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The Relationship of Orthodox Jews with Jews of Other Religious Ideologies and Non-Believing Jews, edited by Adam Mintz.  Jersey City, KTAV, 2010.  392 pp.  $30.00.

 

Until the last decades of the twentieth century, the otherwise vast majority of the American Jewish population winced with shame as they smugly tolerated Orthodox Judaism. Community functions, including Jewish Community Center and Jewish Federation-sponsored events, accommodated Orthodox participation with telltale fruit plates and “TV-style” dinners. Like the famous (and popular) attitude of Israel’s David Ben-Gurion, the position of the American Jewish mainstream (Conservative, Reform, and the majority unaffiliated with any movement), was that Orthodoxy should be tolerated as a cultural atavism, sure to wither under exposure to the sunshine of modernity.

They—Ben-Gurion and the American Jews—were wrong.

Today Orthodox Judaism, under its many and varied hats and alignments, is small but not peripheral. It has mastered the assimilationist lure of the American diaspora, and has found its voice—now self-confidently positioned to ask how it can relate to the melting mass of the American Jewish community and to the “secular” (a misleading term) mainstream of Israel. In many ways, the tables have turned, and the erstwhile smugness now wears a kippah, if not a streimel.

Today it is ironically non-Orthodox Judaisms that wonder how they can survive the siren song of (post) modernity. And it is Orthodoxy, in the U.S. and Israel, that has itself fractured into a fascinating universe of fragmented and at time competing power centers and systems of rabbinic authority, denying to each other what has always been their weapon of dismissal directed at non-Orthodox alternatives: namely, authenticity. Modern Orthodoxy, once the signal achievement of its flagship American center of learning at Yeshiva University, now struggles to survive as its children question the accommodation to secular learning and integrationist life style of their parents. They are being successfully challenged from the right, as it were. This is no mere curiosity, but a deeply ironic denouement. 

Schisms, movements, schools and scholars—all dismissive of each other—are nothing new in the history of Judaisms, of course. Our question is how the current arrangement and battle lines differ from past Hegelian confrontations in the long and fascinating history of the religion of Israel. What else, indeed, is new?

To this always fresh question now comes an exceptional volume of essays edited by Rabbi Adam Mintz under the aegis of the Orthodox Forum, awkwardly entitled The Relationship of Orthodox Jews with Jews of Other Religious Ideologies and Non-Believing Jews. In title and in substance this book strives to accommodate and not make waste of the “secular” majority of Jewish Israel and the oceanic non-Orthodox world of American Jewry. Its several Orthodox authors do not seek to disdain and dismiss, but they clearly grope for their own defensible and secure lines distinguishing tolerance and outreach from acceptance and embrace.

There is some internal criticism in this volume, though it is disappointing that it is not deeper, more comprehensive and revealing. There is scant attention, for example, to the growth of Chabad as the apparent (i.e., most recognizable) proponent of “Orthodox” Judaism in America and around the globe. Its non-judgmental style and technique are surely alluring. But has it advanced the integrity or character of Judaism? This is not addressed.

In an exceptional essay, Marc D. Stern (of the American Jewish Committee), for example, laments the “isolationism” of much of contemporary Orthodoxy, including modern Orthodoxy. He further decries the absence of a “wide-angle lens” or “breadth of vision” in much contemporary halachic (Jewish legal) analysis. He reserves particular scorn for contemporary haredi attitudes and behavior, deriding their “increasingly unshakable [conviction of their own] probity, rectitude and wisdom . . . largely lacking in visionary leadership . . . show[ing] less and less interest in the entirety of the Jewish people, except as targets for kiruv [outreach].” Stern is pleading (wistfully, as he sees the “golden age” now in decline) for a continuing modus vivendi which will see the interaction—if not integration—of Orthodox Jewish professionals with less or non-observant Jews all in service to a shared political and legal agenda.

“No one should be deluded,” Stern advises, “[for] without organized non-Orthodox Jewry, Israel’s standing in Congress would be all but non-existent . . . [and the Orthodox alone] will lack clout in state legislatures [and] governmental bureaucracy. Like it or not, we need the political clout of the larger Jewish community.”

He and others also note the positive effect of such interaction—not the once feared consequence of syncretism or the lure of apostasy—politically, socially, and even religiously. The volume even includes a bold analysis and call for civil marriage in Israel by Catholic University’s Professor of Law Marshall J. Breger, who proclaims “no doubt” that this will be a reality by 2020. He suggests that in this development, Israel has much to learn from the voluntary character of religion embedded in the American culture and ethos.

Such an armchair Modern Orthodox view of the state of affairs in the interaction of Orthodox / traditional / observant / Torah / dati Jews with the rest of us would be incomplete without the biblical, Talmudic and philosophical erudition of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, who frankly disappoints by restraining his essay’s analytical vectors to the unique trends of North America and not those of his domicile for four decades—Eretz Yisrael. That focus is largely left to Rabbi Jeffrey Saks, who adroitly captures the huge divide in those two respective loci by simply acknowledging that unlike the prevailing American norm, “Israel never adopted the notion of the synagogue as a center of Jewish life” and is without, as such, full-time professional pulpit rabbis. The division in Israel between the “religious” and the “secular” is astutely said by Saks to be “a continuum, not a divide.” Much of the volume amplifies this simple but essential cogency.

Several of the articles lament the now-infamous 1956 Orthodox rabbinic ban on professional cooperation across Jewish denominational lines, and correspondingly see a clear philosophical path out of such myopia in the renowned essay by the intellectual father of Modern Orthodoxy, Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik entitled “Kol Dodi Dofek” (Fate and Destiny). There he posited two parallel covenants: one of fate (which all Jews, by virtue of antisemitism, share) and one of destiny (the exclusive inheritance and project of the Orthodox). It is the former that animates the appeal of many of the book’s authors to a posture of outreach and common counsel—though stopping short of religious cooperation.

In so many respects, in this universe of modern expressions of Judaism, the tables have turned. The torch of triumphal self-confidence has been passed from left to right. Erstwhile triumphant Reform and popular mainstream Conservative Judaisms are in rather shocking decline in North America, while nominal Orthodoxy has gone beyond merely noting, like Mark Twain, that the reports of its death were premature. This volume calls (in essays by Sylvia Barak Fishman and Rabbi Jack Bieler) for deliberate, open, non-judgmental Orthodox outreach in the face of withering North American alternatives. The flexibility of Jewish law to accommodate such outreach is demonstrated by the essays of Rabbis Mark Draitch, Yuval Cherlow, and Yona Reiss—well as the aforementioned Stern and Lichtenstein. 

The old categories are melting away. New concepts, new rhetoric and new perceptions beckon. New leadership and new institutions await transformation from speculation to vision to reality.

Rabbi Clifford E. Librach

United Jewish Center

Danbury, Connecticut