Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

The Coming Split, Part 2

Hot on the heels of the previous post, I came across this article in The Jewish Week (hat tip: Nishma and its founder, Rav Benjy Hecht). It served to confirm the concerns I raised at the end of the previous post.

In brief, there are as many answers for why the North American Jewish population is fissuring down the fault line of religious/non-religious but everyone agrees that it is happening. The problem is that constructive solutions are difficult to suggest. Pretty much anything one side demands of the other is considered a non-starter. The Orthodox community is not going to give up observance of halachah in order to reduce the alientation the non-observant community feels from Jewish religious behaviour. The non-religious are not likely to start observing Shabbos and kashrus in order to please the Orthodox. And so it goes.

The survey found that the single issue most important to Orthodox Jews in deciding who to vote for president this year is “support for Israel” (25 percent), while only 6 percent of Conservative Jews, 3 percent of Reform Jews and 4 percent of respondents who characterized themselves as “Just Jewish” agreed. Sixty-four percent of Orthodox Jews said they feel “very close” to Israel, compared to 39 percent of Conservative Jews and 22 percent of Reform Jews and those who are Just Jewish.
The non-Orthodox groups chose “economy and jobs” as the most important issue, followed closely by “health care,” both of which ranked behind “terrorism and security” for the Orthodox.

This is not surprising when one considered the different definitions of Jewish identity between the two groups. One way of summarizing it is to label the religious as American Jews and the non-religious as Jewish Americans. The two superfically sounding terms reflect a world of difference. For one group, being Jewish is the primary root of personal identity. An American Jew and a Russian Jew are both Jews, members of the same national group despite disparate home addresses. The opposite is not necessarily true. A Jewish American and Jewish German might find they have little in common, each identifying more with the dominant secular culture of their home country rather than the common Jewishness between them.

When one considers that, the results of the survey make perfect sense. American Jews are concerned about the Jewish homeland and the Jews living there. Given the relative peace and security of life in North America, this translates into Israel and America's relationship with it being the political priority for this group. In the other group, the Jewish Americans are more worried about what other typical American groups might be concerned with, like the economy and their material well-being.

Fifty-six percent of Orthodox Jews described themselves as politically “conservative,” twice as many as Conservative Jews and three times as many as Reform and Just Jewish. The differences were reflected in response to the Iraq war, with 57 percent of Orthodox Jews agreeing that the U.S. “did the right thing in taking military action” compared to 27 percent of Conservative Jews, 22 percent of Reform and 24 percent of those Just Jewish.

Again, there is no shock here. The underlying principles of the two groups are completely different, leading to diametrically opposed political outlooks. Simply put, for American Jews the priority is what God, through His Torah, expects us to believe and do. For Jewish Americans, liberal secular values are the guiding principles. Combining that with concern for Israel, it's no surprise most observant Jews are conservative while most non-religious ones are liberal.

But more than that, a non-existent past seems to linger in the mind of non-religious Jewish leaders:

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, says “it is one of the great tragedies of Jewish life” that the kind of Jewish unity that existed until about 25 years ago among the denominations, despite their serious differences, has “come to an end.”

Consider the time frame and you can easily deduce the real reason for the end of the "Jewish unity" Yoffie is talking about. It was about 25 years ago that assimilation and intermarriage began to take a huge toll on the non-religious population while the Orthodox population in North America began to rapidly grow and exert influence of its own in the larger Jewish community. Until then, Reform and Conservativism dominated the public religious scene with religious Jews being relegated to the side-lines and the Ultra-Orthodox being ignored as strange and weird relics altogether. Today Reform and Conservatism are shrinking, the latter more quickly than the former, while the Orthodox world continues to grow in strength, both political, financial and cultural. In truth, the community was never united but now with the Orthodox making a large impact, this disunity is playing out on a larger scale.

Sociologists might trace a rightward shift within the Orthodox community to the growing trend over the last two decades or more among yeshiva high school graduates, both girls and boys, of spending a year, and often two, in Israel to study in yeshivas and seminaries before starting college back home. The positive result has been a deepening commitment to and appreciation for Torah study, religious observance and the State of Israel among these young people. But it has also meant that many of these teens become heavily influenced by their rebbes and teachers whose views, practices and values are far more conservative than those of mainstream American society in terms of openness, diversity, tolerance and secular education.

The underlying biases of the author shine through in these lines. Imagine the preceding worded this way:

Sociologists might trace a left shift within the secular community to the growing trend over the last two decades or more among high school graduates, both girls and boys of abandoning what little relics of Jewish observance they had when starting college far from home.
The positive result has been a deepening commitment to and appreciation for liberal values, secular mores and the culture of political correctness among these young people. But it has also meant that many of these teens become heavily influenced by their professors and study partners whose views, practices and values are far more liberal than those of mainstream American society in terms of openness, diversity, tolerance and secular education.

Doesn't sound too flattering, does it? Yet if a religious Jew were to take umbrage at the original version, it would be used to demonstrate how rigid and close-minded Orthodox Jews are. In other words, the underlying assumption is that secular culture is the objective normal. Since Torah observance deviates from it, it must be abnormal and, in some ways, wrong.

In recent years, with Richard Joel becoming president of Yeshiva University and the founding and growth of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, led by Rabbi Avi Weiss, there has been a sense of an attempt to move the Modern Orthodox community back to the center.

Once again, the biases come through. I don't know much about Richard Joel but YCT is (in)famous for its approach to Modern Orthodoxy. Rav Weiss is not seekng to nudge the community to the centre. He is sitting on the far left and trying to sway people in that direction. In addition, this move has not been good for Modern Orthodoxy. As the innovators move further and further towards the right wing of Conservatism, they create greater and greater questions of religious legitimacy on the movement in the eyes of both the Chareidi community and the right wing of Modern Orthodoxy itself.

For now, the two sides may each be waiting for the other to fade, but the only hope of bringing them closer is to place an even greater emphasis on Jewish education and identity. In that way, they may vote as liberals or conservatives, but motivated by a common sense of Jewish values.

This is perhaps the most disinforming piece of the article (good thing it came at the end). Note the first sentence mentions the completely acceptable emphasis on education and identity. The second mentions the equally inoffensive "common sense of Jewish values". But not two paragraphs before, Rosenblatt states:

What all sides agree on is that the sharp differences between the Orthodox and religiously liberal Jews reflect their strongly held worldviews, and that neither side is budging. The Orthodox are not bending on halacha or on an Israel-centric view of politics, and the others are not giving in on patrilineal descent, gay and lesbian inclusion, or political liberalism.

So on one side, the Orthodox will not budge on such issues as who is a Jew, what is acceptable Jewish behaviour and how one should think and value things as a Jew. On the other side, the non-religious are doing the same things. Yet these three items: Who, what and how are the very essence of the ultimate question of "What is a Jew"? If the non-religious are so far apart from Torah ideals on these three things, what common Jewish values are left? Latkes on Chanukah? Matzoh on Pesach?


Friar Yid (not Shlita) said...


While some of Yoffie's talk of "inter-mural unity" might be fanciful, I don't think he's specifically thinking (or referring) to the fact that Reform and Conservative were in the ascendancy "back in the day." I think he's talking about the perception among American Jews as a whole back then was that the majority of Orthodox Jews in America seemed to me firmly in the Modern Orthodox camp, some of whose values, particularly regarding education and "the outside world" that mirrored those of other denominations. This "open" view seemed to extend to being somewhat more inclusive of (or interactive with) their own non-Orthodox brethren. Not unlike the description of the Frankfurt school.

However with the dramatic shift towards the Haredi wing (both because of the Haredi boom but also because it seems like they are overwhelming or subsuming the MOs), the perception is that there has been a significant change in American Orthodoxy- both internally, like with dress codes or mixed seating, and externally, as far as what the "move to the right" means for how non-Orthodox Jews are viewed by the "average" Orthodox Jew on the street. I think Yoffie is saying that part of the reason for the widening gulf between the denominations is the fact that MO seems to be dying and is being replaced by a very vocal (and exclusivist) Haredi Orthodoxy.

Obviously there is some measure of wishful thinking here- R. Soloveitchik, for example, wasn't a big fan of Reform or Conservative Judaism. But I think Yoffie is saying that non-Orthos feel like the gulf has become a lot wider (and certainly more heated) in the past several decades. Clearly, some of this is because Reform (and to a degree Conservative) are being more vocal about playing by their own rules. But I think it's also because the Haredim (and their MO allies) seem to be adopting a "our way or the highway" position.

To be honest, I think we're beyond the point where American Judaism can be "made whole"- not that I'm sure that should be the desired result. I think the reality is that there is a large gap, not just culturally and socially but also ideologically, between Orthodox Judaism and the other movements, and I don't think we can pretend that isn't there.

Personally, I'd settle for some basic ground rules of respect between the denominations and their members. But that may be wishful thinking, too.

Dr Mike said...

Perhaps the difference is that while the Rav forbid "intrafaith" dialogue with Conservatives and Reformers, he did allow cooperation on matters of general concern to the entire Jewish community. The current Chareidi attitude is one of non-cooperation in all matters they are not in charge of.

I agree that respect for one another is a desirable goal. Certainly when counselling a squabbling couple, the first advice I give is "Work on just being civil to each other" and that would be appropriate here. Unfortunately, I agree the ideologies have pushed both sides so far apart that NOT getting along is part of each's identity.

Bet Shemesh Board Gaming Club said...

No commentary on the death of Gary Gygax?

SJ said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
SJ said...

Yay!!! Schism!!!!!!!!!

A schism between the shomreai negiah nuts and the antitelevision nuts and between us Jews who are normal people is long overdue. XD

Garnel Ironheart said...

You're so profound SJ.

Get back to yoru cubicle!