- Orthodoxy's Retreat From Modernity
Rabbi Simcha Krauss
The front-page Jewish Week headline "Jews Turning From
(Nov. 2) has shaken American Jewry to its foundations. Reporting on a
study that is part of the American Religious Identity Survey, the
accompanying article notes that the number of people considering
themselves Jews who nevertheless identify with another religion has
more than doubled over the last decade, and that another quarter of
American Jews say they have no religion.
- It is highly unlikely that many born Orthodox Jews below the age of
have turned secular. And yet, if the American Jewish community is
rapidly abandoning the Jewish religion, it is Orthodox Judaism that
should be asking itself some tough questions.
- We Orthodox have long claimed to know the secret of Jewish
continuity. It was an amalgam of kiruv (outreach), intensive yeshiva
education, an insistence on no compromise and the ignition of a baal
teshuvah movement that would transform the face of American Jewry.
We told ourselves - and anyone else who would listen - that
Orthodoxy was the only dynamic force in American Jewish life and was
therefore bound to triumph over the alternatives.
- But the new study tells us what some of us have known deep down for
a long time: While the resurgence of Orthodoxy has enabled us to halt
the net outflow from Orthodoxy that used to characterize our
community, its impact on the religious lives of the great majority of
American Jews has been nil. Orthodox Judaism, all the alleged
returnees to observance notwithstanding, does not have much appeal
beyond our own community. Why?
- Beginning some two centuries ago in Western Europe and then
spreading eastward, ghetto walls crumbled and many leaders of
traditional Judaism - which was now taking on the appellation
"Orthodox" - sought to grapple with the new reality. Whether
the Torah and Derech Eretz philosophy of Samson Raphael Hirsch in
Germany, the religious Zionism of Rabbi Reines in Russia, or the
all-encompassing national-religious vision of Rav Kook in Mandatory
Palestine, such movements recognized that Jews inevitably were going
to integrate into their societies and that Judaism, therefore, needed
incorporate the modern vision of the world to survive. More
they also perceived that elements of modernity could actually enhance
the spiritual power of Judaism in a post-emancipation world.
- New kinds of Torah education appeared that were open to Western
culture and willing to dialogue with modernity. While the Torah and
Derech Eretz schools in Germany were cut off by the Holocaust, and
the hesder yeshivas in Israel have had limited impact, the new
educational approach thrived in America. Not only was there Yeshiva
University, whose very name bespoke a synthesis of the two worlds,
but even the so-called "right-wing" yeshivas assumed that
their students would attend college - which in those days included
mandatory liberal arts courses - and pursue careers in the secular
- Then came the "turn to the right" that is so often touted
triumphalists as a great success. In fact, this was a retreat from the
challenge of the non-Jewish worlds, from fellow Jews who were not as
Orthodox, and from modernity as a whole. The sad result has been
described by the late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, for decades the
leading rabbinical scholar at Yeshiva University. While Rabbi
Soloveitchik claimed to have successfully transmitted the intellectual
heritage of Judaism to his students, he admitted to failure in
transmitting the Jewish religious experience. This, he felt, was
the students "act like children and experience religion like
- He went on: "This is why they accept all types of fanaticism
superstition. Sometimes they are even ready to do things that border
on the immoral. They lack the experiential component of religion, and
simply substitute obscurantism for it After all, I come from the
Yet I have never seen so much naive and uncritical commitment to
people and to ideas as I see in America All extremism, fanaticism and
obscurantism come from a lack of security. A person who is secure
cannot be an extremist."
- Immaturity and obscurantism, superstition and intolerance, abound in
the Orthodox community, and the problem has worsened since Rabbi
Soloveitchik's day. Every problem has a simple answer, it seems, and
life is robbed of all its complexity.
- Do you have doubts about the divinity of the Torah? Bible codes
"prove" the truth of the traditional view.
- Does the death of 6 million innocent Jews in the Holocaust give you
theological problems? There is "proof" that the Jews were
assimilation, for Zionism or for something else. Similar
why the World Trade Center tragedy took place.
- Is someone sick? Have the mezuzahs checked. Marital problems? Have
the ketubah checked? Are you still single? Stop speaking lashon hara.
- Contemporary Jews are thirsty for Jewish spiritual sustenance, but
them medieval obscurantism and superstition, and they will run the
other way - as proven by the new data. Orthodoxy is losing the battle
of ideas because our culturally outmoded thinking and language
cannot convince anyone possessing even minimal intelligence or
cultural sophistication. n
- Rabbi Simcha Krauss is spiritual leader of Young Israel of