Jews as Wheat: The Winnowing 

As I started keeping Shabbat in the ’60s, it began with a spiritual and sentimental attachment to this observance. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it:

Shabbat comes with its own holiness; we enter not simply a day, but an atmosphere…We are within the Sabbath rather than the Sabbath being within us…The Sabbath is a metaphor for paradise and a testimony to God’s presence;…The task becomes how to convert time into eternity, how to fill our time with spirit: Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else.

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Shabbat was never about the technical observance; it was about the sense of the sacred.

Then I went to yeshiva.

I started to learn the 39 melachot, prohibited activities. Some magic was lost. The interesting thing about these melachot is that we never do most of them. C’mon, I never plow or weave or thresh. These are activities for a pre-Industrial Revolution society. If God marked us based upon a percentage of how many real melachot we actually performed, we’d all score above passing. I like a God who is an easy marker.

Anyway, the first 11 of these 39 prohibitions are for making bread. I love baking challot for Shabbat, but I still only do two of them. We just don’t do many of these technical acts of labor anymore. Even writing isn’t writing anymore. The writing that the Torah prohibits is permanent letters on a durable surface. Reb Moshe Feinstein, already in the 1970s, decided that writing on a computer screen doesn’t count as ‘writing’

But these acts still exist on the industrial level. There are machines and professionals doing them all the time, so that we can eat, be clothed and housed. However, for the average urban Orthodox Jew, their continued existence is as concepts, rather than activities.

This brings me, finally, to winnowing. Which is: an agricultural method developed by ancient cultures for separating grain from straw (wheat from chaff)… it involves throwing the mixture into the air so that the wind blows away the lighter chaff, while the heavier grains fall back down for recovery.

Sounds like fun, but I’m sure after a bit, it’s tedious. This process has been used to illustrate what happened to Orthodoxy in America during the ’50s and ’60s

In my research for this project, I came across a wonderful person, Prof. Jeffrey Gurock of Yeshiva University. Like many of the scholars I’ve encountered, he was kind and helpful to this novice researcher.

In his 1996 book, American Jewish Orthodoxy, Prof. Gurock wrote a famous chapter called ‘The Winnowing of American Orthodoxy’. He begins by describing many of the phenomena we’ve discussed in these posts about non-observant Orthodoxy:

Infrequent Sabbath worshiper…stealthily parks his car around the corner…his kitchen at home is kosher…however, he is not overly concerned about the religious reliability of his butcher…Outside his home, kashrut observance may be limited…does not follow traditional Jewish family purity laws…they like social dancing…and may be dismayed that…the ‘synagogue social’ no longer appears on Orthodox congregational calendars.

Professor Gurock then discusses how it happened that members in good standing of Orthodox shul of the ’50s turned around in the ’70s and ’80s and noticed they were on the fringe or even outside the Orthodox movement.

He explained that this ‘form of religiously inconsistent behavior based on nostalgia and the communal element of synagogue life’ led to a steady erosion of these adherents and even more so their offspring. One rabbi was quoted as referring to these Jews as a ‘half-baked laity…whose personal observance of mitzvot has vanished’.

But this started to change in the late ’50s in the New York area and slightly later elsewhere. The newer generation of rabbis began to stand strongly against ‘mixed social activities…and subtly…disenfranchised minimally committed members by establishing norms for…adherence to kashruth, Sabbath and family purity law.’

I had a class in YU with a rabbi from an older generation who told us everything we needed for a great sermon was in the New York Times. But the reality was that by the late ’60s sermons were more about mitzvot and observance. Eventually, by the ’70s many of the day school and yeshiva educated members were going to minyanim with no sermons at all, maybe a D’var Torah.

This led to an ‘increasingly confident stance of those educated in day schools’ who moved into neighborhoods or synagogues where the highly committed predominated. These young adults who benefited from the exponential growth of day schools were joined by the more committed immigrants from the Holocaust and later those fleeing Communism in Eastern Europe (mostly Hungary).

And so Prof Gurock concludes:

This new era of Orthodox synagogue tacitly winnowed out the aging rank and file Orthodox Jew.

He also adds that these people who had been the pillars of the shul and held the line for Orthodoxy in the lean decades, were moved to the periphery and eventually became extinct. There’s sadness in this is that these people saved Orthodox shuls and built the infrastructure which many of the new generation benefited from. It’s a sad bi-product of this story.

Here’s the bottom line: winnowing gives a purer product, but contains a much smaller volume of material. In the late ’60s and ’70s the Orthodox became more confident and robust, but represented a smaller percentage of American Jewry than they had in the ’50s.

Next: The Yiddish are Coming, Part II, The Hasidim

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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