Thursday, May 22, 2014

Is Orthodoxy Winning?

R Joseph B. Soloveitchik, R Aharon Kotler, & Irving Bunim
It would seem that Orthodox Judaism has a lot to be happy about these days. In the recent much discussed Pew Research Center Survey it was only Orthodox Jewry that has enjoyed an increase in numbers. The other major denominations are experiencing decline. Should we be triumphalist? Some of us are. But let’s take a closer look at this.

Reform Judaism which was instituted in America by Issac Mayer Wise in the 19th century was at the time thought to be the wave of the future. Many Jews flocked to this form of Judaism that was created with compatibility and assimilation in mind. They were triumphalist about their movement and saw Orthodoxy on its last legs.

But Reform was quickly overtaken by a new movement created in the early 20th century. The Conservative movement which had more of a connection to Jewish tradition was more appealing to the masses of European Jewish immigrants that came to these shores in waves at that time. Many felt that they had to work on Shabbos to survive. The assimilated Reform Jews of that time did not really embrace these ‘greenhorns’.

Which was pretty much fine with the ‘greenhorns’. They wanted to retain as much of their Judaism as they could. Conservative Judaism spoke to that need. It allowed them a sense of observance while tolerating violations of Halacha – and in some cases encouraging it for a ‘higher purpose’. Driving to Shul was permitted. Since Jews were driving anyway they were told if you’re going to drive – drive to Shul.

For decades Conservative Judaism enjoyed immense popularity too. Surely enough to feel triumphalist about themselves.  But as was the case with Reform then - in our day, the Conservative movement is struggling to maintain it members. And as of now they seem to be losing the battle. The Pew report has given us some truly depressing figures. Non Orthodox Jews are intermarrying at a 70% rate. Even if (as many claim) those numbers are grossly exaggerated, it can certainly not be discounted that the intermarriage rate is extremely high.

Reform Judaism which does not consider Halacha binding has had some success in changing their numbers by changing the rules. They have redefined for themselves who is a Jew. Jewish lines had always followed the mother. Patralineal descent was never considered legitimate. That is basic Halacha. But now they accept patralineal descent. And they now define Jewish identity by how an individual defines himself. Halachic  practice is unnecessary. Formal conversion is unnecessary.

Conservative Judaism has not resorted to that. Yet. But it is hemorrhaging Jews. Assimilation is winning.

As I said above, Orthodoxy is growing according to the Pew survey. But is it really? Should we be Triumphalist? There are many among us who might feel this way. And for good reason.  We believe we are following in the Halalchic footsteps of our forefathers. That has kept us separate, identifiable, and therefore alive. We have the most children and we raise them to be Orthodox. We send them to religious schools and we live in religious neighborhoods. Our social groups are mostly Orthodox.  Assimilation is not done at the expense of abandoning Halacha. Some of us discourage it completely and some of us assimilate where Halacha permits.

While there is some attrition away from Orthodoxy, that is counter-balanced by those who join us via successful outreach.There have been some statistics published that indicate that more Jews leave Orthodoxy than join it. I would dispute that. Those surveys do not define Orthodoxy properly. Self identifying as Orthodox or claiming to be raised Orthodox is not any way to define Orthodoxy. Just because your parents belonged to an Orthodox Shul – that does not make you Orthodox.

Orthodoxy means following Halahca… and being so committed to it, that raising your children to be observant is of the highest priority. That usually means sending your children to religious schools through high school and beyond. These are the real Orthodox Jews. And there is very little attrition away from Orthodoxy by them. Which means the numbers coming in far surpass the numbers going out.

So… is the future of Orthodoxy assured? Let us examine this more closely. Orthodox Judaism encompasses many groups. From the extreme left to the extreme right. The two ends of that spectrum are hardly compatible. To an outsider these two extreme might seem to be living on two different planets. There are many other groups that are defined as Orthodox. Among them are: Chasidim, Lubavitchers, Yeshiva types, Religious Zionists, Centrists, Sephardim… all of which are significantly different from each other.  And then there is the Atlantic Ocean which separates us more than just geographically. Because of cultural differences, American Orthodoxy is radically different from Israeli Orthodoxy.

I often say that what unites us (observance of Halacha) is far greater than what divides us. That may be true. But there is a lot that divides us and that - in some cases - has led to hatred of one form of Orthodoxy against another.

There are other factors that do not bode that well for our future. The fact is that we no longer have the kind of Gedolim that – a few generations hence - will be remembered the way those of the immediate past are and will be. There is no-one today like R’ Aharon Kotler, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Satmar Rebbe, R’ Joseph Soloveitchik, R’ Ahron Soloviechik, R’ Moshe Feinstein, R’ Yaakov Kaminetsky… and numerous other American Gedolei Yisroel of that stature… far too many to mention.

This is particularly true in America. This is why the current American rabbinic leaders look to Israel for guidance. And yet the two worlds could not be further apart culturally. There is no possible way to see an Israeli rabbinic leader whose values were developed there, leading American Jews whose values were developed here.

On the other side of the Orthodox spectrum there is the challenge of feminism. It has become the most important feature of the left. One does not have to look far to find feminist values taking hold that are changing the face of Orthodoxy. Just to name a few innovations resulting from that: An Orthodox Yeshiva that ordains women (Yeshivat Maharat). There are Women’s Teffila Groups; Partnership Minyanim; Women of the Wall; Women wearing Teffilin, Female cantors in certain portions of public prayer service… all things that are condemned by the right or at best strongly frowned upon even among Centrists.

There are also deep divisions in how to confront modernity. On the one side you have Modern Orthodoxy and on the other you have Charedim and Chasdidm. The latter tend to be insular – rejecting all but what is necessary for life (like modern medicine). While the former embrace those parts of modernity that are compatible with Halacha – seeing much of it as a positive contribution to our Yiddishkeit.

And then there are all those scandals. There have been so many of them involving identifiably Orthodox Jews in recent years that to an outsider looking in, there has to be major reservations about joining us. Are we a light even among our own people …let alone to the nations of the world (an Ohr La’Goyim)?

I don’t think we can see ourselves as one cohesive unit of Orthodox Jews any more. There are too many divisions among us that break us up into tiny little parts which seem incompatible with each other. And the chasm between Israel’s Orthodox Jews and America’s Orthodox Jews is as wide as ever- and growing. We do not have the kind of rabbinic leadership to rely upon as we have in the past. Not in any segment of Orthodoxy. The divisiveness among us is increasing.

With no one to lead a movement, how can Orthodoxy survive? Yes, we are growing. But do we have a future? Yes there is a core mainstream at least in America that includes moderate Charedim and right wing MOs (Centrists). But who will lead us? What direction will we go? What will our values be? Will we remain cohesive? And how will we and our Israeli counterparts see each other as we continue to grow further apart?

Orthodox Triumphalism? Not a chance.