Thursday, January 04, 2018

Pre-mature? Perhaps. Inevitable? Probably.

If it weren’t so sad, it would be funny. In a Times of Israel article Rabbi Todd Berman warns us that the time to say Kaddish on non Orthodox Judaism is premature. Perhaps it is. But it is inevitable despite the evidence he brings to support his argument. Which is actually that it isn’t only premature, it is not even inevitable.

The triumphant glee that some of my Orthodox coreligionists have about this is indeed wrong. I do not share that feeling. I cannot celebrate the massive loss of Jews to assimilating out of Judaism currently taking place. One that would surely be accelerated if there were no heterodox movements. 

That this is happening now in such great numbers is not for their lack of trying to keep them in. It is because they have catered to an assimilationist zeitgeist in the belief that by doing so they can hold on to them. 

But by tolerating and ignoring the lack of observance by the vast majority of their members, they have done the opposite. The resultant assimilation has paved the way for a quick exit from Judaism for their members - with each generation feeling less Jewish.While predictions about the future are not always linear, I am hard pressed to see how the current accelerating pace of non observant Jews  opting out of any organized version of Judaism - which in many cases means opting out of Judaism altogether – will somehow be reversed.

This is a sad reality for which there should be no celebration. Feeling triumphant is but a momentary self centered indulgence. This overwhelming loss should make us all feel anything but triumphant. On this Rabbi Berman and I agree. But that does not change the reality. 

To the extent that heterodoxy ever had an impact on slowing down that attrition, it had some value. Because if a non observant Jew has at least a Jewish identity and feels positive about it, there is hope that he will someday become observant and raise observant children. As Rav Aharon Lichtenstein asks (in a quote excerpted by Rabbi Berman): 
Can anyone responsibly state that it is better for a marginal Jew in Dallas or Dubuque to lose his religious identity altogether than drive to his temple? 
This does not mean that we in Orthodoxy should help facilitate their survival. That would imply legitimizing their theology which would be a contradiction to Rabbi Soloveitchik’s admonition
that ‘Orthodoxy cannot and should not unite with such groups which deny the fundamentals of our weltanschauung’.

(It is somewhat perplexing that Rav Lichtenstein is quoted by Rabbi Berman in what seems to be a direct contradiction to this.  But as difficult as it to understand the seeming contradiction between Rav Lichtenstein and his Rebbe (and father in  law) the Rav - it is beyond the scope of this post to dwell upon it.  The scope of this post is to show why non Orthodox movements are dying regardless of their attempts at resuscitation.)

Rabbi Berman argues that there is a kind of revivalist movement in heterodoxy that seems to be working to change that tide. Here s how he puts it: 
(We) should not rule out American Judaism, including its non-Orthodox varieties, quite yet. There is something stirring and we ignore their feelings at our peril. I sense that these movements are touching on something beautiful and important and speaking to people “be’asher heim sham” (where they are) in a way that few Orthodox rabbis are. 
He then lists various examples of initiatives that show a vibrant counter-revolution of sorts. One where non Orthodox Jews that are increasingly becoming involved both on college campuses and in non Orthodox communities at large.

I have to wonder though whether initiatives that are universalist in nature such as those dealing with social justice actually add to ones identity as a Jew.  But even if they somehow do, it is simply not enough to change the tide. As Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer notes in his own Times of Israel critique of Rabbi Berman’s assertions - these initiatives are a drop in the proverbial bucket: 
For every heterodox American Jew who attends events at (Hetrodox initiatives like) Machon Hadar or Ikar there are a thousand-fold heterodox American Jews who are detached from anything Jewish and who are disappearing from Jewish existence with unstoppable rapidity. 
I wonder if their percentages of the whole come anywhere near the over 10% of the whole that Orthodox Jewry consists of.  An Orthodoxy whose numbers are growing exponentially while heterodoxy’s numbers are shrinking exponentially – regardless of the above mentioned exceptions.

The tiny segment that is swimming against the tide, hardly bodes well for heterodxy’s future, Rabbi Berman’s comparison to Chabad notwithstanding. Not to mention the fact that Chabad has an exponentially greater presence in the world than these initiatives do. And even Chabad’s success in outreach is relatively small in comparison to the whole of non observant Jewry.

What I do agree with is Rabbi Berman about is the following: 
Orthodox Jews are very good at particularism… (but we) seems to get lost in our more parochial attempt to “receive the yoke of Heaven.”  The prophetic call to heal the sick and clothe the naked often takes a secondary role to working to pay for day school education.
I don’t think we, in the mainstream Orthodox community, are always successful at communicating the “why” of Judaism as much as we are the “how.” Yes, we can teach people already committed how to re-heat food for Shabbat or even to learn “Daf Yomi,” but are we speaking to the next generation about why they should want to do so? 
Yes. We need to do a better job of inspiring our youth. Orthodoxy has its own attrition problems. We call  it going OTD. And by all accounts the problem is huge and growing.

I do not want to minimize the importance of ‘receiving the yoke of Heaven’. That is what the ritual observances referred to as Bein Adam L’Makom (between man and God) are all about. But as I have often said the Bein Adam L’Chavero aspect of religious observance is not emphasized enough by our by our educators.  It should be. As noted by Rabbi Berman: 
We recite three times a day, in the Aleinu prayer, that part of our task is “to perfect the world under God’s dominion.”  
We in Orthodoxy ought to take a page from the heterodox playbook and do a little bit of our own building up the world. Because that too is the will of God.