Why the Jewish Now (and Future) Can’t Be Confined to the Paradigms of the Past

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November 20, 2014

IKAR LA. "Change Your Rhythm, Change the World," a still from IKAR's "All We Are Saying" Video

“Give me ten emesdike yiddin, and I will change the world.” So said R. Menachem Mendel Morgenstern of Kotzk, known as the Kotzker Rebbe, after his popularity yielded thousands of followers, few of whom the Kotzker felt were worth his time.

“The Kotzker approach” is the less-is-more theory of Jewish continuity. That is, for the Kotzker numbers have no intrinsic value. Survival, for him, was purely about substance, which is always cultivated among a select few who are truly devoted to the Jewish future. It’s an alternative to the “numbers approach” –- the one Jack Wertheimer and Steven M. Cohen use in their recent essay “The Shrinking Jewish Middle.”

Cohen and Wertheimer come with the highest credentials. Cohen is the preeminent sociologist of American Jewry – also a personal friend and a ZEEK board member. Wertheimer (a personal friend and one-time colleague at JTS) is an important and influential historian of American Judaism. Both have written extensively about the implications of last year’s Pew Poll that has caused so much anxiety among so many American Jewish professionals who work at traditional American Jewish institutions.

For many, the Jewish future is an unfolding of, to borrow a term from the great Jewish historian Salo W. Baron, the “lachrymose” approach to Jewish sociology. Record-high intermarriage rates, growing disaffiliation, the young becoming less engaged, or less supportive, of Israel all in what I have described elsewhere is happening in a growing postethnic America. Wertheimer and Cohen see this all in a negative light. For the sake of full disclosure, I am not a member of any synagogue (although I am proudly the rabbi of one), I do not give to the federation, my children have largely been educated in public schools and I am often critical of Israel’s policies. According to Wertheimer and Cohen’s criteria, I may be counted among one of those disaffiliated Jews. And yet in every way that matters, I think I am living a pretty Jewish life.

In some way, their work is another example of how sociology has replaced theology as the accepted indicator of Jewish continuity, and thus the future of Judaism, in contemporary America. According to the sociological approach, the strength of Judaism and Jewishness is not defined by the select few who create new Jewish ideas or alternatives but the masses who seem to be less and less interested, or aware, of what these scholars and rabbis have to say.

But Wait. Here’s Another Interpretation

It is difficult to contest Wertheimer and Cohen’s data. But, as sociologists readily acknowledge, data only represents the questions that have been asked and the answers of those who have responded. And these studies function only within a specific paradigm of what constitutes success or failure.

In America today, a country where most Jews live without a direct encounter with anti-Semitism, many Jews are choosing to live their lives outside the orbit of Jewish affiliation. Anti-Semitism certainty exists, but for most American Jews, anti-Semitism exists somewhere else. And while many understandably worry about it, it does not have a direct impact on their daily lives. Even something as horrific and damaging as the Bernie Madoff scandal, which regrettably played into old Jewish stereotypes, did not result in a marked spike in anti-Semitism in America.

New Identities, New Affiliations

I would like to ask what may appear to be a cynical question but is actually a very serious one: Why is it bad that these Jews are disaffiliating from traditional Jewish institutions? That is, why is it bad that American Jews, many of whom would only affiliate nominally anyway, choose to live their lives otherwise? This is a natural consequence of a truly open, and increasingly postethnic, society.

Like other minorities, many Jews will choose to live their lives where Jewishness is not their primary anchor of identity. Very often it is a secondary or even tertiary anchor of identity. In American society today one can “be” Jewish and even live “Jewishly” without affiliating with traditional Jewish institutions. As a Jewish public intellectual and educator, I wish them well. I do not mean this in a flippant way. Jewish affiliation in a society without overt anti-Semitism is a matter of choice. I respect those who choose both ways. What, then, really underlies Wertheimer and Cohen’s lamentation? I understand Chabad’s attempts to maximize affiliation as their view is founded on a messianic vision that requires maximum Jewish practice. I do not think Wertheimer and Cohen adhere to this metaphysical belief. I assume therefore that it is about the buoyancy and stability of the Jewish community.

Will the Jewish community be poorer as a result of these rates of disaffiliation? Perhaps financially, but is that really Wertheimer and Cohen’s issue? Will the Jewish community be smaller? Perhaps, but why is counting heads a sign of success? The Kotzker Rebbe didn’t think so.

A Creative Renaissance

What doesn’t come across in Cohen and Wertheimer’s numbers is this: There is a veritable creative Jewish renaissance happening in America at the same time as the masses may be fleeing. Independent minyanim like Romemu in New York and Ikar in LA, alternative synagogues like B’nai Jeshurun in NY and others in major urban centers, are flourishing. Organizations such as Hazon, the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, the LGBT group Nehirim, the new Jewish farm camp Eden Village, Limmud (that began in Great Britain) and other creative groups have sprung up in the past few decades.

New rabbinical schools such as Hebrew College, the left-leaning Orthodox Chovevei Torah, and the ALEPH Jewish Renewal rabbinical and cantorial programs are training clergy for a post-denominational future. Amichai Lau-Lavie’s innovative Lab/Shul caters to thousands of non-affiliated Jews who seek a Jewish experience outside the conventional Jewish community. Aliza Kline’s Shabbat project is working on re-envisioning Shabbat outside the conventional structures of Jewish worship.

Social action organizations such as Rabbi Jill Jacobs’ T’ruah have made a significant impact on human rights from a Jewish perspective. The progressive reinvention of the mikveh is yet another example of the creative re-fashioning of ideas that had fallen into disuse among non-traditional Jews. Non-Orthodox learning centers such as Mechon Hadar in New York are flourishing, and Jewish creative projects from the music of the Klezmatics to Matisyahu to John Zorn’s Tzadik label to Basya Schechter’s Pharaoh’s Daughter and Neshama Carlebach are producing new Jewish music that is gaining an audience in the larger music community. In short, the affiliated American Jewish community may be shrinking but Jewish life seems quite creative, vibrant, and robust.

Some of this is happening within existing synagogues. For example, a few months ago I attended an “intimate” monthly Friday night musical rendering of Mizrahi piyutim beautifully led by Rabbi Roly Matalon of B’nai Jershurun. About 100 (mostly Ashkenazi!) members showed up. Last month I attended the Open Hillel conference at Harvard where over 300 young engaged college-aged Jews passionately argued Israeli politics. Whatever one may think about the political views of young Jews – those at this event or those at AIPAC - they are passionately engaged in matters of importance for the American Jewish community.

When we contemplate counting numbers to define the health of the Jewish community, the time has come to consider new criteria. In a post-ethnic society, affiliation tells us little. Rather, we should be asking those unaffiliated how and where they are experiencing Jewish content. We should inquire about how they feel about their multiple identities.

As important, scholars of Judaism in the US are producing original scholarship at a rate and quality unprecedented in America. One can now arguably say, as one Israeli colleague recently told me, that the center of academic Jewish Studies today may in fact be the United States and not Israel.

For much of the history of Jewish Studies, America lived in the shadow of the great institutions in Europe, where most American scholars and rabbis trained until the First World War. In the postwar period, Israel became the center and most Jewish Studies graduate students in America spent time in Israel to study with the great luminaries such as Gershom Scholem, Yitzhak Baer, David Flusser, Jacob Talmon, or Shmuel Eisenstadt.

Today Jewish Studies programs in America, often well-funded, are flourishing. Almost every Religious Studies department in a major American university has at least one scholar who teaches Judaism, often more than one. More and more college students, Jews and non-Jews, are enrolling in Jewish Studies courses. Young Israeli scholars are increasingly coming to the US to attend graduate school and many subsequently take university positions here because some Israeli universities are defunding Jewish Studies programs.

A graduate student from the Hebrew University who attended the annual Association of Jewish Studies conference two years ago told me that his Israeli colleagues would never believe that there is a Jewish Studies conference this size in America every year, one that has over 1,000 participants presenting high-quality research in every area of Jewish Studies. Some of this innovative scholarship is read by rabbis in the field who then use this work to construct sermons and teach their congregants. And, of course, the internet enables anyone to take advantage of a plethora of Jewish learning even if they do so privately without affiliating.

In short, as Jews are disaffiliating and non-Orthodox day schools are shrinking, more and more non-traditional Jews (and non-Jews) are being exposed to Jewish knowledge in a serious, and not merely, perfunctory way.

This is not to discount Cohen and Wertheimer’s numbers; it is simply to show that there is another part to this story that needs to be told.

It is true that the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews are reproducing at a much higher rate than “the middle” (they always have) and that Chabad and ArtScroll have been enormously successful in their outreach, although one wonders if this has crested as new progressive alternatives now compete with Chabad and ArtScroll’s traditional message.

What Cohen and Wertheimer did not mention is the increasing numbers of ultra-Orthodox Jews, mostly young, who are leaving their communities. Organizations such as Footsteps, dedicated to helping ex-Os (ex-Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews) also known as OTDs (Off the Derekh) integrate into the secular world are growing exponentially. While it might be overstated to say the ultra-Orthodox community in America is hemorrhaging, it is certainly experiencing a retention problem arguably not seen since the late 19th and early 20th centuries when traditional Jews left in large numbers for Zionism, Yiddishism, Marxism, and other social, political, and cultural alternatives.

That period gave us figures such as Hayim Nahman Bialik, Anzia Yezierska, Marc Chagall, Ahad Ha-am, Isaac Bashevis Singer, YL Peretz, Yosef Micah Berdychevsky, Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Israeli poet Rahel, among many other, although most of their fellow travelers ended up living less illustrious lives.

What this new exodus will produce has yet to be determined. If progressive Jewish alternatives in America, many of which are already in place, can provide an open, non-traditional space for these Jews, then the possibilities are promising.

As an OTD recently told me after a talk where I mentioned the OTD phenomenon, it is much larger than I imagine and many of these individual are finding their way to non-conformist independent progressive Jewish communities and starting some of their own.

Another OTD told me that someone asked him if he ever considered joining a Conservative or Reform synagogue, a question OTDs get a lot. He replied, “I grew up in New Square and left. Why would I join Conservative or Reform synagogue?” But many are finding their way to Renewal-like and alternative minyanim. Are the numbers as large of those who are disaffiliating? Surely not. But remember, I am taking the Kotzker approach.

Non-Orthodox Jewish day school attendance may be down, but if some of those who do attend attain the language proficiency and access to Jewish tradition equal to their Modern Orthodox competitors, they can re-create a subversive Jewish alternative in the next generation. The previous educational model of many of these Jewish schools, which viewed continuity (that is, in-marriage and synagogue affiliation) as a goal, is outdated. Many of the new graduates may intermarry largely because intermarriage for many of these millennial-generation Jews is a non-issue.

Yet many of those intermarried Jews may also know how to make their way around a page of Gemara, may infuse their creative lives with Jewish content, and may take American Jewry beyond mere maintenance to a new paradigm of Jewish spiritual life in communities that may be smaller and will include both Jews and non-Jews. A previous generation had to contend with what Isaac Deutscher famously called “Non-Jewish Jews” (Jewish heretics). Today that is accompanied by “Jewish Non-Jews,” non-Jews who choose Judaism as their spiritual path without converting to Judaism. It may indeed be a “new generation that did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8).

In my American Post-Judaism I argued that the ba’al teshuva movement has essentially ended and, while individuals continue to find their way back to Orthodoxy, new progressive alternatives are now competing with Orthodox ones. Many may be returning, but not to anything that existed before, a Jewish instance of “back to the future.” The renaissance is happening largely outside, or on the fringes of, Orthodoxy, precisely in that middle that Cohen and Wertheimer show is shrinking. The existence of this renaissance exists does not contest Cohen and Wertheimer’s numbers. Both are true. It depends, in part, whether one remains wed to an old paradigm of what constitutes success or a new paradigm of what continues forward motion.

It’s Time for a New Paradigm

Synagogue affiliation, federation giving, day school attendance, devotion to Israel, memorializing the Holocaust as a center of Jewish identity, in-marriage, are all markers of the old paradigm.

If we continue to evaluate the Jewish future according to this model, I fully agree that the Jewish middle is shrinking. And I do not think there is anything we can do about it. The case for reflexive support of Israel’s policies is a case that is harder and harder to make. The hasbara industry knows that better than anyone. The Holocaust is becoming history as opposed to a living memory. That is inevitable with any historical event, and if we do not think creatively about how to deal with that, we are acting irresponsibly to the next generation who will never know a Holocaust survivor. “Holocaust Judaism” is a form of negative Judaism and it will not produce positive fruits for a new generation.

Any middle only exists in relation to the margins that frame it.

Traditional models of affiliation are changing; intermarriage no longer means the Jewish spouse is lost to the Jewish community but increasingly that the community has now adopted a non-Jewish member. Non-Orthodox day schools are producing fewer graduates but those graduates may be more Jewishly literate than the unlearned masses that graduated from the Hebrew schools I attended in the late 60s.

Ultra-Orthodoxy may be growing in numbers but they are arguably a community in an ideological crisis; they are not producing original works the way their predecessors did a century or two ago. They are focused more on retaining their young by protecting them from the outside world. Ultra-Orthodoxy in American has largely chosen to be a community of maintenance. In 1944 Gershom Scholem penned the following sentence in reference to the architects of the Science of Judaism that may be appropriate to the leaders of today’s ultra-Orthodox communities in America. “Many of these zealous workers seem to us like giants in terms of their knowledge and like pygmies in terms of their insights. But it would appear that this is what that generation wanted.”

The Kotzker stood on his balcony and saw the hordes of Hasidic men yearning to come close to their venerated master. His response was a dismissive “Feh!”

What do numbers really mean? Nothing. Referring to yihus (lineage), my rosh yeshiva in Boro Park, a Satmar Hasid, once told me, “twenty thousand zeros still equals zero. It takes the individual to put a one in front of them.”

I wish all the disaffiliating Jews a happy and prosperous life. May they be safe and successful, and if one day they have occasion to visit us they will know where to find us.

Instead of lamenting the disaffiliation of Jews who are choosing to live otherwise maybe we should concentrate on recognizing and cultivating the “minyan of emesdike yiddin” who can move the Jewish world forward. That’s the Kotzker approach to Jewish continuity.

This essay grew out of a Shabbat talk delivered at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun on November 15, 2014. I want to thank Rabbi Roly Matalon for his generous invitation.

Shaul Magid is the Jay and Jeannie Schottenstein Professor of Jewish Studies at Indiana University/Bloomington. His latest book is “Hasidism Incarnate: Hasidism, Christianity, and the Construction of Modern Judaism”(Stanford University, 2014).

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