Yes, Sadly Saying Kaddish for Non-Orthodox Judaism

(This article first appeared in Times of Israel.)

In Saying Kaddish for American, Non-Orthodox Judaism? Rabbi Todd Berman argues that we should not prematurely accept the disappearance of the non-Orthodox Jewish movements in America. For despite staggering rates of intermarriage and lack of Jewish affiliation and identification, an unprecedented decline in temple membership and attendance, and a downward tailspin in Jewish educational and social engagement on the part of American non-Orthodox Jewry, Rabbi Berman asserts:

(N)ew leaders and institutions bring a new energy and vision to American Judaism. Many of my Orthodox friends and colleagues have never heard of Ikar, the Lab Shul, Romemu, the Kitchen, Machon Hadar and a host of other synagogues and educational programs and institutions. This despite the fact that they are attracting thousands of followers — some boast of close to 1,000 people attending a Friday night service or several hundred coming to hear a lecture on Jewish law or theology. Young(ish) rabbis and thinkers such as Shai Held, Yehuda Kurtzer, Ethan Tucker, Sharon Brous, David Ingber, Noah Kushner, and many others both younger and older, are attracting crowds in a manner similar to Chabad. All of this is outside the more well-known institutions and names such as JTS and HUC and their leaders. If you haven’t had the chance to listen to the likes of Held, Brous, or Ingber you are in for a dynamic and challenging thought-fest.

Many of these rabbis are developing a universal Judaism based on social justice which attracts many religious seekers. It suggests an undeniable energy out there…

This is all true. But it is the exception and not the norm. For every heterodox American Jew who attends events at Machon Hadar or Ikar there are a thousand-fold heterodox American Jews who are detached from anything Jewish and who are disappearing from Jewish existence with unstoppable rapidity.

The Conservative movement was not too long ago viewed as the strongest link in heterodox Judaism, where Jewish traditions were proudly maintained and perpetuated. Robust programs such as Camp Ramah, USY and the Solomon Schechter day school movement were seen as the wave upon which non-Orthodox success rode astride to eternal victory. But alas, a substantial percentage of Ramah campers hail from the left fringes of Orthodoxy, and only 6-7% of Conservative youth actually attend Camp Ramah. USY now allows its leaders to interdate, and the Solomon Schechter day school movement is in a state of precipitous decline.

Dovetailing these phenomena, the list of heterodox superstar leaders and institutions featured in Rabbi Berman’s article is in large measure illusory, as it includes a significant amount of liberal Orthodox content, and does not represent an independently substantial collection of successful heterodox initiatives.

Hence, upon closer examination, the apparent silver lining of heterodox Jewry’s storm clouds is in reality rather black and ominous.

But the issue cuts far deeper, as it is not merely disaffection and assimilation that are to blame for the demise of non-Orthodox Jewry. History has shown time and again that Jewish movements which did not accept the cardinal principle of Torah Mi-Sinai — the Sinaitic transmission of the Torah, both Written and Oral, from God to Moses — and who did not adhere to the Mesorah, the rabbinic tradition of Torah interpretation and conduct, could not last. The divine pledge that the Torah would endure forever among the Jewish people (Deut. 31:21) assures us that there will always be a Jewish Torah-adherent community, and that this community will be miraculously immune to the natural forces of assimilation and disappearance of cultures over the centuries and millennia.

God has guaranteed that at least a meaningful portion of this community of authentic Jewish tradition will always survive and carry on. The Sadducees, Boethusians, Karaites and other Jewish groupings and movements have been relegated to history’s dustbin, for although they were once predominant and overwhelming forces that were seen as threatening the existence of the Torah Mi-Sinai/Mesorah Jewish communities, they were not spared from the natural forces of assimilation and disappearance of cultures.

Sadly, we see before our eyes the exact same script being played out with today’s heterodox movements. Jewish engagement, Hebrew language and culture, and even rituals cannot help a Jewish movement endure long-term, unless there is a core commitment to Torah Mi-Sinai and Mesorah. (And even within and immediately around the leftmost orbits of Modern Orthodoxy, research has demonstrated that those subgroups with noticeable lack of commitment to Torah Mi-Sinai and Mesorah are in fact on a striking trajectory of decline as regards successive generation retention and core observance; please also see here.)

We should all be extremely saddened by the impending mass disappearance of the bulk of American Jewry. It is an unspeakable tragedy. We should do whatever we can to prevent it, especially by reaching out to our non-Orthodox brothers and sisters and making every last effort to engage them and bring them near to the Torah. And at the same time, we must recognize that history continues to show us that God’s promise to perpetuate our people is based on adherence to Torah tradition; this is the sole secret to the miracle of Jewish survival against all natural odds, providing the answer to Mark Twain’s legendary concluding query:

If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one percent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of star dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly the Jew ought hardly to be heard of, but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his commercial importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk. 

His contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning are also away out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvelous fight in the world, in all the ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself, and be excused for it. The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. 

The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?

You may also like...

35 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    Somehow, this resembles a Ponzi scheme. The old participants assimilate out (isn’t that the true goal of an assimilationist movement to begin with?) so new ones are recruited to keep the enterprise afloat. Too much net loss of members and the thing falls flat.

    • nt says:

      It seems like every once in a while, some people decide to reform Judaism by changing a few things that bother them or seem out of step with the zeitgeist. After a while they change some more things, and eventually they become indistinguishable from the surrounding culture. These groups go by many different names, but they all demonstrate that there is no bottom to the slippery slope of “reform”.

      • DF says:

        Agreed with nt, which is why the sudden spate of lectures and articles (like this one) we are hearing and seeing are rather pointless. True, the formal organization currently known as “Reform” and “Conservative” are dying, as anyone with any knowledge of history knew would happen, soon or late. But so what? Whatever happened to the Agudas Harabbonim? What happened to the Jewish Observer? What happened to a thousand other hallmarks of orthodox life? Does anyone think the Lakewood Vaad will exist 100 years hence? Does anyone doubt that what happened to Soncino and Birnbaum and Hertz wont also happen to Artscroll??

        This is history. An organizations falls, an organization rises. Another movement will simply arise to take the place of Reform, which will then be followed by yet another group professing to take the middle math. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Same with books, same with shuls, same with everything.

        This is history.

  2. Lawrence M. Reisman says:

    Quoting Mark Twain that the Jew’s ” contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning are also away out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers” is disingenuous at the least. Those great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, etc. have come overwhelmingly from the non-Orthodox and non-observant, and they have almost all failed to produce Jewish offspring for more than one generation, if that. Where are the Jewish descendants of Roth, or Bellow (literature), Einstein, Michelson, Teller, (science), Chagall, Rothko, Pollack (art), Bernstein, Walter, Schnabel, Heifetz, (music), etc. etc. etc.

    • Bob Miller says:

      Twain’s remarks were about Jews as an ethnic group, and specifically those in it who had achieved enough fame in the wider world for him to take note. Achievements by Jews in the religious sphere, which he was not focused on, have been greater yet.

      • lacosta says:

        davka the secular are mashpia the umot haolam to a far greater degree than the haredi world. in the metaphysical plane it’s different , but Waze ‘s influence on the world far exceeds rav steinman, elyashiv , etc

    • Yossi says:

      Such a great point. I quote that piece from Mark Twain all the time, but you are right that only the last line is really relevant as an argument for Torah Judaism.

    • Yonah says:

      And then the corollary point that R. Gordimer should understand is that just because a Jew had intermarried or departed from Torah does not mean that he/she doesn’t have an important role to play in the world and even in God’s plan.

    • DF says:

      A fair point, but only so far. Many of the great Jewish names actually did have religious Jewish upbringings, or were raised by parents who themselves were raised Jewishly and traditionally. Thus, it is fair to conclude that a traditional Jewish upbringing is often a precursor to great achievement.

      However, one has to take the bad with the good. It is also true, as commenter Lawrence Reisman says, that many or most of the greats failed to pay it forward to their own children. Seems to me this line of argument is therefore a wash.

  3. Reb Yid says:

    The more accurate analysis is to say that denominational Judaism is eroding. This is true of Orthodoxy as well. There are fewer and fewer central institutions that speak for an entire “movement”.

    But so be it. The history of American Judaism has seen a variety of new enterprises emerge to meet the challenges of young Jews for that generation in America. Denominations at one time filled that role but they are not well suited for 21st century America.

    • tzippi says:

      What are some of the new enterprises?

    • nt says:

      Fewer institutions means consolidation, not erosion. Lakewood is booming and absorbing more and more young couples. Chareidi demographics are B”H rising rapidly. Where I live in Los Angeles, many new high schools have opened to give students more options.

  4. dr. bill says:

    Frankly, many of the conservative efforts are heroic; but too late. in Israel, they have a better chance of success. In both places, I see them merging into an invigorated orthodox/traditional left-wing , which the majority of the current orthodox movement considers heretical. Between academic talmud and halakha and continued discoveries of the world 2000 – 3000 years ago, the assault on the commonly assumed ikarim and other religious beliefs will be relentless.

    Forgetting the non- religious (or even non-Jewish) academics, particularly in Israel academic talmud and halakha is widely studied. In the US, Mechon Hadar is probably all there is outside the small number of first-rate orthodox (or what some call orthoprax) professors.

    the orthodox will not be able to keep academic studies from the hands of the high-end of inquisitive Talmudists. What that causes is not at all clear. What is currently being solved is the procedural difficulty academic Talmud still presents.

    • Mycroft says:

      IMO much more fundamental is what approach one takes to studying Torah. It is fundamental that Torah is eternal.It should also be obvious that Torah had to make sense to those who received the revelation about 3300 years ago, thus one has to consider what a population would have known besides the Torah and see how the Torah treats stories different from surrounding cultures. One can see the Torahs message even stronger when one realizes what the Torah is differentiating itself from.
      The challenge faced if one follows the approach of attacking people who raise questions is that information is readily available on different approaches. Just in past couple of years looking at MOOCs offered by two leading providers for free have had a few courses discussing parts of Torah, ZJEWISH history from Biblical period, and Kabballah from an academic approach.Some even taught by clearly religious teachers. Females wearing Tzius clothing and sheitels, man wearing kippa etc.
      Of course, there has been a MOOC on Talmud by an American University but it was on a very low level so would not really raise serious challenges IMO.

  5. Eli says:

    People seem to forget – or be ignorant of – the fact that the non-orthodox movements were founded to ease assimilation of Jews into Western society. They’ve been successful!

    • dr. bill says:

      please, if you want to oppose something, the first rule is to understand it properly. otherwise, you are seen as an opinionated partisan. the word is INTEGRATION not ASSIMILATION at least for most of the originators of what we now call the conservative movement. someone who was among the top 2 or 3 talmudists of the 19th century, who arguably opened the yerushalmi on seder zerayim for many who followed, davened with a tallit covering his head for davar she’bekedushah, etc. did not want to ease assimilation.

      • Bob Miller says:

        In Germany, Rav Hirsch had Z. Frankel’s number, despite the latter’s seeming piety.

      • dr. bill says:

        Did Rav Bamberger, who would not even respond to one he felt was not a talmudist/halakhist of sufficient stature, have Rav Hirsch’s number? Again, we now have evidence of Rav Bamberger’s encounters with Rav Salant, instead of the trash that had been invented.

        the real Hirschian approach is no longer as widely followed as his hagiography.

        in any case, my point was not a defense of a Gaon Olam, towering above all but a few 19th-century rabbis, but to argue that to ascribe assimilation as his motive is unadulterated nonsense. in addition to rav frankel’s approaches, that era produced a change in how talmud was studied, something that is only now coming to fruition. sadly, even liberal orthodox RY, refer to his chiddushim by only he letters reish pheh. you have decided that the reish is not deserved

      • Bob Miller says:

        Rav Bamberger endorsed Austritt (secession) in some communities other than Frankfurt am Main, but felt that the assurances by the official Frankfurt community were sufficient to make Austritt undesirable there. His sharp differences with Rav Hirsch on this were what one sometimes finds among colleagues with the same overall point of view.

        Frankel was the type of pre-Conservative who camouflaged the heretical aspects of his own beliefs. He was not as bold as the reformers, but the effects of his type of deviation haven’t been pretty either then or now. Graetz likewise.

      • dr. bill says:

        please, we have Rav Bamberger ztl’s letters as well as Rav Shmuel Salant’s notes on their meeting. tzei u’lemad. ironically, the remaining kisvei yad were (miraculously) moved from where they would have been damaged/lost in a previous weather event.

        They were hardly colleagues or of similar mind on many issues. RSRH ztl wore a powdered wig, that does not commonly appear in pictures of him. Rav Bamberger wore ecclesiastical garb on shabbat even when he met RSS. RSS mentioned his amazement but he did not deign to ask a Gadol for his justification.

        Rav Frankel published his views openly and did not hide much, afaik. there is not a traditional academic talmud scholar today who does not follow the path he trailblazed. his novella on zerayim was also unique. comparing him to Graetz is laughable. a more accurate comparison would be Professors Ephraim Urbach or Shaul Lieberman of the 20th century.

        in any case, my point was simply to point out the absurd association with him of the desire to “ease assimilation.” you can attack Rav Fraenkel for lacking the foresight of what his views would eventually lead towards, as one can any of the early scholars of the conservative movement. If you want to engage in that, there are many chareidi icons one can blame for current extremism. chazal’s admonitions, imho, referred primarily to more immediate misinterpretation, something i may be incorrect about.

      • Bob Miller says:

        “there is not a traditional academic talmud scholar today who does not follow the path he trailblazed” Academe is off the track.

        As for Graetz, he and Frankel shared certain tendencies in looking at Jewish religious history.

      • dr. bill says:

        tell that to RYYW ztl and a few other graduates of Slabodka. tell me precisely what about professors lieberman, urbach, chaim soloveitchik, robert brody, dimitrovsky, etc. etc. you find troubling.

        yes, many who are purported academic scholars of talmud are as you say “off the track.” but so are many RY as well. my guess is that the top of the academic talmud world got there very differently than some become RY.

        and yes, graetz and frankel shared some ideas. i suspect you and I and let us say trump share some ideas. that does not make us similar/comparable, i hope.

        frankly, both graetz and frankel shared some beliefs that would be viewed as too traditional and questionable by current standards.

      • Bob Miller says:

        I see academics, but by no means all, finding novel ways to subvert the Mesorah. This activity is a sort of tradition itself. You can call out names, including your own, as counter-examples, but It seems to me that something is seriously off.

      • dr. bill says:

        none of the academics i mentioned considers themselves a posek; the only psak often quoted (incorrectly, imho) is one by prof. lieberman to support opposition to granting semicha to women as full-fledged rabbis.

        it is accurate that for the most part, these scholars tend to support a stronger role for the need for innovation based on the changed circumstance in determining psak than just hewing to prior practice. that position, however, goes well beyond the halls of academia and is/has been embraced by practicing poskim, probably a root cause for various disputes that divide the world of traditional jews.

      • DF says:

        having read the above exchange, I would side 100% with dr bill. No approach was perfect; no approach was entirely flawed. There were differences of opinion back then; there are differences of opinion today. The academic approach has produced both brilliant insights, and subversion; the yeshivah approach has produced both brilliant insights, and rank amharatzus.

        The trick, as always, is to select the best of the various worlds as you determine it.

      • Steve Brizel says:

        All true but which movement did both have at best a marginal influence and affiliate with? FWIW RZevin in HaMoadim BHalacha cites Tosefta Kpshuta in at least one footnote.

  6. joel rich says:

    It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.- Niels Bohr

    Straight line predictions are always wrong, the prob is knowing how much and in which direction-a little known actuary

    … And don’t speak too soon
    For the wheel’s still in spin
    And there’s no telling who that it’s naming
    For the loser now will be later to win…-Bob Dylan


    • Shades of Gray says:

      “It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.”

      Others quote this in the name of Mark Twain(or Yogi Berra). To add a third Twain quote to the discussion, Conservative Rabbi Gerald Skolnik wrote that “reports of our imminent demise are greatly exaggerated” in response to Daniel Gordis’ “Requiem for a Movement” article in the Jewish Review of Books(“Write No Requiem For The Conservative Movement”, 11/13).

      When R. Lamm spoke of saying “Kaddish on the Reform and Conservative movements” in 2009, Jonathan Sarna wrote in response five challenges facing Orthodoxy(“Saying Kaddish Too Soon?”). In “The Last Jews Standing? on the Patheos blog(8/14), R. Adlerstein noted that “Orthodox Jews will face many challenges in the next half-century, but they are not the same as those faced by non-Orthodox Jews”. R. Moshe Sherer used to quote a 1940s secular Jewish spokesman who referred to Orthodox Judaism as “a sickly weed”.

      Regarding kiruv, R. Ephraim Buchwald wrote in the 2012 Klal Perspectives that “contemporaneously with, and clearly related to, the rapid decline of the Conservative movement over the last two decades, it is my view that there has been a precipitous drop in the number of people becoming baalei teshuva in America.”

    • Mycroft says:

      The little known actuary is either the most orone of the most balanced, precise, polite writers in the Orthodox blogosphere

    • Shades of Gray says:

      A few years ago, R. Berel Wein wrote similary to R. Gordimer in response to Daniel Gordis’ “Requiem for a Movement:

      “One is entitled to behave as one wishes but the requiem for the Conservative movement was pretty much self inflicted by its dumbing down of the core principles of Judaism and severing itself from the ideas of Jewish spirituality and historical continuity.

      There is a dangerous trend that exists in the fringes of the Modern Orthodox Jewish world to imitate these errors of the Conservative movement. Feminist fetishes, women rabbis, condoning what the Torah specifically forbids, and disregarding lessons of past history and current conditions will in no way guarantee the survival of the Jewish family, the Orthodox synagogue or the general Jewish society.

      A greater concentration on the value systems that the Torah represents, a true sense of tolerance for others and for differing opinions and an emphasis on spiritual growth as a necessary companion for pure Torah knowledge can create a wider reach and a stronger appeal in Orthodoxy. A clear definition of what we are, a delineation between true Jewish values and passing current fads and a sense of response to the existential questions of life – who I am, what am I doing here, and of what value is my existence – is the basic core of Jewish belief, theology and history.

      The Conservative movement was somehow unable or unwilling to address these basic needs of the human soul. This more than anything else has led to its decline and predicted extinction. One would hope that the Orthodox Jewish world, instead of the exulting in unwarranted triumphalism, would learn the proper lessons from the debacle of current American Jewish life”

  7. Raymond says:

    While Mark Twain overwhelmingly refers to secular Jews when extolling our virtues, that does not necessarily mean that traditional Jews should no longer quote him. Even if it is true that secular Jews with enormous accomplishments such as Albert Einstein did not prove to have a lasting Jewish legacy with their own particular families, that does not necessarily make them any less representative of our Jewish people. One can compare such Jews to cut flowers. When one buys flowers from a flower shop, those flowers, while well on their way toward dying, are still very beautiful, or else one would not buy them. Although admittedly temporary, they still have value. Similarly, when Jews turn secular, they nevertheless have inherited thousands of centuries of Jewish tradition. Often in spite of themselves and in their own particular ways, they teach our Jewish ways and our ideas to the world. I am thinking here, for example, of the Nobel Prize winning novelist Isaac Singer, who apparently had only disdain for traditional Jews, yet he could not help but use precisely that group of people as his material for his writings, doing so with both warmth and nostalgia. Ultimately, of course, flowers not severed from their roots in the ground are still vastly superior to those already cut, and so in the final analysis, best of all is to stay as close as possible to our Jewish traditions. Perhaps my only point here is that there is value in, and there is nothing wrong with, feeling proud even of those secular Jews who have nevertheless made a positive impact on our world. As for Mark Twain, that quote of his, where he so gratifyingly demonstrates a real appreciation for us, makes him my favorite of all non-Jewish authors. I do not think it is just a coincidence that perhaps no other author with the possible exception of another philosemite, namely Abraham Lincoln, embodies the essence of America as well as he does.

  8. Yehudah says:

    Df seems very blase about these new movements and the souls that are lost to them. I for one am proud that my ancestors thus far resisted the revolutionary urge(or channeled it appropriately)and to be link in the chain of ovdai hashem that goes back to sinai! What of the chilul shem shmayim when a yid denies the basics of Jewish belief Won’t you join me in prayer that no psul should ever be found in our offspring and that kvod shmayim be misrabeh. Can’t we agree that those who wrote and were inspired by the Jewish observer are enjoying a lichtige gan eden and those who blazed the trail for a deviant movement have no chelek therein.

  9. mavin says:

    Someone wrote here that the secular Jews are the ones who are mashpia on the rest of the world and not the Torah committed Jews. That’s right and that’s how it should be because Torah is for the Jews and our obligation is to reach out to the secular and assimilated Jews to influence them to return (teshuvah) and commit to Torah. Those who live the Torah life, as commanded at Sinai is what really influences the rest of the world (tikkun Olam), which will ultimately bring us Moshiach because we, as Jews , are doing G-D’s Will. We have no obligation to be mashpia the outside world but to hold fast with our Torah and its dictates. If the majority of Jews would adhere to this basic requirements of Am Yisrael, we would be at that point where we wouldn’t be thinking about a hundred years from now, but realize that we are already at the footsteps of the coming of Moshiach so our people better wake up and realize they have to choose the right side sooner than later. Those who are making their own rules and creating new groups and organizations which go against Torah m’Sinai, are only committing the sin of making other Jews sin (chotim u’machtim). Am sure there will be many righteous of the nations who will understand, maybe even faster than our own, r’l.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This