Monday, March 29, 2010

Who's Irrelevant to Whom?

I was following a Dov Bear discussion the other day and was suddenly overcome with a real sense of amazement. DB was discussing the concept of a Jewish Reformation to counter the Haredi wing of Orthodoxy, and several commentators were agreeing with him. One writer took exception and wrote this:

In 2010, any Jew that does not like the Chareidi world or way of thinking is free to leave, to become MO, Conservative, Reform, or nothing. And yet, in the vast majority of cases, Frum Jews are remaining Frum, and are not attracted to Modern Orthodoxy, while MO kids embrace Frum Judaism all the time, to the chagrin of their parents. Why is this? Simply beacuse Modern Orthodoxy has a bankrupt point of view, one that the vast majority of its adherents recognize is nothing more than a way station from Emunah to Kefirah. They embrace it because of its relative convenience, but they know in their heart of hearts that it is a just a resting place in their (or their children's) journey from Avoidas Hashem to Orthopraxy to Conservative Judaism to complete assimilation.

The MO posters, of course, were annoyed by this. But reading through the discussion, I found that I suddenly had a hard time caring about this squabble at all. Here's why:

One of my first introductions to the frum world was reading Robert Eisenberg's Boychiks in the Hood. An intriguing travelogue focusing mostly on Hasidic enclaves throughout North America and Europe, Eisenberg was a great writer but not necessarily the most critical sociologist. One claim he made over and over again was that by the year 2100, "practically the only Jews still identifying as Jews will be Ultra-Orthodox." I've seen this statistic repeated in one form or another in quite a few Jewish sociology books in the past decade, and parroted quite often on the Jblogosphere by triumphalist Ortho-Jews proclaiming their numerical supremacy.

But here's the thing. Assimilation has proven to be more complicated than people gave it credit. Because as much as there are still Jews who are walking totally out the door, there are also plenty of Jews who are still keeping one foot in the room, or hovering by the doorway, or just leaning against the wall, waiting for someone to invite them back in. There are non-Orthodox Jews who are active in shuls, who send their kids to Jewish Day Schools, who are involved in Jewish activism, whatever. The path isn't as important as the fact that they have, and are continuing to find, a way to stay self-identified as Jewish, and perhaps even more important, seem interested in perpetuating that identity to future generations. In short, the assumption that non-Orthodox Judaism doesn't have enough substance to keep kids Jewish has been busted. Yes, there is certainly the possibility-- and the statistical reality-- that Jews will keep leaving. But there are also many more ways for Jews to re-engage, on an individual or communal level, with various aspects of Jewish history, religion, culture, or identity.

Now here's where things get interesting. What Orthodoxy likes to ignore is that when you look at the global Jewish population, the majority is not Orthodox. Even this tripe Ortho-apologetics site admits it, albeit indirectly:

The worldwide Jewish population is 13.3 million Jews...The present estimate for Orthodox Jews in Eretz Yisrael is between 900 thousand and one million; in North America, between 550-650 thousand; and in the rest of the world between 120-150 thousand, making for a total of between 1.67-1.8 million.

If you missed it, that means that percentage-wise, Orthodox Jews make up a whopping 14% of the world's Jewish population. Significant? Sure. But that's not a majority. Hell, that's not even a sixth. Get some perspective, guys.

Not only that, the vast, vast majority of these non-Orthodox Jews have no interest in becoming Orthodox. The dirty little secret of the Jewish demography game is that the authority of the Orthodox world is mostly in their heads (except, embarrassingly, in Israel, which is one big reason, IMO, that non-Orthodox denominations are so muted in their encouragement to their congregants to make aliyah on any large scale). No matter what happens between the Haredi or MO wings of Orthodoxy, the truth of the matter is that the majority of the world's Jews have long since stopped caring.

Usually, the standard response to this matter-of-fact point is to say something like, "Well, they don't count anyway." Someone may make a reference to the "Tinok Shenishbah Bein Ha'Akum"-- kidnapped Jewish children raised among Gentiles, who therefore "know not what they do." But the simple truth is that in places where Orthodoxy has not been handed control over Jewish life by the state (cough cough Israel), they are simply not that important. Not that they aren't valued. Not that they aren't an important part of the landscape. But Orthodoxy is not nearly as dominant as people inside that world seem to think (or pretend). I just can't decide if that's funny or sad.

At the end of the day, it does not matter whether Haredi-ism subsumes Modern Orthodoxy-- because the non-Orthos are still going to be here, and regardless of what new chumras come out of Haredi land about what it means to practice Judaism or what it means to be Jewish or who is a Jew or what bleach you can use on Passover, it will matter not a whit to them. They will keep doing as they like, and, at least outside of Israel, the frum world can't do a thing about it. Some may want to cheer about Haredi-ism's possible victory over Modern Orthodoxy, but the reality is that most of us just don't care. It doesn't matter if the Godol Hador is Elyashiv, Yisrael Meir Lau, or Yitz Greenberg (or Steve Greenberg, for that matter), non-Orthodox Jews are going to keep on being non-Orthodox Jews, and whatever people like the dope from Dov Bear may like to believe about "assimilation," they're not disappearing anytime soon. And, ironically, the crazier the Haredi world gets, and the weaker the Modern Orthodox world gets, the only place you're going to be pushing dissatisfied Ortho Jews is right into our liberal Jewish ranks.

...Now if you'll excuse me, my Shiska Girlfriend and I need to start prepping the sushi rice for our Seder.


The back of the hill said...

Ah, I see that you are sfardee...

Or at least, both the rice and the shiksa girlfriend strongly suggest so.

Friar Yid (not Shlita) said...

I take my cue from my father's side-- a true "mixed" marriage: my grandmother's family were Frum Litvaks and my grandfather's were Godless Commies from Warsaw.

Actually, the real problem is that I'm starting from zero. I've come a long way in just a few years: in high school, I asked my parents if we could have a seder on Passover. We had burritos instead. Going from there to writing my own haggadah and hosting my own seders is a big leap, as is keeping the house chametz-free for a week. But honestly, if I had to nix chametz AND kitniyot, I think it would just be too ornerous, especially for SG, who already puts up with quite a bit.

No chametz, I can deal with, but kitniyot... I just can't bring myself to care.

Izgad said...

The line that I often here is that there is no such thing as Modern Orthodox Jews. There are Haredim who are not up to living the life style and there are very traditional Conservative Jews.

Anonymous said...

Wouldn't it indeed be nice if all the various expressions of Judaism could learn to live and work together? I've seen glimmers of hope for that in places like the Dell J.C.C. down in Austin, which houses congregations that are Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox. During the community events, you're as likely to see a "black hat" or MO as you are to see a secular Jew.

Friar Yid (not Shlita) said...

Izgad- Interesting, I've heard a different version: there are no such thing as Conservative Jews; rather, there are Conservative rabbis with Reform congregants. Personally, this doesn't bother me. I see the lines between Conservative and Reform blurring more and more. Eventually I think you will have a situation where, aside from some minor differences in synagogue practice, the movements will on a practical level be indistinguishable (though philosophical differences will still be there, they will mostly stay at an academic level). Where this leaves the non-Ortho community vis-a-vis Orthodoxy is a little messier.

Friar Yid (not Shlita) said...

threadzofblue- I agree, it would be nice if all movements could respect or at least tolerate each other. I believe that the key to this is everyone taking a deep breath and getting over themselves and realizing that no one has a monopoly on truth.

Unfortunately, my experience and research has indicated that this is antithetical to the majority of Orthodox Jews (at least Haredim) because they believe that they are fundamentally right and everyone else wrong. Combine this with Orthodoxy being given political control, as in Israel and some areas of Europe, and you have a powder keg.

Anonymous said...

We could always leave the orthodox to themselves and have the rest of the streams work together. That doesn't deal with the issue of political control, but it does go a long way towards working together for a common purpose.