Starboard, ho!

In a recent post on his blog, Emes Ve-Emunah, Rabbi Harry Maryles reflected on some of the accelerated rightward shift of haredi streams of Judaism:

Why do I care about what the Charedi world is doing? As I said they are the dominant culture in Orthodoxy now and their increase in numbers outpace any other branch of Orthodoxy. But even more than that, extremes when incorporated wholesale into communities eventually become the norm. Just look at mixed seating at weddings. That used to be the norm. Now it is considered to be a less than Tznius event. Some Charedi leaders will not even attend such a wedding!

I understand that in some communities these extremes of Tznius are the norm… and probably have been the norm for many decades or perhaps longer. Meah Shearim and Bnei Brak come to mind. But what is the norm for them was not the norm for everyone else in Orthodoxy. Until it was… and is!

Now, first, I’m not about to say that Rabbi Maryles and I are anywhere near on the same page on most things; he’s very firmly an Orthodox rabbi, and I’m very firmly not Orthodox. (I’ll avoid going, yet again, into why I think the ability to use the label “Orthodox” is a dumb concession on the part of liberal Judaism. Sometimes we’re just stuck with the words we have.) And whatever the Orthodox world is going to work out for itself, will happen.

I’m more concerned with what the increasing rightward moves in the Orthodox world–both in terms of population and halakhic output–mean for those of us who aren’t part of that world. In the event you think this isn’t actually a thing to worry about, let’s dredge back up our old whipping boy, the Pew study.The Pew study pointed out that the American Jewish community is, as a whole, somewhat losing its middle. The Conservative and Modern Orthodox movements have been shrinking as a proportion of the whole. Reform Judaism has gained ground as a matter of proportions, though not so much in total numerical terms.

Whether all of this indicates that the Conservative movement has seen its overall percentages reduced as some families flee to Reform while others become more Orthodox in orientation, or something else, I don’t know. I tend to think that as Reform has moved more toward traditional practices and language, there’s been a flight of families from the Conservative Movement, which can’t seem to get its act together on issues that the bulk of American Jews, who let’s face it are politically and socially quite liberal, care strongly about. (Gay marriage, gay clergy, intermarriages, inclusion of disabilities–none of this stuff seems to get done in a strong way, one way or the other. Hey, CJLS–take a firm stand on something!)

At the same time, Jewish social and philanthropic efforts have taken significant rightward turns–sometimes politically, sometimes religiously, and sometimes both–in some areas. More and more Jewish involvement goes to the traditionalist end of the spectrum: it’s no coincidence that you’ll find movement-approved siddurs in the shuls and Artscroll siddurs in members’ homes. Chabad and Aish each are doing their things as welcoming but at core haredi versions of Jewish life; their presence and vocalness draws many Jews to greater connection to the religious aspects of Jewish life. Birthright is heavily funded by Sheldon Adelson, who is involved in funding Republican Party candidates and causes, and there has been reporting that the content of the Birthright program has trended toward the Israeli right in recent years. (I don’t care about your political affiliation; this is simply an observation that money from donors often comes because the organization is willing and able to help meet the donor’s vision, or because the organization already does that.)

So, the Reform movement has moved toward more traditional practices (20 years ago I never would have believed that Reform rabbis would be laying tefillin in large numbers–most of the ones I knew were easily mistaken for liberal Protestants!), which means more previously Reform-affiliated Jews probably aren’t hanging around in that movement. The Conservative movement has lost some to Reform and some to Orthodoxy. The Orthodox have moved farther to the right. The Jewish books on people’s shelves are more and more determined by a haredi-based vision. (A quick trip to Barnes & Noble will confirm this for you–Artscroll is almost all there is to purchase in the way of siddurim and chumashim in many cities.) Jewish practice writ large has moved rightward.

What does this mean? For the health of the American Jewish community, we are going to need to become stronger advocates for ourselves and our views. I of course mean the humanistic Jewish approach, but lo zo bilvad–not only this. Understand, liberal Jewish friends, that it’s not only about making nice among ourselves; I love Rabbis Without Borders, and sometimes things have to start at “the top,” but meeting students from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and JTS and Ziegler doesn’t do what we need done: the articulation, publicly, loudly, and lovingly, of the availability of positive Jewish options for all comers. (Yes, this means dropping assimilation hysteria, which was and is unproductive.) Until we start to do that, we face shoals on the right.

Starboard, ho!