare challenge the spirit of that time? Was he not worried about losing members that insisted on sitting together with their families in Shul?

I’m sure he was. But what was important to him was that the Halacha of separating men and women during prayer in a Shul setting – be restored in his Shul. He was - and is a man of principle who understands that when the spirit of the times clashes with Judaism, Judaism wins.

And as a man of principle he also understood that there are many voices in Judaism that deserve to  be heard even if he didn’t agree with them. Which is why he was a long term editor of Tradition Magazine, a Journal of Orthodox thought.  Tradition occasionally featured some controversial articles. It was during his tenure that Rabbi Shubert Spero wrote an article suggesting that because of the geological data to the contrary - perhaps the Mabul (the world-wide flood mentioned in Genesis)  may never have actually happened and was only an allegory.

I’m pretty sure that Rabbi Feldman is not on board with Rabbi Spero’s thesis. As Rav Ahron Soloveichik said, this view is Karuv L’Apikursus – near heresy! And yet he allowed it to be published. I honestly don’t think I would have had the courage to do so - had I been in his shoes.

Rabbi Feldman retired from Tradition and his rabbinic position in Atlanta - and made Aliyah many years ago. He is now well into his 80s but remains active as a regular contributor to Mishpacha  Magazine – writing about various issues of the day. Cross-Currents features one of his latest articles.  It is one with which I whole-hardheartedly agree. And yet feel somewhat conflicted about. It deals with a theme featured here quite often.

Rabbi Feldman calls ludicrous the attempts by the Reform and Conservative Movements to insert themselves into official religious life in Israel. Although I don’t know that I would have chosen that word, I completely understand and agree with his argument, and have said much the same thing myself. And it bears repeating. Here is some of what he says: 
Use of the word “ludicrous” is unavoidable when viewing some statistics. The Reform-Conservative brand has been dominant in American Jewish life for most of the 20th century, when the vast majority of affiliated American Jews were affiliated with them. It is instructive to examine what these groups achieved in America after a century of dominance. Let us look at the record. The just-issued Pew study provides a glimpse of American Jewish life today:
71% of US non-Orthodox are intermarried;
two-thirds of the non-Orthodox belong to no synagogue;
one third of non-Orthodox Jews declare that they do not believe in Gd;
one-third of non -Orthodox Jews have Xmas trees;
34% of non-Orthodox Jews say that one can still be Jewish even if one believes in the founder of Xianity as the messiah and savior.
What we have here is a stark picture of the disintegration of American Jewry with the exception of the Orthodox.
Granted, one cannot blame only these dissident movements for these abysmal numbers. Certainly, other factors were involved . Nevertheless, these statistics are mute testimony to the failure of an ideology that controlled Jewish religious life in America. All their efforts to streamline Torah and mitzvos have ended in bankruptcy, not only for Jewish religious life in general America, but for these movements themselves in particular. They are gradually losing ground in America, unable to retain their young people, and are facing dwindling institutional membership. 
I think this says it all. As Rabbi Feldman notes I wish they would have done a little more honest introspection to see the real reasons they have failed instead of trying to export their failures to Israel. The truth of which has been covered by some of their own leaders. Like Jack Wertheimer and Daniel Gordis. But I don’t think they are listening.
That said, I am not celebrating their failure at all. Even though that failure is now as clear as can be, their demise does not bode well for the vast majority of American Jews.

True - there has been a massive attrition away from Judaism by many non Orthodox Jews in America. But there is little doubt in my mind  – at least as far as Conservative Judaism goes - that they did have some impact. There are some Jews that actually had their first Jewish inspiration in that movement. And when seeking more they found it in Orthodoxy. I know that many Conservative rabbis consider it a victory if one of their members becomes Orthodox.

I know of several Orthodox Jews that went to Camp Ramah (one of their summer camp that focuses on traditional aspects of Judaism, if I understand correctly) who were inspired enough to seek more… and then found it in Orthodoxy.

I also know that some Conservative rabbis cooperated with NCSY – one of the most successful Orthodox outreach organizations in the world... and perhaps the only one that reaches out to teens.

If this movement ceases to exist - all this will completely disappear. And that is nothing to celebrate.