How America’s Jews of Tomorrow Learned That Being Liberal Did Not Replace the Messiah

Unlike others, Steven Weisman isn’t at all puzzled about why American Jews are so liberal. Writing in today’s New York Times (“How America’s Jews Learned to Be Liberal”), his analysis seems, at first glance, to be right on the money. As an Orthodox Jew with a strong penchant for finding all sorts of things in the weekly parshah, it bears a strong resemblance to yefas to’ar, the lead topic[1] in this week’s Torah reading.

No, says Weisman, American Jews did not discover the various forms of tikkun olam jumping out at them from their well-worn copies of the Zohar. To his credit, he concedes that this central pillar of American Jewish heterodoxy is “ a kind of modern neologism…rooted in a rich history of American Jews struggling to Americanize their faith while seeing their ‘chosen’ status as an opportunity to ‘repair the world.’”[2] That transformation amounted to turning Judaism into “a distinctively American religion, substantially changed from what it had been for more than two millenniums.”

To assimilate and work in their adopted land, many Jews abandoned some of their ancient practices, from observing the Sabbath to keeping kosher and wearing distinctive clothing. Discarding these practices forced Jews to turn their faith into a devotion to core beliefs, rather than customs and practices…

More broadly, Jews sought to “Americanize” their rituals, making them look more like the church ceremonies of their neighbors…

The most significant change to Judaism was its untethering from the ancient tradition of praying for an altogether human messiah to deliver the Jews back to Jerusalem.

In 1841, the Jews of Charleston, S.C. — then the largest Jewish community in the United States — rebuilt Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim synagogue after a fire and installed an organ, provoking a seminal court battle. The new building posted Maimonides’s main principles but eliminated the ones about going back to Zion. Gustavus Poznanski, the synagogue’s spiritual leader, declared at the dedication, “This synagogue is our temple, this city our Jerusalem, this happy land our Palestine, and as our fathers defended with their lives that temple, that city, and that land, so will their sons defend this temple, this city, and this land…”

Jews continued to be drawn to the concept of an era of redemption as foretold by the ancient prophets, a time when the wolf would lie down with the lamb. The difference was that while Jews prayed for such a prospect, they increasingly understood that it was up to humans to work to achieve it…

For many American Jews, the prophetic and messianic role of the Jewish people themselves has become central to their faith. A Pew Research Center survey of American Jews found in 2013 that among the five million American Jews, most regarded “working for justice and equality” as a pillar of their Jewish identity.

So there you have it. An amalgam of social pragmatism – the wish of immigrants to blend in – and religious pragmatism – shedding the burden of a faith that was too restrictive to their liking – was most responsible for the strange phenomenon best captured by Milton Himmelfarb in his 1973 article in Commentary: “Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans.”

Pragmatism is showcased in this week’s parshah, in the treatment of the captive woman. As the Talmud relates, this section “only speaks against the evil inclination.” It understands the pragmatics of battlefield conditions coupled with unrestrained male libido. At once, it seeks to tame what would otherwise be far worse behavior and transgression, while in most cases discouraging soldiers from making use of the concession altogether.[3] You have to hand it to G-d, for being pragmatic.

Our enthusiasm for the practical is quickly stilled by the juxtaposition of this section to the next ones – those of the wife who has become despised, and of the rebellious son. Again, the Talmud pinpoints the lesson. The soldiers who make use of the captive woman loophole will live to regret it. Rather than find their soulmate, their families will disintegrate, and their children will turn into even worse nightmares than their failed marriages.

Simply put, pragmatism has its price. A pragmatic solution to a small problem can often turn into a larger nightmare down the line.

And so it was with the founding of the new, secular American religion. Weisman’s story ends prematurely. He does not let on that it is almost comical to speak about the new faith created by 19th century Jewish immigrants as an operant factor today. The largest number of Jews today are not Reform or Conservative. They are simply unaffiliated, and couldn’t care less about faith – any faith. Increasingly, as a Pew poll of a good few years ago showed, they don’t bother calling themselves Jewish at all.

Of those who still care, their children don’t. Outside of Orthodox circles, 71% marry out. The denomination that used to claim the largest market share of American Jews will likely be permanently shuttered within a decade.

The descendants of those who jumped the ship of tradition in the 19th century are not going to be the Jewish voters of the future. They will be the non-Jewish voters of the future. Such is the price that those who were determined to blend in are paying. They will blend in through vanishing.

Ironically, Weisman is wrong about the shift from belief in a messiah-gifted-by-G-d to redemption through the work of Man. That shift was incomplete. The American Jews about whom he writes, who increasingly are at odds with their cousins in a thriving, successful, expanding State of Israel, are firm believers in some sort of Divine bailout. Nothing else that they have proposed for decades has made any difference in slowing the disappearance of the non-Orthodox American Jew. They can only believe that they will survive through some sort of miracle of biblical proportions.

Meanwhile, the only group of Jews who are doing well are those who rejected the thinking that Weisman describes both in the 19th century and today. The Jews who will survive are the Orthodox. It seems that those who wait for an actual Messiah are not only better equipped for a utopian tomorrow, but for the challenges of today as well.

  1. Deuteronomy 21:10-14

  2. The best concise takedown of tikkun olam that I am aware of was written by the Zhviler Rebbe of Boston a number of years ago.

  3. As many commentators observe, the 30-day forced cooling-off period was designed to bring most men back to their senses.

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27 Responses

  1. Joel Rich says:

    The soldiers who make use of the captive woman loophole will live to regret it.
    I’d suggest may well rather than will. It’s hard for me to accept that HKB”H would halachically allow such an action and then guarantee punishment for it.

  2. Raymond says:

    Anybody who knows me well could not possibly mistake me for being on the Political Left, and yet there is a part of me that does very strongly believe in the concept of Tikun Olam. I only very rarely see movies for the last several years now, but one movie I did see was about the first Black baseball player, whose name was Jackie Robinson. One thing that stood out for me in that movie was that pitcher Ralph Branca was on that team with Jackie Robinson, and that not only did Ralph Branca go out of his way to make Jackie Robinson feel welcome, but Ralph Branca also happened to be Jewish. I had not known any of that before, but when I found out, I felt so good, so proud to be Jewish. I felt an immediate kinship with Ralph Branca that I had never felt before. Furthermore, while radical political movements can and do get carried away, I have to admit to feeling proud of the fact that Jews seem to always be at the forefront of such movements. I feel proud because I know that at the heart of their protest is a deep humanitarianism, a desire to make the world a better place. And isn’t that why G-d put all of us here in the first place?

    I realize that the belief in the Messiah is a required, core belief in Judaism, and yet from what I know about the Jewish way, G-d intervenes only after we ourselves have put in our maximum efforts. Only when we have done as much as could to make the world a better place, will G-d even consider sending us the Real Messiah.

    I think that where the Jewish Political Left makes a mistake, is to remove the otherwise noble idea of Tikkun Olam from its original, religious context. To use a food analogy, raw fruits are among the healthiest foods that one can eat, but if one merely extracts its juice, then one finds oneself drinking fruit juice, which has been stripped of its fiber and most of its nutrients, and can do real damage to one’s liver and insulin levels. Similarly, while tikkun olam is itself a core value in Torah Judaism, it should not be a concept fully secularized, but should rather be done in a way set out by the Torah.

  3. Steve Brizel says:

    The promotion of what is callled Tikun Olam by the heterodox world illustrates what happens when the ledtist progessive agenda is masked with rhe misreading of a simple phrase from a daily tefila and the disaaociation of a phrase in the Mishnah from its clear and limited meaning.

  4. mb says:

    Actually, Steve Brizel, the heterodox version of Tikkun Olam (TO) descends from neither of your examples, or the Rambam’s explanation, but from the Ari via Chassidic and Sephardi mysticism. Many, if not all, of current TO fads are in fact rooted in Torah. Personally, I wish Orthodoxy would participate more in the current iteration of TO,, rather than reject everything from non-O Jews as a heresy to be avoided.

  5. Bob Miller says:

    I suspect that many Jews were already following the path of least resistance in the old country and continued doing so after arriving here in the 1800s or early 1900s. With more Jewish awareness beforehand, they might have retained more of a traditional Jewish outlook under the new circumstances.

  6. a guy says:

    Thanks for your article, rabbi. You are always very thoughtful and insightful. I have much respect for your work over many years. Please allow me to comment there that I have read too many pieces lamenting the disintegration of American Jewry. This article gives some new info re the 1841 Charleston synagogue pipe organ as a disturbing sign of assimilation. Where is the American Orthodox Jewish community in trying to rescue all these Jews who are “unafilliated”? I read and read about 71% intermarriage etc. But other than what Chabad does to reach out, and some Breslov activity in the US, I NEVER read about OU or Agudath (sorry guys) creating active discussion and endeavors to bring these Jews back!! Why not? Where is the observant Jewish effort to mekarev these people? Sorry, but enough of the lamenting! Where is the hope? Where is the faith and vision that the Jews who are fortunate and privileged to know what Torah life is… where is the faith and vision from them going out actively to bring back the millions of American Jews who do not yet know? Where?! Ayeh? Will Hashem say to them what He said to Adam in the Garden: “Where are you?”

    • Not sure what you’ve been reading – and missing. The Orthodox community has a pretty good record on making a large effort to reach estranged Jews, going back many decades. The landscape is dotted with all sorts of efforts, many of them large scale. They include large parts of the Orthodox landscape, including Agudah and the OU. Some that come to mind (besides the huge efforts of Chabad, one of those who began and never looked back) include the OU’s NCSY, Yeshiva University’s Torah Leadership Seminars (I’m a veteran who served as an advisor in both, despite not having attended YU), the Released-Time Program (for public school kids in the New York area), Torah Umesorah’s Partners in Torah (providing one-on-one Torah study for decades), Shuvu (for Jews from the former Soviet Union), Oorah, and dozens and dozens of kiruv yeshivos and centers around the world. The effort is so large that, again, decades ago, the different organizations came together under the banner of AJOP, the Association of Jewish Outreach Programs. Major support for organization came from, and continues to come from philanthropic families like the Wolfsons, and the Olami organization. The effort was made, and continues to be made in cities and campuses everywhere. We sometimes fail to take into account the extent of bechira that Hashem has granted us. Too many people think that teshuva is formulaic: if you can utter the right words, or present the right arguments, errant Jews will certainly see the light and return to halachic practice. As the number of dropouts throughout the Orthodox world bears testimony, this is not true even for FFBs. May HKBH give all of us the chizuk to be strong in our own emunah, and be able to communicate it to others

  7. Steve Brizel says:

    MB sources and examples where you think TO fads should be viewed as rooted in Torah please. See Last weeks commentary of Ramban re not worshipping HaShem in tbe same way that Gentiles worship their deities.

  8. Alex says:

    Orthodoxy itself also had to change on American shores, to relate to a generation that did not speak Yiddish and wanted to integrate. There are scores of towns outside the NY area that for a generation or two had thriving Orthodox shuls and prominent yeshiva-educated rabbonim. Now all that remains are cemeteries. I don’t think we can underestimate the positive impact of the Young Israel movement and the O-U in creating a unique, vibrant American Orthodoxy in the early 1900’s.

  9. Dr bill says:

    Adding tikun olam as an obligatory activity is not at all the issue. Eliminating other mitzvot based on societal factors is the issue. The kabbalists added and at times modified but never subtracted important observances

  10. Lacosta says:

    If the current iteration means leftist politics, that ain’t happening. The agenda of the left today includes abolishing atavistic patriarchal religion e g Orthodox Judaism

  11. mb says:

    A better question, Steve, is find one that isn’t?

  12. Bob Miller says:

    Much of this activity by the Left actually degrades society by promoting and, when possible, imposing false models of morality and social interaction. It wouldn’t be the first time beguiling language concealed a menace.

  13. mavin says:

    The only real way a Jew causes Tikun Olam is if he acts and behaves like a Jew; i.e., he performs the mitzvot and lives a Jewish life, no matter where in the world he is. The liberals use Tikun Olam as an easy substitute for keeping mitzvot , which they found burdensome and, therefore, feel if they worry and do for the wide world, while neglecting H’ and His Commands and his fellow Jews, he could integrate himself within the non-Jewish world and enjoy all the benefits of the modern, immoral and corrupt world. Of course, by doing so, he eventually loses his Jewishness. No wonder there is 70% assimilation & intermarriage. Whe the Jew lives according to Torah, it also benefits the rest of the world. The modern religious, at least, keep the mitzvot and their children learn in yeshivot so their lineage continues on. They go wrong when they insert themselves into politics and living the high life, while they should be concerned with the welfare of their fellow Jews not as blessed as they are materially and should be concerned with Eretz Yisrael. In the meantime, the State of Israel is veering further away from Torah Judaism and becoming a state of its citizens, r’l. The state is allowing more and more of the Reform to infiltrate together with missionaries and making nice with our mortal enemies. This should be the main concern of world Jewry today. We see, today, how many orthodox, by feeling too comfortable in the galut, slowly start leaning leftward and liberal; therefore, no wonder there are new denominations being dreamed up , such as Open Orthodoxy (oxymoronic), etc. This is the watering down of Torah. We have foresaken the ways of our parents and ancestors. We have reached bottom, a sign of the end of days, so we, the Jewish people better wake up. It’s chodesh Elul, we need to get our act together and remember who we are and our real purpose in the world and beg H’ that HE speed up the Geulah with Rachamim.

  14. Steve Brizel says:

    MB show me any part or aspect of what is called TO today that has a source or can be based in any source in Toras HaNigleh or Toras HaNistar

  15. mb says:

    Steve Brizel,
    This is pointless.
    You won’t recognise that the various passions of Non-O that they call Tikkun Olam are rooted in Torah ideals, I have nothing else to say then. I can’t think of one of them that isn’t. Can you?

  16. Ralph Suiskind says:

    Concessions to passing fades have never ever been effective in strengthening Jewish Observance by individuals or communities… Only difference from the 19th century, is the fact that our communities have strengthened their
    commitment by establishment of yeshivos ( modern as well as more traditional ones) as well as the establishment of kollellim in their respective communities.. Wherever there exists a core of wealthy orthodox individuals committed their wealth and their time to needs of their respective communities without compromise, our orthodox community’s future is secure.

  17. Bob Miller says:

    Regarding the comment by mb August 23, 2018 at 2:13 pm:

    Throughout the ages, there have been heresies traceable to to cherry-picked and then distorted elements taken from Judaism. Some Jews who harbor such views have still viewed themselves as Jews, while others have not. Socialism in its many forms belongs to this category. Christianity and Islam also misappropriate and misuse selected Jewish concepts. Some people think they can be a thing and its opposite at the same time.

  18. Steve Brizel says:

    MB i asked you to set forth examples of how TO in today’s vernacular is rooted in Toras HaNigleh and or Toras HaNistar. We can continue the dialogue when you produce such examples as opposed to claims that such are rooted in either Toras HaNigleh or Toras HaNistR

  19. a guy says:

    Very respectfully to Rabbi Adlerstein, re Orthodox Jewish outreach. I don’t see it. I never see it, except for Chabad. I never, ever see OU, or Agudath going into the unafilliated, Ref/Conserv. communities. Never, ever. I see Chabad and they do great work. But that’s all. I never read in any publications–Orthodox or otherwise about OU/Agudath outreach efforts to these Jews. It is an issue that’s very important to me. The various things you listed appear to be targeting already observant Jews; or, Jews already connected perhaps through summer camps and youth groups…which may include Ref/Conserv. But, I never, ever see, read or hear about any of it. All I know is over 70% intermarriage rate and so many Jews I know are “not interested” quite pointedly not interested in hearing about any of it. When they are, it’s a pleasant surprise.
    Again, I mean no disrespect in the least. You are a fine rabbi and wonderful person who works hard for the Jewish people 100%. On this subject either we’re misunderstanding each other or something is not happening.

    • I am mystified as to why you don’t see it. The efforts of kiruv workers is very much in evidence. Many shuls would be almost moribund were it not for the large population of BTs that joined. The organizations that I mentioned decidedly did not specifically go after those who were already connected to something Jewish – although those Jews were the low-hanging fruit. Still, you are not incorrect. It was only Chabad that turned kiruv into a global effort, and took the message to any forlorn community that had a Jewish population. They gave up on no one. But here’s the rub. Chabad has been doing this for quite some time. They haven’t reversed the general trend either! They have the ONLY successful model in the Diasporafor keeping Jews Jewish even when they are not observant. But they have not changed the tragic trend. We have to realize that – in contradistinction to what some tell the public – belief and observance are not just a matter to being exposed to certain arguments. People have bechira. They will reject (or react with complete indifference to) arguments for which they have no use. Saving the generation is NOT simply a matter of sending enough kiruv workers out there to wow the unwashed, Jewishly-ignorant masses. They will not come, or they will walk out, or tune out, etc. Remember the famous mashal offered by R. Yisrael Salanter that explained why he left Lita for Paris. He said that if a team of horses gets away there are two ways to regain control of them. You can stand directly in their path and try to stop them. But all that will accomplish is that you will be trampled! The better way is to allow them to run their hearts content till they tire and stop. Then you can calmly take the reins, and lead them back. In Lita, he said, the Jews are still galloping downhill. Try to stop them, and you will be crushed. In Paris, they’ve already exhausted themselves. Now it it possible to bring them back. The point of this being that R Yisrael recognized that there were people – perhaps entire countries of people – that just were not going to listen to any arguments to return to practice. That is certainly true today, when we are competing with much more intense forms of taavah, and the very notion of a G-d who speaks to Man and imposes rules and demands is met with disbelief and derision.

  20. mb says:

    Bob Miller,
    So? Yes, many will disappear from Judaism, but not all. Some of their descendants may even reappear in Bnai Brak or Meir Shearim. Some will recall their non-observant great-grand mother fought for the powerless.

  21. Dr bill says:

    Those looking for a source for TO are focusing on the floor as opposed to the ceiling

  22. Bob Miller says:

    “Some will recall their non-observant great-grand mother fought for the powerless.”

    Or fought to impose total state control on society, so that all but the regime were powerless.

  23. Steve Brizel says:

    If you read the pronouncements of TO advocates carefully they assume that TO means a progressive agenda which in fact one can argue and contend may either not be a proper societal goal and has little relevance if any to any source whatsoever.

  24. Steve Brizel says:

    If you want to see the hero sled of those support the TO agenda and their intolerance of dissenting Views look at the Conduct and antics of those who opposed to the Kavanaugh nomination. To paraphrase Joseph Welch where have common decency and the respect for law let alone cross examining a witness without allowing a witness to see a document become mainstream in the sake of what is viewed as TO?

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