Rabbi Avi Shafran: Orthodox Jews, in Israel and US, are on the upswing

The unexpectedly strong showing of two haredi, or “Ultra-Orthodox,” political parties in the recent Israeli election left some American Jews disappointed.

The religious parties, United Torah Judaism and Shas, each received eight Knesset seats, representing a nearly 25 percent increase from their previous electoral representation. They are now the third and fourth largest parties in the Knesset and bound to be prominent parts of Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government.

While most Israeli Jews may not be observant of halacha, or Jewish religious law, they recognize only one Judaism, that of their forebears, which considers the Torah’s laws, as mediated by the Talmud and Jewish authorities over ensuing centuries, sacrosanct. That recognition has maintained an essential unity, despite political differences, among most Israeli Jews.

Here on our own shores, religious Jewish unity has long left the building. Personal status issues like marriage, divorce and conversion are all subject to various groups’ widely varying standards. And, as a result, the Orthodox, committed to halacha, have found themselves painfully unable to recognize the personal status pronouncements of Jewish movements that have redefined Jewish religious law for themselves or abandoned it entirely.

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Those groups deride Israel’s placement of authority over Jewish issues in the hands of an official halacha-respecting rabbinate as an “Orthodox monopoly.” But it’s no more a monopoly than any national agency like, in our own country, the FDA or the Federal Reserve. It’s a standard, a Jewish one for a Jewish state. (No Israeli Jew need observe any aspect of Jewish religious law, of course. Israel fully protects the religious rights of all its citizens, Jewish, Muslim and Christian alike.)

Those American Jews who would like to import “Jewish religious pluralism” – formal recognition of a variety of different “Judaisms” – to Israel are misguided. Their goal, if realized, would leave Israeli Jewish society in the same state of disarray that, sadly, defines American Jewry.

What should be of interest here, though, to all Americans is that, here in the U.S, there is also a political divide between most Orthodox and most non-Orthodox Jews. The latter tend, famously, to champion liberal causes. The Orthodox, by contrast, are resolutely conservative when it comes to issues like abortion, end-of-life concerns, religious rights and LGBT demands. Ditto, generally, with regard to national security matters and foreign affairs.

And, as in Israel, the Orthodox here comprise the fastest growing segment of the Jewish population.

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Although 35 percent of Jews identify as Reform (the most religiously liberal Jewish religious movement) and 18 percent as Conservative (despite its name, the almost-as-liberal-as-Reform group), researchers Jack Wertheimer and Steven M. Cohen found that a mere 14 percent of American Jews actually belong to Reform temples and 11 percent to Conservative synagogues.

For its part, the American Orthodox community is generally thought at present to be a bit north of 10 percent of the nation’s Jewish population. But virtually 100 percent of its members not only attend synagogue regularly but also observe the Jewish Sabbath, dietary laws and other religious obligations.

What is more, and more trenchant, nearly a quarter of Orthodox Jewish adults (24 percent) are between the ages of 18 and 29, compared with a mere 17 percent of Reform Jews and 13 percent of Conservative Jews. And no less than 27 percent of all American Jews under 18 live in Orthodox households.

It doesn’t take a doctorate in demographics to recognize that a seismic population shift is in the offing. The Jewish times, they are a-changin’.

Jewish Americans have long been active parts of the body politic. They vote in high percentages and are greatly overrepresented in the legislature and judiciary, not to mention in fields like journalism and academia. That’s the fodder that anti-Semites like to season with imaginary plots about world domination to yield the hatred their dark souls crave. But Jewish societal prominence is not evidence of nefarious doings, but a simple, if intriguing, fact.

At present, the Jewish contribution to the public sphere largely consists of “progressive” ideas, born, perhaps, of the compassion the Torah seeks to instill in its adherents.

Such compassion is indeed fundamental to Judaism. But there is considerably more to the Torah, and much of it is the antithesis of the mores society has come to label “progressive.” The Jewish religious tradition, applied to contemporary issues, yields a decidedly conservative approach.

There are already notable Jewish political and social conservatives, of course, from the Podhoretzes, père et fils, and Bill Kristol to Jeff Jacoby and Ben Shapiro. The latter two, as it happens, are proud Orthodox Jews. With their co-religionists increasingly becoming a larger part of Jewish America, it will be interesting to see what attitudes and positions will be most associated in coming years with the American Jewish community.