Todd Berman

Saying Kaddish for American, non-Orthodox Judaism?

The American progressive denominations are developing engaging programs; we Orthodox should learn from them
Rabbi Shai Held, a co-founder of Mechon Hadar, a traditional egalitarian yeshiva, has just released a book of Torah commentaries. (Courtesy of Mechon Hadar/via JTA)
Rabbi Shai Held, a co-founder of Mechon Hadar, a traditional egalitarian yeshiva, has just released a book of Torah commentaries. (Courtesy of Mechon Hadar/via JTA)

Several years ago, Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi had the honor and privilege of hosting the esteemed Brandeis historian, Prof. Jonathan Sarna. He spoke of what appears to be a recurring prophecy. In the early 19th century, attorney general William Wirt, predicted that Jews would more or less disappear into the general American religious landscape. A similar prediction recurred with Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the builder of American Reform Judaism. He declared the impending demise of Orthodox Jewry.  And similarly, my feeling growing up in a large, suburban Conservative synagogue was that Conservative Judaism would eclipse them all. A summary of the ideas expressed in Prof. Sarna’s ideas appeared in the Forward in 2009.

Wow, have times changed.

Orthodoxy in all its forms in the United States, Israel, and in other countries seems to be the future of religious Judaism. Both Reform Judaism and the Conservative Movement have been shrinking.  Reform, according to a Pew study from just a few years back, represents only 35% of Jewish voices while the Conservative movement has shrunk massively from 45% to only 18% of American Jews.  It’s true that only 10% of Jews consider themselves Orthodox; however, a whopping 27% of Jewish children are being raised in Orthodox homes. That is almost the mirror image of a study in the 1950s, in which only 23% of children were remaining Orthodox. How far has Orthodox come?

Numbers don’t lie.

Non-Orthodox Jews are marrying later more often than not to non-Jewish partners. They are not having many children, and often not raising the few kids they do have as Jews. With non-marriage and intermarriage rates skyrocketing among the non-Orthodox population and fertility rates more than double among the Orthodox than other Jewish groups, perhaps, to quote Rabbi Norman Lamm from a few years ago, the time to say Kaddish for non-Orthodoxy seems to be upon us.

But looks may be deceiving.

Prof. Sarna warned against a false sense of assurance in prophecies of the future.

All these predictions made sense in their day. All assumed that the future would extend forward in a straight line from the present. All offered their followers the comforting reassurance that triumph lay just beyond the horizon. And all proved utterly and wildly wrong.

With all of the triumphal excitement expressed by my many Orthodox friends, I think the time to count the non-Orthodox out is as depressing as it is premature.

The supposed disappearance of the non-Orthodox movements should be alarming, for as Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein wrote,

Their disappearance might strengthen us in some respects, but would unquestionably weaken us in others. And, of course, if we transcend our own interests and think of the people currently served by these movements — many of them, both presently and potentially,  well  beyond  our  reach  or  ken — how  would  they,  or  K’lal Yisrael as a whole, be affected by such a change? Can anyone responsibly state that it is better for a marginal Jew in Dallas or Dubuque to lose his religious identity altogether than drive to his temple? “

Not only do these movements serve an important role in Judaism, but one that simply isn’t fulfilled by Orthodoxy of the non-Chabad variety and even then.

But the claim of their demise, when viewed through a more nuanced lens, also seems to be without merit.

If one looks at events over the past month or so, a very different picture emerges. Both the Reform and Conservative movements held biennial conventions full of excitement and vision. One cannot but marvel at the spirit expressed at the Reform song sessions — and the amount of Hebrew. This is not the Reform movement I met as a high school student. And while the Conservative movement struggles with a myriad of financial and membership issues, they are creating room for emerging communities with a nuanced, universalistic vision.

Outside of the major movements, new leaders and institutions bring a new energy and vision to American Judaism. Many of my Orthodox friends and colleagues have never heard of Ikar, the Lab Shul, Romemu, the Kitchen, Machon Hadar and a host of other synagogues and educational programs and institutions. This, despite the fact that they are attracting thousands of followers — some boast of close to 1,000 people attending a Friday night service or several hundred coming to hear a lecture on Jewish law or theology. Young(ish) rabbis and thinkers such as Shai Held, Yehuda Kurtzer, Ethan Tucker, Sharon Brous, David Ingber, Noah Kushner, and many others both younger and older, are attracting crowds in a manner similar to Chabad. All of this is outside the more well-known institutions and names such as JTS and HUC and their leaders. If you haven’t had the chance to listen to the likes of Held, Brous, or Ingber you are in for a dynamic and challenging thought-fest.

Many of these rabbis are developing a universal Judaism based on social justice that attracts many religious seekers. It suggests an undeniable energy out there.

Many of my Orthodox colleagues and friends may ask, why should we care?

Here we return, again, to Jonathan Sarna.

In the world of religion, smugness and self-assurance are usually risky. As Reform Judaism, Conservative Judaism and Mainline Protestant denominations have discovered, success in the present provides no guarantees for the future. If anything, saying Kaddish for other religious movements has often been the first sign of a movement’s own impending decline.

I’m afraid that the Orthodox community may indeed be less assured than we might imagine ourselves to be. It’s true, we “control” the Kotel. — but at what price? The [ultra?]Orthodox Chief Rabbinate in Israel controls marriage and divorce there, but again, at what price to Jewish unity? Orthodox leaders seem constantly involved in internecine debates about who is in and who is out — what constitutes true Orthodox thought and what is heresy. Is “Open Orthodoxy” closed enough and is “Right-Wing Modern Orthodoxy” open enough? Is Rav Shagar’s mild post-modernism okay? And what about those toying with biblical criticism within the yeshiva context?

While others are regrouping and searching for meaning, I’m afraid we too often feel that we have a monopoly on the Truth and if not, at least a monopoly on those seeking authentic Jewish expression. Indeed, we may unknowingly be violating Hillel’s injunction, “Do not believe in yourself until the day of your death.” (Avot 2:4) Or as Rav Lichtenstein wrote:

We should not only concede but assert that, whatever their deviations, other camps include people genuinely in search of the Ribbono shel Olam; that secular Jewry, too, harbors moral idealism and a commitment to Klal Yisrael, and that while we reject leveling compromises, we strive for understanding and respect. This will no doubt seem excessively liberal to some and terribly patronizing to others but such responses should hardly faze us.

Recently, I wrote a blog post requesting that non-Orthodox leaders act with greater caution in criticizing Israel and making demands upon Israel, while they remain living outside the State. Yet, we in Israel should not rule out American Judaism, including its non-Orthodox varieties, quite yet. There is something stirring and we ignore their feelings at our peril. I sense that these movements are touching on something beautiful and important and speaking to people “be’asher heim sham” (where they are) in a way that few Orthodox rabbis are.

To wit, a college student raised in the Orthodox community who attends Friday night services is doing exactly what he or she was raised to do and what the community at home expects of him or her. These students receive positive feedback at every turn for going with the flow of their peer group. However, those who are attracted from the general community to attend the Conservative or Reform service are actually swimming against the stream. They have made a clear and conscious choice, not in line with most of their peers, to join their personal narrative with the greater Jewish one.

What is true in the microcosm of college is all the more accurate in life in general. Romemu and Hadar are attracting many congregants and students for whom participation in Jewish life is far from a given. Like many Chabad rabbis, the leaders of those communities have discovered a way to attract people, at least, for some. I don’t think we, in the mainstream Orthodox community, are always successful at communicating the “why” of Judaism as much as we are the “how.” Yes, we can teach people already committed how to re-heat food for Shabbat or even to learn “Daf Yomi,” but are we speaking to the next generation about why they should want to do so?

Furthermore, while we who cling to Orthodox interpretations of Torah might be missing out on something precious. We, Orthodox Jews, may disagree with their thought-leaders regarding theology, law, and even the State of Israel. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t offer something of great value to teach us. As Ben Zoma proclaimed, “Who is the wise one? He who learns from all men.” (Avot 4:1) That certainly doesn’t mean that we need agree.

More often than not, I believe, Orthodox Jews are very good at particularism, but less successful in spreading the prophetic message of universalism. We recite three times a day, in the Aleinu prayer, that part of our task is “to perfect the world under God’s dominion.” However, this task sometimes seems to get lost in our more parochial attempt to “receive the yoke of Heaven.” The prophetic call to heal the sick and clothe the naked often takes a secondary role to working to pay for day school education. No one can do everything. Yet to quote Rabbi Tarfon, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” (Avot 2:16) These are areas in which, whatever one’s political preferences, we have a lot to learn from the successes of non-Orthodox voices.

Many will point out the warning penned so long ago by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik that,

Religious Jews or irreligious Jews…all are included in one nation… Our fate of unity manifests itself through a historical indispensable union…The conclusion above is very simple.  When we are faced with a problem for Jews and Jewish interests toward the world without, regarding the defense of Jewish rights in the non-Jewish world, then all groups and movements must be united. With regard to our problems within [the Jewish community] however, — our spiritual-religious interests such as Jewish education, synagogues, councils of rabbis – whereby unity is expressed through spiritual-ideological collectivism as a Torah community, it is in my opinion that Orthodoxy cannot and should not unite with such groups which deny the fundamentals of our weltanschauung.” (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Community, Covenant and Commitment, ed. Nathaniel Helfgot pp. 144 ff.)

The Rav forcefully demanded Orthodox Jewry refrain from joining with non-Orthodox groups in many areas. Yet, as Prof. Adam S. Ferziger has demonstrated, Rav Aaron Lichtenstein and others writing much later than the Rav pushed in a broader direction. As Rav Lichtenstein states:

 In our world, there are those who subscribe to the thesis that under no circumstances is it permissible or advisable to advance the cause of deviationists…For them, the answer to our question is as straightforward as the query. However, I find this view wholly untenable, on moral, national, and, quite frequently, halakhic grounds”

Indeed, perhaps the time to see the positive energy and developments around us in a new light. The time has come to learn from the broadest possible constellations of Jewish leadership. One need not give up basic beliefs and principles, the Orthodox understanding of Torah and mitzvot, through the act of appreciating the changes happening in the greater Jewish community.  We have much to learn from each other.

About the Author
Rabbi Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. In addition, he has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.
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