Who Really Speaks on Behalf of American Jews?
The overwhelming majority of American Jews support religious freedom and religious pluralism in Israel. They oppose the monopoly of the government-sponsored chief rabbinate over Israel’s religious life.
They want all Jews — including Jewish women and Jews of all religious streams — to have access to the Western Wall and the right to pray there according to their own custom. They are horrified by the failure of the Jewish state to grant basic religious rights to all of Israel’s Jews.
And yet, in a monumental act of self-delusion, Rabbi Avi Shafran asserts in a recent Haaretz op-ed that Reform rabbis — such as Rabbi Rick Jacobs, leader of the American Reform movement — cannot claim to speak for American Jewry on such matters. But they can. And so can Conservative rabbis. The reason for this is that 90% of American Jewry is non-Orthodox, a fact that Shafran himself acknowledges. And among the non-Orthodox, support for religious freedom is virtually unanimous.
If Shafran has any doubts about this, I suggest that he visit any non-Orthodox synagogue or any Jewish communal institution. What he will discover there is that commitment among American Jews to church-state separation in Israel runs very deep. American Jewry respects Orthodoxy, but it views as outlandish the idea that in Israel, government-selected Orthodox rabbis are the sole authorized gatekeepers and ticket distributors to the Jewish religion. And Shafran should read the 2014 JPPI study. It reveals that Diaspora communities around the world want to eliminate Israel’s Orthodox monopoly over religion and feel especially strongly about restrictions on women’s prayer at the Western Wall.
To be sure, the 10% of the community that identifies as Orthodox is entitled to its views. But while Rabbi Shafran refers to this group as “sizable,” it is not sizable at all. And when a Reform or Conservative leader speaks with the support of 90% of the members of the Jewish community, this leader is entitled to say that he or she is speaking in the community’s name. Because that is the case.
But Rabbi Shafran is not only wrong about his numbers. He is wrong about the other things that he says as well. He paints an idyllic picture of a united, fast-growing, deeply committed Orthodoxy, alongside a picture of a collapsing, Jewishly-indifferent, quickly diminishing Reform movement. Neither picture is accurate.
Rabbi Shafran points out that the average number of children for middle-aged Orthodox Jews is 4.1, more than twice the number for other American Jews. But with an Orthodox birthrate that is so high, why are Orthodox numbers so modest? One reason is that a significant number of Orthodox Jews stop practicing Judaism. “Off the Derech,” a book by Faranak Margolese, studies this phenomenon, and concludes that the percentage of yeshiva-educated children from classically observant homes who abandon their tradition could be as high as 33%. The book was written a decade ago, but in an interview last week in Makor Rishon, an Israeli right-wing paper, Ms. Margolese refers to more recent studies that reach a similar conclusion. The point is that the children of American Orthodoxy are not immune to assimilationist forces that impact all American Jews.
There is also no reference by Rabbi Shafran to the deep divisions that are tearing apart the American Orthodox community. Modern Orthodoxy advocates commitment to halakhic observance along with the embrace of secular knowledge. A practicing Orthodox Jew, in this view, can be integrated into American life and culture, and his or her Judaism can include an openness to equality and dignity for women and respect for other streams of Judaism. But Modern Orthodox Jews are now less than a third of the Orthodox community, and they have been subject to withering attacks, both from more traditional elements in their own camp and from the ultra-Orthodox.
The ultra-Orthodox majority, meanwhile, with the exception of Chabad, have retreated into their own enclaves in the New York area and a few other major urban centers. They have stepped up their attacks on the Modern Orthodox, and they continue their efforts to isolate themselves by language, dress, and education from the American mainstream. This is a legitimate path to take in America, of course, for Jews no less than for groups such as the Amish. But let it be plainly said: This form of Jewish separatism is anathema to the great majority of American Jews, who celebrate America precisely because it allows them full participation in American life.
And what of my own Reform Judaism? Rabbi Shafran lists our failings as he sees them, and some things he gets right. But he does not see that Reform succeeds where Orthodoxy does not. It responds to those who want a rigid, hierarchical, rebbe-dominated Judaism with a Judaism that is choice-driven, brash, and forward-looking. In a restless and optimistic country, it too is restless and optimistic, yearning for justice and affirming America’s promise. And its support for Israel is rooted in liberal values, attempting to merge national aspirations with universal concerns.
To be sure, Reform has a touch of chaos. It is unafraid to trample taboos, and it reads Torah with an adventurous spirit. Inevitably, it loses some people along the way. But my own guess is that the glum assumptions that demographers are making about intermarriage are mostly wrong, just as they are wrong about the ability of the Orthodox to keep all of their children within the fold. In any case, for Reform Judaism, which offers creativity, dynamism, and authentic Jewish spirituality, the risks are worth taking. And by the way, as sociologist Steven Cohen has pointed out, the membership of Reform congregations grew by more than 20% between 1990 and 2013.
Rabbi Shafran writes with a glib triumphalism and seems certain that Orthodoxy in America will soon overwhelm all other Jewish groups. What he presents as fact, however, is mostly supposition and wishful thinking. My own view is that I would love to see a thriving Orthodoxy in America and a thriving Conservative movement as well. Despite our differences, the passionate pluralism of American Jewry is a great blessing. But unlike Rabbi Shafran, I am much less sure of what the future will bring and much more hopeful. My suggestion: Let each of us focus on deepening the Judaism of our own movement. For other Jewish matters, let’s proceed with humility and restraint.