The Velvet Kippah
The Little Orthodox Engine That Could
Still, Orthodoxy seems to be in a much better place to deal with the problems that are common to all Americans, because it has something to say about every single facet of life, and provides guidelines and boundaries for all sorts of behavior. When it is embraced and understood, it works well. Its message does not have to be reinvented every few decades. Inter-generational transfer is smooth; young people do not question its relevance. If they drop out, they do so for different reasons.
Success, however, has also bred complacency in the community, which threatens to erode some of the gains of the past. Orthodoxy's growth produced an unhealthy overconfidence that the growth of the last decades would continue as a matter of course. People turned a blind eye to the real differences between the previous few generations and that of today.
The last few generations saw people making sacrifices for their Orthodoxy. They weighed it against the alternatives, and made their informed choices. Decisions made through sacrifice are stronger and deeper. Their children and grandchildren, however, were raised in a bullish market for Orthodoxy. They often made fewer personal choices to commit, but were swept along on the crest of their community's ascendance. Orthodoxy was their birthright, rather than their faith of choice. That leaves them vulnerable to new challenges in a changed world.
Living as an Orthodox Jew in America requires balancing the allure of a non-Jewish cultural surround with a life of devotion to G-d and His word. Both the Modern Orthodox and the traditionalists have failed to come up with a perfect solution to a new and pervasive intrusiveness of secular culture. So much that is foreign to the spirit of Judaism is delivered on demand through the new digital technologies. So much of the broader world is literally placed in the palm of everyone's hand. From pornography to websites mocking religious belief, from conspicuous consumption to instant gratification, more and more of a secular lifestyle inimical to authentic Jewish practice and values invades Orthodox neighborhoods, homes, and minds.
The two sub-groups within Orthodoxy deal with this invasion in different ways. Both methods have been found wanting. The Modern Orthodox, committed to a measure of openness, have often reached for too much that is outside of Judaism. They are paying a dear price for this in an increase in alienation among their children. Meanwhile, their more right-wing cousins have resorted to building higher and thicker walls to keep those influences out. They have succeeded at times, but often failed at many others, producing much discontent and backlash in the process.
In both these communities, the rate of growth far exceeds the losses through attrition. This demographic success, however, contributes to a complacency that deflects attention from dealing more effectively with the challenges that plague an important number of Orthodox Jews, even if still very much a minority. Another part of its success has been in achieving far greater material well-being than in previous generations. Material success also exacts a price. People become preoccupied with concerns and interest that may not break any religious laws or strictures, but are devoid of spirituality. An Orthodoxy practiced by rote or tradition—and without passion for spirituality—will not thrive.
Still, strict adherence to the norms of traditional Judaism has allowed the Jewish people to overcome all sorts of challenges in two millennia of exile from its Land. A system of belief and action that richly engages the mind, the heart, and the limbs has survived where competitors have not. That system provides alternatives to the meretricious allure of secular culture, but only when understood and felt deeply, and practiced passionately. It will not compete with it when practiced superficially or uncomprehended.
Ironically, while other Jews believed that the restrictions and limitations of Orthodoxy—its disadvantages, if you will—would present its largest challenges, the opposite has been the case in America. The unintended consequences of success are what pose the greatest challenges to Orthodoxy's future.
Yitzchok Adlerstein is an Orthodox rabbi who directs interfaith affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and chairs Jewish Law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. He is hopelessly addicted to the serious study of Torah texts.