yoIn Envisioning the Future of American Jewry, Leaders Emphasize the Past

Leaders of the four major rabbinical seminaries made a rare joint appearance on October 13th at Yale University, on a panel titled “Envisioning the Future of American Judaism.” Though the speakers agreed on the most pressing problems facing the American Jewish community, they did not propose any new approaches – rather, each presented his own movement’s philosophy as framed by the history of the American Jewish community. The event, sponsored by the Program in Judaic Studies and the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale, was held in connection with the 350th anniversary of the arrival of Jews in North America.

Rabbi David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, pointed out that the American Jewish community found success even in its earliest years (ballooning from three thousand Jews in 1790 to almost a quarter million at the end of the 19th century), despite the fact that the first ordained rabbi came to America only in 1840. Thus the layperson plays an outsize role in American Jewish life, bringing to the table her instinctive “doubts about the inherent validity of halachah” and the authority of the rabbi. Furthermore, today’s American Jewish community is thoroughly acculturated, sharing, for example, the mobility of the average American family, which upends traditional ethnic-religious allegiances based on kinship. While the core of the community is healthy, enjoying “a renaissance of the Jewish tradition which has been unprecedented,” the periphery “barely identifies Jewishly.” The role of HUC, concluded Ellenson, is to train rabbis who can both satisfy the core and attract the marginal.

Rabbi Yosef Blau, the Director of Religious Guidance at Yeshiva University and a leader in various modern Orthodox institutions, began with the observation that “a hundred years ago no one would have predicted that Orthodox Jewry would participate” in such a panel. After a summary of Orthodox American Jewish history (crediting Orthodoxy’s post-war resurgence to the day school movement), Blau cataloged the problems of Orthodox Judaism in America, and of modern Orthodoxy in particular: the very diversity of the movement; the attraction of newly observant Jews to ultra-Orthodoxy; the status of women; and the need to strike a “proper balance between tradition and modernity.”

Dr. Ismar Schorsch of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary attempted to “extract the meaning” of the arrival of Jews in America. His main, somewhat strident emphasis was that the Jews “came [to America] as a group,” not merely as a collection of individuals, and that Jewish identity, flowing from the “wellspring of the Torah,” is “in deep conflict with the notion of autonomy and the sovereign self” which holds that “nothing is sacred.” Said Schorsch, “Unaffiliated Jews are not social capital for the Jewish community.” Rather, the goal should be to create more “serious Jews” – otherwise, the organized Jewish community is “at risk.”

Schorsch did not mention the Conservative movement per se in his remarks, the only one of the speakers not to put his own institution front and center. He mentioned only briefly, in response to a later question from the audience, that the movement is often passed over by its own members, who must first tend to the needs of the wider Jewish community.

Perhaps the most programmatic comments were made by Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz, president of the youngest rabbinical seminary represented, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (founded in 1968). “We are a small movement with a large agenda,” said Ehrenkrantz; since “Judaism is a product of the Jewish people,” future Jewish leaders must appreciate “the entirety of Jewish experience,” being “non-judgmental, yet exercising good judgment.” “We want people who can care for the entire Jewish community,” he said, “committed to Jewish history and the Jewish people without being triumphal or bigoted.” Ehrenkrantz implied that the Reconstructionist movement, whose ordained rabbis serve various functions in communities across the ideological spectrum, is well-placed to determine the direction of Jewish communal leadership: with “profound tolerance and respect for diversity, innovation, and the capability to develop communities” which give “meaning to the lives of Jews.”

Additional remarks were made by John Butler, a Yale expert in the history of American religions. “Religion in America has a doubtful future,” he began, quoting the consensus of experts in the late 19th century. Ever since the beginning of the modern era, religious leaders in America have worried that religion can’t compete with the attractions of high technology, urbanism, youth culture, and everything else beckoning from outside the walls of the church (or synagogue). According to Butler, they needn’t have worried, and they needn’t worry today. American religion (and Judaism as an exemplar of this tendency) remakes itself in just those ways necessary to succeed in time of transformation: from immigration to urbanization, and from city to suburb. The importance of religion in this year’s presidential election, and its near-absence from, say, French political campaigning, point to religion’s solid place in American public life, and should help to place in context dire rabbinical warnings of Jewish communal collapse.

Also worthy of note is what was not represented on this panel. In the introductory remarks, it was pointed out that a similar Jewish communal meeting of the minds occurred some forty years ago, at a Yale-Harvard-Princeton Hillel colloquium. At that event, however, there was a representative of “humanist Judaism.” The fact that no such representative, or indeed, any voice from outside the Jewish religious establishment, was present at this year’s panel might bespeak either a shrinking of American Jewish intellectual diversity, or (more probably) reveal the roots of the event itself, which was originally planned to inform Yale students interested in ordination about the different programs available. In any case, established, institutional voices are unlikely to propose bold suggestions for solving the Jewish community’s future problems.

Postscript: The new issue of the YU Commentator, Yeshiva University's student newspaper, features the text of Rabbi Blau's prepared remarks, as well as a write-up of the panel itself by Menachem Butler.

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