Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Orthodoxy Triumphant...Maybe

Daniel Pipes has just published an intriguing article entitled 'The Future of Judaism.' In it, in light of the growing percentage of the Orthodox community within an ever shrinking American Jewish Community (see the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey):

Should this trend continue, it is conceivable that the ratio will return to roughly where it was two centuries ago, with the Orthodox again constituting the great majority of Jews. Were that to happen, the non-Orthodox phenomenon could seem in retrospect merely an episode, an interesting, eventful, consequential, and yet doomed search for alternatives, suggesting that living by the law may be essential for maintaining a Jewish identity over the long term...It also could portend a much deeper shift in Jewish life in America and beyond, being a leading indicator of Orthodoxy's political coming of age and perhaps even its eventual replacement of non-Orthodox Judaism. (Emphasis added-JRW)

I have really mixed emotions over Pipes' remarks. On the one hand, I welcome them. After centuries of suffering the contempt of 'progressive,' 'modern,' 'non-primitive' forms of Judaisms, History ( or better, Divine Providence) is bearing out the axiom, which Traditional Jews have known for millenia, that 'living by the Law is essential for maintaining a Jewish identity over the long term.'

On the other hand, Pipes' remarks both sadden and sober me. I am sad because of the millions of Jews who will die spiritually by assimilation. This, we must recall, is the other side of the equation. I am sad, because deep down inside I ask myself if we could not have done more to spread Torah in North America and Western Europe and, thus, prevent some of those souls from going to oblivion. I am also sad, because in Israel we are losing hundreds and thousands of Jews to ignorance and 'Haskalah-syle' self-loathng. To a very significant degree, this is because we've isolated ourselves far too much.

This brings me to the 'sober' part of my response. In the last conversation that I was privileged to have with my beloved Master and Teacher, Rav Soloveitchik זצ"ל, we actually discussed what already then (March, 1985) looked like an Orthodox resurgence. I was fairly upbeat in my observations. the Rov was noticeably less optimistic. He expressed serious misgivings about Orthodox triumphalism. Self-satisfaction, he seemed to say, is a very dangerous draught. In fact, he observed, he was unsure whether one could even speak of an 'Orthodox movement.'

I was sobered by the Rov's caution then, and I find it even more apt today. It is certainly true that the Torah has had tremendous achievements since it was eulogized as dead in the fifties and sixties. On the other hand, we do not have any time for self-congratulation. We are losing not a few of our young to the insidious temptations of western relativism and hedonism (which masquerade as sophistication). We are more assimilated than we would like to admit. We have created conditions that delay marriage, condemn thousands to bachelorhood, and have put ourselves on a path where our birthrate is lower than it should be. We do not reach out enough or reach in enough.

In this connection, it would be well to reconsider the bans issued against Rabbi Slifkin, the gravity of which I did not appreciate until I was enlightened by a knowledgable friend. There is, in Jerusalem and New York, a group of highly sophisticated Ba'ale Teshuva who entered the Torah World because they had been shown that one can be educated and Torah observant as well. The vicious attacks on Rabbi Slifkin, which are themselves heretical as they contradict the words of literally dozens of Rishonim and later authorities, are creating an atmosphere which will drive these wonderful people from Torah. [Why they can't join the world of the Rov and his disciples is another matter.] What do we have to offer these fellow Orthodox Jews, when the Roshe Yeshiva they so admire deny them their place in the World to come?

If Orthodoxy is to triumph, it must meet its internal challenges, as well as its external ones. There is too little time, too much to do, to indulge ourselves in triumphs.


Anonymous said...

Although it is definitely sad, it is by no means unprecedented for many Jews to be lost to their faith.

Whether the ten lost tribes, many lost around the time of the Spanish inquisition, more recently in Europe, or smaller scale losses, such things have happened for a long time.

The Jewish people lives on.

Jack Steiner said...

To a very significant degree, this is because we've isolated ourselves far too much.So very true.

Anonymous said...

Well Jeffrey. I think it's safe to say it's time for a new post! :-)


Talner said...

The biggest problem is definning MO. People who refer to themselves as Modern Orthodox run the gamut from the those who rank among the best and the brightest in the Jewish world to those who think Modern Orthodox means “What can I get away with and still call myself Orthodox.”

Anonymous said...

"Why they can't join the world of the Rov and his disciples is another matter"
This is a matter worth discussing and addressing. It seems to me that such ba'alei tshuva might be interested in joining such a world, if it presented itself institutionally and socially as a viable alternative. As it is the choice today is often between "reverance and sacnctity" on the one hand, and "intellectual honesty and professional diversity" on the other. Tough choice. Given little guidance or outreach, such people can easily be lost to inertia and cynicism.
Time for thoughtful Modern Orthodox leaders, particularly in Israel, to identify this rich market and address it responsibly.