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Saying Kaddish Too Soon?

‘With a heavy heart we will soon say Kaddish on the Reform and Conservative movements,” Rabbi Norman Lamm, the distinguished chancellor of Yeshiva University, recently proclaimed in an interview with The Jerusalem Post. “The future of American Jewry is in the hands of Haredim and the Modern Orthodox.”

Lamm’s triumphalistic prediction has, unsurprisingly, elicited strong and angry responses from Conservative and Reform leaders who consider their movements youthful and vibrant. For a historian, though, the prediction cannot help but call to mind earlier attempts to divine American Judaism’s future.

When Lamm was young, those who followed trends in Jewish life expected to say Kaddish for Orthodox Judaism. A careful study in 1952 found that “only twenty-three percent of the children of the Orthodox intend to remain Orthodox; a full half plan to turn Conservative.” The future of American Jewry back then seemed solidly in the hands of Conservative Jews.

Years earlier, in the late 19th century, Reform Judaism expected to say Kaddish for other kinds of Jews. The great architect of American Reform Judaism, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, titled his prayer book “Minhag Amerika” — the liturgical custom of American Jews — and given the number of synagogues that moved into the Reform camp in his day, his vision did not seem farfetched. Many in the mid-1870s believed, as he did, that the future of American Judaism lay in the hands of the Reformers.

Before then, of course, those with crystal balls expected to say Kaddish for Judaism as a whole in America. One of the nation’s wisest leaders, its then attorney general, William Wirt, predicted in 1818 that within 150 years, Jews would be indistinguishable from the rest of mankind. Former president John Adams likewise looked to the future and thought that Jews would “possibly in time become liberal Unitarian Christians.”

All these predictions made sense in their day. All assumed that the future would extend forward in a straight line from the present. All offered their followers the comforting reassurance that triumph lay just beyond the horizon.

And all proved utterly and wildly wrong.

Lamm’s prediction is unlikely to break this depressing streak of failures. Admittedly, Conservative Judaism today faces significant financial, demographic and ideological challenges, but Reform Judaism faced greater challenges 75 years ago, when it was by far the smallest and most divided of our three religious movements. Yet it successfully reinvented itself, winning over to its ranks many Jews whose parents might never have considered Reform Judaism an option. Conservative Judaism, with its new and more youthful leadership, could stage a similar comeback. Orthodox Judaism, ironically, serves as the poster child for what a beleaguered religious movement can accomplish. Its revival over the past 50 years is one of the great stories of postwar Judaism.

At the same time, and notwithstanding the abundant evidence that Lamm might muster on Orthodoxy’s behalf — its prodigious birthrate, its expansive day school movement, the success of Yeshiva University, the remarkable spread of Chabad and more — Lamm’s triumphalism flies in the face of a history that has humbled so many would-be prophets, and glosses over American Orthodoxy’s all-too-real challenges.

Five challenges are especially worth noting:

First, Orthodox Judaism in America has had trouble retaining its members. According to demographer Sergio DellaPergola of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, it loses more of its members over time than any other Jewish religious movement — understandably so, since it is harder to be Orthodox than to be any other kind of Jew. Since Orthodoxy represents, even by the most generous estimate, only 13% of those who define themselves as Jewish in America, that represents a significant demographic problem.

Second, Orthodoxy in America is suffering from a severe leadership crisis. The greatest of its 20th-century leaders — Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Rabbi Aharon Kotler, Rabbi Moses Feinstein, the Lubavitcher Rebbe and others — have all passed from the scene. Their successors, who do not carry the mantle of the great pre-war European yeshivas, have not achieved the same breadth of acceptance. Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, who is Soloveitchik’s son-in-law and now the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Israel, has bemoaned “the current dearth of first-rank gedolim,” or giants, in America. Historically, religious movements that cannot count on indigenous leadership to direct them have not fared well in America — at least not for long.

Third, American Orthodoxy is experiencing a significant brain drain. It sends its best and its brightest to Israel for long periods of yeshiva study, and unsurprisingly, many of them never return. One can think of multiple examples of remarkable Orthodox men and women who might have had a profound effect on Jewish religious life in America but preferred to cast their lot with the Jewish state. Can a movement that sends its most illustrious sons and daughters to Israel truly expect to triumph here in the United States?

Fourth, American Orthodoxy remains deeply divided over the issue of how to confront modernity. This is not a new problem; tensions between “accommodators” and “resisters” in Orthodox life date back to the 19th century. But now, in the absence of broadly respected leaders, the fault lines between Modern and right-wing Orthodox Jews have deepened. The question is whether Orthodoxy can survive as a very broad “big tent” movement or whether, like Conservative Judaism of an earlier era and like so many non-Jewish religious groups that have faced similar challenges, it will ultimately polarize. Big tents have a bad tendency to collapse and split apart, especially in the absence of a strong center. The fact that Orthodox Judaism does not have any strong institutional ties binding together all its factions makes the danger of schism all the greater.

Finally, American Orthodoxy is facing its worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. The crushing losses experienced by some of its most generous philanthropists, the billions of dollars in endowment lost in the Madoff scandal and the projected collapse of numerous day schools suggest that Orthodoxy’s best days may be behind it.

In the world of religion, smugness and self-assurance are usually risky. As Reform Judaism, Conservative Judaism and Mainline Protestant denominations have discovered, success in the present provides no guarantees for the future. If anything, saying Kaddish for other religious movements has often been the first sign of a movement’s own impending decline.

Jonathan D. Sarna is the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and the author of “American Judaism: A History” (Yale University Press, 2004).

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