The Future of American Judaism

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This essay was written on October 8, 2013. It was never published. I think it’s still perfectly relevant.

The Pew report confirmed what many Jewish people already knew. Non-Orthodox Judaism is in crisis. According to Professor Stephen M. Cohen over 75% of non-Orthodox Jews are intermarried. About 43% of children of intermarriage consider themselves Jewish. The numbers are devastating and religious leaders are scrambling for solutions.

On the other hand, despite doomsday predictions from the 20th century, the Orthodox Jewish data demonstrates strength and viability. Almost 0% of Orthodox Jews intermarry and over 80% of Orthodox Jews between the age of 19 and 29 stay orthodox.

Some people think this is cause for celebrating Orthodox triumph. Other Orthodox Jews think that Orthodox Jews must step up outreach efforts to bring non-Orthodox Jews into the fold of Orthodox Judaism.

I think there is a third approach.

Professor Cohen suggested that Orthodox Jews and non-Orthodox increase their social ties. Both groups believe that the other is not interested, but that needs to change.

I agree with Professor Cohen. As it stands right now, Orthodox Jews are enjoined from participating in inter-denominational activities and groups as per a nearly unanimous rabbinic ruling of the generation’s greatest Torah authorities in the middle of the 20th century. But there is a price to this ruling. The price is very clear boundaries between fellow Jews. Sociologically this has the negative effect of preventing cross-pollination of ideas. Non-orthodox Jews get little access to the vibrancy and beauty of Jewish traditions and practices that are found in Orthodox Judaism.puzzle-pieces-852x500

The context that non-Orthodox Jews have the greatest interaction with Orthodox Jews is “kiruv.” But this is not the same as creating social ties that breach the gates of the self imposed ghetto. This is interaction for the purpose of eliciting a specific desired result. I am suggesting interaction for the sake of interaction. Social ties with no strings attached won’t limit the interactions to potential kiruv candidates and will more likely be institutionally accepted by the non-Orthodox.

A kiruv relationship is one where the Orthodox Jew wants something for the non-Orthodox Jew. But the non-Orthodox Jew may not want the same thing. Even if the non-Orthodox Jew eventually comes to desire the same thing the Orthodox Jew wants, the relationship began as an uneven partnership. The two parties had different goals. The desired outcome is different for each party. The Orthodox  Jew wants the non-Orthodox to adopt an Orthodox lifestyle and the non-Orthodox Jew might simply want a friend. The best relationships are mutually beneficial and are created as balanced partnerships. Both parties have similar goals and aspirations for the relationship. They agree on the hopeful outcome. Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews must create these kinds of social ties. Friendship for the sake of the friendship.

This is aside from the obvious benefit increased intra-denominational activity will have on Jewish unity.

In an article published by OnFaith, Rabbi David Wolpe suggested that liberal Judaism must embrace rituals in order to survive. “Wearing Tefillin, praying in Hebrew, Torah study, Kashrut, Jewish communal adherence and activities — these things (while not necessarily limited only to Jews) are activities that keep the core of the tradition alive.”

Rituals create a common language and uniquely Jewish experiences. Jews with these collective experiences as part of their religious identity will want to perpetuate these rituals in their family lives. This increases the desirability of marrying Jewish. It’s not simply tribalism or religious mandate. It’s a self-interested choice to pass on uniquely Jewish experiences to one’s children.

But what’s the point of all these rituals? What benefit is there to the non-Orthodox Jew? This is a question that Orthodox Jews are adequately positioned to answer.

Who better than Orthodox Jews to impart the wisdom of these rituals? What better way is there to demonstrate the value in these rituals than the people who do them on a regular basis? It need not be for the purpose of proselytization. It is simply an opportunity to better appreciate the role of rituals in Judaism.

If non-Orthodox Jews are interested in learning about rituals, the Orthodox Jewish community is uniquely poised to step in and create mutually beneficial relationships with non-Orthodox Jews. Now we can honestly say that we are interested in the same outcome. We have an opportunity to create balanced, even friendships. We all want the same thing. This can stimulate increased social ties between all Jews.

Hopefully, non-Orthodox Jews will heed Rabbi Wolpe’s call and trend toward adding more traditional rituals to their observance. After all, this is a major key to Jewish continuity.

Even among formerly Orthodox Jews who have made the choice to leave Orthodox Judaism, many find that some rituals are worth perpetuating. Most end up marrying fellow Jews. I suspect that this has a lot to do with common experiences and a bit of nostalgia toward their Judaism. That can be replicated within the non-Orthodox Jewish community as well.

The Orthodox Jewish community cannot afford to let this opportunity slip through its fingers either. It is time we adjust our goals and reach across the aisle for the sake of friendship and mutually agreed upon goals.

I ask Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbis and leaders to consider the price of denominational isolation. I ask my Jewish brethren to consider the price of our failure to communicate to one another. We are all in this together. Let’s act like it.

It’s time to revisit some societal norms in the Jewish communtiy.This essay was written on October 8, 2013. It was…

Posted by Eliyahu Fink on Wednesday, June 10, 2015

  • I notice there are no comments, and hope others who are subscribed will comment. One concept that is missing in this essay, and perhaps purposefully to avoid offending the Orthodox audience, is that non-Orthodox Jews, and secular, unaffiliated Jews have something to offer their Orthodox brethren. Who would want to knowingly be in a relationship where the other party views you as deficient, inferior, holding to dangerous ideas that only those properly trained to reject and deflect are considered capable of having these interactions? Orthodox leaders and individuals are involved in interfaith efforts, but if someone views the population of Jewishly diverse as if they were from Mars, non-Jews must be outside this solar system. R’ Fink mentioned that the non-observant Jew just might want a friend. Kiruv, as well as any brand of missionary activity, is dishonest in taking advantage of the natural desire for human connection, understanding and acceptance. When I visit a car dealership and the salesman acts like my best friend, I am aware of his purpose, but when a religious figure invites me for dinner at his lovely home, introduces me to his warm, hospitable family, things are not so clear, especially for a person who is young and inexperienced, lonely, fearful, etc. My personal take on the world of Orthodox Judaism from an outsider: I love the wisdom and scholarship, since learning is something I prize, perhaps obsessively. I enjoy the music and aspects of observance. But I do not find the lifestyle of conformity attractive (including thought conformity) especially the role expected of women.