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Orthodox Jews Fight Over Who Owns the Middle Ground

c. 2006 Religion News Service NEW YORK _ Yet another permutation of the culture war convulsing religions worldwide has surfaced, this time within American Orthodox Judaism. It’s a struggle for dominance between those who see traditional faith as fully compatible with contemporary culture and those who reject the culture and prefer to live apart. So […]

c. 2006 Religion News Service

NEW YORK _ Yet another permutation of the culture war convulsing religions worldwide has surfaced, this time within American Orthodox Judaism. It’s a struggle for dominance between those who see traditional faith as fully compatible with contemporary culture and those who reject the culture and prefer to live apart.

So far, says a leading observer of American Orthodox Judaism, the latter group, often labeled ultra-Orthodox, is winning.

“The contest is over what is genuine Orthodoxy,” said Samuel C. Heilman, a sociologist at the City University of New York and author of the newly released “Sliding to the Right: The Contest for the Future of American Jewish Orthodoxy.”

“It’s over what is the best recipe for survival. The (ultra-Orthodox) believe the Modern Orthodox took a wrong path, that they took a step on the slippery slope of assimilation and acculturation, and in some cases they are correct.”

The struggle has implications that go beyond Orthodox Judaism, Heilman said during a recent interview at his Manhattan office.

Because Orthodoxy tends to set the bar as far as ritual practice goes, it wields considerable indirect influence over the faith’s less-traditional wings, including Reform and Conservative. The vast majority of American Jews identify with those two movements.

Moreover, although non-traditional Jews reject Orthodox theology, they strive to cooperate on numerous communal issues, especially Israel’s security. While Modern Orthodox Jews generally work with non-Orthodox Jews on such issues, ultra-Orthodox Jews are often unwilling to do so.

“It complicates relationships between the factions within Judaism enormously,” Heilman said. “It contradicts the ideal of Jewish unity.”

About 10 percent of the estimated 5.5 million U.S. Jews self-identify as Orthodox. Based on recent survey findings, Heilman estimates that about one- third are ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, as they are also called, using a Hebrew word translated as “one who trembles before God.”

Ultra-Orthodox men can be spotted by their wardrobe that rarely veers from basic black and white. The married women always cover their hair out of concern for personal modesty. Modern Orthodox men, in contrast, often go hatless in the workplace (one example: Modern Orthodox Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn.) or wear a small skullcap and mainstream street attire. Modern Orthodox women often leave their hair uncovered.

Given the demographics, Modern Orthodoxy would seem more vibrant than its ultra-Orthodox competition.

But numbers alone do not tell the whole story. The ultra-Orthodox have larger families and because they lead more insular lives are less likely to see their children leave the Orthodox fold, said Heilman, who is Modern Orthodox.

Critically, they have also come to dominate Jewish education, including in schools generally attended by the Modern Orthodox, greatly extending their influence.

Heilman said this is a consequence of Modern Orthodox society’s embrace of mainstream professional and business careers now that taboos against hiring Jews have virtually disappeared in the American workplace. By gravitating toward secular professions, Modern Orthodox Jews turned away from becoming religious school teachers and even rabbis _ the professions of old that allowed them to mold young minds, Heilman said.

“It only stands to reason that those who are the role models and who are transmitting their religious values to the young will have the most influence in shaping the next generation,” he said. “Education has become a prime arena for the conflict for supremacy between the Modern and Haredi Orthodox.”

In essence, living in an open society has undercut Modern Orthodoxy’s religious leadership, Heilman said. As an example, he noted the hero status afforded Lieberman, the first Jew to run on a major party’s presidential ticket.

“For a moment in time, Joe Lieberman became the biggest star of Modern Orthodoxy. For that moment, he represented the ideal. In the past, it was great rabbinic minds … who held the community’s esteem,” Heilman said.

“We’re talking about Jews who are Orthodox, who believe God has an ongoing plan for their daily lives, who believe in the power of the tradition (but) who often find themselves lacking religious and spiritual leadership that can support their autonomous choices (in secular culture),” Heilman said.

In the end, Heilman said, economics may well decide the competition within Orthodox Judaism. Eventually the number of Haredi men engaged in full-time religious studies well into adulthood _ a hallmark of ultra-Orthodox Judaism _ will become an unsustainable financial burden on their community, he said, forcing the ultra-Orthodox to open to contemporary culture as never before and being impacted in the process.

“The question is, how well can a group sustain itself if an important ideological part of its construction is to keep young (men) engaged in long-term study while having large families and not being gainfully employed?” he said.

Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for Agudath Israel, a leading Haredi synagogue umbrella group, agrees that economics will “necessarily” impact ultra-Orthodox insularity in the coming years, although he minimized any resulting “seepage of mainstream society’s ideas or ideals” into the community.

“Responsible Haredi ventures to train breadwinners have existed for years and the steps taken to ensure that they do not compromise with regard to traditional Jewish values and practice seem to have yielded well-rounded and capable Haredi workers,” he said.

If Heilman is, at best, hopeful about Modern Orthodoxy’s eventual revitalization, Jonathan D. Sarna of Brandeis University is confident of its comeback.

“The reason I am a little more optimistic than some is that the European-trained (Haredi) rabbis are now gone,” said Sarna, a Modern Orthodox Jew and author of “American Judaism: A History,” “and I don’t think the American- trained rabbis have the same mythical power over their communities.”

KRE/JL END RIFKIN

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