Tracking Orthodoxy’s Move In Two Directions


Few would deny the increasing significance of Orthodox Jewry in American Jewish communal life.  Once considered moribund, Orthodoxy today appears poised to assume the mantle of communal leadership within the next generation.  In a masterful survey combining history, sociology, Jewish law and even theology, Chaim Waxman provides a portrait of an American Orthodoxy that has undergone enormous evolution in the decades since the Second World War.

Immigration of Holocaust survivors was one factor underlying the resurgence of Orthodoxy.  Waxman estimates that 40 percent of postwar Jewish immigration consisted of Orthodox Jews, determined to rebuild traditional Jewish life on American shores.  More specifically, Orthodox leaders committed to create Jewish day schools in every community hosting a Jewish population over 7,500.  Thus, the number of day schools increased from 35 in 1945 to 323 by 1965, and the number of students enrolled grew from 7,700 to 63,550 over the same period.  Today, counting Jewish preschools, no fewer than 255,000 school-age children are enrolled in day schools, mostly, albeit by no means exclusively, under Orthodox auspices.  The one-year gap program in Israel following high school has become normative among day school graduates, a development that has both cemented ties to Israel and intensified commitment to Orthodoxy.

Intellectually, the towering figure of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik dominated Orthodox discourse during the postwar decades.  Soloveitchik, simply The Rav to many, was known for his brilliant Talmudic scholarship and profound philosophical depth and originality. He articulated a distinctive theology, teaching that all Jews shared in the “Covenant of Fate” uniting the entire Jewish people, but were also bound to the “Covenant of Destiny,” a mission to become a holy people through the fulfillment of Torah and mitzvot.  This covenantal theology brought Soloveitchik into the camp of religious Zionism, seeing the creation of the state of Israel as a project of the entire Jewish people and an opportunity to become a spiritual people in the Jewish homeland.

As religious fundamentalism thrives on the broader American religious map, the Orthodox move rightward parallels the broader theological currents in the country.

In recent decades, observers have pointed to a pronounced Orthodox “shift to the right.”  Indeed, the 2013 Pew study of American Jewry underscored that two-thirds of adult Orthodox Jews were charedi, rather than Modern or Centrist.  Assuming continued high birthrate patterns, a charedi demographic ascendency appears to lie just over the horizon.  Moreover, as religious fundamentalism thrives on the broader American religious map, the Orthodox move rightward parallels the broader theological currents in the country.  Thus, Waxman documents how relatively minor prohibitions in Jewish law have been elevated into existential significance as religious norms.

However, Waxman demonstrates that matters are not so simple. Orthodoxy is simultaneously shifting in a more liberal and modern direction on certain matters.  For example, he notes the increased acceptance of homosexuals within Orthodox circles.  He also underscores how Modern Orthodoxy in Israel frequently has been ahead of the curve, paving the road for its American counterpart to follow.  “Partnership minyanim,” affording greater opportunities for female participation in leadership and liturgical roles, originated in Jerusalem and then spread to Australia and North America.  Waxman attributes this current within Israeli Orthodoxy — so at odds with the existing norms and pronouncements articulated by the Chief Rabbinate and the Orthodox establishment there — to the absence of denominationalism within Israeli society, thus removing some of the constraints on expression of liberal Orthodox values.

As for the phenomenon of Orthodox female clergy, Waxman cites a comment (since retracted) of a senior member of the Yeshiva University Talmud faculty that “it may be very beneficial to have women rabbis.”  Similarly, he notes pronounced interest in critical biblical scholarship within contemporary Orthodox circles, a relatively unheard of phenomenon only one generation ago.  For Waxman, the processes of halachic change, while gradual and evolutionary, often do result in legal justification for what is occurring on the ground.

What then of the future?  The widely-cited Orthodox move to the right clearly remains the dominant current.  Yet, as Waxman demonstrates, there is also a parallel trend of greater intellectual openness, gender equality within the parameters of Jewish law, and limited religious pluralism.  These developments ought encourage Modern Orthodox leaders eager to provide alternatives to the shift rightward.  The recent Nishma study of Modern Orthodox Jews in the United States found, for example, that a majority of respondents favored women in clergy roles.  The constituency for a vibrant and vigorous Modern Orthodoxy clearly does exist.  Whether it can withstand the powerful drift rightward and perhaps thrive alongside it remains in question.  Chaim Waxman’s lucid and insightful overview of these currents provides a wonderful guide to the change occurring in both directions and, ultimately, to the battle for the soul of Orthodox Judaism.

Steven Bayme serves as national director, contemporary Jewish life, AJC.