As the religious fervor of the High Holy Days ebbs, far less than it was in my childhood, the stark reality of Jewish life in the United States faces us once again. Not only are we an aging community, we are a community moving further and further away from our fundamental and essential religious root. For no matter how one defines himself as a Jew, the epic history of the Jewish people motivated and shaped by the revelation at Sinai cannot be ignored.
The recent study by the Pew Research Center (2013) seeking an answer to the question, “What does being Jewish and American mean today?” has again underscored the reality that we are a community turning further away from our collective Jewish religious epicenter. Here are some of their findings.
Only 15% of American Jews claim that being Jewish is primarily a religious matter. 42% state that an essential element of being Jewish is having a good sense of humor while only 19% say it is essentially a matter of observing Jewish law. Last year, nearly 33% of American Jewish homes had a Christmas tree and the same number believe it’s alright for Jews to believe that Jesus is our Messiah. Slightly less than 33% of American Jews identifying themselves as “religious” state that believing in G‑d is not essential. And finally, while 78% of Jews referred to themselves as religious, among millennials that rate is much lower, which suggests a dismal future for American Jewry.
Why does this continue? Why the ever downward spiral? We all know that the issue of Jewish communal vitality in America has been on the table for decades. Every time a new study is done confirming the slow demise of American Jewry, new plans are developed, new approaches are employed. Yet all in the end do little to stop this tragic trend.
Many years ago, when the national convention of NJRAC was held in Chicago, the current Prime Minister of Israel, Bibi Natanyahu, was booed by a visibly angry audience for making the observation that he has no concern for the viability of the Israeli community, but has grave concerns regarding the viability of the American Jewish community. Referring to the national Bible contest in Israel, he noted that few American Jews take Bible study seriously. The same could be said regarding Jewish education. As he continued speaking, the audience became ever more agitated, to which he remarked he has an allotted time for his presentation and he is going to use it.
What is the answer? For me the answer is for each of us, if we wish our community to grow, to seriously and honestly confront that Jewishness in its most classic form – Judaism. Please consider the following:
When I was a child raised in Brooklyn, my family and I attended a Conservative Congregation. My mother, a graduate of The Teacher’s Institute of Hebrew Union College, taught for more than thirty years in the local Religious Schools of two Reform Temples. My grandparents attended an Orthodox Synagogue. As a youngster I was keenly aware there were different types of Synagogues and different types of Rabbis. I concluded, as I suspect most Jews do, that the differences were only in how strict they were in observing Judaism, colored with their sense of modernity. It never occurred to me they were the result of fundamental differences in theology.
For example, a simple way to explain the theological difference between Orthodox Judaism and Reform Judaism is that Orthodoxy understands Judaism as G‑d creating humankind while Reform understands Judaism as humankind creating G‑d. For the Torah in Orthodoxy is the unchangeable and eternal word of G‑d, the Creator of the world, given by Him to Moses and the Jewish People at Mount Sinai. For Reform, the Torah is the collective attempt of Jewry over many years to define their Jewish sense of the spiritual, the Divine. It is important to note the famed adversaries of Jewish history, the House of Hillel vs the House of Shammi shared the same theology; belief in the Divine Revelation at Sinai and the eternal authority of Biblical law upon the Jewish People – Orthodoxy.
It is therefore extremely important for us to understand Orthodoxy in terms of its theology. It is neither more stringent than Reform Judaism nor is it less in tune with modernity. Neither is more or less “religious” than the other, in that Orthodoxy and Reform each have their own unique approach to Jewish theology and hence Jewish religiosity. They are separate denominations responding to Judaism in very different ways much as Baptists and Catholics are separate denominations responding to Christianity in very different ways. They may use similar terminology, but its meaning in each denomination is quite different.
History supports the fact that Orthodox Judaism (Judaism until the advent of Reform in the 19th century) survived the onslaughts of almost every major civilization known to man. The Egyptians, the Philistines, the Greeks, the Phoenicians, the Assyrians, the Persians, the Romans – I could go on and on – dominated Jewry. And while these mighty empires, each with its own culture and religion, have been reduced to artifacts and rubble, the Jewish People survives and Orthodoxy is ever vibrant. The famed anthropologist, Arnold Toynbee, when unable to arrive at the cause of this anomaly, that is, to find a logical explanation for the existence of Judaism stated, “The Jews are a fossilized People.” The answer to Toynbee’s dilemma however, is to understand the theology of Orthodox Judaism and consequently its timeless resilience.
That moment in human history when G‑d revealed Himself to Moses on the Mount presenting to him and the Jewish People His eternal Law found in the first five books of the Bible, the Torah, forever established the unique identity of the Jewish People. Moses stayed upon the Mount for forty days and forty nights. In Jewish belief, the Torah represents but an outline of the totality of Judaism. G‑d as well presented to Moses a full explanation of His Law which Moses in turn taught the elders of the Jewish nation. Those proficient in the Law had bestowed upon them “Smicha” or Rabbinical Ordination, the authority to interpret the Law and apply it in accordance with a specific methodology not terribly unlike American jurisprudence.
When the Diaspora destroyed the Jewish Commonwealth, it was necessary to codify this heretofore Oral Land Law in written form. This task was undertaken by Yehudah HaNassi, Judah the Prince and the great Sages of his time. This complete work is called the Mishna (188 ACE). When more clarification became necessary, a compilation of the dialogues and opinions of the Rabbis over a period of several hundred years was put to paper. This was called the G’mara. Mishna and G’mara are collectively known as the Talmud. The Babylonian Talmud was completed in 500 ACE.
Continuing in the same G‑d ordained tradition, Biblical law, precedence in Rabbinical literature, informed by science and observation, as well as a sense of how best to ensure the stability of religious faith among the Jewish People, understood and analyzed by a specific set of rules, has served as the tool utilized by our Rabbis throughout the centuries and in the present to keep Judaism ever vibrant and responsive to the challenges of the ages.
It is worth noting that our Sages always respected the ability of the human intellect to constantly mature in its understanding of the world about us. For example, when dealing with a physical ailment, the Talmud instructs us to seek the advice and treatment of a Mumcha, an individual recognized as an accomplished authority and healer by society. He/she need not be Jewish nor in fact believe in G‑d. The only qualification is the physician’s recognized medical ability to treat the ailment in question. Considering this in light of the attitudes of other world religions over the centuries, one understands the Jewish belief in the partnership of G‑d and humankind which serves as the foundation for the ever unfolding miracle of Creation.
Today, there are Orthodox Rabbinical scholars across the globe considering the advances of science and medicine, the unique structure of international conflict in light of the nuclear age, the environment, the question of sovereign borders and many other important issues facing humanity, all using the timeless methodology of Jewish law. For Orthodoxy, in keeping with the Sinaiatic gift of Divine law, the perennial challenge is how to guide our lives in accordance with it. Following the crowd, expressing viewpoints that will make us more acceptable to the majority, Jews and non-Jews alike, compromising our ethics and morals to be in tune with the whims of the day, have never been nor will ever be determining factors in Orthodox Judaism. Living by G‑d given values is our only consideration. Given that we Jews are here today and Orthodoxy is drawing to itself ever greater numbers of our young only underscores the Divinity of G‑D’s Law and its applicability in every age.
This was the missing piece to the puzzle of Jewry that confounded Toynbee. The Jew isn’t fossilized. He/she lives a dynamic life through Orthodoxy, one which is on the cutting edge of human experience.
This is the role of the Jewish People, called by our Prophet “a light unto the nations.” Always searching G‑D’s Law for guidance and direction, we are able to survive and flourish in every age.
The famed philosopher, decisor of Jewish law and medical authority, respected in all quarters of the Jewish People, Maimonides, included the following beliefs in his 13 principles of the Faith:
What do you believe?