Guess What’s Become Fashionable?

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A funny thing happened on the way to the millennium. Nomenclature that was once limited to the Orthodox and dismissed as being parochial has gradually become de rigueur among non-Orthodox groups. One now finds non-Orthodox kollelim, day schools, Beit Midrash programs, havruta study, hevra kadisha groups, a new stress on “rituals” and mitzvot, even renewed interest in the long-derided concept of mikve.

And major American federations, which once opposed day schools and yeshivot as being separatist and antiquated, have become supportive. The unfashionable Orthodox have become quite modish.

This should come as no surprise. It is another bit of evidence that the demographics, fertility and Jewish education of Orthodox Jews are propelling them toward an influential position within the Jewish community – evidence that is now clearly buttressed by the American Jewish Committee’s newly-issued study of American Jewry.

If Rip Van Winkle were a Jew, he would awaken today in amazement, for the face of American Orthodoxy, particularly in Jewish communities outside the major metropolitan areas, has changed radically in less than two generations.

Most Jews – even the Orthodox themselves – were certain that Orthodoxy was down for the count, and that it was only a matter of time before rigor mortis set in. Mitzva practice was minimal, Jews were apologetic about their Jewishness, and serious learning of Torah was a rarity.

In our synagogue in Atlanta in those days, not untypical of synagogues in smaller communities, the most pious of our members observed kashrut at home (but not away from home) and lit Friday night candles. Period.

This, plus attendance at a late Friday night service (conducted in English) marked one as being devout. It was an axiom that in the 20th century it was simply not possible to observe anything else. These were fine, charitable people, but practices like Shabbat, or tefillin, or mikve, or serious Jewish study, or Jewish day schools and yeshivot were not even on their radar screens.

And ours was the Orthodox synagogue of the community. The only question was whether Conservative or Reform Judaism would dominate the future. Today that little synagogue is the center of a thriving Orthodox community.

WHAT CAUSED this unlikely transformation – actually a resurrection – to take place? Was it due to the vitality of the Orthodox, or to the ideological inconsistencies of the non-Orthodox movements?

Two factors were certainly primary:

• the widespread educational network of the Orthodox; and

• the consistency and focus of the Orthodox message, with its emphasis on religious standards, personal discipline and Torah learning.

Much of this was due to the appearance in America, in the 1930s and 1940s, of the bearded, Yiddish-speaking European yeshiva heads. They ignored the American facts of life and, despite the Jewish establishment’s fears of Old World anachronisms and ghetto-like behavior, responded to the Holocaust with the classic vision of intensive education and religious fervor.

Their steady insistence on Torah study and practice – plus their cavalier disregard of politically correct Jewish public opinion – nurtured the gradual proliferation of day schools, yeshivot and kollelim, which are now bearing fruit. Not incidentally, these old-world personalities shored up wavering young Orthodox rabbis in the American hinterlands and convinced them that their ship was not sinking and that Torah life could flourish even in barren American soil.

The Orthodox take no joy in noting that today it is the non-Orthodox – though financially and numerically superior – who are playing spiritual catch-up as they attempt to stem the hemorraghing intermarriage and Jewish illiteracy within their movements.

NOW THAT old-fashioned Orthodoxy is being vindicated, one wonders how it will utilize its growing influence. Will it reach out without condescension (as some Orthodox groups are already doing) to attempt to redirect Jewish communities who are in thrall of today’s consumerist, everything-goes culture? Will it help reverse the spiritual and demographic decline that undermines world Jewry?

On its ability once again to defy all odds, and to successfully impart these classic Torah themes, does the future of Jewish life now depend.

Or is all this a pipe dream? Will Orthodoxy fall victim to its own success and spin apart amidst turf battles and strife between its several discrete parts? The internecine conflicts that have rocked Satmar and Lubavitch among the Hassidim, and the Ponevezh Yeshiva among the non-Hasidim, do not augur well for a benign religious influence.

Similarly debilitating is the split between yeshiva-world Orthodoxy and the modern Orthodox, with each viewing the other as unsuited for future leadership – a far cry from a generation ago, when Lakewood’s Rabbi Aharon Kotler, the pre-eminent sage of yeshiva Orthodoxy, invited Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the pre-eminent sage of a more modern Orthodoxy, to be the guest speaker at a Chinuch Atzmai dinner.

If these various sectors – who all share basic Orthodox beliefs in God, the Sinaitic Revelation, and the primacy of Torah and Halacha – are estranged from one another, how will they be able to persuade those whose core beliefs vary from theirs? Ultimately, if fellow Jews are judged by the color of their suits, the width of their hat brims, the inflection of their Hebrew, or which rebbe they follow, one can hardly be sanguine about the future.

Of the several crucial questions to be asked of us on Judgment Day (see Talmud, Shabbat 31a), not a single one deals with styles of clothing.
The Orthodox are moving to the front of the line. Whether they will rise to the challenge of communal leadership is an open question. An Orthodox Jew, however, takes comfort in this: The history of the last generation suggests that pipe dreams occasionally do come true, and that facts on the ground do not always constitute reality.

This article first appeared in the Jerusalem Post, May 16.

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7 Responses

  1. Alan Hoffman says:

    The article made some good points. Rabbi Nathan T. Lopes Cardozo wrote a book, Judaism On Trial, that deals with some of the socio-cultural problems Orthodoxy is not fully dealing with as yet. If we have the maturity in our leadership as indicated by the Aguda quotes, we must deal with several issues first:

    – Pragmatic: cost of Jewish education in general, greater selectivity in who remains in yeshiva past some point where learning vs. earning can be normalized, growing shidduch problem. Its time to publish publically known standards for yeshiva education, find stable funding choices commersurate with those standards, extol earning more at an appropriate point, and centralize or regionalize shidduch referrals with computer based technologies staffed by trained shidduchim professionals, counselors, organizations staff – instead of the patch work of informal, self-trained individuals.

    – Kiruv: reduce the fratricidal inefficiency among kiruv organizations (redundant costs of management, etc.), improve kiruv styles, methods and means, study what has worked vs. what has not worked.

    – Hashkafa: improve mass Orthodox attitudes towards less observant Jews by being more welcoming without sacrificing our own standards, conduct out reach not just to the masses, but to the non-orthodox leadership as well (if the Pope can do it, so can we). Public relations is needed to support greater unity. Personal diplomacy is in high demand. If Evangelical Christians have been able to convert over 100,000 born Jews, Orthodox Jews should be able to invite non-observant Jews to shul, for Shabbos meals, etc.

    – Politics: make joint Orthodox efforts with non-Orthodox groups better known in some key areas (support for Israel or at least Israeli’s in need), support for the poor here, Jewish education, disaster relief, etc.), use mass media more via internet blogs (where the non-observant spend more time), various non-Orthodox papers and magazines, etc..

  2. chaim klein says:

    Part of the vision of the future will depend on how the tuition crisis will be handled by Jewish schools. As the price of education goes up it is possible that birth rates will decline, even among the Orthodox. As Also, as Rabbi Chaim Dov Rabinowitz pointed out in his History of the Jewish People,poverty was a significant factor in the defection of countless Jews in eastern Europe. It should not be axiomatic that the Jewish poor, who have much more opportunities to contrast their material situation with many of their wealthier counterparts will be permanently prepared to consign themselves or their children to a life of endless deprivation.

    Shabbat Shalom to all, Chaim Klein

  3. Jonah Halper says:

    “Others in Aguda agree with the need for the Orthodox to broaden their ambitions. The organization’s executive vice president for government and public affairs, David Zwiebel, notes that, “With our growing numbers and the maturing of the community and the greater self-confidence that comes with that maturity and those numbers, there’s no question that we need to at least recognize that there may be certain responsibilities that now have to shift to our shoulders.”

    This came from Daniel Pipe’s article (http://www.danielpipes.org/article/2370) about Orthodox responsibility to venture into areas of social service if the shift of responsibilty moves from the Reform and Conservative communities as their numbers dwindle.

  4. Baruch Horowitz says:

    Rabbi Michael Broyde published a letter a while back on the cover of the Jewish Press outlining aspects of his Hashkafa. I agreed very much with his preface:

    ” Before discussing those things that divide Orthodox Judaism, one must remember that — notwithstanding the differences in the Orthodox communities throughout the United States in terms of hashkafa and halacha — much unites us. We share a commitment to detailed shemirat hamitzvot, daily Torah learning, gemilut chasadim (acts of kindness), as well as many other central Torah values. Those issues which divide us — serious as they are-are not as great as that which unites us…”

  5. ja says:

    “One now finds non-Orthodox kollelim, day schools, Beit Midrash programs, havruta study, hevra kadisha groups, a new stress on “rituals” and mitzvot, even renewed interest in the long-derided concept of mikve.
    And major American federations, which once opposed day schools and yeshivot as being separatist and antiquated, have become supportive. The unfashionable Orthodox have become quite modish.
    This should come as no surprise. It is another bit of evidence that the demographics, fertility and Jewish education of Orthodox Jews are propelling them toward an influential position within the Jewish community ”

    The specifics you point to are also due to the influence of multiculturalism.

  6. Bob Miller says:

    When we finally get our act together, the results will be awesome. Think of the power of coherent laser light;
    see http://www.bell-labs.com/history/laser/laser_def.html

  7. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    As Hans Frank, yemach shemo, the Nazi governor of occupied Poland, wrote,the rabbis and teachers of Talmud are the most dangerous because if a few of them escape to America, they will be capable of starting up this whole thing again.
    But the scary thing is our fractiousness. It seems that the more vital and full of Jewish content any Jewish endeavor may be, the more creative some other equally committed Jew is in trashing it. My experiences with various issues have shown me this time and time again. It seems to be connected to the “zeh le’umat zeh” phenomenon. The brilliant ray of Jewish light must be partially obscured or else it would overpower the free will of those who wish to go the other way. But it is hard and it hurts.