Alternatives to Triumphalism
The American Jewish Committee’s 2007 Annual Survey of American Jewish Opinion is out, and it reflects once again the growing importance of the Orthodox community. Some will celebrate with high-fives and I-told-you-so’s. This would be a big mistake. For alternative reactions, read on.
JTA reported on the January 31 forum convened to discuss the survey. It made for irritating reading. The quoted notables spoke of the growing divide in attitudes and positions between the more politically conservative Orthodox and everyone else. This divide “threatens the long-term unity of the Jewish people,” as if it were the Orthodox who walked away from everything that Jews held sacred for centuries, rather than the other way around. It is hard to tell, however, whether the negative tone of the piece reflected the opinions of the participants, or was an artifact of the writing style of the author.
There aren’t many surprises in the results, save for the fact that what we sensed is now supported by the more scientific methodology of the pollster. According to the survey, 69 percent of Orthodox Jews said they feel “very close” to Israel, compared to 29 percent of Conservative Jews and 22 percent of Reform Jews. Only 4 percent of the Orthodox said they feel “fairly distant,” as opposed to 14 percent of Conservatives and 25 percent of the Reform.
How did this all come to pass? Steven Bayme, the director of the AJC’s Department of Contemporary Jewish Life, and a Modern Orthodox Jew himself, sees a smoking gun in the time that Orthodox high school graduates spend in Israel. Those yeshivos, Bayme says, are ideologically incompatible with mainstream American Jewish thought.
The trend will only continue.
Orthodox Jews now account for about 9 percent of Jews who affiliate with a synagogue, but they comprise 17 percent of the affiliated population aged 19-25. About 228,000 Orthodox Jews are younger than 18, compared to 155,000 Conservative and 190,000 Reform — Orthodox children, in other words, make up 38 percent of that younger cohort.
“If you are looking at the next generation of who will be Jewish leaders, in the year 2050,” Bayme said, “if you are looking at who is going to be sufficiently concerned about Jewish community and Jewish peoplehood activities, one sociologist suggests that 50 percent of that universe of people concerned with Jewish life may be Orthodox.”
So the bottom line is that we are not so slowly taking over. We would be well advised not to cheer too loudly. First and foremost, our dramatic gains are not only a product of our burgeoning families, B”H, and our impressive retention rate – even after factoring in the most pessimistic assessments of drop-outs. Our gains seem impressive relative to the continued downward population spiral of the rest of the Jewish community, and that is never anything to cheer.
Beyond that, however, other reasons dictate silence rather than braggadocio. Triumphalism will lead to nothing more than fleeting feelings of satisfaction that accomplish nothing more than losing precious opportunities. What we would like to happen is that some of our brothers and sisters outside of Orthodoxy – however few or many – will rethink the premises of a failed experiment in Jewish continuity, and take a peek at what tradition has to offer. Triumphalism on our part often succeeds in quashing any flicker of interest, for a variety of reasons.
Many Jews outside our ranks have bought into the standard basket of values and attitudes of intelligent Westerners. Among those values is a thorough distrust of, and distaste for certainty. Modern Man, the heir to all the political and social foment of the 20th century, has learned not to trust stated truths. Modern science – especially the weirdness (at least to non-physicists) of physics on the really small level – has taught us not to trust our intuitions. So much of what used to seem “logical” may indeed be so – but is nonetheless counterfactual. Oliver Wendel Holmes said, “Certitude is not the test of certainty.” For many people today, someone expressing any idea with certitude is a certain signal not to take him seriously. Triumphalism flows directly from certitude, and gives us a bad name – even if we are correct. It isn’t worth it to be right, if we turn off others in the process. Not to mention the fact that we are often guilty of being too certain about things that don’t deserve it. We would be well off reserving well-deserved certainty for ikarei ha-dos, the principles of faith.
Triumphalism succeeds on an additional level in making people more resistant to our message rather than more pliable. The Torah describes the aftermath of the plague of dever. “Paroh sent and behold, of the livestock of Israel not even one had died – and Paroh’s heart became stubborn…” Shouldn’t the overwhelming evidence of his error have softened his heart, rather than the opposite? No, explains Rav Leib Chasman zt”l in Ohr Yahel. Had some of the Jewish livestock died, Paroh could have saved face. “There were arguments in both directions. I called it the way I saw it, keeping Egypt’s best interests in mind. After much deliberation, I’ve decided to give in.” He could have looked heroic in both his initial resistance and his later capitulation. Now that the deck was stacked completely against him, giving in would have made him look entirely foolish for holding out until now. When a person has no recourse but to look completely foolish, when he is backed into a corner, he hardens himself and persists in his illogical behavior. Triumphally pointing out Orthodox successes and heterodox failures will simply harden others against our message, the very opposite of what we would hope for.
The alternative to triumphalism is not just discreet silence. It is not just humility either, although greater consciousness of our own fault lines and failures (aired quite openly in the pages of Cross-Currents) couldn’t hurt either. The proper response, I would think, is to slowly begin to take over some of the functions that we relied upon others till now, and that we can no longer afford to delegate as we become a larger, if not dominant, force in Jewish life. Busily involved in the building of the myriad institutions needed by an organized Torah community, we divided the labor, and relied on the non-Orthodox for many other tasks. If we believe what we are telling ourselves – that we are becoming the reliable links to the Jewish future – then we have to start acting like we are as important as we say we are. Looking around at recent AIPAC functions and at wartime rallies for Israel, the prominence of Orthodox participation is visible and pronounced. We need to begin to see the same occur in other fields of endeavor.
Political activity, strong advocacy for the State of Israel, building bridges with non-Jewish communities – all of these need to become a greater part of our communal focus. We should ease ourselves gently and gracefully into the leadership positions that the statistics tell us are our inevitable lot.