Misreading the Apocalypse: Orthodoxy Won't Save American Jewish Life

Daniel Gordis' death knell for the non-Orthodox movements in the U.S. completely misreads the real dynamics shaping American Jewish life now and in the future.

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Ultra-Orthodox families in Brooklyn, New York, September 2013.Credit: AP

As a general rule, Israelis do not understand American Judaism at all.

Rabbi Daniel Gordis proves this point in his much-discussed article in the Jewish Review of Books. Relying on data from the Pew study, Gordis focuses on what he sees as the imminent demise of the Conservative movement. Not surprisingly, his piece has provoked a strong response from Conservative leaders, including Rabbi David Wolpe here in Haaretz.

If it will make my Conservative friends feel any better, Gordis is even more negative about the Reform movement than he is about Conservative Judaism. While the latter faces a more immediate demographic collapse, he makes it clear that Reform Judaism will share the same fate. “Non-Orthodox Judaism is simply disappearing in America,” he writes. In fact, the reason that he sees the implosion of Conservative Judaism as such a tragedy is that, for a while at least, it offered a serious and thoughtful alternative to the “pervasive tendency of liberal Judaism” – that is, Reform Judaism – to “recast Jewishness as an inoffensive ethnic version of American Protestantism-lite.”

Rabbi Gordis is a serious scholar and a provocative thinker with whom I often agree. I share his passionate Zionism and his conviction that Judaism will be revived by raising expectations rather than lowering them. But like most Israelis, Gordis misunderstands the fundamental reality of American Jewish life. Although he was an American Jewish leader himself, his years in Israel have apparently clouded his judgment. He misses the basic fact that there is not one Jewish community in America but two.

The first is the committed core of American Jews. These are the serious Jews who know that Judaism is not just tsores and ethnicity, and who have accepted the responsibility of leading a Jewish life. Immersed in Torah study and the work of mitzvah-doing and tzedakah-doing, they are to be found in all religious streams – Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox. Activist and spiritually alive, they are far more committed and observant than anyone in America would have thought possible a half century ago—or even two decades ago.

The second Jewish community is the apathetic majority; it includes those with weak identification and others on the threshold of assimilation.

Gordis focuses on this second group and their shrinking demographics. Their problems are real enough. While the collapse that Gordis predicts will not occur, the American Jewish community is likely to decline modestly in numbers, and with smaller numbers will come some erosion of power and influence.

Still, American Jewish leaders do not despair because the existence of the committed core gives them reason for hope. In an American culture that loves its minorities to death, American Jewry—including its non-Orthodox components—has nurtured a reasonable number of people who defy expectations and embrace Jewish tradition in a thoughtful way; these are the Jews who are willing to speak the language of brit, mitzvah, and God. American Judaism has yet to find a guaranteed path to bridge the gap between serious and non-serious Jews, but with so many in the serious category who live their Jewish lives with joy and celebration, why should they not become exemplars of Jewish living for the rest?

In his observations about the Conservative movement, Gordis is mostly right about the movement’s unsuccessful grappling with issues of halakhic integrity. But his major critique—that Conservative Judaism fails to deal with the deep, existential questions of religious meaning—is spectacularly wrong. Every Conservative rabbi that I know confronts these issues regularly in his or her teachings and sermons. And the movement’s intellectual leaders have much to say that is compelling about such matters, especially if one goes beyond the official documents that, in all movements, are mostly ignored anyway. (A good place to start is Arnold Eisen’s thoughtful meditation, Taking Hold of Torah. David Wolpe’s books are also sensitive and insightful guides to matters of faith and meaning.)

Finally, Gordis blithely asserts that Orthodox Judaism offers “significance” while the liberal movements do not. He is unwilling to admit that Orthodoxy faces multiple crises of its own.

The same Pew data that he quotes tells us that of the 10% of Jews who identify as Orthodox in America, only 3% say they are Modern Orthodox. This suggests what has long been apparent: Much of America’s Orthodox growth comes from the ultra-Orthodox sector, with growth in the greater New York area being especially noteworthy.

We should welcome more Jews from any source. But if it is true that America will have a much larger Orthodox presence in the relatively near future, it is also true that the Jewish community will be much poorer than it now is and much less connected to the broader society. And this is disastrous because it will mean less influence and less clout for Israel, but also a fundamental change in orientation. With the exception of Chabad, ultra-Orthodox Jews in America have been little concerned with the great ethical issues of American society. It is fine to say that Orthodox Judaism provides “meaning,” but of what kind? There is a strand of Jewish thinking, to which I adhere, that sees a narrowing of ethical consciousness as the very opposite of offering “significance”; instead, it is a desecration that empties Judaism of meaning.

There is much that liberal Jews can learn from the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox about Jewish observance that is regular and consistent; but there is much that they can learn from us about the dangers of sundering religion from life. Injustice in the broader society is a Jewish concern, and American Jews must reject any definition of piety that values ritual and education but that is indifferent to ethical issues and repair of the world.

In short, the situation of American Jewry is complicated. There are many reasons to worry, but much to cheer about as well. What I would say to Rabbi Gordis is this: Liberal Judaism will not disappear, Conservative Judaism will not collapse, and Orthodox Judaism, with problems of its own, will not save the day. Given the complications of the moment, would this not be a good time to put aside trafficking in apocalypse and for all of us to work together?

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as president of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer, lecturer and teacher, and lives with his family in Westfield, New Jersey.

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