Heterodoxy Meltdown?

What would happen in Ori’s hypothetical mass teshuva of heterodox clergy? Would the laity become observant, or would they opt out of Judaism?

My guess is that most would do neither. In fact, most would do nothing at all. That is because so many outside of Orthodoxy affiliate out of convenience, not conviction.

It is a common historical error to blame the meltdown of traditional life in Europe on Reform, and the bolting of the masses from American Orthodoxy on Conservative. That’s just not the way it happened.

To be sure, they contributed – and took an awful toll on Jewish continuity. But they didn’t cause as much of it as some people think.

It wasn’t Reform that lured the masses of Western European Jewry from observance. It was the breaching of the ghetto walls. Jews ran headlong from the ghetto, desperately trying to escape poverty and persecution. Reform, at least at the beginning, didn’t try to entice people out of the ghetto. The sprinters didn’t need prodding; for the most part, they had already left. Reform tried to lure them back into some sort of connection with their Jewishness. While we would regard what Reform offered as a scarecrow-like effigy of the original, the fact remained that Reform thought it was reclaiming souls, rather than liberating the entirely committed from the shackles of their past.

More accurately, Reform provided a place for people who had already loosened their connection with tradition to still feel authentically Jewish. Similarly, when tens of thousands of Jews joined Conservative synagogues in the 50’s, it wasn’t Conservative heretics who convinced them to give up Shabbos and kashrus. Rather, it was the allure of Levittown, and other destinations of suburban flight. It was not fully committed, educated Orthodox Jews who listened to the siren-song of Conservative rabbis. It was people who were already merely hanging on to some tradition by a thread. Conservative empowered them, made them feel good about decisions they were usually prepared to make, with or without a rabbi offering his blessings.

I am not trying to whitewash the heterodox movements. Not at all. Many of the naifs who became caught up in the heresies of these movements might have been reclaimed through eventual outreach efforts, had heterodox leaders not turned non-observance into an ideology. My point is that the seeking of the ideology was secondary, in so many cases. The primary factor was comfort level. People who wanted out of a system of real halachic demands founded new religious practices to conform to their expectations.

Marshall Sklare wrote one of the definitive insider studies of the Conservative movement. I quote from the revised 1972 edition of Conservative Judaism: An American Religious Movement.

Covertly, the rabbis now recognize that they are not making decisions or writing responsa, but merely taking a poll of their membership (pg. 237)

The crucial aspect of the Conservative position on observance is not its acceptability to Orthodoxy, however, but its success in promoting religious growth among the Conservative laity, and specifically in advancing their observance of the mitzvoth. Judged from this vantage point, Conservatism has been an abysmal failure: there has been a steady erosion of observance among Conservative Jews. And despite a strong desire to encourage observance, Conservatism has not succeeded in increasing their level of conformity to the Jewish sacred system. The belief among Conservative leaders that the movement’s approach to halachah had the power to maintain observance, as well as to inspire its renewal, has proved illusory. (pg. 270)

What would these people have done had there not been rabbis sanctifying their spiritual misadventures? Most likely, they would have done precisely what many heterodox synagogues do today. They would have found cultural or intellectual forms of Jewish expression that would have slaked their somewhat limited capacity for Jewish involvement. (Think of how many heterodox institutions operate on the principle that the goal is to get Jews in the door. What you give them once inside is largely irrelevant – as long as they come. Holding out for more is simply unrealistic.)

In other words, all those heterodox rabbis are a convenient luxury. If they disappeared, it would not take long for people to learn that they would not be so sorely missed. The non-Orthodox would not turn observant because they simply have no interest in such a demanding life-style. (Isn’t this thoroughly understandable for people who never saw the beauty of it from the inside?) They would not opt out of Judaism any more than they have already opted out. They are comfortable feeding on a diet of the husks and shells of Jewish life, disregarding the kernels. If the rabbis disappeared, they would simply use the same ingredients, and concoct a different recipe. Personally, I doubt if any more of their children would march out the remaining short distance than are already turning their backs on the attenuated Judaism of their parents.

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3 Responses

  1. ralphie says:

    Excellent analysis. I wonder why this is the dynamic only in America. Reform began in Europe, of course, but I don’t think it’s thriving there today. And there are the types that Rebbetzin Katz, I think, described in Australia – that aren’t observant but want a shul or ceremony to be Orthodox when they’re needed. The same is true, I’d say, for the non-religious (as opposed to the anti-religious) in Israel – I have heard that people want to drive to the soccer game on Shabbat, but they don’t want their rabbi to tell them it’s all right to do so.

  2. Larry says:

    In response to Ralphie’s perceptive description of the differences between non-observant Jews in America and elsewhere, I would posit the following:

    Outside of America (in Israel, for example), there is a focus on external absolutes – this is what Judaism stands for, even if I don’t elect to follow it – and an apparently lower level of need for an internal consistency between one’s actions and one’s professed principles. In America, by contrast, this desire for such internal consistency (which may be characterized in terms of “authenticity” or a wish to avoid hypocrisy) is far stronger, and is manifested by a tendency to shape our ideologies in ways that validate our actions. The non-Orthodox movements, by providing an imprimatur to lifestyles deviant from traditional Jewish norms and thus validating the perception of a unity between behavior and held-principles, are accordingly well-suited to the American Jewish psyche.

  3. JZ says:

    Actually the reason Reform Judaism never gained a foothold in British Commonwealth countries is very simple. The Office of The Chief Rabbi had organizational control over all aspects of communal Jewish life. At the turn of the previous century, if members of a community wished to establish a new synagogue, they had to justify their plans, in writing, and had to go through an approval process. The USA had no such restrictions and so became a haven and magnet for German Reform Jews…

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