Orthodox Changes of Observance

From the late 1970’s until this decade Orthodox synagogues with highly diverse levels of observance slowly reconfigured as institutions proclaiming that they are entirely observant.
In the 1980-1990’s, there were several demographic studies done of important synagogues which show that the observance level was not as high as proclaimed. From a sociological perspective, especially using Chicago frame analysis, whoever belongs to an institution defines the institution. However, these studies were greeted in the Centrist press as flawed because by definition someone who is non-observant is not a follower of Orthodox ideology. They confused ideology and demographics.

However, greater than the confusion of disciplines was their blindness to their supersessionalsim- they assumed that everything was going to change for total observance and ideological consistency. In their mind, synagogues will no longer have diverse observance patterns except for a few elderly congregants.

Here are two recent conversations – both conducted by FB chat. (That itself is a change.) They seem to imply otherwise.

Chat #1 with a young gen y-millennial.
Him- My crowd predominately stayed Orthodox. We are not ex-orthodox.
Me- Would you fit into my category of post-orthodox?
Him- No, we dont fit in. We have found our place and are clearly part of Orthodoxy. We have our niche. However, we are not very observant and dont keep very much.

There are younger yeshiva educated groups out there that are comfortable to say that they are Orthodox and still say that they are non-longer observant of many of the Shabbat restrictions, they no longer keep kosher out of the house, and no longer daven or put on tefillin.

Chat #2 with a RWMO father of many adolescent children- older gen x—-lives in RWMO or even Yeshivish neighborhood–and is friendly with the RWMO online web ideologies.

Him- can you please be part of my project to foster Jewish commitment? (I am vague on purpose)
Me- Yes, I am in. There is a great need in the community.
Him- Yes, I know there is a need. I have four non-shomer Shabbos sons at home.

I was not paying attention at first and continued to chat about the project. A quick check of the FB pages of the kids show that they list their religious affiliation as agnostic (or worse) and that they love heavy metal and Eminem. They are not becoming Conservative, they have no interest in LWMO, they are not feminists, or interested in Debbie Friedman. The synagogue they do not attend is RW Orthodox. A demographer would count them as part of their current synagogue, showing that the synagogue has a less than perfect observance level. The synagogue they affiliate with when they grow up will probably be Orthodox out of habit, filial allegiance, and nostalgia.
The mixed observance congregation, which never really left, seems to be returning.

11 responses to “Orthodox Changes of Observance

  1. I’m quite observant. I like both Eminem and heavy metal. Just saying.

    • Boy, that was quick.
      As a side question(s):What role does popular culture like heavy metal play in your life? How does it relate to your religiosity? How would you want educators and rabbi to treat, or relate to, your musical taste?

  2. I mostly daven at an Orthodox shul, although I sometimes go to a local, egalitarian, non-denominational shul for Shabbat mincha. I have mixed observances. I mostly keep kosher. Sometimes I get raw, green salads at non-kosher restaurants (mostly soup-and-salad joints) and I never put onions into them (out of habit?), but I sometimes include hard-boiled eggs, portabella mushrooms (with vinegar), or feta cheese. No dressing, also out of habit, I suppose. Sometimes I get a slice of spinach feta pie. I used to daven three times a day, but now I daven once or twice over Shabbat and on most yom tovs. I don’t usually turn lights on or off on Shabbat. Sometimes I watch television. I rarely violate Shabbat in public. I can’t imagine cooking on Shabbat. I have taught Judaic studies courses to people who assume that I am strictly Orthodox.

    My grandparents were the drive-to-Orthodox shuls type. My parents became frummer and sent their four kids to day school. I also went for a year in Israel. I love(d) learning Torah. I was the model of Modern Orthodoxy. I was told that I was the promise–the future–by people who thought they could prognosticate.

    There is so much ridiculousness in the community, though. I see so much idiocy, so much fear-mongering, so much male chauvanism. I no longer really know if keeping kosher means never eating unhechshered feta cheese.

    Anyway, just another data point.

  3. Oh, and sometimes I tell people I am Orthodox, sometimes I say “just observant,” sometimes I affiliate with the “observant egalitarian crowd,” and sometimes I tell people that I am post-Orthodox.

    I definitely don’t affiliate as Conservative or Reconstructionist (although I find the flexibility of what passes for Conservative Judaism these days attractive at time, and sometimes find Reconstructionist theology compelling), and I’m quite far from Reform.

    I will say that I have never, in my life, missed a kiddush or havdalah. Even when I haven’t really cared, I haven’t abandoned that. (I have missed candle-lighting many times, though.)

  4. Focusing on the demographics and affiliations ignores the phenomenological perspective. I often wonder what people are experiencing with that level of observance — not the reason they would give for doing x not y if you asked them. My sense is that if you cut out daily prayer, keep lax kashrut standards outside the house, privately are not too careful about shabbat (occasionally check e-mail?) , you have a pretty similar experience of living an orthodox life as someone who prays quickly at home or work, keeps kosher but will eat a green salad with olive oil at a restaurant, and reads the newspapers on shabbat at home. So from the experiential perspective there is actually very little sense of having moved out of orthodoxy. That’s quite different than chalking it up to habit or nostalgia.

    • AS- I think that you are correct. Focusing on demography blurrs that the chats are different.
      Returning to chat #1 – You phenomenology point is well taken. Where would be the line out of Orthodoxy from phenomenology point of view? Is there one?

      • I doubt that there is one – it is entirely personal. One person will join a non-orthodox congregation, another will decide to attend a concert on shabbat, another will order a peperoni with extra cheese, another will change his Jdate profile. The significance that each person will attach to these acts will depend on an irreducible set of psychological and social variables.

  5. Brill wrote:

    “There are younger yeshiva educated groups out there that are comfortable to say that they are Orthodox and still say that they are non-longer observant of many of the Shabbat restrictions, they no longer keep kosher out of the house, and no longer daven or put on tefillin.”

    Contrast this with the Sephardi world where there are many folks who are less observant, but who wouldn’t be caught dead in a Conservative or Reform synagogue, much less a Reconstructionist or Renewal one.

    Maybe the Orthodox world is becoming more accommodating to those with diverse levels of practice? Maybe you can be gay and still find a place in an Orthodox shul. Maybe you can eat treif and still find a place.

    Maybe Orthodox is becoming more like Sephardi.

  6. The references to mixed-observance congregations and Sephardim (in the comments) are incomplete without mentioning Chabad, who cater to all Jews of all stripes and are quite friendly towards certain non-Jews, as well.

  7. “cater to Jews of all stripes”. Well, depends what you mean by “cater to”. If you mean cater as in provide food, well, that’s a big deal for Chabad Travel Services – you’re in an out of the way city, you want someplace nice to go for Shabbos, you call the Chabad Rabbi. But if you’re a member of their shul, and you’re already observant in a non-Chabad model, that they may perceive as a threat, and not be all that happy about interacting with you.

    Or so has been my experience.

  8. Ah, sorry for not responding earlier! I will tomorrow.

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