Can liberal Judaism survive?

June 4, 2013A Star of David decorates the ceiling at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue.Astrid Riecken / For The … Continued

June 4, 2013A Star of David decorates the ceiling at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue.Astrid Riecken / For The Washington Post

As an old Yiddish saying has it, Jews are like other people, only more so. The Pew study of Judaism in America reminds us of this truth. Although startling to some, the rise of orthodoxy is to be expected. In a world in which traditionalism/fundamentalism is growing in Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and other faiths, Jews do what others do and turn forcefully to more orthodox modes of faith and worship. This is not a phenomenon peculiar to Jews, but a worldwide wave.

As with all great social trends, it will change. When and in what way, we cannot know. There are many things to be cheered about in the rise of orthodoxy and some that cause serious concern. As a Conservative Rabbi however, my focus is on non-orthodox Judaism and its fate.

Over half of American Jews identify as Conservative and Reform (53 percent while Orthodoxy is 10 percent) but the trends are discouraging for Conservative and Reform Judaism. Long term, can the more liberal branches survive? The answer will lie in the quality of the core and whether it can expand. Reform and Conservative Jews who go to Jewish day school and summer camps have very high rates of retention. But the investment in Jewish life is America is costly in both time and money, and requires powerful motivation. For many non-Orthodox Jews, it proves too much.

As a countercultural tradition in America, Judaism asks a great deal of its adherents. Judaism is a behavior-centered tradition. It is primarily enacted in a language strange to most American Jews (Hebrew) and requires an extensive education to understand its fundamentals. Americans are not distinguished by diligence in acquiring cultural literacy. That which is continually diluted will eventually disappear.

‘Being an ethical person’ while central to Judaism, is not uniquely Jewish. ’Fighting for social justice’ while central to Judaism, is not uniquely Jewish. Wearing Tefillin, praying in Hebrew, Torah study, Kashrut, Jewish communal adherence and activities — these things (while not necessarily limited only to Jews) are activities that keep the core of the tradition alive. As Jews have left the latter and profess the former, adherence weakens. It requires a massive, sustained and serious effort to move the etiolated Jews of good conscience to the passionate Jews of ritual involvement.

Extrapolations are dangerous; when Israel was founded people assumed orthodoxy would disappear and now it is thriving. We cannot know from trends today what will happen tomorrow. Equally however, it is dangerous to ignore the clear and urgent warning signs. An intensive Jewish education and embracing communities with genuine standards can both save and revivify liberal Judaism. The question is whether an argument can be made sufficiently compelling for those who no longer accept “Because God wants you to.” The past decades offer little in the way of encouragement. Liberal Jews have sustained powerful, wonderful institutions, built schools and camps and federations and boards and a giant infrastructure of social and communal aid. What they — what we — have not yet done is prove to ourselves and our children that all this mandates a lifelong investment of time, energy, money and devotion. I believe that we can and we must. At the risk of sounding quaint, God wants us to.

David Wolpe
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  • WmarkW

    Liberal Judaism in America is disappearing for a simple reason — it won. Mainstream culture no longer cares about religious differences, and liberal Judaism is the model it has come most to resemble. Almost all Jews today live surrounded by people practicing a minor variation of their faith, and who don’t think there’s anything separate or distinctive about being Jewish.

    Some might lament the loss of distinctive Jewish identity, but given history, it’s a lot better than being the “other.”

  • Afshine Emrani

    I am surprised you don’t mention children’s education. To maintain Jewish identity, I believe the key is our children! 1- Being strict about Shabbat (being together, doing rituals) and blessing them “we hope you grow up to have a loving and Jewish home” not going to movies, concerts etc 2- Jewish education as much as possible, not about orthodoxy, but all the love in Judaism ( my daughters asked me last week- daddy why are you so Jewish?) 3- Highlight the Holidays (take time off Rosh Hashana, Passover, Sukkot, etc and don’t work take them to temple and teach) 4- Food is key- 90% of our get together is around food- so they need to learn a little about what is Kosher. I think if you love Judaism, your kids will and if you see it as a chore, so will they and they will come to hate it and rebel against it. God created the world through the act of separation. Holiness is in that type of act of separation and restriction.

  • ConcernedAndDismayed

    I think that the core contradiction about Liberal Judaism in America is that in order to preserve the culture, we pray in Hebrew. We spend much effort as children and even as adults to memorize the prayers and unique traditions. However, spiritual meaning and emotional satisfaction can mostly be obtained by means of communicating in our native tongue (English). We read and re-read the Hebrew and sometimes the accompanying translation but, how do these words effect my life today? How do these words bring me closer to God in feeling and spirit versus through repetition of sounds that have no meaning. Rabbi’s and Jewish community leaders need to find a better balance of bringing God’s words to Jews who cannot or will not learn Hebrew (guilty). Otherwise, it become less and less meaningful to our busy secular lives.

  • Afshine Emrani

    I can say that I have read similar statistics all my life, even as a child. I have always read doom and gloom about the disappearance of the Jews. Some exist because of the common enemy, and others because of Love of God. We are more diverse today than we have ever been. We need all Jews- regardless of observance level. We need to inculcate Jewish gratitude into our children. But in the final analysis, this causes no panic- we will survive because we fight with and love God.

  • zsingerb

    Like the articles about intermarriage, this one seems to survey only a fractional few and come to a conclusion. When I married my Catholic, Puerto Rican wife the priest doing the wedding ( the rabbi refused to participate) told me that my wife had to raise our kids as Catholics. I told him she could try. But all three of our kids, now 27, 21, and 19 are Jews. My youngest son and I always wear our Yarmulkes, and my oldest two have said they would be nothing but Jews, based on the teachings of Jewish thought, tradition, and ethics. I have exposed them to Bibles, Philosophy, and discussed various faiths, but the calling of Israel came to them none the less. I never seem to be on that list of Jews surveyed about my faith or politics, but many of my family, whom I keep in touch with through Facebook and Email, share my faith and my politics. Who knew?

  • jdubow

    The problem with liberal Judaism isn’t Judaism, it is political correctness. Jews will always support Liberal principles, but what goes for liberalism today is more authoritarian than liberal. It is straight out of Orwells’ ‘EngSoc, 1964 or the subjects of “Politics and the English Language”. Thus Jews who call themselves liberal support people and policies that are inimical to the state of Israel and to Judaism itself. To survive it has to move beyond today’s intellectual fads, regain its footing in principles, and develop some self respect and courage. Otherwise why would young people love or respect it.

  • A. Lustiger

    There is some irony in Rabbi Wolpe’s piece. The Rabbi in the past has famously dismissed the founding historical event of the Jewish people – the Exodus from Egypt. Indeed, “wearing Tefillin, praying in Hebrew, Torah study, Kashrut, Jewish communal adherence and activities are activities that keep the core of the tradition alive.” But why would anyone educate their children in, or display commitment to, observance of precepts whose principles are based on a mythological event? Rabbi Wolpe has demolished his own argument.

  • topcopy

    “Liberal Judaism” is a zero-sum game. Look at the Reform and Conservative sects.They have had so much “success” with their assimilation project that they can’t reproduce their next generation. This is not something to bemoan, it’s the natural effect of the ersatz Judaism they are selling. The good news is stronger Jews are replacing them – as they always have and always will.

  • benoniboy

    Statistically, the largest growing group are the secularists/non-believers, those who, from all religious faiths, have decided that as rational, educated people, belief in whatever particular version of the supernatural they were raised in, can no longer be sustained. The joke in Britain: “Do you believe in God?” “No, I’m Church of England”. And as the Rabbi has pointed out, Jews are the same “only more so”. More and more Jews, like more and more Christians just don’t see the value in religion – whether or not we like the fact. Rather than seeing the recent rise in fundamentalism in all the major religions as evidence that religiosity is on the increase, on the contrary it demonstrates those religions in their death throes. Given enough time, religion will slowly disappear, as the author bemoans. Given that most wars, atrocities, massacres etc. are motivated in some way by religion or belief in other irrational totalitarian systems like Communism, Naziism, I think the Rabbi should just relax and just let the demise happen.

  • wbcoleman

    As a child I was raised in a Reform synagogue and virtually memorized the Union Prayer Book. The older I got the more dissatisfied I became with contemporary English-language prayers, eventually reaching the point that I would feel like screaming at the prospect of one more pompous, vapid responsive reading. I eventually learned that the 2000+ year-old words of the Anshe Knesset ha-Gedola moved me in a way that modern English meditations could not.