Can Orthodoxy Save American Jews—or even itself in the USA?

American Jews seem well on their way to withering into a white-dwarf star of a community.  One with far less status than before. Op-ed.

Marc Berman ,

Lakewood (illustrative)
Lakewood (illustrative)
צילום: אייסטוק

During the 20th century, Jews made up as much as 3.7 percent of the U.S. population.

The prestige of the American Jewish community manifested itself in manifold ways: Clergyman of all faiths spoke of “Judeo-Christian” values; Yiddish words entered the English lexicon; cantors sang chazzanut on national television, and ballplayers like Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax received honor for not playing in major games on Yom Kippur.

Jews also became prominent, if not nearly pre-eminent, in diverse fields like entertainment, law, academia, science and medicine. Support for Israel among politicians was bipartisan.

Fast forward: Today, the percentage of Jews in America is just 1.8 and continues to plummet. The shrinkage is most evident among non-Orthodox Jews, who comprise around 90 percent of the Jewish population, many of them not halakhically Jewish..

Moreover, while Jews, for the moment, are still over-represented in entertainment and the professions, support for Israel is no longer bipartisan. The most activist elements within the Democratic party are overtly hostile to the Jewish state.

Jewish ballplayers seemingly do not skip games on Yom Kippur anymore.

All in all, American Jews seem well on their way to withering into a white-dwarf star of a community. One with far less status than before.

But what about Orthodox Jews, who adhere to the mesora, to the traditional tenets of Judaism? While comprising only 10 percent of American Jewry, Orthodox Jews bear at least twice as many children as other Jews.

Indeed, a Pew survey recently found that “a variety of demographic measures… suggest that Orthodox Jews probably are growing, both in absolute number and as a percentage of the U.S. Jewish community.”

Will the increased number of Orthodox Jews reverse the decline of Jewish relative population and status in the United States?

Do Orthodox Jews have a brighter future than their non-religious brethren in America?

Perhaps not.

First, any natural increase in the Orthodox community will be offset by disaffiliation. The drop-out rate may approach 20 percent.

Second, the number of Orthodox Jews, at least in the near future, will remain far too small, as a percentage of the general population, to preserve the standing that Jews have heretofore enjoyed.

Third, over 60 percent of US Orthodoxy is comprised of Haredim. Many fervently Orthodox Jews eschew secular culture. Therefore, they will likely not exert the same level of societal influence as did previous generations of American Jews, although they are politically and economically savvy and involved..

Finally, Orthodox Jews, because of their fealty to halakha (Jewish law), may be the Jews most vulnerable to the effects of changing societal norms.

Previously dominant “Judeo-Christian” values have collapsed. For instance, out-of-wedlock births have increased, from well under 10 percent of all births in 1964, to 40 percent in 2014. Same sex-marriage, previously unthinkable, is now the law of the land.

Mere public opposition to the new morality may render one a social outcast. Business owners who refuse to openly accede to the new thinking may find their businesses boycotted.

This moral upheaval, in and of itself, does not necessarily threaten the continued viability of the Orthodox community. After all, Jews are used to social isolation in galut (the diaspora).

However, American politicians and judges of late have been compelling traditionally religious people to not only live beside the new rules, but to adopt them. So far, the victims have been mainly Evangelical Christians. But can frum Jews be far behind?

For example, Colorado tried to effectively shut down Masterpiece Cakeshop, Inc., a bakery owned by a devout Christian baker. The baker refused to bake a same-sex wedding cake. The state deemed his refusal a violation of its civil rights laws.

A divided United States Supreme Court reversed Colorado’s sanctions on the baker. The justices, though, ruled only on procedural grounds. The majority found that Colorado failed to give the baker a fair hearing.

Ominously, the high court did not rule that Colorado could not compel the baker, or any other religious person, to violate his sincerely held religious belief against participating in a same-sex marriage.

Similarly, the Court did not rule that the baker’s right of free expression was curtailed by the state compelling him to design a cake that contained a message which he vehemently opposed.

Indeed, just last week, the justices refused to disturb a ruling of the Washington State Supreme Court that effectively shut down the floral business of a Christian woman in her mid-70s who refused to set up a flower arrangement at a same-sex wedding.

The implications of the Washington and Colorado cases for Orthodox Jews are staggering.

If the high court will not uphold the First Amendment in cases like these, Orthodox Jews may reasonably wonder what other restrictions on their religious freedom legislators may henceforth enact.

In the name of “woke” social policy, will some states soon, say, outlaw circumcision (child abuse); ban ritual animal slaughter (animal cruelty); force Orthodox schools to hire openly transgender staff (gender discrimination); mandate that Orthodox physicians participate in euthanasia for terminally ill patients (right to die); or compel yeshivas to excise “discriminatory” biblical passages from their curricula (hate speech)?

Some may dismiss this parade of horribles as alarmist. But the reality is that governments, both in the U.S. and in Europe, have already attempted to implement, or have actually implemented, many such policies.

If future legislation becomes hostile to Orthodox Jewish practice, would observant Jews defy the authorities and risk civil penalties, or even criminal prosecution?

Most probably, if the persecution became unbearable, the bulk of American Orthodox Jews would emigrate to Israel.

From a Zionist perspective, such an aliya might be a good thing. Only who would have thought, even 10 years ago, that the demise of American Jewry in the “Goldeneh Medina” might happen so soon?

Marc Berman writes on politics, law, culture, and religion. He is also a chazzan (cantor) whose latest recording of chazzanut can be found here.and below: