How liberal Jews can be as successful as Chasidim

I'm a modern Jew, trying to live in a way both authentically Jewish and culturally liberal. I enjoy ubiquitous technology and freedom of thought. My daughter can be a rabbi, a scholar, an artist, or something else entirely, unfettered by restrictions. But are we modern, liberal Jews still going to be around in a few decades? If my granddaughter will still be a Jew, what kind of Jew will she be?

The Hasids hold up their allegiance to their way of life, and none other, as an answer to these questions. No, I am not an authentic Jew. My Judaism is endangered by modernity. Liberal women are led astray by their freedoms. My granddaughter will be without any particular ethnic identity at all.

As a proportion of the Jewish community, liberal Jews are decreasing and fundamentalist groups (including Hasids) are growing. They spill over into neighboring communities and their towns (like Kiryas Joel in upstate New York) split at the seams. I worry they might be right. Perhaps liberal Jews are doomed to extinction.

Is there a way we can hold on to what we believe in and not be washed away by the surrounding culture? What can the Hasids teach us about being Jews in modernity, and is there anything about their techniques which we liberal Jews can learn from?

I've asked this question of myself time and again, because I am fascinated by Hasidim. I am by turns attracted and repelled by a Jewish group succeeding beyond all expectations despite predictions a few decades ago of their imminent demise, while motivated by ideologies that are in large measure strange and forbidding to me.

I feel a kinship to them for two reasons: one, they are Jews, and like them I am religiously observant (though in a way they don't recognize as observant); and two, I speak Yiddish. Because of this kinship, I have spent time with and developed meaningful friendships -- and some adversarial relationships -- with a number of Hasids, read a considerable amount of their contemporary literature, and devoted quite a bit of thought to the question of what liberal Jews can learn from Hasidim. I have done this while trying (in my Yiddish writing) to defend liberal Jewish ideology to Hasidim.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if liberal Judaism's ideologies and cultural institutions were to enjoy success and relatively ensured longevity, just like the Hasids, while keeping to our own liberal, Jewish values? At times I have thought that we should emulate Hasidic success by copying Hasidic strategies As a strange contemporary Jewish type - the Yiddishist - I have thought that we should, like the Hasids, retreat into an isolated community and talk Yiddish to each other. And I have thought that that might also be a solution to the difficulties of the other Jewish ideologies I identify with. If Conservative Judaism is most successful in scattered enclaves outside of New York (mostly college towns), why not found a Conservative enclave in the middle of nowhere? If we care enough about what we believe in, shouldn't we be willing to retreat behind the walls to keep out what will wash away our way of life?

The reason why this wouldn't work is obvious. We liberal Jews are modern, and we find value in that. Every interaction between Jewish and non-Jewish culture is not a source of anguish but the normal material of our life. It would be weird for us to choose to interact only with Jews, even if they were liberal Jews. That would take away our modernity.

So we can't build walls - or rather, if we are to be consistent with our ideologies, we can't. What should our survival strategy be? We can't set out to win the demographic war, as our lifestyle doesn't lend itself to strategic procreation. Perhaps (as many contemporary Jewish organizations seem to believe) we should make Jewish life as attractive as possible. Let's send young people to Israel, and maybe on the way to their paid vacation they will find meaning in Zionism. Let's try and create entertaining Jewish events which will pull in the disaffected and unaffiliated.

Such a strategy, however, becomes caught up in itself. If we are always reaching out with a Jewish liberal modernity, when do we start reaching in? What is it, after all, we want to preserve?

This is the most important lesson the Hasidim can teach us, even if we are unwilling or unable to build walls. Their way of life is successful, picturesque, rich, and in many ways meaningful, but its approach is one we cannot take. It is not for the obvious reasons that we are not Hasidic, and their ideology is not ours - that goes without saying. It is because of what their success teaches us about how movements can work: in spite of, not because of worries about survival.

What does this mean? Take two examples of successful, relatively recent (in historical terms) Jewish ideologies. Zionism was not predicated on the notion fhat the Jewish population of Eastern Europe would be nearly exterminated in the Holocaust. To be sure, many Zionist thinkers predicted that Diaspora Jewry was untenable, but as a general matter this claim has proven to be unfounded (the American Jewish community is in no danger of extinction). The success of Zionism has to do with the success of the ideology: Jews constructing a modern Jewish state in the Land of Israel. Whatever its flaws, that country does exist, thanks to Zionism. The ideology has succeeded. Even if Jewish communities around the world thrived, and Israel were comparatively small and insignificant in terms of Jewish life, its success would still be significant.

Similarly, Hasidism as a culture is not merely a means to an end of survival. Hasidim have large families and live lives of chosen isolation because they believe strongly that their observance of strict Jewish law is the only way to God's approval. If, through some demographic or historical quirk, this caused them suffering or disappearance, they would still feel this way. Their ideology - by their lights - would still be a success.

So I come to the conclusion that my worries aren't wrong, necessarily (maybe modern, liberal Jews are bound to decrease in numbers), just misplaced. If we believe that contact with non-Jews and a wide variety of ideas is beneficial to us, if we think that a spectrum of Jewish practice and culture is valuable, and if we own up to these ideologies with confidence, we can be free of the relentless demographic drumbeat which our own worries and the worries of our institutional demographers pummel us with. We can be confident, modern, liberal Jews, in other words, and succeed by doing what we believe in, whether or not our communities and adherents grow by leaps and bounds. We can be as successful as the Hasidim even if we can never be fruitful and multiply, or be as picturesquely isolated, as they are.


  1. I'm just reading Morton Weinfeld's "Like Everyone Else... But Different" about Canadian Jewish demography. He deals with exactly these issues and concludes that having both self-isolating groups and modern, assimilated groups of Jews is an excellent strategy for group preservation. Think about it: when Jews in Boro Park need to lobby government, they start with the Jewish politicians. They need the more secular Jews to serve as "scouts" to the wider world. But the internally-focused groups also provide an assurance that Jews will never completely disappear as a distinct group.

  2. Anonymous9:26 AM

    your first prob. is that you don't have an ideology only desire!

  3. Anonymous9:03 PM

    unee ameilim vihem ameilim, dus heist gein in gehenim mit mesiras nefesh! miabed atzmo ludas mit mesiras nefesh! mamish vee dee arabisher suicide bombers!