The Future of Liberal Jewry in a Nutshell

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CRMJEWISH03P-ABy Jonathan Tobin

Last year, a study on the American Jewish population published by the Pew Research Center made it plain that non-Orthodox Jewry in this country was in crisis. The devastating statistics about rising rates of intermarriage, assimilation and declining rates of affiliation painted a Portrait of Jewish Americans that left little doubt that liberal Jewry was in crisis. Since then, many in the Reform and Conservatives denominations, especially their leaders, seem to be in denial about the seriousness of the problem, but a story in Friday’s New York Times illustrates their dilemma nicely.

The article concerns the decision of Rabbi Andrew Bachman of Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn to leave the rabbinate and pursue a new career in poverty work. On the surface, there’s nothing particularly significant about this. Rabbis, like lots of other professionals, often change their professions in mid life. As the rabbi says, the shift is neither a crisis of faith nor a contradiction of his life’s work as there is no inherent contradiction between being a Reform rabbi and being a poverty activist.

But the Times was not wrong to highlight this story as being something of a metaphor for liberal Jewry. Bachmann was widely seen as being among the best and the brightest in the Reform rabbinate and a man who had transformed his synagogue into a vibrant center attracting congregants eager to be a part of his vision of social activism. His decision to leave doesn’t mean that Beth Elohim will collapse. But it does show that when you start treating Judaism as merely a vehicle for liberal social activism, it’s difficult to resist the impulse to eliminate the middleman. Bachmann may not be renouncing his faith or even his calling as a rabbi but, as we learn in the Times account of his decision making process that he has discovered that he’s a lot more interested in spending his life advancing the anti-poverty agenda than in teaching Judaism to a generation of Jews who are desperately in need of leaders able to reach them.

One needs to be careful about going too far with this line of reasoning, but, it’s difficult to criticize the Times for assuming that there is a connection between the rapid decline in affiliation and synagogue attendance and the way many non-Orthodox Jews believe their faith is synonymous with liberal activism rather than a civilization and a people that transcends the particular political fashion of our own time.

Those who wrote about the Pew Survey rightly focused on statistics that showed the overwhelming majority of non-Orthodox Jews are intermarrying and the secondary results that show that the children of such marriages are exponentially less likely to be Jewishly educated, affiliate with the Jewish community or regard themselves as “Jews by religion.” Those numbers point in only one direction and it is one that means that within a few generations most of the descendants of those who currently call themselves Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist Jews will have left the Jewish community and have only the most meager and vestigial ties to their origins.

But just as telling as the intermarriage numbers were those that explored what it means to be a Jew to those who still do consider themselves Jewish. Relatively few see it as having anything to do with religious faith or being part of the Jewish people. More think it is a function of having a sense of humor than being connected to the State of Israel. When asked what defines Judaism and Jewish identity, most eschew all those elements that are the defining characteristics of Judaism and, instead, focus on those that apply equally to all faiths, such as a desire to promote social justice.

Jewish identity and faith has always contained within it a lively mix of the universal and the particular. But in the universe of liberal American Jewry, the balance is skewed toward the former. As Cynthia Ozick memorably said, “universalism is the particularism of the Jews.”

As such, liberal Jews are far less likely to resist the blandishments of assimilation since there is very little difference between their view of their faith and the secular political version of liberalism. However, as many in these denominations have discovered, it is a lot easier to devote yourself to a liberal cause without tugging along your Jewish baggage. In a movement that treats anti-poverty work as synonymous with faith, who can blame Rabbi Bachmann for deciding to stop trying to feed the hungry in a Jewish context and instead just cut straight to the chase?

As I wrote in the November 2013 issue of COMMENTARY, this exodus of non-Orthodox Jews is largely the function of free society in which Americans have a choice as to whether they will retain their faith and the breakdown in barriers between faiths that has caused non-Jews to be willing to marry Jews. But it is exacerbated by a societal trend in which the overwhelming majority of American Jews have lost all sense of what it means to hold onto a viable Jewish identity that can be handed down to subsequent generations. If you believe, as most do, that Judaism can be summed up in the phrase “tikkun olam” – a concept about repairing the world that has become a tired cliché andbeen stripped of its particular Jewish meaning or, as the old quip goes, the Democratic Party platform with holidays thrown in, why be a Jew at all?

The answer from all too many liberal Jews is that there is no real reason to stick with Judaism and the result are the numbers that the Pew Center published. Sadly, both the leaders of the Conservative movement and Bachmann’s Reform movement, have taken a blasé attitude toward the Pew statistics, claiming that their impact is either being exaggerated or misinterpreted rather than raising an alarm. That sort of complacence is on display in the quotes in the Times article from both Bachmann and Reform leader Rabbi Rick Jacobs. They urge Jews not to “build a wall around their Judaism in an effort to preserve it. But it’s difficult to view the catastrophic numbers in a context other than one in which the consequences of not preserving distinctions or viewing Judaism as religious liberalism are becoming apparent. As scholars Jack Wertheimer, Steven Cohen and Steven Bayme have pointed out, the only way to preserve non-Orthodox Jewry is to emphasize both Jewish particularity as well as seek to promote endogamy.

Rabbi Bachmann isn’t leaving Judaism but that is exactly what most non-Orthodox Jews are doing. If even he sees a life devoted to Jewish teachings as somehow not fulfilling enough to suit his needs, how can anyone else argue that it is reasonable to expect his congregants not to shuck off Jewish particularism just as easily?


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  1. This is a horrible problem. Basically reform and conservative jewry among some others are a hive. They go in and they don’t come out. Time for the hive is not wagered for good fortune. Torah is the only way. You put up a fence around Torah. A wall around judaism is a comcentration camp. Time is not for better use. If the hive burns down, the Israelites lose their religion. There is a problem. There is a flame in the hive. The reform do not cancel their prayers for better hope. Therefore the hive is burning. Christianity did what Reform did. The biggest issue is that they do not have a mechitza. This means they can not have Torah. And therefore this concept can not exist. Want the solution? Easy. Pput the mechitza back up. They can have an abbreviated service but not lose Torah. Then, we will have peace in Israel.
    Free will is not free promise.
    And I pray that tomorrow can fix this trash culture.


  2. Remember Egypt who left was not all the people and only 1/5 of the people went with Moses so it is happening again most of the people will decide to stay and assimilate, what leaves and believes in Torah will be Israel.

  3. There is a problem than most people fail to understand. The term reform conservative or orthodox are really meaningless. What is at stake here is the level of loyalty to traditional Judaism. Looking it that way we should not be surprised of the terrible spiritual holocaust happening before our eyes. There is a conservative synagogue in my neighborhood and the only time you see it full is on funerals. Reform and conservatives…or better said people disloyal to Torah can not survive 3 generations as a mater of fact there are no Jews that are reform that can claim to be the original founders of the Haskalah because their descendants are now Christians atheist etc etc etc…..I’m more concern with “orthodox” Jews and their slow but tragic process of assimilation that is very quiet and subtle but is affecting us in an alarming scale. many people go an get pizza on motzei shabbes much more than do a melave malka!

  4. 30 years ago the Jewish observer wrote about this with graphs and charts showing the dicline of reform and conservative Jewry
    Right on the money

  5. I never cease to be amazed how otherwise intelligent people can be so brilliantly stupid. It’s not unlike Alan Dershowitz decrying “The Vanishing American Jew” while simultaneously celebrating the marriage of an Irish Catholic girl to his son, who vows to raise whatever progeny in both faiths. He refuses to recognize that his own approach to Jewish identity is part of the problem.

    So to with Tobin. He rightly throws stones at liberals for their universalism that has demonstrably failed to ensure a Jewish future for its adherents. Simultaneously he fails to understand that his own worldview — conservatism and political zionism — equally fails.

    Just as one can be a liberal without being Jewish, one can also be conservative and not be Jewish. There is certainly no evdience that being a conservative is any more successful in preserving a Jewish identity than liberalism. So to, one doesn’t have to be Jewish to be a supporter of the zionist state and zionsim has not proven an effective deterrent to assimilation either.

    Liberal Jews are generally no less zionist that Tobin is and, in Israel itself, 66% of non-religious youth wish they weren’t born Jewish. Poor succor for someone lambasting the failures of Liberalism.

    In the end, all that Tobin and his ilk have to fall back on “to emphasize both Jewish particularity as well as seek to promote endogamy” is ethno-centrism. Why be Jewish? Because we are. Just like the Irish are Irish, the Italians are Italian, and WASPs are WASPs. Particularity for its own sake. Another word for that is racism.

    What Tobin, like Dershowitz, fails to understand, refuses to understand is that the only way to preserve Jewish identity is Torah and any attempt to do so without Torah is doomed for the ash heap of history.

    But Tobin doesn’t want to obey HaShem’s Torah and in doing so writes his own epitaph. I won’t say “that’s fine” but every Jew does have that right; the choice to live by Torah or to turn his back and quietly fade away. We can’t force him. We can’t stop him. But what he doesn’t have the right to do is bring others down with him on his personal Jewish Titanic.


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