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Unanticipated responses to Orthodox-Reform fissures

My entire adult life I’ve been hearing about the coming demise of the American Jewish community.

The first such prediction, some 40 years ago, went like this:

The Orthodox and the Reform define a Jew differently; intermarriage is rampant; therefore, the American Jewish community will be flooded with people whom the Reform recognize as Jews and the Orthodox do not.

This will lead to an irreversible split. There will be no mutual recognition of each other’s children; therefore, American Jews will be at each other’s throats; the community will eat itself up in infighting and disappear in the smoke.

The second such prediction went like this:

The Orthodox are reproducing; the non-Orthodox are not. Now, by “reproduction” was meant not just a number of children, but a number who would stay Jewish and identified.

The graphs and charts that accompanied this prediction showed many, many Orthodox Jews (I forget the exact number) for each Reform Jew 50 years from now. Orthodox Judaism will thrive; all others will disappear. Overall, the American Jewish community will shrink drastically because the rapidly growing Orthodox community starts from a very small point.

Now I read a third prediction, based on a recent study.

It runs like this:

Spirituality is growing among two segments of American Jewry: the Orthodox, and those with at least one intermarried parent or spouse. These often include converts.

The spirituality of each is radically different, with the Orthodox interest reflected in ritual and prayer, while the other interest is reflected in other ways.

Again, the Orthodox do not recognize most of the converts as halachic Jews; therefore, their common interest in spirituality will not bind them. The community will split, weaken and drift into sociological insignificance.

In the face of predictions like these, it is salutary to recall the title of the late Simon Rawidowicz’s book, The Ever Dying People, and to recall Yiddish as “the ever dying language.” Analysts and activists miss the irony in their collective regard of American Jewry as the ever dying community. 

The first two predictions have not panned out. Unpredictable developments have undermined the certainties of the modern day prophets.

Prediction #1: Infighting.

It is true that intermarriage has undermined Orthodox recognition of who is a Jew in large parts of the liberal Jewish community. It is true that, on an individual level, marriage between an Orthodox Jew and a person raised in, or converted in, the liberal community now entails genealogical research. But a split? Actually, almost the opposite has occurred:

  • Converts in the liberal community who develop an interest in marrying an Orthodox person sometimes develop an interest in Orthodox Judaism and convert a second time. More often, there is keen interest in Orthodox  Jewish practices by non-Orthodox converts. If anything, the lines between Reform and Orthodox Judaism are more fluid than 40 years ago.
  • Some Orthodox institutions have reacted to the drop-off in the number of American Jews (by anyone’s definition) by seeking financial support among non-Orthodox Jews without distinction as to who is, or isn’t, halachically Jewish.
  • Of even greater surprise, and far less pragmatic import, the Orthodox Jewish community has changed it approach in the last 25 years. It has launched outreach programs unprecedented in scope and concept. Intermarried or non-Orthodox Jews, including those who do not meet halachic criteria, are taught by Orthodox Jews all around the country.
  • Of still greater surprise, some in the Orthodox community, which virulently opposed outreach to the intermarried as recently as 20 years ago, are now engaged in outreach to certain intermarried couples. A whole effort to this effect has coalesced around a group called the “Eternal Jewish Family.”

And so, while certain lines have hardened as predicted, namely, the distinction between halachic and non-halachic Jews, the community has not suffered a collapse due to infighting. The demographic effects of intermarriage have come to pass, but the responses have been unanticipated.

Prediction #2: Reproduction.

It is true that the Orthodox have families many times larger than the non-Orthodox, and an intermarriage rate many times lower. But a Reform drop-off? Not institutionally.

Discounting current difficulties imposed by the economy, which affect all sides of the American Jewish community, Reform and other liberal institutions are flourishing in terms of members and resources.

True, many of their numbers include people whom the Orthodox do not recognize as Jewish. But the liberal institutions, qua institutions, have neither redefined themselves as non-Jewish nor folded.

The number of non-Orthodox rabbis graduated each year is growing, as are the number of attendees at non-Orthodox camps and other programs. As a sociological and not a halachic reality, the idea that non-Orthodox Jews will inevitably disappear is fallacious.

Prediction #3: Spirituality.

It is true that what the Orthodox mean by spirituality and what other Jews mean by it may differ radically. Does this make a split between the two groups inevitable?

It is certainly possible. That which Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi is doing in Boulder is worlds removed from that which occurs in chasidic communities, notwithstanding certain similar outer trappings.

But given the unanticipated responses of both the Orthodox and the Reform to the other so-called inevitabilities, this is also possible:

The Orthodox interest will discern within its kabbalistic, musar or halachic traditions something akin to that which the Jews by choice, or those married to them, now find spiritually alluring; while the liberal interest in spirituality will become imbued with halachic practice.

Already, interest in mikveh in Reform circles has risen; and, generally, at least the younger generation of Reform rabbis speak warmly of mitzvos and engage in some — a far cry from the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885. Now, that which Reform thinkers mean by mitzvos and that which Orthodox thinkers mean by mitzvos is usually quite different. Still, the newfound comfort in the Reform movement for Jewish traditions might signal a reduction of the gap in the future. 

I do not downplay the severe strains and, indeed, the pain, both theological and personal, introduced into the American Jewish community by such practices as patrilineality. It is no delight to witness genealogical investigations in advance of marriages and other, related burdens, especially those connected with Jewish divorce and bastardy.

Nor are the new forms of relationship between the denominations always affirmative. But this much is clear: The messiness and fractures in the American intra-Jewish relationships notwithstanding, the American Jewish community is not collapsing in infighting.

While the community is shrinking overall — and all the old needs for intensive Jewish education and commitment to other mitzvos are more important than ever — predictions of demise are premature.

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