American Orthodoxy and Its Discontents

By Lawrence Grossman
Friday, May 27, 2011

A "case study in institutional decay": that description of Orthodox Judaism in America was offered in 1955 by the late sociologist Marshall Sklare. It has long since entered the gallery of scholarly misjudgments, acknowledged as such by Sklare when events turned out to belie his assessment. But when he offered it, Sklare was simply expressing the conventional wisdom. So burdened was postwar Orthodoxy by the stigma of immigrant origins and cultural backwardness that even some of its own leaders had tried changing the movement's name to something less offensive, like "traditional." As far as anyone could see, the Orthodox younger generation, when not rejecting traditional Jewish practice altogether, was defecting to the Conservative synagogues then proliferating in the suburbs.

Today we live in a different world. Orthodoxy is the only form of Judaism that is exuding self-confidence, that holds its own demographically, and whose children, for the most part, are steeped in Jewish knowledge, unambiguously identified with the Jewish collective enterprise, and devoted to the state of Israel.

No less striking, these signs of health and renewal appear even as, internally, the Orthodox world has become increasingly polarized. Many participate fully in the mainstream of American life, occupying positions that range from Democratic candidate for Vice-President in 2000 to college professors, hedge-fund managers, prominent lawyers, and everything in between; at the same time, the lives of others are marked by zealous religious observance, cultural isolation, and reluctance to associate with non-Orthodox Jews.        

These realities are well documented. Largely unaddressed by historians is the process by which American Orthodoxy moved in the course of a half-century from a place on the endangered-species list to becoming the Jewish denomination most likely to succeed, even though beset by real difficulties of its own. That lacuna has now become much smaller thanks to the late Benny Kraut.

In an erudite and exciting book, Kraut, who served as chairman of the Judaic Studies department at Queens College in New York, traces the fortunes of a single organized group of Orthodox college activists from its formation in 1960 until its collapse twenty years later. In Kraut's capable hands, the challenges, internal conflicts, successes, and failures of this group, known as Yavneh, become a microcosm of the broader community, mirroring the transformation of American Orthodoxy itself.  

The book could never have been written had Kraut not retrieved, in 1985, nineteen about-to-be-discarded boxes containing documents, correspondence, and publications of the by-then defunct organization. These, together with taped interviews, pertinent material from the archives of the Hillel Foundation, and Kraut's own reminiscences—he played a leadership role in Yavneh during his own college years—form the basis of The Greening of American Orthodox Judaism, an indispensable volume for anyone interested in the history of American Judaism.  

One of the book's great strengths lies in the historical context Kraut provides. After World War II, as college enrollments soared, and the prevailing system of admissions quotas at prestigious private universities broke down, Jews gained access to places where few had gone before. There were cultural adjustments to be made all around—but for Orthodox Jews in particular, the encounter between the unsophisticated traditionalism in which they had been raised and the philosophical and aesthetic assumptions of their new environment could prove especially harsh. Worse, they still suffered discrimination: exams were often scheduled on the Sabbath or on Jewish holidays, when writing is forbidden by Jewish law, and the lack of kosher-food options was made even more burdensome by the mandatory plans forcing students to pay for food they could not eat. Perhaps worst of all, most college administrators and even rabbis at campus Hillel houses showed little inclination to help.

Yavneh was launched in February 1960. From 80 Orthodox students on thirteen campuses, all in the Northeast, the organization soon expanded across the country and into Canada; at its height, Yavneh had chapters on 45 campuses and a paid membership of some 1,400. Representing the first generation of Orthodox Jews to attend college in large numbers, Yavneh thought of itself as an elite, raising its own funds, declining to affiliate with any adult organization, and projecting a self-consciously intellectual image.

A central stated purpose of the group was the advancement of "dialogue between Judaism and Western culture." Every Yavneh-sponsored program included an academic-style lecture or panel discussion. Banned were activities of a purely social nature, such as the kosher dining clubs on campus that the National Council of Young Israel was setting up at the same time. Kraut wryly notes the air of embarrassment surrounding the marriages that developed from encounters at Yavneh events, as if they violated the organization's high-minded purpose.

But even as Yavneh epitomized the commitment to address the intellectual challenges of modernity, it also nurtured the seeds of a very different form of Judaism.  From the very beginning, Kraut shows, some members saw the organization not as the harbinger of a brave new Orthodoxy in dialogue with Western thought but as a vehicle for establishing classes along the lines of a traditional yeshiva curriculum. In the late 1960s, with tensions between the competing camps growing, the more conservative element took over.

In an eye-opening chapter, Kraut chronicles Yavneh's attempts in these years to establish lines of communication with the heads of the right-wing yeshiva world—for the conservatives, Yeshiva University did not quite measure up—as well as with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. But the culture gap between even these highly traditionalist members of Yavneh and the talmudists, who distrusted or even explicitly opposed college attendance, and frowned upon Yavneh's co-ed programs, ensured that little would come of the initiative. Adjusting again to trends, Yavneh in the 1970s took on the coloration of a campus "outreach" group, eager to interest non-Orthodox students in greater religious observance and Torah study.

At the end of that decade, the needs that had brought it into existence having vanished, the group ceased operations. Practical difficulties—tests on the Sabbath, the unavailability of kosher food—were now ancient history. Hillel directors, a growing number of whom were Orthodox themselves, and college administrators newly attuned to multicultural sensibilities were only too eager to assist. As for energizing Orthodox Judaism through fruitful interaction with Western culture, that ambition was passé, not least because Western culture itself was falling into intellectual disrepute. Meanwhile, the academic study of Judaism could now be pursued in university Judaica programs and departments, while those preferring a more strictly Orthodox approach could take advantage of the "learning" programs readily available off-campus.

Today, other than as a vestigial name for student organizations on a few individual campuses, Yavneh exists solely in memory, and nothing like it is on the horizon. The debates that roil American Orthodoxy focus far less on conflicts of ideas and worldviews, as they did in Yavneh's day, and much more on the specific issues of Jewish law and social policy that have risen to the surface since Yavneh's demise: the role of women, attitudes toward homosexuality, standards for conversion to Judaism, and the like. Polarization proceeds apace.

And the campus? Tellingly, Edah, a national organization championing "the courage to be modern and Orthodox" that lasted from 1996 through 2006, was not campus-based. Neither is Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, launched in 1999 to produce rabbis committed to "Open Orthodoxy." Kraut dedicates this book to his grandchildren: "May there be a Yavneh for you when you grow up!" It is a poignant wish, but highly unlikely to be realized.

Lawrence Grossman is the editor of the American Jewish Year Book.   

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