The Turning of the Torah Tide

By Diana Muir Appelbaum
Tuesday, December 4, 2012

“Torah Judaism today retains more of its youth than at any time since the Haskalah.”  Historian Marc Shapiro made this remark in a recent talk on intellectual trends within 19th-century Orthodoxy.  Can he possibly be correct? 

In a word, yes. 

A generation ago, American Orthodoxy was the province of immigrants and the elderly. Observant Jews simply expected that many, perhaps most, children would leave Shabbat behind when they grew up.  When Fiddler on the Roof opened on Broadway in 1964, it struck just the right note of nostalgia for a lost world of Sabbaths and Torah—a world to some degree imported to the Lower East Side, where actor Zero Mostel grew up, but one that he had long left behind, as had the Jews in the audience that watched him play Tevye. 

Europe was not so different.  In Sholem Aleichem’s stories, Tevye and his wife Golda watch helplessly as their eldest daughter marries a boy they have not chosen, the next daughter marries a Jewish Marxist, and the third a bookish Christian.  The Christian bridegroom was a slight exaggeration; intermarriage was rare.  But Jewish girls and boys fell in love with secular ideas and left Orthodoxy behind. 

The career of Moses Mendelssohn, a self-taught German-Jewish philosopher born in 1729, marks the beginning of the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment.  Mendelssohn lived at a time and in a place where Western Europeans had begun to admit Jews to their intellectual and even social circles.   By the late 19th century, the Haskalah had reached even the backward Russian village where Tevye and Golda lived.  

One European state after another granted civil rights to Jews, and new horizons opened.  Jews could attend university, enter the professions, and conduct business without legal restrictions. This was not true in the Russian Empire, where the world’s largest Jewish community lived in crushing poverty under anti-Semitic legal restrictions; but even the poorest could dream of emigrating to the New World, joining the Zionist movement and rebuilding the ancient Jewish state, or becoming Marxists and turning the world into a worker’s paradise.  Large numbers of European Jews dreamed even bigger, joining utopian movements that advocated pan-Europeanism, Esperanto as a universal language, pacifism, and the creation of a world in which differences of race and ethnicity ceased to matter. 

In this heady atmosphere, only a minority chose Torah.  One way to measure the number of Jews falling away from tradition is to see how Jews voted in the pre-World War I Austro-Hungarian Empire and in Europe’s inter-war democracies.  In one election in which Jewish parties competed, the 1922 vote for the lower house of the Polish Parliament, secular Zionist parties won 19 seats, Mizrachi’s religious Zionists five, Agudath Israel six, and other Jewish parties four.  But these totals overstate the religious vote, because the Jewish Socialist movement—the Bund—and the smaller but still substantial Jewish Communist movement ran not as Jewish parties but as part of the general Socialist and Communist lists.  Yet the Bund was probably the largest Jewish political movement in Poland at that time. 

There were many elections, and the combined vote for Agudah, Mizrachi, and smaller religious parties was usually smaller than the Jewish vote for secular Zionists, Socialists and Communists.  Before intense inter-war anti-Semitism boosted the popularity of Zionism, large numbers also voted for Jewish parties that were neither religious, Zionist, nor Marxist (including the Folks Party, the Jewish Merchants Party, and the Integrationist Party), and others voted for wholly non-Jewish parties and candidates.  Fewer than a quarter of inter-war Jewish voters made Torah enough of a priority to vote for a religious party. 

Commitment to Torah can also be measured by the types of schools in which Jews enrolled their children.  In late 1930s Poland, around 100,000 children attended religious primary schools affiliated with Agudah and Mizrachi; but more than 400,000 attended secular primary schools.  This number includes secular Zionist schools, but the great majority of Jewish children attended Polish public schools. Most of these children’s parents had grown up in Sabbath-observant homes, yet more than four out of five were enrolled in secular schools. 

In the two centuries that followed Moses Mendelssohn’s embrace of the Enlightenment, Torah-oriented parents and communities tried every imaginable approach to producing Torah-oriented youth: isolation from the general culture, combining Torah with secular study, and teaching Jewish subjects to the exclusion of secular subjects.  The young continued to leave.  In 1917, the Orthodox Agudath Israel approved the small chain of Beis Yaakov schools for girls, founded by Sarah Schenirer in Krakow, out of something close to desperation, after a ruling by a leading scholar of the generation—Rabbi Yisrael Meir Ha-Kohen Kagan, the Hafetz Hayim—deemed the times so extraordinary that it was permissible to teach Torah to girls.  The “tide of heresy is rising vigorously,” he judged, and it was necessary to “rescue as many Jewish girls as can be rescued.” 

European Jews continued to secularize when they immigrated to the United States.  Not until 1981 did the Greater New York Jewish Population Study find the first quantitative evidence that the “tide of heresy” might be receding.  Among people brought up by Sabbath-observant parents, the survey found, Jews born after 1945 were far more likely to be observant than Jews born before 1945.  Among Ashkenazi Jews brought up in Sabbath-observant homes, those who had come of age since 1966 were more likely to continue to keep the Sabbath than at any time since the Haskalah. 

What changed?  Many things changed, of course, but one suspects that the key event was the founding of the State of Israel.  Since 1948, American Jews have grown up in a country and a world where Jews and—despite its political troubles—Israel are widely admired and respected, an experience previously enjoyed by no Jewish community for millennia.  Jews are no longer scorned as members of a despised race, a people without a land.  Hebrew has become a living language spoken by Jews in a successful, modern country. The images of Jews being forced to wear yellow stars, spat upon in the streets, and murdered with no chance to defend themselves have been replaced by images of Israeli soldiers facing down invading armies. 

For young Jews coming of age in America after 1966, Jewish tradition has felt like something worth their commitment. 

Diana Muir Appelbaum is an American author and historian.  She is at work on a book tentatively entitled Nationhood: The Foundation of Democracy. 


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