The Forward arrives late out here in the hinterlands, so I only just received last week’s issue in the mail. In its pages is a nice piece from Brandeis historian Jonathan Sarna, who takes on Yeshiva University Chancellor Norman Lamm’s prediction of the demise of Reform and Conservative Jewry. Sarna does not address the challenges those movements face. Instead, he turns his sights on Orthodoxy itself, and attacks the triumphalist tone of Lamm’s remarks. He mentions five challenges in particular: Orthodoxy’s high dropout rate; its lack of leadership; its brain drain to Israel; continuing divisions over how far to engage modernity; and the financial crisis, which has acutely affected ortho institutions. Then he offers a zinger of a last line: “In the world of religion, smugness and self-assurance are usually risky. As Reform Judaism, Conservative Judaism and Mainline Protestant denominations have discovered, success in the present provides no guarantees for the future. If anything, saying Kaddish for other religious movements has often been the first sign of a movement’s own impending decline.”
My family is somewhere in this mix, though we experience the challenges of Orthodoxy in ways different from most M.O. Jews, who live in large communities of other M.O. Jews. Right now we mostly feel it in terms of education. Our kids go to a community day school, which poses its own unique challenges, both in an out of school. (In: How do you explain to your kids that, although in school they may include the Matriarchs in the Amidah prayer, in our Orthodox synagogue we don’t? Out: What do you do about Shabbat observance when one of your child’s best friends doesn’t celebrate Shabbat with the same restrictions on behavior that we do? As Jonah once said when he was about 3 years old and we were walking to shul on Shabbos: ‘Abba, are all the people driving today Christians?’)
Of course, if we sent our kids to an Orthodox school, we’d have to do hashlama, compensatory education, on the other side. We’d have to expose them to religious pluralism. We would want them to know Jews of other backgrounds. (And this of course begs the question of public school. It’s a problem to me if all my kids’ friends are Jews.)
In my heart of hearts I either know or hope that something new is coming, some way of being both deeply engaged with the Jewish textual and legal tradition, that habituates its children to the bodily behaviors–in motion and speech–that Orthodoxy does so well (how to say the prayers, how to shake the lulav, how to shukel), and also taking the best of modernity: thinking for oneself, gender equality, openness to languages and cultures, an at-homeness with the world. I live my life hoping, and working, for the day after all these denominational labels lose their weight, and a new Jewish consensus will emerge.