Post-Orthodoxy

On Dec. 4th, Jewish Ideas Daily ran an article with the thesis that there has been a turning of the tide in which “Torah Judaism today retains more of its youth than at any time since the Haskalah.” In principle, that is true, it is a good thing, and it made the headlines in 1990. However, the article got me seriously upset. The article stressed that we, the younger generation, are now self-conscious of being more committed than our parents. But who are the members of the younger generation in today’s society? When one is already a grandmother, then one needs to write from the perspective of the parent, not as the child. Having taught the author’s children and knowing their classmates, writing about the baby-boomers as today’s children rang hollow, sanctimonious, and hiding one’s head in the sand. Many of the Millenials are now self-conscious of being less committed than their parents. I cranked out the letter below in an hour the evening of the article. JID declined to run an edited response, so here it is.

The letter is a summary of my post-orthodoxy thinking on this blog from three years ago. The observation rings true more today when even pulpit rabbis have acknowledged the problem, kiruv workers acknowledge their decline in numbers, youth organizations are acknowledging that they are not connecting and the daily scandals in the community are driving people from Orthodoxy.
The solutions will not come from assigning blame. The question: is what does the younger leadership need to do to change things?
The letter is only referring to the United States and to those raised in the modern Orthodox world. It is not referring to Israel and it is not referring to the attrition rate among Yeshivish and Haredi.

Dear Diana (if I may),

It has been almost twenty years since we last met, when I was your sons’ Jewish studies day school teacher. Since then, I have kept up with many of their classmates, both in person and online and I have come to cherish these relationships because they are with many of the best and the brightest that the community has produced. Because of this long standing relationship, many of my former students have kept me abreast of their treif banquets, of their non-Jewish significant others, of their finding that their creative work is more interesting than keeping the Sabbath, and of their publishing parties held on Jewish holidays. Many of them are self-conscious that they are less committed than their parents; this is not a rare occurrence but it is, however, part of a widespread trend that I had labeled on my blog three years ago as “post-Orthodoxy.” I have been meaning to write about this phenomenon in a public venue for some time but I have never gotten around to actually doing it. However, your post today struck a chord worthy of response based on its blindness to the classmates of your own children.

Diana, you are correct that people started returning to religion in the late 1970’s, creating a triumphalist bubble shared by the Christian Religious Right and Orthodox Jews, but historians are now busy documenting a religious recession. Those who reached college as the millennium approached found themselves less committed than those before them. There is a post-Orthodox moment similar to the post-Evangelical moment in that younger Centrist Jews are leaving the community.

In terms of their public writings, they state that they are leaving because they find the religious community anti-intellectualism, narrow or excessively partisan political views, lack of theological depth or even any credible apologetics, almost no engagement in art, media, and society, slavery to materialism and consumerism, provincialism, insensitivity toward women and homosexuals, and the moral failure of prominent leaders.

The members of Generation Y, the Millennials, are the most liberal generation alive and their immediate seniors, those from Generation X, are the most conservative. More importantly, since the 1730s, every thirty to thirty-five years, American culture has dramatically shifted from liberal to conservative and back again. Paradoxically, the deep acculturation of American Orthodoxy into the American religious landscape has allowed the restoration of its plausibility structure for the baby boomers.

The Great Return to religion is winding down. For example, many of those who were raised as Evangelical in the recent Great Awakening of Religion are not returning to the Evangelical Faith of their parents. Statistics of those leaving Evangelicals vary in the press from 25%-75%. Those who were raised in an intense Evangelical faith don’t naturally blend back into the more mainline, liberal Churches. They are specifically former-Evangelicals who have adapted liberal position. Jewish Orthodoxy is also witnessing similar phenomena. We also have a large number of people who are former Orthodox, who do not believe in what they were taught and are adopting more liberal positions. This doesn’t mean, however, that they are comfortable with liberal Judaism.

Consider the education that your children received at one of the most open and intellectual day schools. They were presented with the educational lessons of the validity of all cultures and the necessity for a pluralistic world-view. Yet, they found that view clashes with an increasingly parochial Modern Orthodoxy. They were taught to value intellectualism, yet they observe that the community triumphs sentimentality and emotionalism. They attended a school with one of the highest acceptance rates to the Ivys of any prep-school in the nation, and then had to integrate in a community fearful of any knowledge beyond mid-brow.

It is hard to get statistics of a live phenomenon with no external signs. We know that after the 1960s and 1970s, there were 45 % less Orthodox Jews. Even now, it is hard to tell when someone is out of the community–some declare they are out at 22, others at 32, and others at 42. We will look back in 2025 and not only see the losses but also how many of those who leave orthodoxy join mainline forms of liberal Judaism and how many create some new limbo approach. Think of it in the same way as the decline of the Northeast Conservative congregations was only shown in 2000, even though one sensed it already in 1985. One local rabbi known for freely speaking his mind regardless of reality claimed that in 2010, the attrition rate was only 15% and then, in 2012 spuriously intimated that it was 50%. Every local rabbi has addressed from the pulpit this changing reality as of vital concern. But we will only know the numbers in hindsight.

As a side point, I must address those ideologues who observe the phenomena and think that these younger graduates are a new liberal part of Orthodoxy. Rather, many of them are simply eroding; some of them eat swine on Shabbos, others intermarry, some preserved their mizvot in a renewal setting. Many have just given up and do not care. They are those that are open about their lack of observance and there are many others who like Torah and observance but do not like the community’s provincialism.

Some have given up religion entirely and want to be left alone from it all. Others are sowing wild oats while some have become renewal or liberal. There are groups who practice egalitarian halakhic and some are just feeling boxed in. And yet, despite the various approaches, others still choose to return to more of a 1950’s Orthodox approach. Much of this is non-ideological, having more to do with carving out a space different than their parents. Much of it can be attributed to new careers, taking up new places of residence, staying single longer, texting or bicycling on Shabbat, or discovering the wider world.

For some, it is just a matter of being tone deaf to religion. I know one family where the eldest son is a rabbi and the younger sons are committed science minded engineers. Their observance level and affiliation will be more subject to where their careers take them than any ideology. Personally, I have attended weddings of several children from the same family in which older siblings had a mechitza on the dance floor and then attended their younger siblings’ weddings in which there was mixed dancing.

For those who stay observant, there is even a new sociological term, “deconversion,” for those who sense this loss of their childhood faith or for those who find their religious lives wanting. This group has hope for a solution, for a new plausibility structure, or at least a new community. If I wanted, I could collect the Facebook answers to “Religious Views” to show that something is amiss. I now of plenty of examples of those who were raised Orthodox who now define themselves in all sorts of convoluted ways such as: “Observant,” “post-modern orthodox”, “It’s complicated”, “halakhic freethinker”, “alternafrum” “at home in the halakhic discourse”, “there is no place devoid of Him eyn od milvao” “of orthodox culture” and even there has been the return of “Conservadox.” Many of those raised Orthodox who are still observant are not comfortable with the label.

To return to the classmates of your children, as they are self-conscious of their de-conversion, One of them wrote me that she perceived that she and her peers to be living in an era of new globalization and that their generation would “clash with traditional institutions in a way that was more vibrant and also destructive.” She saw the placid suburban community of the day-school and home as restrictive and an unsafe place of abuse. “There were few people who saw that a transition period was coming up for Modern Orthodoxy and with that a big identity crisis for all of us. I guess that our generation happened to come into adulthood just as these old definitions were dying out, or at least I would hope so.” Diana, The pain in this letter contrasts with the safety you felt in Orthodoxy.

I personally do not have solutions; I am more of a Facebook friend.

Yes, “Torah Judaism today retains more of its youth than at any time since the Haskalah.” American Orthodoxy is no longer the province of immigrants and the elderly. The State of Israel played a role as did the rebuilding of a Torah Jewry after the War combined with the post-1967 turn to Jewish pride. But now, it is the more prosaic ups and downs of religious recession and revival, generational conflicts, plausibility structures broken and repaired. For Baby Boomers, “in America after 1966, Jewish tradition has felt like something worth their commitment.” But for those who came of age at the millennium there are still many reasons to drift away.

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24 responses to “Post-Orthodoxy

  1. Alan – very interesting and provocative post. One thing I notice in your listing of alternative being pursued by the ‘depconverted’ – and I’m not at all surprised – is the absence of the Reform and Conservative movements. (I wonder what percentage of the people involved in Renewal and Reconstruction were formerly Orthodox). This in turn speaks to a larger issue in American Judaism, the uncertain (to say the least) futures of the large movements and the kinds of meaning and experience that they engender. As for all the variations on ‘it’s complicated’ – which is where I would put myself – I’m always asking myself what sort of work (intellectual, communal, spiritual) needs to be done to give that enough traction to last more than a generation. Another, related issue is the difference between American-Jewish and Israeli life-worlds, and what it would mean for these ‘post’ identities to become sustainable, and a generative source of meaning in either place.

    • I’m always asking myself what sort of work (intellectual, communal, spiritual) needs to be done to give that enough traction to last more than a generation

      What have you come up with so far? Do you think observant w/o Orthodox is unstable long term?

  2. i’m not surprised few people go from Orthodoxy to the liberal movements. They were told by their teachers that heterodoxy was worse than nothing, and many of them took their teachers at their word and chose nothing.

  3. If Modern Orthodoxy is going to retain that population, it will have to catch them on the rebound, when they have life cycle events and become temporarily interested in ritual. Several Jewish sub-cultures outside Modern Orthodoxy welcome those who enter the synagogue for their life cycle events, and have infrastructure to attract them into more regular activities.

    To my eye, most Modern Orthodox synagogues don’t. In fact, many disdain those who don’t attend regular synagogue activities.

    The market niche of post-Orthodox is up for grabs. Since many are uncomfortable identifying with Judaism other than Orthodox, it looks to me like the Lubavitch are the only ones so far ready to catch them.

  4. Alan – I have indeed been thinking in recent years that non-Orthodox observance is unsustainable on anything like a wide scale in the long term, certainly not in the US, where non-Orthodox Judaism, as I once wrote, seems fated “to become at best, one more set of tiles in the American mosaic.”
    Israel may be a bit different since the state framework holds things in place – and forces people to factor their Judaism into their basic social, political and economic commitments – in ways that the voluntary network framework of the US just doesn’t.
    (I don’t think denominations need entirely to be done away with – a healthy society needs elements of both structure and anti-structure.)
    Factor into that Orthodoxy’s own tenuousness, intellectual and moral as I see it (and I stress, as I see it, with full awareness that many people I deeply respect see it otherwise) we have a big problem.
    By way of ideas, I’ve been thinking of a few things. 10 setting aside doctrinal and denominational definitions – at least for purposes of conversation – and thinking in terms of fundamental concepts and action-concepts, a sort of revised lexicon for terms like mitzvah, emunah, kedushah, yirtat shamayim, yirat chet, klal yisrael etc. . The one place I’ve written on that is in this essay, where I lay out the best case I can for Orthodoxy and then discuss why I think it’s still untenable http://www.bjpa.org/Publications/details.cfm?PublicationID=5241 (Dara Horn wrote a smart critique of me here http://www.myjewishlearning.com/history/Jewish_World_Today/Denominations/Orthodox/threequestions/response.shtml)
    Towards the end I lay out in the most rudimentary terms what I’m trying to get at.
    I’d like to read more of Louis Jacobs, and, more recently, Sam Fleischacker.
    On a more personal level, I think there’s some reflective process that ‘posters’ need to go through of thinking through, or down, to our core commitments in practice, and then beginning our theorizing, if any, from there.

  5. Perhaps, the issue is how a friend once described the level of Torah knowledge at one of the most prestigious MO high schools-a mile wide and an inch deep. It is no wonder that so many MO either shirk MO and gravitate to a more Charedi like POV, or enter the Charedi world completely, or shirk observance completely.

    • These phenomena are apparent among what you would consider the best educated of Modern Orthodoxy as well. Were the Maskilim who came out of Volozhin also possessors of Torah knowledge that was “a mile wide and an inch deep”? People of all educational levels can experience social, emotional, intellectual (and nowadays economic) dissonance with the religion in which they were raised. The idea that what’s missing is the ability to take apart a kizots or put together a brisker style shiur klali (or name your personal favorite for where “kids these days are woefully ignorant”) is silly.

      If I may offer a word about the “deconverted.” I suspect that many are waiting for some kind of shaking out to take place. Why affiliate or lay one’s cars on the table when nothing has coalesced yet in which to cash in those chips? Will there be a stable truly liberal but officially “Orthodox” network of religious institutions in 5, 10, 15 years? who knows. In the mean time they not interested in something that is either half-baked or on the way to becoming something yet undefined.

      Another possibility is that we are at a point where identities are formed as much by negation as affirmation and placing oneself at the margins of a community with which one affiliates in part and in opposition to is perfectly comfortable for many people. (lehavdil, you have an entire hipster subculture consisting of people who swear that they are not themselves hipsters because they differ in small but personally significant ways from the platonic ideal hipster.)

    • This trend is apparent among what even you would consider the best educated of Modern Orthodoxy as well. Were the Maskilim who came out of Volozhin also possessors of Torah knowledge that was “a mile wide and an inch deep”? People of all educational levels can experience social, emotional, intellectual (and nowadays economic) dissonance with the religion in which they were raised. The idea that what’s missing is the ability to take apart a kizots or put together a brisker style shiur klali (or name your personal favorite for where “kids these days are woefully ignorant”) is silly.

      As far as the “deconverted.” I suspect that many are waiting for some kind of shaking out to take place. Why affiliate or lay one’s cars on the table when nothing has coalesced yet in which to cash in those chips? Will there be a stable truly liberal but officially “Orthodox” network of religious institutions in 5, 10, 15 years? who knows. In the mean time they not interested in something that is either half-baked or on the way to becoming something yet undefined.

      Another possibility is that we are at a point where identities are formed as much by negation as affirmation and placing oneself at the margins of a community with which one affiliates in part and in opposition to is perfectly comfortable for many people. (lehavdil, you have an entire hipster subculture consisting of people who swear that they are not themselves hipsters because they differ in small but personally significant ways from the platonic ideal hipster.)

  6. This is interesting. I have to think about this some more.
    (From one of your former students from 20 years ago at a Modern Orthodox day school who is now quasi-observant and quasi-Orthodox but still single so goes to the kiddush at the local Orthodox shul to see friends and feel less isolated.)

  7. These seem to be precisely the issues Rav Shagar dealt in.His solution necessitated teaching kabbala ,hassidut, and getting degrees in humanities as a means of achieving religious freedom ,a parallel to secular freedom. The main problem with this is the obvious problem that no one teaches any sort of Jewish philosophy in Jewish schools only primitive “mussar”.Rabbi Brill, can you see any kind of this solution in America or is this utopia outside of Israel?(even in Israel it has yet to be widespread or near that). Maybe you could get them to speed up the translations of his writing into English…

    • Your characterization of the issues R. Shagar “dealt in” is not quite correct.

      I’d recommend reading “shvirat kelim” where he discusses sociological issues and “b’torato yehegeh” where students’ interest in gemara is a motif. The former book is a largely a polemic against various dati-leumi “ideologies”, but the chapter on humanities essentially states that the humanities are necessarily corrupting but necessary to study anyway. Thus they must be taught/studied in a way that minimizes harm.

      I can’t imagine that translations of R. Shagar could have much of an impact on American MO. People who find that R. Soloveichik’s philosophical writings are a bit dated or litvish can readh him in Hebrew. The people who writing and leaving comments on various “satire” or “apikorus” blogs are not going to be much interested in non-Maimonidean understandings of tshuva or parallels between Chabad and Wittgenstein. Parenthetically I think that Dr. Brill might be projecting a bit when he describes the issues that millenials have with MO.

      • The list of issues is from the original article on Evangelicals. Personally, I actually dont frame it that way. My own statement is that their plausibility structure has been broken (see Peter Berger for details on the term). What actually broke it would take a sociological study or at least some perceptive gen y.

  8. One of the points you mention as a cause for turnoff is the political-intellectual narrowness of the Orthodox community. This is built in. It is worth noting that Orthodoxy has from its inception been as much a political construct as a religious one, and rigid political conformity, both klapei hutz and klapei pnim, has always been among its demands. The creation of Orthodoxy may have been a necessary response in the age of Reform, but it did and continues to have a corrupting influence on the religious life it claims to espouse and protect. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Israel, although it is equally, if less obviously, true in the Diaspora. Perhaps observance without Orthodoxy is untenable, as Yehuda suggests, but there lies the road to a more genuine, satisfying, coherent, supple and inclusive Jewish experience. We’ll never get there until we learn how to live and feel our Jewishness without hyphenation.

    • I don’t think that this can be solved by a “movement”; Each individual must make the effort to make his/her Judaism come alive, every day. It takes work and effort. Its not a “leisure activity”

  9. I am not qualified to judge whether the generational shifts in terms of observance are avoidable or not. It seems to me that there are many factors which cause those changes some of which are, I suppose, unavoidable. I do believe, however, that the lack of acknowledgement by the MO schools that societal change is afoot and their inability to meet that change by altering how Judaism is taught is very much to blame – blame at least in terms of not staunching the bleeding.

    If the theory is that one of MO’s tenets is to meet secular society head-on and acknowledge the value of pluralism (both Jewish and secular) within an “observant” context, then the school is doing an injustice to the student by not figuring out how to truly teach how to understand and synthesize all of these ideas. They need to recognize the needs of their students, including those who question God, mitzvot, prayer and the Torah. They need to proactively discuss the questioning these students do and be upfront in asking them “why”. What do the questions mean to them? I am not suggesting that schools encourage students to experiment or leave the fold if they choose, but rather that they become better equipped with the (current) reality of how many of them will graduate from the MO school and community at the same time. And they need to emphasize to the student that leaving the fold doesn’t preclude their return.

    It would be disingenuous for me to insist that there no attempt to do this. Courses like “Faith and Doubt” and attendant readings is one great example of what is currently offered to meet this need. But there are not many. And the comment that these schools offer an understanding of Judaism that is “a mile wide and only an inch deep” is a perfect characterization. It seems that to few opportunities are used to show that the history of Judaism has been about questioning and change.

    It is, indeed, “complicated.” The shift to the right and the insularization of the “black hat” world is repulsive to many of us who, as baby boomers, grew up believing that we can observe and still be part of the world at large. But indeed, the millenials and later seem not to understand that in spite of the difficulty, it is indeed possible to walk both lines.

    Some would say that by sending our children out into the world via MO schools we are leading them into Pardes and should not be surprised by the fact that some will not return. Some will not return because it is not in their nature. Some because it is just not convenient to do so. The best we can do is make sure that none fail to return because they have been taught there is only one way to believe or observe. Perhaps they should be proactively taught that the visit is “complicated” but rewarding.

    Or maybe, none of this matters. That cycles will be cycles and all the intellectual handwringing that we do is meaningless and in the long run everything will be ok…or it won’t.

  10. Interesting post. The contrasts with the situation in Israel are striking. While it is true that we face many of the same intellectual and spiritual challenges, the solutions are different. Here we are not tied to any one school – be it intellectual, spiritual or otherwise. Anyone who doesn’t feel welcome in one community can easily find another one more accepting and accommodating. Furthermore, there has been increasing acceptance of categories of ‘not-so-observant’ Jews called “dati lite”, which allows for further cooling off without burning out entirely. Furthermore, the spectrum of observance here is fuzzier and less denomination-oriented and so allows for easier movement, especially with the existence of a large group of ‘traditional’ Jews.

    I have to ask, though – is American MO truly that monolithic in terms of communities and goals?

  11. As a member of Generation Y who for a long time had a Facebook status as Observant Jew (but now listed at MO) I feel like dipping my toes in here. Here is my story of why I struggled with the label.

    My parents are both JTS graduates but I grew up in a yeshivish shul (NCSY was banned by our Rav). Our city only had two options for elementary school: standard centrist or Schechter. As the former could not teach me basic english or hebrew grammer and had abysmal secular studies, I went to Schechter. But I woke up early to daven every day, I had a tutor for Talmud and I attended mishmar at the local yeshiva. I really identified religiously more with my friends at the other school as Orthodox.

    For Jewish high school my only choice was a pluralistic day school and it was the best possible choice. While I may be weaker in some subjects such as Talmud, we had real classes in Jewish history, philosophy, and ethics as well as a very wide-ranging approach to Jewish studies and texts with teachers from every background (literary, critical, legalistic, religious zionist) that gave the students a real intellectual and tolerant basis to explore and expand their Jewish practice.

    I did not go to Israel after high school.

    I went to an Ivy League school and became an engineer but still took many Jewish studies classes, had chevrutot, and attended shiurim on campus.

    I acknowledge my path was unique. I am not a member of the “inner-circle” of New York modern orthodoxy. But I may be better off for it. I am still strong in my Modern Orthodox observance and I fully credit my parents educational choices for me especially my high school, and even more so when I saw what many of my college classmates who went to MO day schools and yeshivot/seminaries went through.

  12. There are three ways MO can work in America , political idealism, content and style.

    Susan Sontag in her essay on Camp said “Jews and homosexuals are the outstanding creative minorities in contemporary urban culture. Creative, that is, in the truest sense: they are creators of sensibilities. The two pioneering forces of modern sensibility are Jewish moral seriousness and homosexual aestheticism and irony.”

    The day when Jews were the center of moral seriousness has come and gone with generation X, and the emphasis on careers and income. The ability to attach oneself to Torah learning and use it as a vehicle for a life of intellectual and spiritual growth, is also in short supply in genY Jews. There is a fair amount of evidence that Generation Y and the Millennials are dumbing down, (see link), and the ideal of a life devoted to study, books and thinking is incompatible with a generation that grew up with the internet and virtual reality. We are left with the hope there is a strong enough style that is a reflection of Orthodox culture and makes one proud to be Orthodox.

    A great part of the success of charedim is due to their style and taste, and the feelings of pride that comes in being a chasidisher yid or a ben torah. How does one create an appropriate elitist, aristocratic sensibility in MO, when the communities are identified with pop cultural interests and middle class lifestyles? MO Jews are too close to the life they have created to have the distance to be self aware and ironic about their lifestyle, and are too envious and upwardly mobile to be satisfied with what they have.
    http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/the-myth-of-american-meritocracy/

  13. If you examined the parents as closely, would you find similar lackings?
    Was the rupture really as sudden as you depict it, and is it really a general rule that the older kids in a MO family remain religious while the younger ones don’t?
    Are you really telling us that young adults who criticize Orthodoxy for being too materialistic then go on to abandon observance due to career pressures?

    • I never said those things in the article.
      The topic was “self-conscious that they are less committed than their parents” not actual observance.
      And this long after Durkhiem, I do not assume that their self-professed reasons are the same as the actual reasons.

  14. I would suggest that MO has a vocal LW , an influentual RW, and a central core that I call the silent majority. The real question is whether the dual moves by so many MO either towards the Charedi world or towards a lack of observance will leave the silent majority and the RW of MO as the Sheiris HaPletah of MO as the next generation, or as a more committed MO that has more in common with the Charedi world , desepite hashkafic differences. The other issue that was not discussed, but bears serious discussion is whether MO can generate its own Talmidei Chachamim and Bnei Torah who take learning seriously, and who are respected as such in the MO world, except by abandoning a high income career and investing much time and effort in serious high level Talmud Torah.

  15. Vikuah Mayyim Hayyim

    Dr. Brill,
    I think that you are missing one vitally important point. For most MO educators, resorting to enthusiasm is all that they can do. They have very little education, the teachers dont read books, and they did not become teachers becuase they are smart. They virtually have no ability to understand the concerns of their most gifted students. They write off those students who dont want their emotionalism.
    When the brightest students are bored to death by the trite naarishkeit that these teachers try to pawn off as education, they are written off by the teachers as “shkatzim with no neshama.” I know of a prominent MO school where, when the Principal announced that one of the seniors was admitted to an elite university, one of the Rebbeim loudly proclaimed “Baruch Dayan Ha-Emes.”

  16. Pingback: Post-Orthodox, Post-Post Secularism | jewish philosophy place

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