The Fragmented Faith of American Jews

Clifford E. Librach

Copyright (c) 1997 First Things 70 (February 1997): 19-21.

In August 1966, the journal Commentary published "The State of Jewish Belief," a symposium now considered one of the great spiritual and intellectual snapshots of an American religious community. After an introduction by Milton Himmelfarb, thirty-eight leading Jewish thinkers addressed their own and contemporary religious thought with great erudition, intellectual sophistication, and philosophical rigor.

In August 1996, thirty years later, Commentary returned to the well with a new symposium-"What Do American Jews Believe?"-including representatives of the three major Jewish branches: Orthodoxy, Conservatism, and Reform, as well as the much-smaller Reconstructionist movement. It is not an entirely representative group. To answer questions about belief in God, the status of Torah as divine revelation, the chosenness of the Jewish people, and the anticipation of a Messiah, Commentary had to call upon thinkers all of whom, even the most liberal, take the religiousness of their religion seriously. Missing from the group, as a result, are those who regard Jewish identity primarily as leftist politics (e.g., Arthur Waskow and Michael Lerner) or trans-denominational neo-mysticism (e.g., Zalman Schachter- Shalomi).

The biased sample here may not be a bad thing, however, since religion is precisely the aspect of the American Jewish community that is largely obscure to the public at large, including most Jews. The general perception of modern Jews-confirmed, lamentably, by almost all statistical and anecdotal evidence-is of an adamantly secular people. Most Jews do not belong to a synagogue or give their children formal training in their own religion. Those who are synagogue members are not usually active, often attending worship services only on the High Holy Days and otherwise using the synagogue as a child-centered bar/bat mitzvah recital mill, like a dance studio or karate school.

A cynic might declare that the credo of American Jews at the end of the twentieth century can be reduced to two propositions: "Jesus Christ is not the Messiah," and "Because of the Holocaust, the entire world does now and will always owe the Jewish people an ethnic hypersensitivity." (One of the symposium contributors, David Klinghoffer, offers a caustic challenge to such Jewish negativism: "If we have no mission from God, maybe we should all marry Episcopalians, disappear with dignity, and thus quit inflicting ourselves on our Christian neighbors-with our liberalism, our chauvinsim, our self-pity.")

So, while not broadly representative of the Jewish community at large, the concerns and the participants in Commentary's latest symposium do at least attempt to provide a window into the authentic religious dimension of American Judaism. But if the conception of the symposium is worthy, the result is in some ways disappointing. The discussions seem somehow leaner and less significant than the ones presented thirty years ago. This thinness may be attributed, in part, to the editors having severely limited the length of the essays this time around. Still, there is a sense in which theological depth has been replaced by ideological acrimony and quarrelsomeness.

There are interesting differences between the two efforts. In 1966 the respondents were primarily pulpit rabbis, whereas in 1996 the field is dominated by academics; in 1966 all thirty-eight respondents were men, while in 1996 seven women are included. But the most striking difference between the earlier and later symposiums lies in the reversal of ideological momentum between liberal and traditional Judaism. In 1966, the plurality of respondents were Reform rabbis, who, for the most part, wrote with utter self-confidence, barely granting a nod to the struggles of Orthodox Judaism. In 1996, by contrast, the tilt is strongly toward Orthodoxy and the traditional wing of the Conservative movement. That traditionalism, moreover, has become confident and even pugnacious in a way no one could have anticipated in 1966. As David Singer observes, thirty years ago "the Orthodox participants were comfortable in their modernity, but at pains to justify their Orthodoxy. In 1996, for me at least, the situation is exactly the reverse: my Orthodoxy is rock solid, but I am hard-pressed to justify any accommodation with modernity."

Though it still cannot claim more than 10 percent of Jews in the United States, Orthodoxy has, over the last two generations, made significant numerical gains, and its gains in ideological confidence have far exceeded its numerical growth. The 1966 presentations by Orthodox rabbis were notable for the intellectual delicacy with which they defensively justified the strict regimen of Orthodox Judaism in the midst of a dynamic and vibrant American culture. Such thinkers as Eliezer Berkovitz, Marvin Fox, Immanuel Jakobovitz, Emanuel Rackman, Norman Lamm, and Aharon Lichtenstein were obviously quite at home in the world of intellectual modernity but sounded almost quaintly pious in their quiet, passive defense of Orthodox observance.

In 1996, the Orthodox participants answer Commentary's queries positively and aggressively-and proceed to note the vacuity of most everyone else; they are bold in their self-image as representing the only kind of Judaism that can survive in North America. "Reform and Conservative Judaism have failed," asserts David Gelernter, in an intellectual dismissal characteristic of much of Commentary's 1996 tone. "The level of ignorance of classical Jewish sources within" liberal Judaism, observes Suzanne Last Stone, "is, if not unprecedented in Jewish society, certainly unprecedented among those who take it upon themselves to declare the response of Judaism to the complexities of contemporary life." Marshall J. Breger skewers the Reform movement in particular as made up of "those who view Jewish law as some kind of historical archive for spiritual inspiration." Rabbi Barry Freundel rejects Reform's celebration of human autonomy as seductive but ultimately demoralizing: "'Me,' if truly left alone, is nothing but a wretched, infinitesimal dot in the space continuum of the universe. . . . Is it any wonder that insecurity, meaninglessness, and a painful lack of self-worth and self-confidence are the almost-universal psychic afflictions of the day?"

By contrast, the defensive and, indeed, confused responses of the Reform participants mark an utter reversal of their 1966 confidence. Once upon a time the Reform movement tried to be a fortress of intellectual rigor and ethical integrity. But political correctness and the therapeutic culture have reduced Reform teaching to incoherence. Thus, Eric H. Yoffie, the newly installed president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, says that the "heart of Torah is mitzvah [obligation, or commandment]," but then goes on to declare: "For the great majority of American Jews, there is no leader or institution with the authority to impose commandments; the autonomous individual decides for himself or herself." One might have thought that even a liberal rabbi would allow that God can impose commandments, but even this isn't so clear. "As a mitzvah-inspired Liberal Jew," Yoffie insists, "the only option that I have is to decide for myself what binds me." According to this self-contradiction, then, fulfilling a commandment means doing whatever is right in one's own eyes. Similarly, Sheldon Zimmerman, the newly installed president of Hebrew Union College/Jewish Institute of Religion, prefers evocative phrasing to coherent exposition, as when he defines the Torah so broadly that it can mean anything at all. It is, at once, (a) "the story of our people's encounter with the divine and our story as well," (b) "our starting place," (c) "the prism through which we see and understand the world," (d) "the source of our story," (e) "our ongoing attempt and activity to hear God's voice in our own times as we face issues that challenge us to move to newer understandings," (f) "process," and finally, (g) "our 'lived' response to God and God's gifts."

To be sure, not all the Reform contributions to "What Do American Jews Believe?" are so uninspired. Michael A. Meyer and David Ellenson, for instance, reject postmodernity and radical autonomy as possible foundations for liberal Judaism. Marc Gellman seeks to reappropriate the notion of an afterlife and world to come, a doctrine usually ignored or rejected by modern Jews. (Neil Gillman, a Conservative theologian, develops the idea at even greater length.) Yet, sadly, it is sloppy thinking (and worse) that increasingly characterizes Reform deliberation and action. Reform leadership has begun in earnest to deconstruct Judaism's venerable liturgical metaphors in favor of feminist God- language that is both unpoetic and unintelligible. (Curiously, the only symposium contributor to refer to God as "She" is Saul Berman, an Orthodox rabbi.) Reform has taken unilateral action in redefining Jewish identity, not only embracing "patrilineal descent" as an option but also coming close to eliminating descent as a criterion altogether. Most shocking, perhaps, a resolution in favor of homosexual marriage as a civil right was approved by a voice vote at the Central Conference of American (Reform) Rabbis meeting last spring, after some fifteen minutes of largely one-sided debate. (As Dennis Prager observed, it was the spectacle of a large organization of rabbis considering one of the most fundamental questions of Western religious and cultural thought-with all of the profundity and seriousness that might be associated with a resolution on whether to break for lunch.)

Despite being under similar secular and political pressures, the Conservative movement has been able to preserve far more of the authentic tradition (although recent evidence suggests that the bulk of Conservative laity may be closer to Reform's intellectual laxity than to its own rabbinic leadership). David G. Dalin gives a concise articulation of the problems imbedded in the modern inheritance of a millennial tradition, citing Abraham Joshua Heschel's observation that "Judaism is based on a minimum of revelation and a maximum of interpretation." But unlike so much of Reform, in this account it is learned rabbinic interpretation, not antinomian anarchy, that determines how the mitzvot are understood and performed. Whether this way of thinking-at once traditional and modern-can ultimately provide a vital center for American Judaism remains unclear. Few contributors to the symposium hold out much hope for a center that holds. As David Weiss Halivni puts it, "The right is moving farther to the right and the left farther to the left," with little love or tolerance for other Jews.

Some observers cite a small but growing religiosity
within liberal Judaism as a possible source of rapproachment. Pockets of intellectually and spiritually interested young adults now dot the landscape of Jewish America, suggesting a yearning for spiritual intensity that is specifically Jewish. Unfortunately, these efforts sometimes slip into a kind of spirituality-for-its-own-sake, becoming little more than Jewish-style tours through psychobabble and pseudo- mystical contentment. The increased use of Hebrew and the greater frequency of yarmulkes in Reform congregations are small, superficial improvements when weighed against the wholesale capitulation to a secular cosmology. As Jon D. Levenson, an Orthodox contributor, points out, increased observance is not necessarily an "indication that one is attempting to overcome the ethic of self-gratification and to replace it with the ethic of altruism that is at the heart of authentic Jewish living. The notion that personal autonomy and the quest for self- fulfillment are sacrosanct can also interfere with acceptance of important elements in Jewish morality such as the laws governing sexual behavior and the law that a fetus may be killed only in the rarest and gravest of cases."

If an inescapable theme of Commentary's symposium is the resurgence of Jewish traditionalism at the expense of liberalism, traditionalists should nonetheless be only qualifiedly pleased. The irony is that traditional Judaism, particularly Orthodoxy, owes much of its current success to the past strength of liberal Judaism. The great achievement of the Reform movement was to present a version of Judaism, still grounded in God, for the great mass of educated and culturally assimilating diaspora Jews. Conservative Judaism fulfilled much of the same need while at the same time addressing the desire for ethnic solidarity and greater continuity with tradition. In short, liberal Judaism gave religious inspiration to many whose enthusiasm and intellectual curiosity would cause them later to return to religious traditionalism: Shlomo Riskin, David Novak, David Klinghoffer, Samuel Dresner, Jon Levenson, and Jacob Neusner are prominent Jewish thinkers who made such an odyssey. The current disarray of liberal Judaism, while seeming to some religious traditionalists as pure vindication, should also be an occasion for somber reflection and sorrow.

Clifford E. Librach is Rabbi of Temple Sinai (Reform) in Sharon, Massachusetts.