It is back to work, school and all things normal after a short break and once again I am confronted by a quite wonderful yet strangely blind article in the JC.
It is written by Jonathan Boyd, the Executive Director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research. The work he and JPR do is so important. They gather huge amounts of data and then share their findings with the community. I have been to many of their presentations and find many times that their work superbly uncovers an inconvenient truth which is usually ignored by the wider community
He once again writes an excellent article but there is something not quite right with it.
He begins by explaining that the fastest growing and most successful stream of Judaism in this country is Charedi. Remarkably he tells us, based on data, that the population has doubled every twenty years and sees no sign of slowing down. How have the Charedi world achieved this? He explains ‘An unrelenting emphasis of the strictest interpretation of Jewish law, a clear separation from wider society and the dangers that exist there and a determination to replenish the Jewish population by creating large Jewish families’.
So far, so good. It is the next paragraph which angered me.
‘Non-Charedi forms of Judaism, including centrist Orthodoxy, simply don’t have the same demographic prospects. Numerous indicators show this, including aging populations, higher rates of intermarriage, lower levels of Jewish social propinquity and weaker levels of Jewish practice’.
JPR and Pew data both here and in the USA show this paragraph to be ridiculous – i.e. data that his organisation has collected. Both show that yes, a Charedi way of life results in extremely low rates of intermarriage and high levels of Jewish practices – but so do Modern Orthodox observant Jews. A JPR report in 2016 showed less than 1% intermarriage for that group while non-Orthodox and secular are approaching 50% and beyond.
He then goes on to explain how non-Orthodox Judaism has moved away from halachic observance to a commitment to social justice. How ‘it is becoming more universalist, more outward looking’ and less involved with halachic practice.
He concludes by saying that the Jewish world is ‘becoming polarised into two increasingly hard-line camps, the universalists and the particularists’. However we need to find a balance, that is the challenge! His conclusion there are only two alternatives and both he feels are not ideal.
Many years ago, a similar question was asked by Jon’s wife Shoshana Boyd Gelfand – who was then the Executive Director of Reform Judaism, she asked, ‘is there not a way to remain committed to authentic Jewish life without turning our back on Modern complexities and opportunities?’
In her article, she fell into the same trap as her husband did in the current article, explaining that the choices from the enlightenment in the 19thcentury were simply between a Charedi way of life or Assimilation, once again either solely a particular or universal ideology with nothing in between. However, there were not two choices in the 19th century, as there are not two choices today, there were and still are three. The third approached championed by Rabbis such as Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch who advocated the observance of traditional Judaism while being involved in the wider world.
As Rav Hirsch said “Now what is it that we want? Are the only alternatives either to abandon religion (Universalist) or to renounce all progress (Particularist)? We declare before heaven and earth that if our religion demanded that we should renounce what is called civilization and progress we would obey unquestioningly, because our religion is for us the word of God before which every other consideration has to give way. There is, however, no such dilemma. Judaism never remained aloof from true civilization and progress. In almost every area its adherents were fully abreast of contemporary learning and very often excelled their contemporaries. An excellent thing is the study of Torah combined with the ways of the world.”
Torah Im Derech Eretz – Rabbi Hirsch.
Torah u Mada – Torah and Science – Yeshiva University.
Torah u Chochma – Torah and Wisdom –Rabbi Sacks.
All varieties on the same theme, be a proud passionate Orthodox Jew and pursue a secular degree, a professional job, a love of culture, science, history, art – there is no contradiction. And it has proved remarkably successful.
It is for us to loudly and proudly state, there is a way, there has always been a way, to live both as an Orthodox Jew and as a modern thinker, to combine the universal and the particular with a dedication to the eternity of the Torah coupled with a thirst for worldly knowledge and an engagement with the wider world.
This is so obviously the solution that Boyd craves, so why is this not being pushed by the entire mainstream community? The reason is seen in the Parasha with a remarkable Midrash.
Moshe is commanded to bring the second plague, frogs. Four times Hashem mentions frogs, Tzfardayim(Shemot 7:27 – 8:2) while explaining what is going to happen and six times afterwards the plural word is used. However, when the actual plague occurs the pasuksays ‘Vataal ha Tzefardea’ in the singular, not frogs but frog. Rashi explains that on a simple pshatreading it is singular as it refers to the entire infestation that struck the country but he also gives the midrashic interpretation which I think sheds light on our issue.
The midrash says that it was only one giant frog that emerged from the Nile, but when the Egyptians struck it, it multiplied again and again and again, until there was an infestation of frogs.
What is the lesson here? Why didn’t they just stop hitting the frog? You can understand the first few times but once they had seen what occurred when they hit the frogs- just stop and deal with a small number. Why keep hitting and have to deal with a much bigger problem?
The answer I heard once from Rabbi Alfred Cohen of Blueberry Hill Shul in Monsey is the following. They thought that this time it will be different, this time it wont divide, this time the blow will kill it. The truth can be staring you in the face, all the evidence points you to the same conclusion, but you still continue down the line of destruction.
If we keep ignoring the fact that the solution is staring us in the face, maybe we won’t have to deal with the fact that we have a growing problem of Jewish and Zionist identity in the mainstream world especially amongst the younger elements.
We know what works. The first way is Charedi, but for the vast majority of the mainstream community that is not going to work. What is needed is an embrace of an ideology that speaks to both the universal and the particular. As Rabbi Sacks says ‘“Judaism honours both the universality of the human condition and the particularity of Jewish faith.”
Every morning and evening before the Shema we affirm these values – ‘La Kel Baruch’and ‘Maariv Aravim’ speak of God of the entire creation of which we are a part and then ‘Ahavah Rabba’ and ‘Ahavat Olam’focus on the particular, His love for the Jewish people and our obligations to fulfil the Torah, ‘it is our life and the length of our days.’
That is what is needed, that is ‘The extraordinary difficult balance’ that Boyd is searching for, it exists and is being lived all around the world, as we drink daily from the dual water fountains of Torah and Modernity, with no frogs in sight!
Rabbi Andrew Shaw