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.

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24 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    It’s not enough to ease into a leadership role within existing national organizations. We also need to question which existing organizations are really necessary, even after coming under Orthodox direction, and to determine which new ones are needed to confront today’s needs.

    Also, to have any chance of directing national organizations effectively, Orthodox community leaders of differing backgrounds need to learn to work better with each other.

  2. joel rich says:

    Are there any statistics available concerning the resource flow between the orthodox and non-orthodox community. If the economic (yes I know there are spiritual resources as well) flow is a net plus to the orthodox side (e.g. if a federation spends more of its resources on orthodox than it takes in from that demographic) then the orthodox will also need to figure out where those resources will come from in the future.


  3. Yoel T. says:

    You seem to be advocating a de facto triumphalism without calling it such.Furthermore while the non-orthodox have been able to present at least the appearance of unity (i.e. the Federations, AJC. ADL, etc.),the Orthodox( Satmar, Agudah, Chabad,modern Orthodox) have not been able to do so.Perhaps the Orthodox should be more active in the Federations and other non-Orthodox specific institutions which purport to represent all segments of American Judaisim before giving American Judaisim an Orthodox only face.

  4. Joseph says:

    You seem to be beating the wrong bush. Orthodoxy has long been involved in the political arena.

  5. Garnel Ironheart says:

    > 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.

    An interesting thought because, as anyone who has learned Gemara knows, lack of certainty is what the whole halachic system is based on. No one can simply show up and say “this is the law without proofs and refutations of oppositing positions.”

    It is not a lack of certainty but a desire to avoid attaining it (after all, eventually there is a decision in halacha) that guides Western thought. A lack of commitment allows for the fluid changing of values when convenient, something diametrically opposed to Torah practice.

    Having said that, I wonder if Rav Adlerstein is correct: Will the frum community eventually take over the local JCC and what will that do to the Saturday hours in their fitness club?

  6. Ori says:

    Does it make more sense to take over existing institutes, or do create new ones that you control from the start and let the old ones wither away?

  7. Steve Brizel says:

    In certain communities such as Queens, Brooklyn and Baltimore, YMHAs are closed on Shabbos and have programming that attracts the Orthodox community. In other communities, the absence of any Orthodox participation in such venues allows a Y to stay open and ignore the Orthodox community. OTOH, some Ys have a “Shabbos light” policy that may include a shiur while allowing full use of the facility.

  8. Garnel Ironheart says:

    A further thought. Ori, I don’t think a future Orthodox establishment will either take over existing institutions or create new ones. Look at the existing Orthodox institutions. The Agudah, which claims to be the central organization for the Torah world does not include Chabad, or Satmar. Never mind Mizrachi or Modern Orthodoxy. Mizrachi itself recently split into two political parties in Israel and as for Modern Orthodoxy…

    The truth is that non-Orthodox Jews have a lot easier time getting along with one another than Orthodox Jews. The passion that Orthodoxy brings to its members also helps create bigger fights. Can you imagine a non-Orthodox Jew refusing to attend a UJA meeting because the wrong kashrus supervision was used for the paistries?

  9. Barry says:

    What I’ve never understood is why none of those 69 percent who feel so close to Israel don’t feel sufficiently close to make Aliyah.

  10. Dovid Eliezrie says:

    Alas a subject beyond Chabad. Yechie Adlerstein !!

    I think Jews who are Torah Observant, (I choose not to use the term Orthodox its another Chabad thing we don’t divide Jews into types) should take a stronger role in the broader Jewish community. There are areas that are difficult, due to Halachic concerns. But there are opportunities for engagement and interaction where we can bring important ideas to the table and prod the agenda along of the Jewish establishment. Many in leadership roles are developing a stronger respect for Yiddiskiet. Many them are in these groups due to their personal involvement in Judaism.

    On the flip side most Orthodox (that word again) groups pursue a parochial agenda that fails in many ways to look beyond their immediate concerns to the bigger picture.

    And as for Kashruth, a funny thing happened on the way to the GA( the national Federation conference). Initially they had arranged a Hashgacha far below acceptable standards. And after some lobbying they switched to the Memphis Vaad who insured proper standards where observed. Amazing what can be achieved with quiet lobbying and friendships of trust with the key Federation leaders.

    Dovid Eliezrie

  11. Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

    You seem to be beating the wrong bush. Orthodoxy has long been involved in the political arena.

    I think you got this wrong. The Orthodox didn’t try to beat Bush, at least not W. In fact, we helped elect him.

    On a more serious note, Orthodox involvement to date has matched its self-image of a small segment of the community, consumed with its own issues. I am arguing to expand the scope. Agudah has been doing terrific – and expanding! – work, but it exercises a right to define its mandate somewhat narrowly. There are lots of issues that it leaves for others – and those others don’t always rush to fill the vacuum. The OU has done great work off and on for a long while, but it is restricted to national issues, and operating out of DC. I have not seen (and would love to be corrected) local committess of OU activists who regularly pound the city and state capital beats – something which Agudah does do.

    No Orthodox umbrella group, to the best of my knowledge, reaches out to other communities in the absolutely crucial work of building alliances and working partnerships.

  12. YM says:

    I don’t think there is anything here to be triumphal about. We “Orthodox” are somewhere between 9 and 17 percent of the total Jewish population-probably closer to the 17%, as many OJ’s are unaffiliated. So in 2050 we would become the majority – that is 42 years from now, a long time…look at how much the Jewish world changed between 1908 and 1950!

  13. mycroft says:

    ” 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”

    Very important post. To at most quibble on a small point-we certainly have a very impressive retention rate compared to the rest of the Jewish community-but sadly we lose much more than people want to imagine. Take the Orthodox Jewish populaton of 40-50 years ago-apply the reproductive ratios that we have had in general -ken yirbu- and we don’t have anywhere near the amount of Orthodox Jews that we would have without losses.

  14. dr. william gewirtz says:

    YM – Despite my concerns for Israel’s survival, one does not have to include the Holocaust to make your point. The history of Lithuanian jewry during the fifty years prior to the war, need only be factually compared to the viewpoints currently in vogue despite the challenges both practical / economic (particulary in Israel) as well as intellectual from increasingly relevant historical, literary, archeological, scientific, etc. sources. The contrast is striking. If our primary response is banning exposure to the outside world, becoming overly triumphal would not be my first concern. Well beyond chareidim, cross-currents and even the MO/CO will need to face yet new challenges from modernity.

  15. la costa says:

    the orthodox community, as joel rich in no 2 points out, is relatively poor. as family size grows, orthodox life automatically causes more poverty. the tuition struggle will probably never be solved, and will help keep modern orthodox families smaller. and haredi families will get larger, but as that community moves further to the right, carreer options will be more limited, trying to immitate the israeli tora only model. i can only imagine orthodox poverty increasing, leaving less energy for external concerns.
    as the israel-as-apartheid model becomes more believed in US [ see NYTimes article this week on Palestine –
    — i think fewer jews will be pro-zionist , in the sense of supporting the current type of jewish hegemony in Palestine. there will be no one other than the Orthodox to try and advocate for israel=== the irony, that aguda of 2010 will have to lead the defense of the Zionist entity they prayed in the 40’s would never exist….

  16. Steve Brizel says:

    I think that the current policy of avoiding participation in local federations by both the Charedi and MO worlds should be reconsidered on at least a strategic level and as a way of projecting Torah to the heterodox world without losing our hashkafic and halachic integrity. We know that R H Neuberger ZTL achieved wonders for the Torah community in Baltimore by sitting on the board of the local Federation, even when he was outvoted by the heterodox majority. Even if one has major hashkafic arguments with eiter Chabad or YU, both participate in GAs as a means of projecting Chabad and MO into a venue which is predominantly heterodox in nature. I think that “going where the people are” as a kiruv strategy works when you show that you care about some issues in common and are willing to show that Torah Judaism has something to say about the issues of the day and has depth and profundity-as opposed either claiming to help the “underprivileged” by accepting donated cars, etc or peddling Torah Judaism like a tube of toothpaste which unfortunately is the approach of many other kiruv groups.

  17. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “It is not just humility either, although greater consciousness of our own fault lines and failures…couldn’t hurt either…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”

    I agree with the latter point, but just to to focus on the former, I think that triumphalisim, like arrogance on the individual level, is rooted in insecurity, ignores faults, as well as the that fact that success indeed obligates one to accomplish more, as noted in this post. Realism, on the other hand, allows for hope and optimism without being triumphalisitic. I think that a realistic way of assessing our time from a historical perspective, would be to turn back the clock to the pre-Enlightenment era, because heterodoxy was, historically, a result of the failed experiment of the secular Haskalah.

    The questions that I think of, are in what ways do the social and intellectual issues and ideas facing European Jews no longer apply, or have been decisively defeated at their core? How is the Jewish community stronger or weaker that two hundred years ago? One can be hopeful and optimistic that the growth and revival of the Torah community is a fulfillment of the Torah’s promise in Vayikra that “…I will not reject or obliterate them, to break my covenant with them”, while at the same time honestly evaluating both the strengths and weaknesses of our time from a historical perspective.

  18. Ori says:

    la costa: the irony, that aguda of 2010 will have to lead the defense of the Zionist entity they prayed in the 40’s would never exist….

    Ori: 2010 is just a couple of years away. But by 2030 this is likely to be the case.

    However, you have to remember that Israel also changes. If the current demographics hold, Israel in the 2030s will be a lot more religious that the Yishuv in the 1940s. Secular Jews tend to have less children. Those children are a lot more likely to do as I did and decide living in Israel in not worth it.

    The aguda will probably have a much easier time supporting a state where religious Jews are a large minority or a majority than one led by Ben Gurion. While having a secular state may not be the aguda ideal, there is so much bad blood (literally) that it cannot be dismantled without a massacre of Jews in Eretz Israel. The aguda is opposed to that.

  19. cvmay says:

    “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”
    WELL-SAID, transfering these ideas into motion will take quite a bit of effort! Whatever goals are necesitied in the coming decade, have to currently be initiated through education and personal modeling. Do we have the educationally mosdos and/or leadership that are teaching and practicing political activism, advocacy for the State of Israel and bldg bridges within and outside of our Jewish communities. Frankly, the answer is in the negative,,,,,in order for this fledgling plant to grow seeds need to be planted.

  20. michoel halberstam says:

    Note to Ori, although it is clear that David Ben Gurion was entirely not sympathetic to religious interests, it seems to me that even he was far easier to deal with than today’s secularists who really see no place for a distinctintly Jewish way of life, and feel that they are riding a wave which eventually will isolate all religious Jews from the dialogue, in exchange for being tossed a few meager scraps of aid for our mosdos. Nor do I believe that waiting until we constituite a bigger percentage of the population is the answer , because as we get bigger there is going to be even more competition amongst our various Chugim for government aid. We must begin to look at ourseleves differently, I certainly don’t feel that evrything depends on the opinion of the Agudah, either.

  21. Ori says:

    Michoel Halberstam, you’re right that today’s secularists are more secular. Ben Gurion wanted to create a Jewish state, for some meaning of the term Jewish. Most Israeli secularists want to live in Israel because that’s where they are comfortable, not because they want their state to be Jewish. They see Judaism as a restriction that somebody is trying to impose on them.

    My point, however, was that those secularists are also a smaller percent of the Jewish population than in the early 40’s, or the Israeli population in the 50’s. In twenty years that will be even more pronounced. IIRC, Charedim are 10% of the Israeli population but have 25% of first graders. This means that US Charedim will probably be more sympathetic to the state of Israel in the 2030s than they have been historically – not because their theoretical opinion will change, but because the real nature of the state will have changed.

    I brought the Agudah as an example because I was responding to la costa who did. I realize it’s not the only Charedi leadership body.

    Israeli Charedim are going to own a larger and larger piece of the Knesset and therefore going to be able to get a larger and larger piece of the budget pie. However, as long as they have large families they will continue to be poor on the average because raising children is expensive. Those who lack marketable skills (I have no hard data on the number) will struggle even harder.

  22. sima ir kodesh says:

    Most Israeli secularists want to live in Israel because that’s where they are comfortable, not because they want their state to be Jewish.

    Sorry to strongly disagree. These secularists can and have moved on to greener pastures in Europe and USA. Those who remain are in Israel because of its JEWISH-ISRAELI flavour. They themselves do not realize the pintelle yid that is burning inside.

  23. L Oberstein says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein is writing about the sophisticated, involved and highly successful American orthodox community.Pardon the expression but we have achieved a successful synthesis that has enabled us to succeed both as religious Jews and as full fledged Americans in all levels of our society. I compare this with the latest article by our good friend Jonathan Rosenblum which I read in Mishpacha but I am sure will soon be on Cross-Currents. He asks what if any role there is for freedom of discussion by anyone other than the supreme leaders, he asks if we are entitled to have an opinion that differs from what is commanded from on high. He questions whether what he does for a living is allowed in a command society where democratic values are viewed as anti-Torah. Jonathan may be asking these questions rhetorically but he is doing so because others in Israeli and American chareidi society oppose allowing alternative voices to be heard. He is treading a fine line trying to keep from being prohibited ,as does every chareidi journalist who lives in that world.
    Thank G-d, I live in America and I am proud to still be a Democrat who believes in the Bill of Rights. I may vote for McCain over Obama but I am not ready to join the right wing Republicans.

  24. Ori says:

    Sima Ir Kodesh, you’re right – I know what I see from my friends who still live in Israel. I made the false subconscious assumption that they are a representative sample.

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