The Turning of the Torah Tide
“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.
1. A "counter-cultural" or a "sub-cultural" identity became more respectable for mainstream people, rather than just the preserve of a few misfits or a few intellectual elites. Thus, Jews (among others) are less ardently expected to conform to the dominant secular-Christian cultures of North America and Europe.
2. A renewed popular interest in spirituality has made overt religious observance less odd in polite company.
3. Anxiety about stubborn social problems (e.g., family breakdown, crime, drug abuse, etc) has made the time-tested solutions of religion appear attractive to some social reformers
4. Internal migration and external immigration have rendered a wider range of cultural and lifestyle alternatives more common to large publics, hence more "thinkable" and even more attractive
What really has happened is that Orthodoxy came to terms with modernity. Three different approaches developed. The Yeshiva community opted for insularity, building an impressive network of Yeshivas. Chabad's strategy was engagement, dealing with the secular world, taking the good but retaining its values while assuming a collective responsibility for Jewish destiny. The modern orthodox world chose integration, stressing Jewish learning and interaction in a more intense way with western culture. Each strategy succeeded to a large degree, each also has had unique challenges.
The common denominator has been the centrality of Jewish learning. When young Jews grow up in a complex society and have the opportunity to interact on a serious level with classic Jewish text and wisdom they become intellectually empowered. They see the modern relevance of Torah in their lives of Torah.
There are many other factors, freedom of religion, the weakening of anti Semitic attitudes, economic prosperity and without question strengthening Jewish identity with the advent of Israel. Still no one is going to buy into a lifestyle due to "feeling good about being Jewish". The most important element is the revitalization of Torah study.
We must add also that being orthodox today carries with it very little sacrifice. Once upon a time being orthodox meant, in most cases, being bearded, looking very different from your neighbors, working only a tiny few jobs, etc. Nowadays, other than a yarmulke (itself much smaller than in the past) there is virtually nothing exteriorally that distinguishes the Jew from the Gentile. The same is true of woemen's clothing - you can put on a wig and dress in officially "modest" clothing, and still be a knockout. The Rabbinate has also lost its power, and there is a multitude of options and variations within orthodoxy from which to choose. And, because there are so many choices, you can be virtually absent from Jewish life 6 days a week, and no one would be the wiser.
Thus, the "plusses" of orthodox life (the sense of community, the spirit, the social network) has gotten stronger, while the "minuses" (having to look different, deprivation of opportunity, conformity) have become lessened.
Under: Which of these religious practices were done in your parents household when you were growing up.
respondents had to check: Handle no money on the Sabbath.
To borrow a technique from Noam Chomsky (ugh) we have to begin with each person's definition of Orthodoxy, Torah observance, sin-sin? really? and the historical backgounds each respondent stresses. The result of course would be a picture of an elephant never seen on this planet-ever.
Perhaps Salo Wolfe Baron's tome " The Social and Economic History of the Jews"would be of assistance. Fortunately the revered professor didn't limit himself to one particular segment of Jewish activity and history which seems to be prevalent in all the discussions including the original essay. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
As for the mitigation or easing of anti-semitism due to whatever or whenever-in any clime or time-perchance y'all are smelling the liberal dose of perfume on unwashed bodies. Regardless of your naivite or fervent hopes, make sure everyone in the family has passports and you have access to immediate liquidity. As for the effect of Israel-they loved us once and hate us now. The love as usual was short lived. Israel makes no difference-it only serves as an excuse now for what always lies below and always bubbles up. And that's what makes it so wonderful to be a Jew-regardless of circumscribed forms of observance. We really are different.
PS The little reCAPTCHA at the bottom of the page reads Oageski Elected. Would that it were so.
I would agree with all of the reasons stated above for the increased retention rate of Orthodox and even Conservadox children. However, as a parent of 3 children who attended day schools although I went to public school, I would say a big factor here is the degradation of the popular and secular culture in America and in the West generally. This decline in quality has been especially apparent since the 1960's, which was the watershed. One of the reasons Jewish parents sent their children to public school universally in the past in America was out of respect and even admiration for America's civic culture and dominant WASP culture. In particular, I refer to its civility, tolerance, high level of literacy, etc
None of this exists today. The contemporary secular culture seems to be more fitting of a society at the level of the Amazon rain forest and its savages, than that of a developed, advanced and civilized modern society. That is why we get books by Chinese American mothers called, "The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother." There is almost nothing left to admire, let alone imitate, in today's secular culture. This makes traditional Jewish culture seem like something worth revisiting to many of us.
It's not necessarily a good thing, particularly when most observant Jews (both of the black-hat variety and the "mod-ox") are happy to live their own self-referential and self-congratulatory world.
Unfortunately, few within the Orthodox world other than the Chabad shiluchim seem to care at all that the vast majority of non-observant and non-Orthodox Jews are moving further and further away from any Jewish identification. Every generation of Cons & Ref Jews has a higher percentage of dropouts through either intermarriage or plain indifference; and virtually every institutional act of the Orthodox further isolate them from their cons & ref "distant cousins"
I know of college students who have been raised as Jews with a brit and a bar mitzvah, but were told they are not Jewish when they attempted to join certain Jewish college groups. So there are also Jews who were not counted because of zealotry.
I find it highly amusing that you refer to today's Orthodox Jewish world as "self-congratulatory and self-referential". Growing up among mostly liberal Jews in the Boston area in the 1960's, I remember that particular group being the most self-congratulatory and self-referential subgroup of the American population of those years. So hypocritical they were in their self-congratulation about their supposed liberalism (integration meant the time from when the first black family moves into a liberal Jewish neighborhood until the last liberal Jew moves out)that it convinced me at the age of 7 to become a neoconservative.
The hollowness and false-Jewishness of those people was no small reason why their more idealistic and Jewishly committed children turned against them and their whole demented worldview.
At least in the Orthodox case, they practice what they preach. More than that, they have been the ONLY part of the Jewish population willing to live in the same neighborhoods as blacks, in America's urban core. Although the Orthodox community did not vocally support the cause of integration, for example, they are the only ones who have lived those values in their personal lives. That has to count for something, beyond the self-referential world of Torah that you seem to place such light value on.
I wish to thank you for including the mention of Esperanto, for which I am the UN representive. Jewish Esperanto speakers were numerous in several Polish cities. I spent a recent summer in Poland which included a regal reception by Polish politicians in the city of Bialystok. A new museum for the Jewish founder of Esperanto, L.L.Zamenhof, is also a lively community center.
Jews, today, are perhaps 1 percent of the Esperanto movement in the USA, France, Germany, Hungary and elsewhere....but that is a modest estimate. Several UN representatives for the Esperanto community, like myself have been cultural Jews or of Jewish background.
This year, summer- 2013, the World Youth Esperanto Conference will be held in Israel. The All-Asia Esperanto Conference will be in Jerusalem this coming Apri.
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