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As Modern Orthodoxy Declines, a Jewish Trump-voting Religious Right Is Ascendant

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Supporters of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump shout at Trump protesters in a demonstration area near Trump Tower in the Manhattan borough of New York, U.S. November 20, 2016.
Supporters of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump shout at Trump protesters in a demonstration area near Trump Tower in the Manhattan borough of New York, U.S. November 20, 2016.Credit: Mark Kauzlarich, Reuters

Late last year, the Pew Research Center published a study of American Jews and found that a full 70 percent of the 500 Orthodox Jews in their sample identified themselves as ultra-Orthodox. Several years ago, a New York metropolitan area study of Jews found about 68 percent of those calling themselves Orthodox identified as ultra-Orthodox.  

These figures confirm a portrait that I sketched of Orthodoxy in my 2006 book, "Sliding to the Right." That book detailed a process in which Orthodoxy has steadily been moving toward the religious right in behavior and observance as well as in outlook and ethos.  

Orthodoxy left the ghetto, but it's retreated inside an American shtetl

In the mid-twentieth century, after relocating from the shtetls and ghettos of Europe where it had been decimated before and during the Holocaust, to the new State of Israel and North America, where anti-Jewish prejudices were not enshrined in law and persecution of Jews had no quarter, Orthodox Jews in growing numbers seemed to embrace more liberal behaviors and attitudes. 

That shift in the Orthodox worldview allowed the endorsement of a liberal arts education and entry into mainstream general culture, to allow women to leave behind their second-class status in public and in the community, and affirmed the idea of social progress and the modern world. While still parochial and committed to relatively punctilious Jewish observance, the momentum appeared to shift toward a cosmopolitanism that allowed many Orthodox Jews to move comfortably into the world. Steven M. Cohen and I reported on that Orthodoxy in our 1989 book "Cosmopolitans and Parochials."     

A man demonstrates in support of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump in front of Trump Tower in the Manhattan borough of New York, U.S. November 20, 2016.Credit: Kena Betancur, AFP

But as the more recent data about ultra-Orthodox self-identification signals, this comfortable interaction started fraying in the mid to late 1990s. It now looks like this modernist and cosmopolitan Orthodoxy, once seemingly the vanguard of the movement, is now in decline.

This decline is not only demographic, even though that is a significant part of it: the cosmopolitan Orthodox Jews simply have fewer children (as is characteristic of Americans in general as well as non-Orthodox Jews who are highly educated and marry late).  It is also an ideological decline, an insecurity about the moral superiority and sustainability of their way of being Orthodox.  

Relinquishing Jewish education to the hard right

Over time, the religious and moral instruction to which the Orthodox have been exposed – from their rabbis and yeshiva or seminary teachers – comes from the haredi wing of their movement, and not from the center or left.  

This is because the modern Orthodox themselves generally did not choose to become rabbis and Jewish educators; equipped with top-flight educations, they pursued other professions and left those areas to their right-wing and far more parochial counterparts. Those educators gradually instilled the idea in their students that haredi Orthodoxy only was the authentic way, and all else was in some way "off the derech," a deviation from the Orthodox path.  

'Progressive' push-back: Small, marginal and under attack

Yes, there has been some push-back from some quarters; the efforts of those who wanted to empower women (like JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance) and Matan and those who populate Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and its supporters or the Shira Chadasha (in Jerusalem) and Darchei Noam (in Manhattan) type of egalitarian congregations, but many in the Orthodox Jewish establishments dismiss them as marginal and not representing Orthodoxy. They may have a small hold on American Jewry, but in Israel they are under powerful attack. The example of modern Orthodox women attacked in Beit Shemesh for not being sufficiently modest or the ongoing attacks on the Women of the Wall, among whom are quite a number of modern Orthodox women. Likewise in the U.S., aspersions are cast on the rabbis from Chovevei Torah with accusations of their heresy.   

The Orthodox pro-Trump vote: Spurning liberal values and its own value-system, too

Perhaps nothing has more vividly demonstrated Orthodoxy's slide to the right than its political behavior. In both Israel and the United States, the Orthodox vote is now firmly offered to parties that are right-wing and spurn the values of liberalism and progressivism.  

In the recent U.S. presidential elections, as I noted here ("How Trump Split the Jewish Vote"), while Jews overwhelmingly voted for the Democrat, as they always do, the single largest group of Jews voting for the Republican Donald Trump were the Orthodox. That they should vote for the Republican candidate is not new; they have been doing this for the last four or five presidential ballots. But this time, they voted for Trump in spite of his support by various anti-Semitic groups and notwithstanding his behavior and speech (and one must assume values), which stands diametrically opposed to all that Orthodoxy would seem to stand for.

Yet even American ex-pat Shlomo Riskin, once the poster rabbi for modern Orthodoxy and now the municipal rabbi of the West Bank settlement of Efrat and head of its Ohr Torah yeshiva, hailed Trump’s election as a “victory for the Jewish people” and Israel. Trump, he said “speaks very differently than Obama about Israel and our prime minister, and supports the need to transfer the U.S. embassy here to Jerusalem, so I have a lot of hope.” Riskin, once on the left, and the head of the Telshe Yeshiva, Rabbi Avrohom Levin, on the Orthodox right, both supported Trump: what better could symbolize Orthodoxy’s slide to the political right. Indeed, even the Rabbinical Council of America published a full page ad in the New York Times with warm congratulations for President-elect Trump.

Is there any future for modern Orthodoxy?

Like the Christian evangelicals, Mormons, and white Catholics whose values appear to be far from those expressed by Donald Trump but who nevertheless voted for him, so too Orthodox Jews. One might argue that in their political behavior, the Orthodox act more like them than they do like the rest of the Jews in America. On the other hand, in Israel, their nationalism and chauvinism appears pretty much in tune with the majority of Jewish Israelis.  

So where is the future of modern Orthodoxy? Will it devolve to a small, embattled segment of the Orthodox community, holding off the slings and arrows of their ultra-Orthodox brethren and accusations of heresy? Or will they find common cause with those among liberal Jewry who demand more Jewish commitment and observance but resist the fundamentalism of the haredim, and their zero-sum version of Judaism – that to be Orthodox you are either with us or against us? Much will depend on the energy and support those fighting the slide to the right can marshal in the months and years ahead.

Samuel Heilman holds the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center and is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York.