The Ascent of Jewish Orthodoxy and Conservative Religion in Twenty-First Century America

The remarkable growth of Jewish Orthodoxy, evangelical Christianity, orthodox Catholicism, and devout Islam in this post-secular age demonstrates that many people are seeking to recover a sense of meaning that transcends the material.

“You say there is no religion now. ’Tis like saying in rainy weather, There is no sun.” Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quip about the state of religion in mid-nineteenth-century America could very well have been applied to that of Orthodox Judaism in mid-twentieth-century America. In the 1950s, the future of American Orthodoxy looked so gloomy that prominent sociologist Marshall Sklare predicted its imminent extinction. Sklare’s ominous forecast could not have proved more wrong.

Today, many Orthodox Jews feel a growing sense of confidence, verging on triumphalism—and with good reason. Demographic trends are unmistakably pointing in Orthodoxy’s favor. Orthodox Jews have significantly higher fertility rates than the general population. They have an average of 4.1 children per family, compared with 1.9 children per non-Orthodox family, according to the 2013 Pew survey. Fewer Jews are leaving Orthodoxy than in years past. Staggeringly high rates of Orthodox Jews also marry others who share their faith. Among non-Orthodox Jews, 72 percent of married respondents reported having a non-Jewish spouse. For the Orthodox, that number was just 2 percent. It is no wonder that Orthodoxy is the only major American Jewish denomination that is growing.

Orthodox Jews are also beginning to attain positions of considerable power and influence in American life. In the past eighteen years, Orthodox Jews have served as U.S. attorney general, secretary of the treasury, and candidate for vice president. Now that the daughter and son-in-law of the president of the United States are Orthodox Jews—individuals who also happen to be two of the president’s closest advisers—Orthodoxy is more prominent than it has ever been in America.

As American Orthodoxy continues to increase in size, status, and confidence, anyone interested in American Jewish life—and in American life in general—would be well advised to become better acquainted with Orthodoxy: what it is, who the Orthodox are, where they come from, and what the future may hold for them. A new book by one of the foremost scholars on American Orthodoxy helps us do just that.

Who Are the Orthodox?

According to the data and demographical research superbly synthesized by Chaim I. Waxman in Social Change and Halakhic Evolution in American Orthodoxy, the Orthodox are more politically and culturally conservative—though not necessarily more economically conservative—than other Jews. They are generally less educated (at least as far as secular studies are concerned) than other American Jews. The exception is the Modern Orthodox; a greater percentage of Modern Orthodox Jews earn college and graduate degrees than any other Jewish group. Modern Orthodox Jews are more Zionist and more accepting of homosexuality than ultra-Orthodox Jews. Orthodox Jews as a whole not only have significantly lower rates of intermarriage than the non-Orthodox but also have significantly higher rates of marriage in general. Although there is much talk among Orthodox Jews of a so-called “shidduch crisis,” they are more likely to be married, and more likely to be married younger, than non-Orthodox Jews. While only 55 percent of Americans over the age of 18 are married, 71 percent of American Orthodox Jews are married. And while divorce rates in America fluctuate around the 50 percent mark, in American Orthodoxy they currently stand at only 10 percent.

Orthodoxy is surprisingly diverse—a denomination comprising “fifty shades of black,” in Jack Wertheimer’s felicitous phrase. Indeed, Waxman observes that Orthodoxy is actually “the most diverse” denomination and “probably the most pluralistic of American Jewish denominations” as well.

Orthodoxy has two main branches—Modern Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox (or “Haredi”) Jews. A higher degree of variation is found within ultra-Orthodoxy, which encompasses both the Hassidic community and the “Yeshivish” community. Though they dress in black and white, the Hassidic community is no monochromatic monolith; considering the large assortment of Hassidic sects, it is more accurate to speak of Hassidic communities. Modern Orthodoxy is more cohesive, relatively speaking. Yet divisions exist even here. Some now claim that the community is riven between “Centrist Orthodox” and “Open Orthodox” Jews, while others dispute either the extent of such divisions or the usefulness of these terms. In any case, a significant degree of variation regarding religious philosophies and ritual observances (mostly concerning women’s roles in the synagogue and communal life) can be found within Modern Orthodoxy.

In another recent book on Orthodox Jewry, Modern Orthodox Judaism: A Documentary History, Zev Eleff notes that those looking for matches on Modern Orthodox dating sites have three options: they can identify themselves as “Modern Orthodox liberal,” “Modern Orthodox middle of the road,” or “Modern Orthodox machmir” (stringent). I know from firsthand experience that these differences are real and have real-world ramifications. Yet I still have difficulty identifying what exactly these differences are; I’m not even sure in which of these three sub-groups I belong. And these are not the only potential categories. Other forms of self-identification include “Modern Yeshivish” (a sort of hybrid between Modern Orthodox and Yeshivish), “Carlebachian” (anyone’s guess), or simply “Shomer Mitzvot” (observant). And this is not even to mention the manifold differences between Ashkenazic, Sephardic, Yemenite, Bukharian, and Persian Orthodox Jews.

How and Why Jewish Law Can Change

Fealty to “halakhah” (Jewish law) is probably the single greatest factor that distinguishes Orthodox from non-Orthodox Jews. Thus, it is critical for Orthodox Jews—and for those who want to learn more about Orthodox Judaism—to understand how and why halakhah can change.

Waxman is particularly effective at providing concise yet comprehensive explanations of halakhic methodology (though not of the halakhic process), presenting overviews of several particularly contentious halakhic debates. He pairs them with close readings of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s responsa, highlighting the ways in which psychology, ethics, empathic sensitivity, and other meta-halakhic factors can affect halakhic adjudication.

According to Waxman, halakhic change does occur within Orthodoxy, but in inconsistent, uneven patterns. Occasionally the change leads to more stringency, while at other times the changes are in favor of leniency. Waxman views the halakhic changes toward greater stringency (such as the significant increase in the number of Orthodox Jews who now eat only “glatt” kosher, and the extension of the separation of sexes from synagogue services to many other settings) as stemming in large part from external socio-cultural stimuli. Reactions to the increasing laxity in moral norms in American society, Waxman believes, probably “contributed to the growth of Orthodox stringency” within the past thirty years. This trend indicates the strength of Modern Orthodoxy as a religious movement in a climate that tends to weaken, not strengthen, religiosity over time.

At the same time, even in the most Orthodox of Modern Orthodox homes, halakhic change has also occurred in the direction of greater leniency. The use of electric timers on Shabbat, for example, was once anathema. Rabbi Feinstein prohibited their use in every sector of life save turning lights on and off. Yet, as Waxman notes, today such timers are regularly used in the Modern Orthodoxy community “for a variety of purposes, such as home heating, air conditioning, and warming food.”

Though Waxman makes it clear that halakhah can and does change, he warns that calls for halakhic change in the direction of leniency can easily “backfire” and spark a “reactionary impulse.” One wonders, though, how much the calls for halakhic change have truly backfired when one considers that over one hundred graduates from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat—liberal Orthodox rabbinical schools—have been placed in rabbinic positions across the country in recent years, that the growth of partnership minyanim is accelerating, and that increasing attention is being drawn to the inequities of divorce law and the conversion process in Orthodox Judaism.

Why Orthodoxy?

Waxman’s book offers a wealth of information concerning the “whats,” “whos,” “whens,” and “hows” of Orthodoxy, but little in the way of the “whys.” Why is Orthodoxy—a way of life premised on reverence for tradition, compulsory practices, and compliance with communal norms—flourishing in a world that prizes novelty, voluntarism, and individual autonomy? Why is Orthodoxy not only retaining a growing number of its own but also attracting more new members (“ba’alei teshuvah”) than ever before? Why is Orthodoxy resonating with an ever-increasing number of postmodern Jews?

Modern Orthodoxy in America emerged as a reaction to the antebellum American Reform movement. In his book, Eleff twice uses the word “disenchanted” in his description of the Charleston Jews who broke away from traditional Judaism to found the Reformed Society of Israelites in 1825. This concept may help us understand why Orthodoxy continues to enchant so many.

The term “disenchantment” was popularized by Max Weber in his seminal 1917 essay “Wissenschaft als Beruf” [“Science as a Vocation”] to describe modernity. The modern world, according to Weber, is characterized by “disenchantment”—a movement toward greater rationalization, intellectualization, and scientific sophistication, and a concomitant movement away from fantasy, magic, animism, and transcendent meaning. Weber borrowed the term from Schiller’s 1788 poem “The Gods of Greece,” an elegy to an older, enchanted time in which beliefs in gods, fairies, and spirits still reigned. When Weber described the modern world as “disenchanted,” then, he was using the term in its most literal sense: We are now living in a world that has been given the gift of science but has been deprived of something much deeper.

Perhaps Orthodoxy’s astonishing growth is at least partly propelled by a “disenchantment with disenchantment,” to borrow anthropologist Ernest Gellner’s term. Many regret the loss of meaning that the rationalizing process of modernity entailed, and they wish to recover some of the enchantment that was lost when science supposedly triumphed over religion.

This phenomenon is not restricted to Jews. The remarkable growth of not only Orthodoxy but also evangelical Christianity, traditional Catholicism, and devout Islam in this post-secular age, as well as the persistence and growth of religion in the non-Western world, demonstrates that many people are seeking to recover a sense of meaning that transcends the material. It attests to a postmodern urge to recapture a sense of the supernatural that the rational, modern, scientistic world threatened to snuff out.

Within a generation, the majority of the American Jewish community will be Orthodox—something it has not been in nearly 150 years. In 1950, the question was whether Orthodoxy would survive. In 2050, the question will become how Orthodoxy will thrive. Will it be gracious toward non-Orthodox Jews once it is in the majority? Will its focus be insular, or will it be concerned for American Jewry as a whole? Will it rest on its laurels, or will it continue to seek to present a vision of Judaism that is intellectually compelling and spiritually uplifting?

By providing us with a clear, comprehensive picture of American Orthodoxy’s past and present, Chaim Waxman helps us understand what the future may look like—and what Orthodoxy must do to remain as vibrant then as it is now.

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