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.