The Relationship of Orthodox Jews Believing in Denomination
and Non-Denomination Believing Jews
BY: Shlomo Zuckier
Reviewed Book: Adam Mintz (ed.), The Relationship of Orthodox Jews with Believing Jews of Other Religious Ideologies and Non-Believing Jews (New York: Yeshiva University Press; Jersey City, NJ: Ktav Publishing House, 2010). Price: $30.00.
The first thing one notices when picking up The Relationship of Orthodox Jews with Believing Jews of Other Religious Ideologies and Non-Believing Jews is (as the reader of this sentence may currently notice) its long and unwieldy title.[i] Aside from its onerous span, the devoted Orthodox Forum series reader will notice that this topic appears to have been covered in an earlier issue, namely, the aptly-titled Jewish Tradition and the Nontraditional Jew.[ii] However, one should not judge a book by its cover (even if it does qualify as a significant debacle) and the reader must actually open the book to examine its contents, so I proceeded to peruse the substance of the volume itself.
This volume includes articles sociological and theoretical, progressive and traditional, Israeli and American. It contains a historical overview of Orthodox and non-Orthodox relations by Dr. Jonathan Sarna, as well as several articles relating to educational institutions that employ Orthodox faculty members but cater to the broader Jewish community, such as Birthright Israel and the Heschel School. R. Mark Dratch presents a strong survey of basic issues relevant to Orthodox interaction with non-Orthodox Jews, and mori ve-rabbi R. Aharon Lichtenstein presents an broader explication of the relevant factors involved in relating to non-Orthodox Jews, including issues of belief and practice, keiruv (outreach), improving the world, inclusiveness, collaboration between denominations, maintaining distinctions between denominations without a sense of competition, and a short discussion of the proper halakhic category into which the nonobservant fall. R. Yona Reiss proffers a summary of different approaches on the halakhic status of other Jews, while R. Yuval Cherlow advocates for a more accommodating stance towards irreligious people in the contemporary State of Israel. Marc D. Stern discusses, at an anecdotal level but sprinkled with knowledge of the relevant halakhic and pragmatic issues, the experience of an Orthodox Jew at a non-denominational Jewish organization. Finally, the volume contains several articles regarding Israel, including a comparison of the secular-religious divides in Israel and America, a realistic look at the relationships between secular and religious soldiers in the IDF, a description of the Religious Zionist view of secular Zionism, and an argument from the American perspective to allow civil marriage in Israel. To summarize, the volume includes many well-written and reasoned theoretical pieces, as well as an abundance of relevant sociological information.
The truck[iii] one might have with the latest installment of the Orthodox Forum series comprises two distinct but related issues. The first problem, which I briefly noted above, is the similarity between this issue and the 1992 issue entitled, Jewish Tradition and the Nontraditional Jew. Which new topics appear in this issue that merit the devotion of an entire second volume to this topic? This problem is directly confronted by R. Lichtenstein (“What novel teaching was there at the study hall today?”), and he provides several answers: the earlier volume focuses on the individual deviant, while this issue also encompasses the community, and, more significantly, this volume focuses on belief as opposed to observance. He also notes that the theories of postmodernism have exerted some influence on society since the last volume on this topic was published, and so a re-evaluation of the topic is entirely appropriate. However, he does not think these theories have played too significant a role in this context.[iv]
The distinction I find more relevant between the two volumes regards not the reactions to philosophies of postmodernism per se, but to the sociological realities born of the postmodernity of the world in which we currently live. In other words, there has been a profound change in the reality of the denominational landscape and, by extension, in the nature of the inter-denominational conversations to be held. This radical shift is portended in a couple of passages in the volume, though its full force is not felt at any point. In the area of philanthropy, Marc D. Stern notes that philanthropists are now, more than ever, interested in knowing exactly how their hard-earned money is to be spent, as opposed to in the past, when they were largely satisfied to simply dump large sums of money on a Jewish organization’s front porch. In the broader sense, the generation that has entered adulthood over the past eighteen years and is significantly impacting the world (and whom this Orthodox Forum might have addressed more directly), is not interested in the institutionalized infrastructure that has been at the forefront of Jewish life in past decades.[v] In the words of R. Reiss, who most clearly relates to this phenomenon, “The individualization of ritual practice is consistent with a comment that I recently heard from a colleague that we are now living in a ‘post-denominational’ age.”[vi] His characterization of the phenomenon is also apt: “There is both a utopian opportunity latent in post-denominationalism as well as a serious danger.”[vii]
In this younger generation, people are not looking to associate with one label or another; they seek truth and meaning – they want to adhere to their tradition, but they want to do so in a way that appeals to them. (Note the recent move towards ritual observance across the board in Judaism.) This appears to be the wave of the future, and since people tend to shift significantly in their affiliations and beliefs between ages 15 and 30, the young demographic is the more volatile and exciting one, representing a major shift from the past. However, instead of focusing on the future, in which the Jewish world will be dominated by post- and non-denominational collaboration among individuals, this Forum book repeatedly looks over its shoulder to a prior stage to this one. Many articles mention the Synagogue Council of America’s goal of having all denominations sit down at the table together, and the suggestion of renewing this practice is raised in a semi-idyllic light. What was not noted was that these past issues, though they may cast a certain shadow on the discussion intellectually, are relegated to theoretical importance, as the Jewish community has moved beyond the points where that scenario has significance.
Let us consider, as an example, the phenomenon of independent minyanim.[viii] They comprise a group of participants who are largely unaffiliated with any denomination and are mostly traditional in practice, with the major exception of being completely egalitarian. The independent minyan serves a young population, and it is has been a significant force in that sector of Jewish society over the last ten years. As Dr. Sarna puts it, “Independent minyanim remain among the most exciting and successful innovations of American Jewish life […] nurturing a new generation of Jewish leaders and worshipers.”[ix] As they seem to be leading the charge of the new generation, independent minyanim and what they represent could have been seen as a new and important trend, existent today but not eighteen years ago, which the Forum might have related to.
The Orthodox Forum could have considered the following questions: What are independent minyanim doing that we in the Modern Orthodox community can emulate? How can we relate to their adherents, who may want to settle on a denomination at some point? Is there an authentic Orthodox response to the formidable challenges of egalitarianism, which turn away so many educated young people from Orthodoxy? For a book whose title does not mention any denomination outside of Orthodoxy, one would expect that there be at least one article dealing with this class of people. The challenge of 21st-century Modern Orthodoxy is and will be the question of how to keep idealistic and religiously interested, but open and secularly exposed, Jews (especially those from an Orthodox background) who are drawn to egalitarianism, within the fold of Orthodoxy. The goal, as always, must be to present a coherent Orthodoxy that is responsive to the contemporary challenges, without sacrificing any religious principles.
This Orthodox Forum installment did a good job presenting on all the old issues, but unfortunately missed the boat on many of the new ones. Significantly, last year’s Forum (whose proceedings have yet to be published) dealt with many issues of the younger generation (though not specifically from the perspective of Orthodoxy’s relationship to non-believers), which is a positive development. Thus, though the “Orthodox Jews believing in denomination” may have won the day in this volume, there is still ample opportunity for Modern Orthodoxy and its Forum to present a response relevant to the “Non-Denomination believing Jews.”
Shlomo Zuckier is a senior at YC majoring in Philosophy and Jewish Studies and is an Editor-in-Chief of Kol Hamevaser.
[i] This critique of the title is quite distinct from Dr. Alan Nadler’s close reading and deconstruction of the title in his review of the book, “What Modern Orthodoxy Thinks of Its Neighbors: Gloomy Reflections on a Divided Religion,” The Forward (October 06, 2010), available at: http://www.forward.com/articles/131911/, which he uses to further his argument depicting the Forum as closed-minded and parochial. The creative and midrashic nature of his reading, while it does reflect his Orthodox training in rabbinic casuistry from a previous life, quite certainly does not hold up to the academic standards he is more accustomed to in his current situation, and this reviewer certainly does not agree with his conclusions.
[ii] J. J. Schacter (ed.), Jewish Tradition and the Nontraditional Jew (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aaronson, 1992).
[iii] A favorite figure of speech, often employed by R. Lichtenstein, including in The Relationship of Orthodox Jews, p. 216. See also Mishnah, Eduyot 1:3.
[iv] R. Lichtenstein, p. 188.
[v] A recent study, commissioned by the AviChai Foundation and carried out by Jack Wertheimer, notes that there is a rising group of young and impactful Jewish leaders who see no need to connect to preexisting institutions. For a news analysis of the phenomenon, see Jacob Berkman, “New Study of Emerging Jewish Leaders Shows Class Differences,” JTA (October 12, 2010), available at: http://www.jta.org/news/article/2010/10/12/2741249/as-the-jewish-world-evolves.
[vi] Ibid. p. 252.
[viii] Independent minyanim occupy a significant position in the playing field of organizations patronized by young, educated, and involved Jewish. There is a growing body of literature regarding the movement, prominent among it a recent book by Elie Kaunfer, Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us About Building Vibrant Jewish Communities (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2010), and an article by Ethan Tucker online, “What Independent Minyanim Teach Us About the Next Generation of Jewish Communities” available at http://www.zeek.net/801tucker/. The recently established Yeshivat Hadar is associated with these movements, and it represents the first full-time egalitarian yeshiva not meant to produce rabbis.
[ix] Empowered Judaism,, Foreword by Dr. Jonathan Sarna, p. xiii.