Faux Change?

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When I took high school biology, the English Peppered Moth, Biston betularia, was offered as an example of evolution in action via natural selection. Ordinarily these moths are light and mottled, and almost invisible against light, lichen-covered trees. But when those same trees were blackened by soot during the industrial revolution, it was the rarer black moths which were camouflaged — and the black moths quickly rose in number as the lighter ones declined. When the Brits decided to clean the air in the 1960s, the trees came out from under their layer of soot, and the process was reversed.

This theory was challenged by some, notably evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne of Chicago, because he felt the data did not support the conclusions. But there is, in fact, a far more fundamental problem with this example, even if the shifts described were entirely accurate — it shows no evolutionary process at all, merely a change in population in response to environmental conditions. There is no evidence that had either situation persisted, entirely new species would have developed. On the contrary, the indicators are that the blackness gene would have merely become more and more (or less and less) common.

What does this have to do with Judaism in America? Let me explain.

I believe that the shift in the Orthodox population mentioned by Shawn Landres is no fiction, and was not fully addressed by either of the previous esteemed writers on this topic. But, like the Biston betularia, this shift reflects no fundamental change in Torah-observant Jewry. To the contrary, what happened over the past fifty years was the blossoming of the traditional, European variety of Torah observance on American and Israeli soil — accompanied by reactions to new circumstances, as described by Shira Schmidt and Rabbi Adlerstein’s quoted parable about the bending trees.

As I mentioned in a previous article, the term Orthodox was neither chosen nor defined by the Torah-observant. In the eyes of the larger Jewish community, “Orthodox” Jews are those who describe themselves as Orthodox. This leads to a radical difference between “Orthodox” and “Torah-observant:” according to the National Jewish Population Survey of 2000, fully 25% of Orthodox Jews do not keep Kosher outside their homes.

If we wind back the clock by just over a century, we find that what was considered Orthodoxy then is approximately where the Union for Traditional Judaism (an offshoot of the Conservative movement) is today. The (Conservative) JTS was instrumental in founding the “Orthodox Jewish Congregational Union of America” in 1898 — known today as the Orthodox Union. Yes, JTS helped create the OU — though they quit the Union just four years later, because even then, the more traditional forms were finding their voice.

It is informative to read the objection of Reform Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, founder and dean of the HUC, when he learned that a competing school had been formed. He declared that the men behind JTS “are themselves poshim [sinners] in the eyes not only of the genuines of Poland and Hungary, but also of the leaders of that class in Germany and Italy.” Indeed, a more traditional Rabbi then in America, J.D. Eisenstein, confirmed Wise’s classification: “in my opinion, the objective of Conservatism and the law of the Radicals [e.g. Reform] lead to the same path, the only difference between them is time.” [The prescience of this prediction is noted without comment.]

In other words, the style of Orthodoxy then prevalent in the United States was willing to make a Union together with JTS. What Reform’s Wise considered “genuine” Orthodoxy, prevalent across Europe, would classify the JTS as a deviation from normative Judaism. Sound familiar? The “Status Quo Ante” mentioned by Shawn as pre-dating both “Reform” and “Orthodoxy” was no mysterious third party that later dissipated. On the contrary, it was — as Wise affirmed — the most traditional form of what we now call “Orthodoxy.”

Ever since the Holocaust, there has indeed been a rightward shift within Orthodoxy, but not because the Orthodox suddenly became more observant than before — although the hiring of charedi teachers in Modern Orthodox (and non-denominational) schools has undoubtedly had an impact. The more rigorous form was always there, but now its population has grown — dramatically.

From 1980 to 1990, the NJPS recorded no noticeable growth in the Orthodox population of the United States. Many observers did notice the burgeoning observant communities from New York to Los Angeles, and wondered if there might have been some mistake. On the contrary, I think it obvious in retrospect that a generation of attendees of Orthodox synagogues was passing away, replaced by young adults schooled in the most traditional mode of Torah observance.

Now, the same PowerPoint about Orthodox Jewry will tell you that the Orthodox population is “dramatically younger” than the overall Jewish population — a quick look at the average family sizes will explain — and that, furthermore, 34% of synagogue-affiliated Jews ages 18-34 are Orthodox. Now the traditionally-observant form of Orthodoxy is not merely replacing the older generation, but growing dramatically — to the point that it shows up clearly on the NJPS scan of the Jewish corpus. By one measure, attendance at post-high-school yeshivos has doubled within the last two decades.

So the shift in Orthodoxy is indeed a reality. What is called “Orthodox” in America today is, on average, a far more Torah-observant model that it was fifty years ago. This is not, however, the result of an evolutionary shift to some previously-unknown, stringent form, as implied by Heilman or Shapiro. It is merely the natural growth of that form of Orthodoxy always found before, but in smaller numbers — not unlike the colors of Biston betularia.

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2 Responses

  1. What is “traditional European” orthodoxy? The evidence provided by scholars such as Lupovitch and Ellenson (for references see my comments on Shira Schmidt’s post) suggests that there was not one essential European orthodoxy. And contra your claim that the Status Quo Ante party was “the most traditional form” is Lupovitch’s observation that “from an ideological standpoint, the Status Quo movement appears to be little more than a mélange of communities and congregations drawn randomly from across a wide spectrum of religious observance with no apparent coherence” (p. 124).

  1. January 19, 2005

    […] 7;s Torah scholarship.) OK, some of the “changing Orthodoxy” comments: 1. Yaakov Menken spoke of changes in the percentages of dark vs. light peppered moths […]