February 22, 2020

Can liberal Judaism survive?

As an old Yiddish saying has it, Jews are like other people, only more so. The Pew study of Judaism in America reminds us of this truth. Although startling to some, the rise of orthodoxy is to be expected.  In a world in which traditionalism/fundamentalism is growing in Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and other faiths, Jews do what others do and turn forcefully to more orthodox modes of faith and worship. This is not a phenomenon peculiar to Jews, but a worldwide wave.

As with all great social trends, it will change.  When and in what way, we cannot know. There are many things to be cheered about in the rise of orthodoxy and some that cause serious concern.  As a Conservative Rabbi however, my focus is on non-orthodox Judaism and its fate.

Over half of American Jews identify as Conservative and Reform (53 percent while Orthodoxy is 10 percent) but the trends are discouraging for Conservative and Reform Judaism.  Long term, can the more liberal branches survive?  The answer will lie in the quality of the core and whether it can expand.   Reform and Conservative Jews who go to Jewish day school and summer camps have very high rates of retention.  But the investment in Jewish life is America is costly in both time and money, and requires powerful motivation.  For many non-Orthodox Jews, it proves too much.

As a countercultural tradition in America, Judaism asks a great deal of its adherents.  Judaism is a behavior-centered tradition.  It is primarily enacted in a language strange to most American Jews (Hebrew) and requires an extensive education to understand its fundamentals. Americans are not distinguished by diligence in acquiring cultural literacy.  That which is continually diluted will eventually disappear.

‘Being an ethical person’ while central to Judaism, is not uniquely Jewish.  ’Fighting for social justice’ while central to Judaism, is not uniquely Jewish.  Wearing Tefillin, praying in Hebrew, Torah study, Kashrut, Jewish communal adherence and activities — these things (while not necessarily limited only to Jews) are activities that keep the core of the tradition alive. As Jews have left the latter and profess the former, adherence weakens.  It requires a massive, sustained and serious effort to move the etiolated Jews of good conscience to the passionate Jews of ritual involvement.

Extrapolations are dangerous; when Israel was founded people assumed orthodoxy would disappear and now it is thriving.  We cannot know from trends today what will happen tomorrow. Equally however, it is dangerous to ignore the clear and urgent warning signs.  An intensive Jewish education and embracing communities with genuine standards can both save and revivify liberal Judaism.  The question is whether an argument can be made sufficiently compelling for those who no longer accept “Because God wants you to.” The past decades offer little in the way of encouragement.   Liberal Jews have sustained powerful, wonderful institutions, built schools and camps and federations and boards and a giant infrastructure of social and communal aid.  What they — what we — have not yet done is prove to ourselves and our children that all this mandates a lifelong investment of time, energy, money and devotion.  I believe that we can and we must. At the risk of sounding quaint, God wants us to.

This story originally appeared on thewashingtonpost.com