Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Threat To Enlightened Judaism in the U.S.

I recently came across a post "Bad for Jews, Bad for America" by Sandy Goodman. The premise of the article is that Jewish life in the U.S. is being pulled in two different directions: toward complete assimilation and disappearance through intermarriage on one hand, and Ultra-Orthodox extremism on the other with the middle of the road  (Reform, and  Conservative)  movements coming apart at the seams.
As a secular Jew, I have to say if this alleged tug of war is the case and that it will continue to the bitter end, then sadly, it would be better that Jewish life in America fade away altogether than fall completely into the clutches of the ultra-Orthodox fanatics who instead of moderating their beliefs  are becoming more rigid with the passing years to the point that they would extinguish the lamp of Haskala (the Jewish enlightenment and its gains)  and turn Jewish life into an oppressive counterpart of  that under Islamic Shari'a law. (BTW this fanaticism isn't confined to the U.S. There's a Chasidic sect in London that wants to prohibit its women members from driving. Shades of Saudi Arabia.)

Further, according to the article,  the benighted  "ultras" may win out in the U.S. just by sheer numbers as they do not believe in contraception and consequently have large families that often include 7 or 8 children(!)  But the main issue is that Ultra-Orthodox  culture is characterized by anti-intellectualism, male dominance,  unemployment, and a  society that tries to shut itself off from outside contact or influence. This life-style is one reason that as I indicated in my post "Change the Channel"  it's self-defeating for rational Jews to offer any type of support to the likes of these reactionaries.
Anyway, I don't think that the future for Jewish life in America has to necessarily turn out the way Goodman claims it will.  Secular Judaism in America is not without its own resources. For example there are organizations such as the Society for Humanistic Judaism that have long supported Jewish continuity but without the trappings (and the trap) of theism. Further, leaders of the MOR branches of Judaism are sensible, and if there is a decline at present in maintaining synagogue membership, I think they will find a solution. Moreover, Mainstream  American Jews, whether observant or secular, have traditionally have opted for the exercise of reason and a quality life style. And if they fully realize what's at stake, I don't think that  they will  go quietly into that dark night of dominance by the ultra-Orthodox.

Goodman has done a service by pointing out that there is a  struggle, but in the end I think that Jewish progressivism can prevail in America, especially if we consider that the alternative outcome of a Jewish Dark Ages is not acceptable and is one for which  the moderate wings have a huge incentive for working together  to  prevent from happening. 


Jack Vance said...

It seems that the more orthodox and extreme manifestations of any religion offer something the others just can't: absolute certainty. It may be false certainty, but many seem to find it quite appealing. The recent Pew results suggest that the more extreme forms of Christianity are doing okay while them more liberal to moderate ones are in decline. I wonder if there are similarities here.

Secular Guy said...


Thanks for your response. I don't know if there's a similar problem among Christians,but many mainstream Jews feel guilty and inferior for their laxness in observance of Jewish law and rituals. So they look up to the ultras as models whose "pious" behavior they admire but know they will never emulate. Instead, these moderates give financial support, such as to Chasidic organizations. In doing so, they don't realize that they're hurting their own interests as this just strengthens the extremists want to impose their own version of Judaism on the rest of us.

Rick Levy