Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Waning Clout? Waning Rabbinic Influence? I Don’t Think So

Observant Jew and former US Senator Joe Lieberman. Is our influence waning?
Frequent contributor to Cross Currents, Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer has written a thought provoking article there that challenges the notion that Orthodox Jewry is on the ascendancy in terms of its influence on American policy.

As many people know by now (ad nauseum) the Pew Report on Jewish demographics in America has suggested that all Jewish denominations are in population decline except for Orthodox Jewry. That, says Rabbi Gordimer, does not mean what people may think it means in terms of Orthodoxy’s influence. He in fact suggests that Orthodoxy’s influence may be waning as well, despite our growth. Which he says is important in matters affecting the Jewish people. Not the least of which is support for the State of Israel. Here is how he puts it and how he explains his position: 
Orthodoxy, despite its smashing success, is incrementally undermining its influence as well as its infrastructure. The latter, regrettably, is likely to profoundly stunt religious growth and prevent the flourishing and perhaps even the continuation of greatness in Torah and preeminent rabbinic leadership.
One of the keys to Jewish impact and influence in the United States has been the settlement of the bulk of American Jews in major cities, where municipal and resultant state governance is quite powerful and plays a significant role on local and national levels. When the largest Jewish population in America is represented by names like Schumer, Cuomo, Giuliani and Bloomberg, it means something massive. However, think of what would happen if the lion’s share of American Jewry would retreat to the woods or the country, living in rural or semi-rural clusters as the Amish communities do; such would mean the end of any meaningful Jewish presence on a public level, as well as the dramatic demise of influence on political discourse and other issues of great import. 
In other words, Rabbi Gordimer maintains that the strength in numbers that our growth should provide is undermined by our lack of geographical cohesiveness, thus weakening our political clout, by virtue of the fact the that our numbers will be less concentrated… and thereby less able to choose or influence our government representatives.

In a related matter, the proliferation of ‘break away’ Minyanim and Shteibels has resulted in a dilution of rabbinic authority that often came with a  larger Shul with an established Rav.

The same thing is also happening with Yeshivos. There has been a trend in the last decade or two for smaller Yeshivos to be created that siphon off students from the larger ones. While big Yeshiovs still exist and are successful (e.g. Lakewood, Ner Israel, and Yeshiva University) Some have suffered a decline in numbers that threaten their very existence (My Alma Mater Telshe in Cleveland comes to mind – although there are additional reasons there that have impacted their numbers negatively).

What has arisen are smaller Yeshivos (mostly in Lakewood and its environs) that cater to the most elite and have attracted the better Mechanchim. Quoting an article in the Yated by Rabbi Avrohom Birnbaum: 
(Y)eshiva students often have no one whom they consider to be their rebbe. Being enrolled in three different yeshivos (and spending one’s most mature years of learning attending a chabura rather than a shiur with a rebbe) can leave a talmid disconnected, lacking a long-term relationship with any one rebbe. This disconnect, as part of the new yeshiva trend, can impact not only the rebbe-talmid relationship, but it can also prevent talmidim from thoroughly acquiring a mesorah in learning and the overall mesorah of a yeshiva.

I agree that the phenomenon of de-centralization is happening. But I do not agree that it is necessarily a bad thing. I attended 2 Yeshivos, Telshe and Skokie (HTC). But I only found my mentor in the last four years of my time there. But I considered it an advantage to experience 2 schools with different Hashkafos. It broadened my perspective on Judaism. Especially my experience in Skokie where my influences included Dr. Eliezer Berkovits whose Hashkafos varied widely from those of my Rebbe, Rav Ahron Soloveichk, and where both R’ Ahron and Dr. Berkovits’s Hashkafos  varied widely from my Rebbeim in Telshe. I value all of my experiences. 

I do, however, see a problem with all the splintering off of Yeshivas in another sense. It has created unprecedented chase for elitism by parents that puts tremendous pressure on their sons, many of whom can’t handle it.

The Shul break-aways do not bother that much either. No one should feel obligated to attend a Shul because he needs a Posek or Rav. Many of us have Poskim outside of the Shul we attend.  I don’t see any dilution in rabbinic authority from the’ break always’ Shuls.

What about the dilution of our political clout? That too is an over-reaction. I don’t think our clout is all that diminished by our lesser concentrations of Orthodox Jews in a given location. Clout is not only about the number of voters in a given district. It is about financial influence (political contributions) too. 

It is also about influential voices in the media (e.g. Brett Stevens. Charles Krauthammer).  And when it comes to the State of Israel, our vote is hardly significant. Jews are less than 2% of the population. Orthodox Jews are less than 10% of that. Even with the high concentration of Orthodox Jews in New York, It is still only 10%  of the general population (if I recall correctly). It is the 90% of non Jews that have the clout… 90% of it.

The real clout for Israel comes from Evangelical Christians (among many other non Jews). They comprise over 50 million people. And they support Israel more than many Jews do. Even some Orthodox ones.

So even though I would not gloat about Orthodoxy’s growth, I don’t think what Rabbi Gordimer sees happening (which I believe he is correct about) is necessarily a bad thing.