(Originally published in the New York Jewish Week)
Samuel Freedman’s “Jew vs. Jew” is the most important book on American Jewry since the publication of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey highlights sent our community into a frenzy about Jewish survival. The book is fair-minded, a delight to read and it suggests, albeit inadvertently, why the statistics that are soon to emerge from NJPS 2000 are likely to be irrelevant, no matter how much attention they may receive.
We are, quite extraordinarily, in a post-assimilationist, post-intermarriage phase. Religion is trumpeted everywhere, adding to the impression that we have turned a successful corner and that the large investment in continuity activities has paid off. In some legerdemain of language and belief, mainstream American Jewry has embraced the notion that Jews are a religious people. It apparently matters little, if at all, that most American Jews have departed nearly entirely from traditional religious standards. There is, we are being told, a return to religion, not because of increased Sabbath observance or any other observance but because we now acknowledge that religion is in some fashion central to being Jewish.
It is in this sense that Freedman is right when he says that “the Orthodox model has triumphed.” As he underscores, “this is not to say the Orthodox themselves have prevailed.” Rather, “against a backdrop of ever-more complete assimilation,” there is growing acceptance of “the central premise of Orthodoxy that religion binds Jewish identity.”
The Orthodox continue to grow in numbers and influence and they pick up some adherents, but overwhelmingly their growth is internal.
For the foreseeable future their model will compete with the Reconstructionist model, the brand of choice for a great majority of American Jews who want some religion in their lives.
The significance of the Reconstructionist model is perhaps the best-kept secret in contemporary Jewish affairs, which isn’t surprising in view of the smallness of the formal movement and in view of the tendency to emphasize the Reform and Conservative movements, which claim several million members. The terms “Reform” and “Conservative” remain critical taglines in identifying American Jews, but it is certain that for most adherents of these denominations, a Reconstructionist pattern of religious life prevails.
This pattern encompasses a far-reaching set of practices and beliefs that are arrayed, in a figurative sense, in smorgasbord fashion. Each Jew is free to determine what to partake of. Judaism exists to serve the individual, an attitude that is in tune with the American ethos. Accordingly, intermarriage is a personal choice, and for all of its inescapable social consequences and even religious consequences, it does not remove the Jew who marries out from the pale of Jewish religious life if that Jew engages in other behavior that marks him or her as a religious person.
This is a form of “I’m OK, you’re OK” Judaism. If a religious element is included in one’s lifestyle, the religious standard has been met.
There is something seductive about this approach. Jews can at once be non-religious, perhaps even anti-religious, with regard to virtually all that has defined the religious character of our people for generations and yet also be considered religious because in some atrophied fashion they are engaged in religious behavior. Attention is paid to the small percent of the religious glass that is filled. This allows us to be comfortable about what is happening in Jewish life. We can have massive Judaic abandonment together with a measure of transmuted observance.
Some Orthodox are being drawn to the Reconstructionist model. This is most evident, perhaps inescapably, in outreach activities where much leeway is given to the unaffiliated, non-observant or limited-observant Jews who are being reached out to. There is an acceptance — and it isn’t just for a short while — of behaviors and attitudes that bear a close resemblance to a Reconstructionist sensibility.
While Orthodox outreach continues to speak of the goal being acceptance of a fully religious lifestyle, in most instances the final destination is an intermediate point that leaves the returnee no different from the vast numbers who accept the Reconstructionist model.
A recent New Yorker article makes the point in a Lillian Ross profile of Miss New York State of 1999, a devout Christian who through her new Jewish boyfriend finds her way to Hineni and Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, the charismatic outreach advocate who packs them in each week at Congregation Kehillath Jeshurun, the upscale Orthodox synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
There is a more internalized acceptance of a Reconstructionist mind-set within Orthodoxy, notably its modernist fringe. According to this outlook, given much publicity when Sen. Joseph Lieberman became Al Gore’s running mate, there is much room for maneuverability within halacha, including how to observe Sabbath fundamentals. Although this is a special case arising from Mr. Lieberman’s unique situation, his behavior is far more reflective of aspects of Modern Orthodoxy than has been recognized.
The majority of Orthodox adhere, of course, to a far more rigorous religious regimen. This is the model that Sam Freedman has in mind when he writes of the Orthodox triumph. It remains, though, that this model is being challenged by the Reconstructionists, who while they are skating on thin historical and ideological ice, have made much progress.
In the cavernous realm of communal philanthropic activities aimed at shoring up Jewish identity, it is convenient to believe that resources are primarily being devoted to the promotion of the Orthodox model.
It is a remarkable irony that nearly all that is being done in the name of sensitivity to Orthodoxy — including some of the work I do — has the primary effect, if not also the purpose, of advancing the Reconstructionist model.