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Book examines the ways American Orthodoxy has changed over the years

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Author: Chaim Waxman

Many people think that while Reform and Conservative Judaism acknowledge and perhaps celebrate the need for Judaism to change with the times, Orthodox Judaism is immutable. Chaim Waxman’s new book, Social Change and Halakhic Evolution in American Orthodoxy, questions this notion. He outlines the many ways American Orthodoxy has changed in the last century, concluding that “Much as they might deny it, Orthodoxy is affected by and does respond to its social environment.”

Waxman, professor emeritus of sociology at Rutgers University, lives in Jerusalem. Along with his careful sociological analysis, he brings an impeccable knowledge of Jewish history, law, and practice. His writing displays no perceivable bias for or against any denomination or sub-denomination of Judaism. He writes sociology without jargon, and, when necessary, explains fine points of Jewish law so that any reader can understand them.

The most significant recent change in American Orthodoxy that Waxman discusses is the dramatic increase in the size and influence of the haredi community. In the United States, haredi Jews now outnumber modern Orthodox Jews two to one. (No statistics are provided for Canada and perhaps none are available, but the situations are probably similar.)

The growth of haredi Judaism is a function of the spirit of the times. Christian fundamentalist denominations are also growing while liberal Christian groups are struggling for membership.

Some sociologists think that, for financial reasons, the haredi community will not be able to sustain itself in the long term, as generations of haredi Jews with less secular education will earn less money and will not be able to support their institutions.
Waxman doubts this; he predicts that haredim will form an increasing majority of American Orthodox Jews. This is partially a function of their high birth rate, but also, ironically, a function of their inflexibility.

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As Waxman says, “most people prefer, if they do not demand, very specific black or white concepts.” He quotes the anthropologist Mary Douglas: “The yearning for rigidity is in us all. It is part of our human condition to long for hard lines and clear concepts.” Modern Orthodoxy, he says, “does not have the ‘hard lines and clear concepts’ possessed by ultra-Orthodoxy, and it is therefore viewed by those unfamiliar with its philosophy as an inauthentic compromise.”

But not all recent developments in American Orthodoxy are in the direction of more stringent observance. Waxman also describes and analyzes many of the more lenient positions that have been adopted in recent decades by Orthodox Jews, mostly but not exclusively by the modern Orthodox.

He traces quickly changing attitudes to welcoming gays into Orthodox communities. He shows that women’s roles have expanded considerably in Orthodoxy in the last half century, including the development of many institutions where, for the first time in history, women can obtain advanced Torah knowledge.

“Much as they might deny it, Orthodoxy is affected by and does respond to its social environment”

Waxman argues that the sympathy that a posek (a rabbi who renders decisions about Jewish law) has for the plight of questioners has always been a factor in determining the answer to their questions. Societal values concerning gays and women have changed rapidly in America, resulting naturally in more inclusive decisions.

Waxman explains what seems to be a paradox. Orthodoxy is, by the understanding of both Orthodox Jews and others, the Jewish denomination that promotes the strictest standards of religious behaviour. But when it comes to organizational structure, Orthodoxy is far less centralized than Reform and Conservative Judaism, who each have one rabbinic organization and one synagogue organization. This allows, for example, clear standards for who can be a Reform or Conservative rabbi or what synagogue can be recognized as part of the denomination. In American and Canadian Orthodox Judaism, this is not the case. Expelling a synagogue or a rabbi from “Orthodox Judaism” is almost impossible. Who would do the expelling? The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) is perhaps the best known Orthodox rabbinic organization, but there are thousands of rabbis who call themselves and whom others call Orthodox who have no connection to the RCA, generally because their standards are either stricter or more liberal than the RCA’s.

Waxman argues that Orthodox decentralization is actually increasing. The RCA has changed: it used to be more heterogeneous. Its current turn to the right and its more homogeneous nature have both led, in Waxman’s assessment, to a decline in its stature and authority.

While the book is ostensibly about American Orthodoxy, Waxman’s many tangents about Israeli Orthodoxy are fascinating. “Israel,” Waxman writes, “has become the centre of creative thinking in modern Orthodoxy.” The creativity spills over at times to North America due in part to the fact that many North American Orthodox high school graduates spend a year of study in Israel before beginning their university career.

While Israeli modern Orthodoxy is, according to Waxman, more progressive than its American counterpart, Israeli haredim are more firmly and ideologically separated from secular society. As a result, the divide between haredi and modern Orthodox Jews in Israel is much more pronounced than in America. According to Waxman, this divide has grown in recent decades and is likely to continue growing both in Israel and in North America. This divide actually contributes to the creativity of modern Orthodoxy in Israel. The haredim seem so removed from their lives that the modern Orthodox more or less ignore them.

Only the future will show whether Waxman’s predictions are accurate. But one prediction seems unarguable: “We can predict that American Orthodoxy will change, and it will probably change more rapidly than it has in the past.”