Unpacking American Orthodoxy: The Changing Character of Traditional Judaism

Steven Windmueller, Ph. D.

Posted on November 4, 2015 / 22 Heshvan 5776

Written by Steven Windmueller, Ph. D.

 

The rise of Orthodox Judaism in America must be viewed as a modern phenomenon. Unlike the majority of the American Jewish community with its more liberal-focus, secular orientation, and aging population base, the Orthodox community in this country reflects a fundamentally different demographic image, social culture, and political orientation. Today, some analysts believe, “it is increasingly the most powerful denomination in Judaism.” In the 1980’s sociologist Charles Liebman offered the following observation about modern Orthodoxy, ”a strength and a will to live that will yet nourish the whole Jewish world.”

World War II and its aftermath were watershed years. Uprooted by the Holocaust, the most learned rabbis and other Jewish leaders from Europe came here as refugees, bringing with them old ways, old institutions, and a religious tradition that they vowed to maintain in the brash, materialistic United States. They established new Orthodox synagogues, schools and advanced yeshivas – academies of higher learning – scrupulously modeled after those that they had left behind. This resurgent Jewish community has shaped the Orthodox reality of today.”

Tablet Magazine writing about the search for a new president for Yeshiva University would offer a broader commentary on the state of American orthodoxy:

“Orthodoxy is “the wealthiest Jewish group, the most educated and – after the ultra-Orthodox – the youngest,” there is “a rift on the horizon.” Partisans on both extremes of the community have been quite happy to spur such a split, with those on the right seeking to excommunicate liberals for heresy, and those on the left aiming to jettison their more conservative brethren as backward troglodytes.”

As the quote above suggests, there are significant divisions within American Orthodoxy. The Pew Research Center Survey was designed to look at differences within the Jewish community, including between subgroups within Orthodox Judaism. A large proportion of Orthodox Jews in America (62%) are Haredi or Yeshivish. The majority of traditional Jews maintain their strict adherence to the Torah’s commandments as largely incompatible with secular society. Yet a third of observant Jews in this country (31%) identify with the world of modern Orthodoxy. This sector is dedicated to the traditional observance of Jewish law while taking an active part in the broader society.

The data separating American Orthodox Jews from “mainstream” Jews is particularly striking, as reflected by these six comparative categories:

Category Mainstream Jewry Orthodox Jews
Age 52 median 40
Marital Status 49% 79%
Children per household 1.7 4.1
Affiliation Patterns 78% w/Judaism 98%
Importance of Religion 20% 83%
Israel as Central 35% 84%

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In such areas as intermarriage, attachment to Israel, and political allegiances, one finds further evidence identifying the defining and distinctive characteristics that separate Orthodox Jews from mainstream patterns of Jewish practice. An overwhelming percentage of Orthodox respondents (98%) within the Pew Survey reported being married to another Jewish person; this statistical fact stands in sharp contrast to the findings in the Pew Report where 44% of all Jewish respondents indicated that they were married to a non-Jew.

With reference to support for Israel, 77% of modern Orthodox Jews noted that they felt “very attached.” In comparison, among all American Jews, 30% expressed such a similar level of commitment. Orthodox Jews are more likely than any other segment of American Jewry to be Republicans, offering a push back against the more liberal political views of other sectors of the community.

Some Internal Characteristics:

Modern Orthodox Jews have a significantly higher level of secular education than those members of the Orthodox world who identify as “Hasidic” and “Yeshivish.” Some 65% of modern Orthodox adherents have college degrees, compared to 25% of “ultra Orthodox” sects.

Orthodoxy in American Historical Context:

In examining the literature of 19th century and the early decades of the 20th century, there were a series of articles chronicling the decline and predicting the ultimate departure of orthodoxy from the American Jewish scene. Indeed, historical realities might have forecast such a conclusion: the high rates of Jewish assimilation, the absence during much of this period of an indigenous American rabbinate, and the lack of a significant infra-structure of congregations, schools and yeshivot.

In many ways the period of the Second World War, as referenced above, would see the re-birth of a vibrant array of traditional Jewish religious expressions, culminating in the transfer of European Orthodox leadership and institutions to the United States, the emergence of a prominent group of rabbinic authorities, and the arrival from Eastern Europe of thousands of religious Jews who would help to energize Jewish life and provide the basis for a renaissance of Orthodoxy in America.

“American Orthodoxy is deeply divided over the issue of how to confront modernity. There is nothing new about this: Jeffrey Gurock has shown that the tension between “accommodators” and “resisters” in Orthodox life dates back to the 19th century.”

If one found in the mid-Twentieth Century an “accommodationalist” position on the part of modern Orthodoxy with the other movements of American Judaism, much of that acceptance and engagement would be marginalized over the following decades with the rise of an Orthodox right wing, with its emphasis on separatism and triumphalism, namely the reassertion of the authority and credibility of traditional Judaism.

As a result the engagement today of the Orthodox rabbinate with rabbinic players from the other mainstream movements within Judaism varies by community and by the level of comfort and independence of action that specific rabbinic figures are prepared to offer.

American Orthodoxy has been the beneficiary of a cadre of impactful scholars and rabbis among these luminaries one finds Samuel Belkin, Joseph Soloveitchik, Aharon Lichtenstein, Norman Lamm, Itz Greenberg, Haskel Lookstein. Today one finds a new generation of impressive teachers and scholars who are seeking to bring new creativity and excitement to the world of traditional Jewish scholarship and contemporary learning.

Orthodox groups have taken advantage of the new technologies including the introduction of “frum websites,” just as the community has contributed to the creation of new Torah-based learning organizations and outreach centers. Certainly Chabad has been a leader in marketing its brand of Judaism, employing the use of technology in advancing its institutional interests.

Into the Future:

Any commentary on the “state” of Orthodoxy in America must project a complicated and divided future:

“… Modern Orthodoxy also stands at the precipice of a potential schism. Debates over women’s religious roles, critical academic study of sacred texts, and integration into the secular world threaten to split the movement in half. Partisans on both extremes of the community have been quite happy to spur such a split, with those on the right seeking to excommunicate liberals for heresy, and those on the left aiming to jettison their more conservative brethren as backward troglodytes.”

Reframing American Orthodoxy:

There is possibly no one more significant figure today to challenge mainstream American Orthodox institutional life than Rabbi Avi Weiss, the founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a rabbinical seminary that has been defined as “Open Orthodox.” In addition, Rabbi Weiss would establish Yeshivat Maharat as an educational center for Orthodox women as well as a grassroots organization, Coalition for Jewish Concerns, Amcha. As a co-founder of the International Rabbinical Fellowship, he has sought to provide an alternative rabbinic association to the mainstream Rabbinic Council of America, representing the majority of the modern Orthodox rabbinate.

Reflections:

Five areas of striking and significant growth define the contemporary traditional Jewish community:

  1. Renaissance of Leadership: If European Judaism saw a depletion of its base of Orthodox leadership as a result of the Shoah, in the seven decades since the end of the Second World War, its American counterpart has sought to expand the pool of rabbis and scholars. Moving beyond religious boundaries, one finds today the emergence of a significant cadre of Orthodox Jews playing key policy and decision-making roles within American civil society as well as inside the Jewish communal world.
  2. Core Numbers: No longer a secondary factor on the American Jewish scene, Orthodox Jews are increasingly asserting their place on the national Jewish stage. As its population base continues to expand, the traditional community will demand increasing representation at communal decision-making tables and within the national leadership infrastructure.
  3. Fidelity of Faith: The extraordinary expansion of Orthodoxy within the American context has not only transformed this community but also has altered the image and standing of traditional Judaism in the American context. Of particular interest has been the growth of Chabad that today has strategically placed its rabbinic representatives in more than 4,000 locations across North America and the world, making it possibly the single largest purveyor of Jewish religious engagement.
  4. Diversity as Strength: Despite its internal wars over questions of authority and practice, there is fundamental vibrancy that one can observe pertaining to the range of choices and resources now available within American Orthodoxy.
  5. Financial Capacity: While there is significant evidence of poverty within specific sectors of the Orthodox community, there also is a very evident “new wealth” factor, as younger traditional Jews are now beginning to assert their financial clout in support of religious life and its institutions, both here and in Israel. In particular, there is a growing presence of religious Jews playing active roles on behalf of the pro-Israel community as campaign donors and political activists.

The world of American Jewish Orthodoxy is not without its challenges. Historian Jonathan Sarna would note a number of such concerns, including the following:

  • Membership Retention (in the past this movement has experienced a significant loss of adherents, will this pattern continue?)
  • Brain Drain (as Israel has attracted over time many of American Orthodoxy’s “best and brightest,” what will be the impact of such losses?)
  • Confronting Modernity and the Challenge of Feminism (can this community continue to either push back or make certain accommodations involving these external pressures?)
  • Scandals and Credibility (as a result of various internal challenges, what might be the impact on the community’s long term well being?)

Endnotes:

Few religious communities are as complex, yet as structurally and ideologically interesting as Orthodoxy in America. The combination of its diversity and remarkable growth makes for a rich study in community building.

If in the past its critics felt that they could dismiss this community as marginal to the American Jewish story that is clearly no longer the case. The dynamism of its institutions, the visibility and vitality of its leadership, and its growing numerical and financial impact, all contribute to its elevated position within the Jewish community.

In response to the growth and success of American Orthodoxy one can detect at times elements of triumphalism as its religious right seeks to marginalize and critique liberal Jewish policies and practices, in addition to firing salvos directed against its “left wing” counterparts.

Yet, the story of the emergence and impact of Orthodoxy in America has yet to be adequately explored.


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