Torah Sociology: Why is liberalism associated with lax observance?

Liberalism is generally associated with weaker religious faith and less mitzva observance. What is the evidence for that association? A thought-provoking analysis of the current state of Orthodox Jewry.

Dr. Chaim Charles Cohen

Judaism Chaim C. Cohen
Chaim C. Cohen

Liberalism is associated with weaker religious faith and practice

Why is liberalism associated with lax mitzvah observance and weak faith? A recent, in depth study of 4000 Modern Orthodox, American Jews graphically portrays a significant association between a liberal social philosophy and weaker religious faith and observance. The study showed that to the extent that the Modern Orthodox Jew’s social philosophy favors more gender equality in synagogue roles, more flexibility on sexual behavior and norms, is more universalistic in its social and cultural attitudes, and supports the Democratic party, he is less likely to attend synagogue and put on tefillin, and less likely to carefully keep Shabbat and the Laws of Family Purity.

This article attempts to tentatively explain the association between liberalism and a weakening of religious faith and practice.

The statistical evidence

The study divided the Modern Orthodox American community into five sub groups based on self definition: (from “left to right”) Open Orthodox, Liberal Orthodox, Modern Orthodox, Centrist Orthodox and Right Centrist Orthodox. 

The liberal wing (open Orthodox and liberal Orthodox) constituted 34%; Modern Orthodox, 41%; the right wing (centrist and right centrist), 25%.

The liberal wing was significantly weaker in its faith and practice. In the liberal wing only 55% regularly put on tefillin, only 10% attend synagogue on weekdays, and only 70% mostly keep the laws of family purity. Only 50% report that Judaism is extremely important in their lives, or believe that G-d is actively involved in their lives, or that the origin of the Oral Law is from Sinai. Twenty seven per cent feel that have become less observant over the last ten years, and forty percent feel that their children have become less observant over the last ten years. These statistics clearly show an association between a liberal social philosophy and weakening of religious practice and faith.

The right wing camp scored roughly 20-25% higher on the topics mentioned above.

The overall picture

Intellectual honesty requires that we also present the overall picture of the entire Modern Orthodox community. This picture only highlights the trend of the ‘negative’ association of liberalism and religious faith and practice.

If we focus on the statistics of the center-right, we see that the Modern Orthodox community is slowly moving to the right, and slowly becoming more observant in its practice, in the practice of its children, and remaining traditional in its religious faith. This trend occurs despite its intense involvement in a rapidly changing post modern secular society. For example, 91% of the “center-right” strictly or mostly keep Shabbat and kosher, and 80% strictly or mostly keep the laws of family purity. The majority feel that they and their children are somewhat more observant now compared with ten years ago.

We can conclude thus that a liberal social philosophy is the ‘dividing, cutting edge’ between declining religious observance and faith on the ‘left’, and a modest strengthening of practice and faith in the center-right camp.

How does this picture compare with the religious practice of Israel’s National Religious camp?

There are roughly 800,000 self defined National Religious Jews in Israel, and 220,000 Modern Orthodox Jews in America. The two groups are roughly similar in social-cultural attributes such as  their incorporation of higher secular education, employment and involvement in secular culture and society.

We have studies comparing the religious practice of “liberal to right” sub groups in the National Religious camp (similar to the groupings of the above study). (I am not aware of in depth studies comparing religious belief among National Religious sub groups)

The findings of these studies show that religious practice among National Religious Jews in Israel is at least 10% stronger than that of American Modern Orthodox. These findings gain support when we note that while the liberal camp in America is numerically stronger than its corresponding  right wing camp (34% versus  24%), in Israel the right wing  part of the National Religious camp is usually reported as being stronger (33% versus 24%) than the corresponding liberal camp.

Social research cannot prove that liberalism causes a laxness of religious practice and faith. It can only show that there is a strong association between the two of them. It can only show that liberalism and religious laxness ‘walk hand in hand’ down the paths of life. They share the same bed. They are part and parcel of one overall social package, a package I term a “liberal social culture”, or in simpler terms, a liberal “way of life”. Or to state it most bluntly, liberalism has become a competing “religion” (way of life) to that of Torah Judaism.

Liberalism is not a bundle of “progressive, altruistic attitudes”: it is an alternative social culture/religion

Liberalism should thus not be mistakenly understood as a bundle of attitudes or causes that are “progressively altruistic”. Liberalism is not a part time “distraction” from the Torah. Liberalism is not a part time “tool in the hands of the evil inclination”. Liberalism is not just another corner of a “seductive” secular culture. 

Instead,liberalism must be accurately seen as a “social religion” competing for the allegiance of the modern Jew with that of the religion of Torah Judaism. And (I am sorry to upset my liberal friends) just as one cannot hold allegiance to Christianity or Islam and Torah Judaism at the same time, one cannot hold allegiance to a “liberal social culture” and Torah Judaism at the same time. Liberalism and Orthodox Torah Judaism are almost a contradiction in terms.

There are many Orthodox rabbis who believe that it is possible to have”progressively social attitudes “on a few issues, and remain firm in one’s practice and faith. This article shows that this is a pleasant, but false, illusion. One cannot dance at two weddings at the same time. One cannot be married to different women at the same time.

Existentially necessitated compromises with liberalism should not be defined as authentic, Orthodox Torah Judaism 

Many Modern Orthodox Jews do not want to be forced to make the choice. They feel they can pick and choice, make a few compromises, and overall enjoy the best of both worlds. I certainly understand that for many Modern Orthodox Jews such a compromise is the only way that they can stay involved in Orthodox-Torah Judaism. 

We all make many existential compromises in our life. I certainly cannot condemn or judge a person who feels out of existential necessity he must “mix and match” Torah Judaism and liberalism. I want only two things from such “an existentially challenged” Orthodox Jew.  One, please acknowledge that there is tremendous, objective tension between the social values and structures of a liberal social culture, and Torah social culture. Second, do not try to apologetically “dress up” liberal social culture in the outer “garments” of the Torah.

Modern –even Orthodox- Jews should openly acknowledge that existentially they find in liberal social culture (as compared with their personal  experience of Torah Judaism)  a  greater freedom and range for self fulfillment, more room for rational inquiry and decision making, and a refreshing, pluralistic acceptance of other ethnic groups and their social cultures. For these reasons they prefer to pick and choose from both Torah and liberal social culture.  

I just “beg” that they please do not call this shatnez polyglot Torah Judaism. Acknowledge your compromises as personal, existential necessities or judgments, but please do not call them authentic Torah Judaism. Shulchan Aruch based halakha is still our best (if not only) definition of what is authentic Torah Judaism. Our rabbis can help us appropriately apply the halakha to our individual life situations. But we cannot dilute Torah Judaism with liberal social culture and still call it Orthodox Judaism.