Is Orthodoxy without God Sustainable?

Surveys of the American Modern Orthodox community have consistently shown a lack of uniformity in beliefs. The Pew Research Center found in 2013 that 77% of American Modern Orthodox Jews “believe in God with absolute certainty,” and Nishma Research found in its broad 2017 survey of the American Modern Orthodox community that 74% believe fully that “Hashem (God) created the world.” While these are fairly high percentages of normative belief, they also suggest that somewhere around one-fourth of Modern Orthodox do not rely on belief in God, the divinity of the Torah or the obligations of Halakha for religious inspiration.

Social orthodoxy – as it is now labeled – has been much debated since Jay Lefkowitz wrote “The Rise of Social Orthodoxy: A Personal Account” (Commentary, April 2014). As Lefkowitz noted, Modern Orthodox Jews are “much less doctrinaire” than the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi), but they are also “more engaged in broad Jewish communal life than either the Haredim or the less observant and much more numerous Conservative and Reform communities… Many self-identifying Modern Orthodox Jews, despite being more ‘Modern’ than ‘Orthodox,’ are living intensely Jewish lives… (and) … their dogma-averse approach to theology and to halakha … is the essence of Social Orthodoxy.”

Not surprisingly, Lefkowitz’s article drew a strong and often critical reaction. Typical of the generally dubious reactions, his rabbi, Haskel Lookstein, in a Shabbat sermon a few weeks after the article was published, asked: “Can Social Orthodoxy actually produce generations of committed Jews? … Doesn’t (the) effort and consistency (required of a committed Jew) rest on a foundation of God, a divinely authored halakha and, therefore, a required set of observances, not just a reasoned, voluntary performance of rituals?”

The recent Nishma Research survey posed a wide range of questions about attitudes covering many subjects. Those most often highlighted in media coverage dealt with the role of women in orthodoxy and the high cost of Jewish education. But the survey also provides some empirical data that shed a bit more light on the fundamental question: Is social orthodoxy sustainable? Will the children of practicing but non-believing Jews stay within this broadened fold?

To answer this question, we examined Modern Orthodox Jews who are fully and visibly observant: (1) they are strictly observant of shmirat Shabbat (keeping Shabbat); (2) they are strictly observant of keeping kosher; and (3) they have a high level of shul attendance (men who always or almost always attend Shabbat / Yom Tov morning services, and women who always, almost always of often attend Shabbat / Yom Tov morning services).

We then divided these “observant in practice” Jews into two groups: Full Believers (those who believe fully that Hashem created the world), and Non-Believers (those who responded that they have doubts, do not believe this or don’t know).

Not surprisingly, there were many differences between the two groups. Just a few examples: Full Believers spend more time engaged in the study of Jewish topics: 66% do so two or more times weekly, compared to 42% of Non-Believers. High percentages of both groups send their children to a Jewish day school, although more of the Full Believers do so (88%) than the Non-Believers (81%). And the Non-Believers skew more left within Modern Orthodoxy: 44% are Open Orthodox, compared to 12% of Full Believers.

But the ultimate measure of the effectiveness of Social Orthodoxy may be in the transmission of observance to the next generation. Among Full-Believers, 28% report that their children are more observant than they are and an equal 28% report that their children are less observant … essentially a status quo. Among Non-Believers, 18% report that their children are more observant than they are and 41% report that their children are less observant … a loss of 23%. (Due to the relatively smaller sample of Non-Believers, this 23% figure is statistically significant at the 90% level, which is lower than the general guideline of 95% significance, but noteworthy nonetheless).

It is difficult to speculate as to the reasons, and there are insufficient data to say exactly how and why the children of Non-Believers are less observant than their parents. (For one thing, there is the other parent, who may be less religious than the respondent.) Some people offered explanations: “He doesn’t daven except for Shabbat/holidays,” “Judaism is not as central to her life as it is to me,” “Religious practices not important, “more liberal towards adherence to mitzvot and can be non-observant of prohibitions,” “Doesn’t daven during the week, only on Shabbat,” “Formal involvement is not as important (e.g. going to shul).”

The sociologist Prof. Steven M. Cohen of HUC-JIR has found in his research that any “blemish” in Orthodox upbringing was associated with diminished frumkeit among children, and being a non-believer in Hashem can certainly be viewed as a blemish of sorts. Of course, the underpinning of Modern Orthodoxy is to be involved in secular society, and the more insular Jewish groups (Haredi) view that as a blemish that will ultimately lead to non-observance.

The question we originally asked was, “is social orthodoxy sustainable?” This question can be viewed a bit differently as: to what extent will the children of practicing but non-believing (or less-believing) Jews stay within the broad fold of Modern Orthodoxy? Insofar as Modern Orthodoxy seeks to embrace and include Jews whose levels of belief, belonging and behavior sometimes and somewhat depart from the normative, it will continue to attract Jews with lower levels of inter-generational transmission. Is there a point when they should no longer be viewed as fitting within the breadth of Modern Orthodoxy? Perhaps, and they might then enrich some of the non-Orthodox or quasi-Orthodox religious communities.

About the Author
Mark Trencher is president of Nishma Research, a sociological and market research firm focused on the Jewish world. He was the lead researcher on two recent ground-breaking quantitative studies, the 2016 study of people who have left Orthodoxy (the "OTD study") and the 2017 study of the Modern Orthodox community.
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