From the JPost

Until the 18th century there was basically only one kind of Judaism, that which is now called Orthodox. It meant living by the religion’s 613 laws, and doing so suffused Jews’ lives with their faith.

Then, starting with the thinker Baruch Spinoza (1632-77) and moving briskly during the Haskala (“enlightenment”) from the late 18th century on, Jews developed a wide variety of alternate interpretations of their religion, most of which diminished the role of faith in their lives and led to a concomitant reduction in Jewish affiliation.

These alternatives and other developments, in particular the Holocaust, caused the ranks of the Orthodox to be reduced to a small minority. Their percentage of the world Jewish population reached a nadir in the post-World War II era, when it declined to about 5%.

The subsequent 60 years, however, witnessed a resurgence of the Orthodox element. This was, again, due to many factors, especially a tendency among the non-Orthodox to marry non-Jews and then to have fewer children.

Recent figures for the United States published by the National Jewish Population Survey point in this direction. The Orthodox proportion of American synagogue members, for example, went from 11 percent in 1971 to 16 percent in 1990 to 21 percent in 2000-01. (In absolute numbers, it bears noting, the American Jewish population went steadily down during these decades.)

Should this trend continue, it is conceivable that the ratio will return to somewhat where it was two centuries ago, with the Orthodox again constituting the great majority of Jews. Were that to happen, the non-Orthodox phenomenon could seem in retrospect but an episode, an interesting, eventful, consequential – and yet doomed – search for alternatives, suggesting that living by the law may be essential for maintaining a Jewish identity over the long term.

Full article here.

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Laya Millman

21 Comments

  • Long time reader… first time poster. I actually just blogged this myself. The biggest problem w/ Dr. Pipe’s analysis is that the most recent NJPS survey is not comparable to the 1990 survey, “due to changes in question wording”. This is not to deny that Orthodoxy speaks with a powerful voice for ‘religious’ Jews in America, but Dr. Pipes’ article is misleading.


  • “Until the 18th century there was basically only one kind of Judaism, that which is now called Orthodox. It meant living by the religion’s 613 laws, and doing so suffused Jews’ lives with their faith.”

    I have seen comments of this sort in many different places. While there is certainly an underlying truth to the statement, it neglects an important fact: Throughout all of Jewish history, a non-negligible percentage of the Jewish population was not terribly strict with practice. That is, they were a part of the community, but wouldn’t be considered “orthodox” nowadays. These were the ones called “am ha’aretz” in the mishnah (who weren’t trusted on certain ritual matters) or those in medieval Egypt who were intermarrying (I heard an interesting talk on this topic once). So, true, there were no necessarily other “mainstream” Jewish movements, but that doesn’t mean all Jews were orthodox.

  • Long time reader… first time poster. I actually just blogged this myself. The biggest problem w/ Dr. Pipe’s analysis is that the most recent NJPS survey is not comparable to the 1990 survey, “due to changes in question wording”. This is not to deny that Orthodoxy speaks with a powerful voice for ‘religious’ Jews in America, but Dr. Pipes’ article is misleading.

  • It was basically practicing Jews, and non-practicing Jews. The non-practicing Jews of the time weren’t legitimizing their place withing Judaism. The recognized that they weren’t practicing Judaism fully. Maybe they were okay with it and maybe they weren’t.

  • As someone who did the Conservative thing for 3 years, applied to JTS, brought Neil Gillman to McGill, etc., etc., and now daven/study and try to practice Orthodox Judaism, I feel comfortable stating that my experience with liberal Judaism was disapointing. And that all of my warm and memorable Jewish moments have occured in Orthodox homes/shuls. IMHO, I predict a merging of all the Liberal movements, and will hold little influence in the Jewish community.

  • I agree with Shtreimel…I came to Jewish practice through the Conservative movement, but now that I’m pretty much Orthodox, I feel much more spiritually satisfied. But obviously that doesn’t work for everyone, or there wouldn’t be liberal Jewish movements.

  • And I keep on being disappointed with the orthodox movement… It’s stuff like kashruth that really piss me off. I mean having an orthodox union stamp on bottled water? lettuce? Yup, cause a worker at the bottling plant may have dropped a bit of his ham on ham sandwich into the water…or oops, treif bugs in your greens?? Do you think 18th century observant jews had these kind of issues? Um, I dunno, maybe i’m missing the point…

  • Hey Tiff…those sorts of things piss me off as well. Hell, there’s a lot of Halachic details that I can’t wrap my head around. Still, as an all encompassing way of life, if you wish to live a Jewish one, it would appear that the Orthodox are the most consistent and serious. And this helps me connect to the Guy above.

  • it’s also worth noticing that orthodoxy was much varied in different communities according to the local standards and needs.

    One of the central difference between rabbinic authority then and now is that historically, the rav of the community was the local posek, whereas now, it’s the yeshiva that controls reality. how does that affect us?

  • “Disney was a hero to most
    Disney was a hero to most
    Disney was a hero to most
    But he never meant shit to me, you see
    Straight up anti-Semite he was
    Simple and plain
    Mother fuck him and John Wayne
    ‘Cause I’m a Jew and I’m proud
    I’m kosher and shomer plus I’m amped
    Most of my rabbanim don’t appear on no stamps
    Sample a look back you look and find
    Nothing but goyim for 4000 years if you check
    The Passion of the Christ
    Was a number one jam
    Damn, if I see it you can slap me right here
    Let’s get this zimrah started right
    Right on, yallah
    We’ve got what to say
    Moshiach’s comin’ with no delay
    Make everybody see
    In order to fight the goyim that be

    Fight the goyim! We’ve got to fight the goyim that be!”

    What we can learn here is that if you’re angry enough, rap doesn’t really need to rhyme, or even really have a meter. If it’s declaimed forcefully enough, nobody will notice.

  • I am a Conservative convert. Unfortunately, I cannot honestly accept all that is necessary to convert Orthodox. The best example, is that I feel that prayer and observance in the company of my wife enhances my ability to reach G-d. This is true more so than any all-male minyan. I am probably more Orthodox in many ways than most Conservative Jews. I certainly respect tradition and appreciate Orthodoxy. However, due to a few issues, Orthodox Jews will always see me as a goyim. That is sad.

  • Yisrael, you’re right on.
    These divisions between Jews are total nonsense. It has nothing to do with G-d or faith or ethics, its just about power and mind control. There are some people sadly who prefer to judge people not on the content of their character and their actions but their degree of ritual and observance. The reason they do this is to attempt to control others, not for promoting ethical behaviour or belief in Hashem, but purely to further their own political/ theocratic agendas. There are other people who unfortunately think that identifying with Israel and the Jewish people and deifying the Holocaust (I know that’s on the other thread) are a substitute for prayer and ethical behaviour.
    “Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? He who has clean hands and a pure heart…”. That’s what its all about. Prayer and ethical behaviour toward all (ie. theory and practice) are the essential things. Everything else is commentary.
    I am certain that Hashem knows that you have accepted Hashem’s Unity and Mercy, and that is all that’s only thing that is important.

  • Dave, while I appreciate the sentiment, I don’t think it’s exactly true. I’m sure your average Orthodox rabbi will readily admit that Yisrael has accepted Hashem’s unity and mercy, but accepting Hashem’s unity is not the basic requirement for Jews — it’s the basic requirement for all Bnei Adam. I don’t know a single Orthodox rabbi who, by advocating stringent conversion policies that hew to at least the last 2000 years of our tradition, is doing it out of want to “control others,” or to further their own theocratic/political agenda. They do it because they believe in the inherent holiness of Jewish tradition as it has been passed down.

    The divisions between Jews have everything to do with G-d, faith and ethics–namely, how different Jews interpret all these things. It’s pointless to pretend that the divisions are about “power,” because anyone can see that the average Reform Jew does not believe the same things about G-d, faith, or ethics as the average Orthodox Jew.

    Yisrael, don’t blame the Orthodox for not accepting you as a Jew — they are merely following their faith as they know it. If you feel that Conservative Judaism is the right path for you, then be a Conservative Jew. If you believe that Conservative Jews are following the correct path to G-d, then it shouldn’t really concern you what the Orthodox think.

    Although, just to say, you don’t have to believe every party line of Orthodox Judaism to convert Orthodox. I’m an Orthodox Jew by practice, and I don’t believe that the totality of the Torah was handed down at Sinai, and I believe in science and Darwinism and all of that. If being accepted by the whole of the Jewish people really concerns you, then (and this is just my recommendation) convert Orthodox and afterwards worship however you want. Or stay Conservative. It’s up to you. I don’t think anybody doubts the sincerity of your faith or your commitment, but as long as there are different interpretations of Judaism, a non-Orthodox convert will never be universally accepted. You just have to decide if you can live with it or not.

  • Michael, I do not question the sincerity of Orthodox Jews. I think they believe that they must demand certain things of me not to control me, but to achieve a conversion that they believe G-d will recognize.

    As far as your comment, “convert Orthodox and afterwards worship however you want,” I don’t think that is an alternative. Converting Orthodox requires a committment to certain behavior. If I make that committment knowing I will break it, then my committment is in vain. To me that would be destructive of my relationship with HaShem.

    While I think this situation is unfortunate, it is the right one.

  • Yisrael, if you are serious about Judiasm study Torah with an Orthodox rabbi, the true path will then be easy for you to follow even if it leads you away.

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