Cover Story

Abandoning Orthodoxy

Issue: "All in the family," March 2, 2002

In both of those centers, most Jews deserted Orthodox belief and practice during the 20th century, in a way that probably was inevitable once they took Moses Mendelssohn's advice to enter the modern world. Rabbis had no practical answer to the Jewish version of the song from early in the century, "How you gonna keep them down in the Talmud, after they've seen Pa-ree?" Persecution of Jews and Talmudic separatism had gone together, and when persecution slackened modernity beckoned.

Talmudic rules that had seemed protective now seemed restraining. "Build community through living close together," the rabbis had counseled, and the existence of formal ghettos went along with Orthodox stipulations to live within easy walking distance of a synagogue so as not to break rules against breaking a sweat. When the external pressure that required clustering diminished, so did the internal. What had brought together those with no place else to go seemed arbitrary after new choices appeared.

The Orthodox concept of the Messiah also became less central to the consciousness of many emancipated Jews. Hope in the coming of a learned and great governmental/military leader grew most intense when physical life was at its worst. The Messiah would free humanity from war and deprivation so that people could devote all their time to the study of philosophy and to keeping God's laws. Some said that he would come if Israel repented for even a single day or observed even one (or two) Sabbaths properly. Others said he would come when a generation lost hope. But a better life in America made both repentance and hopelessness less likely, for a time. In America, with opportunities in the larger world there for the taking, life in the Talmudic virtual reality was less appealing.

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So throughout the 20th century, immigrants to America who were Orthodox begat children who identified with Reform, Conservative, or Reconstructionist Judaism. Reform Judaism is akin to liberal Protestant denominations such as the Episcopal Church or the United Methodists. Reform Jews (about 30 percent of American Judaism) believe that the creation saga and Jewish law should be understood symbolically, that Satan is merely a symbol of selfish desires, and that they should live well and do good in a way defined by contemporary philosophers. Reform Jewish organizations, like liberal Protestant groups, favor abortion and gay marriage on demand.

Conservative Jews (about 24 percent) believe the Torah was not God's dictation but was written in response to God's revelation of himself at Mount Sinai, so it's not inerrant. Conservative Jews largely toss aside the Talmud but merge some Jewish customs with modern tendencies, in an attempt to find a middle-of-the-road position between the Orthodox and Reform varieties; some Conservatives bake cakes with Reform recipes but a biblical frosting. Reconstructionists (only 1 percent, but with a strong intellectual following) generally consider Sinai to be mythical or irrelevant, but favor the maintenance of the culture that grew out of belief that Sinai was real.

The rings of Saturn could not exist without Saturn; it's very hard to keep a new generation committed to a core-less religion. Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Jews often begat children who, seeing Judaism as irrelevant to their lives, became scornful of it. Liberal Jewish leaders recommended clinging to customs after the thinking behind the customs was gone, but their children were watching cartoons in which cats ran off cliffs with their legs still moving through air for a while. The plunge to earth was inevitable, and attachment to Judaism in recent decades has fallen just as sharply.

One result of that plunge is intermarriage. Half of the Jews who wed in 1990 married non-Jews, and new surveys scheduled for publication this summer are expected to find an even higher percentage. Jewish leaders worry about this, but just as parents of the bride need to see they are not losing a daughter but gaining a son, so those concerned about Jewish loss need to see Jewish gain. Christians understand God's promise to Abraham that through him all the world will be blessed as a reference to Abraham's descendant Jesus, but it can be applied secondarily to the spread of blessing through education and intermarriage.

The Jewish Week of New York reported last November, under the front-page headline "Jews Turning from Judaism," that "42 percent of Jews who say they are Jewish by religion described themselves as secular or somewhat secular. Of those of Jewish heritage or background, it jumped to 72 percent. That's in sharp contrast to American adults nationally, just 15 percent of whom described their outlook in that way." The bigger problem involving intermarriage is that Jews who intermarry often see themselves in the "Jewish heritage or background" category, and leave it at that; they neither return to Judaism nor convert to Christ.


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