The Future of Judaism

Daniel Pipes wrote an interesting column in which he discusses the future of Judaism. His opening paragraph reminded me of the “pitch” that many of my BT and FFB friends have made to me.

“Until the 18th century, there was basically only one kind of Judaism, that which is now called Orthodox. It meant living by the religion’s 613 laws, and doing so suffused Jews’ lives with their faith. Then, starting with the thinker Baruch Spinoza (1632-77) and moving briskly during the Haskala, or “enlightenment,” from the late 18th century, Jews developed a wide variety of alternate interpretations of their religion, most of which diminished the role of faith in their lives and led to a concomitant reduction in Jewish affiliation.”

The underlying suggestion is that we were always one people and it wasn’t until somewhat recent times that things really changed. But that is at best questionable and not entirely accurate. There have always been divisions and groups within Judaism that debated how we observe things.

Pipes goes on to discuss how there has been a resurgence in the number of Orthodox Jews and how due to things like assimilation the percentage of Orthodox Jews relative to others is growing.

“Should this trend continue, it is conceivable that the ratio will return to roughly where it was two centuries ago, with the Orthodox again constituting the great majority of Jews. Were that to happen, the non-Orthodox phenomenon could seem in retrospect merely an episode, an interesting, eventful, consequential, and yet doomed search for alternatives, suggesting that living by the law may be essential for maintaining a Jewish identity over the long term.”

I am not convinced that this is real likely. I don’t have any scientific data to provide or scholarly works, just the tried and true “Jack’s Gut intuition” which says that Orthodoxy is attractive to more people during times of unrest and less so during more stable times. Right now things are kind of hairy, in a few years that may change.

I recognize that this does not deal with assimilation, but it is fair to say that there are efforts being made within the various denominations to combat this. In the end not everyone wants to be give up their Saturday ball game and or cheeseburgers.

It is however an interesting thought to ponder.

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  1. Dave December 18, 2005 at 11:33 pm

    A lot of us seem to forget one thing- Judaism is a faith, not just ritual. Therefore if we stop truly believing in Hashem ie. pure monotheism and especially if we stop acting on that belief in our daily lives ie. according to ethical principles, and if we stop trusting in Hashem, then all the ritual mitzvot and all the cultural stuff isn”t going to help us. Also, as much as some Orthodox people dislike the Karaites and the Samaritans, they (these last two groups) still have a pure belief in Hashem. As far as I”m concerned they”re certainly on our (the Jewish) team. I agree more with them than I do with the Reconstructionists or the atheists or someone like Rabbi Kushner who can only conceive of a limited G-d (G-d forbid). Most of us Jews mainly agreed in the basics of our beliefs. Now under the onslaught of all the -isms in the last, this has been sadly forgotten.

  2. Jack's Shack January 31, 2005 at 10:04 pm

    P.T., you are right, ritual is such a key component of Judaism. It is part of who we are.

  3. PsychoToddler January 31, 2005 at 9:16 pm

    Dave’s comments are a little closer to the truth. There have always been splinter groups in Judaism, but they have disappeared over the years. So the core group that gets to be defined as “Jewish” over the centuries ends up being the Orthodox (or observant).

    We are a people who require ritual to survive. Without it, the point of being Jewish fades. Bagels and Jokes will only get you so far. The generations that rely on that are putting up christmas trees each year.

    Interesting that many of our traditions force us to remain separate from the non-Jews around us, like the laws of Kashrut–you can’t go out to eat at the non-kosher restaurant with your friends if you keep kosher, can’t eat at their houses, etc.

  4. Jack's Shack January 30, 2005 at 7:55 pm

    I may be wrong, but I think this is what he was getting at.Fair enough, I can buy that. Right now I am more interested in getting deeper into the future than broad speculation.

    By that I mean what are we going to do about assimilation. Do we continue to use matrilineal descent as the basis for someone being “born a Jew” or is patrilineal just as valid. Do we make a larger effort at kiruv and missionary work. This is more pressing to me than what the look may be, although this is not to say that the “end result” is not critical, it is.

    But priorities are priorities.

  5. Anonymous January 30, 2005 at 8:28 am

    Jack… Although he may not have expressed it exactly this way, I think the general thesis was that there has always been ‘normative’ practice of Judaism and then those who elected not to follow normative practices. Yes, starting with groups like the Kara’ites and proto-Christians, there has always been a fairly steady stream of splinter groups that have tried to redefine or evolve Jewish practice at their own pace. But for the most part these groups have ended up like boxcars left at a small siding as the train (orthodoxy) rolled on.

    It wasn’t really until the period the author is addressing that ‘non-normative’ (what we would call non-orthodox) Judaism became ‘kosher’ under the mandate of a large organizational umbrella. Instead of being seen (by themselves and by others) as backsliders or ‘sinners’, there was suddenly a name and accepted structure for what many had been doing quietly all along.

    I may be wrong, but I think this is what he was getting at.

    By the way, I don’t think his prediction about the future of Orthodoxy will be born out. So long as the ‘other denominations’ continue to redefine who is a Jew, they will always outnumber the orthodox. Just my 2 cents.


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