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Orthodox Belief in God and Faith Is Spreading — Got a Problem With That?

Reading two recent breathless headlines in the Forward, it would seem that Judaism, at least as practiced in America, is somehow in mortal danger of being co-opted and radically changed by Orthodox Jewry.

An article by Nathan Guttman boldly declares that the “Pew Study Finds Orthodox Similar to Evangelical Christians — Not Other Jews.” To think, Orthodox Judaism has somehow abandoned the traditions of American Jewry and instead aligned itself suddenly with Christians. A shonda!

In her editorial on the subject, Forward Editor-in-Chief Jane Eisner outlines what she sees as the potential threat of this demographic change: “Orthodox Jews, while only 10% of America’s Jewish population, are growing rapidly in number and growing apart from other Jews in how they view family, faith, domestic politics and Israel.”

“The two fundamentalist sectors of [Judaism and Christianity,]” Eisner continues, “vote, believe, worship and raise their children in remarkably similar ways.”

As a result, Orthodox Jews have essentially created a schism in the Jewish community, the Forward articles assert, aligning themselves ideologically and socially (though not theologically) with the evangelicals over their Jewish coreligionists.

While the writers take solace in the fact that Jews not affiliated with any stream of the faith somehow balance out the trend, this, the editorial claims, is only a short-term solution. Unless something is done soon, we’re faced with a future where so-called fundamentalist Jews will dare to “assume a larger share of the American community.” For in the game of demographics, it seems, you either win or die.

One marvels at the breathless wonder with which all of this presented. Do we believe that while retreating to “hermetically-sealed communities,” reinforcing and isolationist worldview, Orthodox Jews are simultaneously trying to change the national agenda and “suppress the movement for marriage equality and to rob women of their reproductive rights”?

Wouldn’t those two claims be mutually exclusive? How could any group retreat within itself and have such a stunning impact on the broader body politic?

Are we really to believe that the national agenda and the will of the people is being manipulated by (Orthodox) Jewish money? This assertion sounds like a version of the anti-Semitic canard that has made the rounds for decades, if not centuries.

But beyond these specific flaws in the Forward’s analysis lies a bigger problem with the entire approach to this issue. What exactly is so intrinsically surprising or newsworthy about the changes noted in the Pew study?

Let’s take a step back and look at the data from the report.

The significant findings, at least as reported in Guttman’s articles, border not only on the obvious, but also seemingly, the positive.

How have Orthodox Jews somehow left the faith of their fathers for a foreign evangelical faith that their ancestors knew not of, thus forever altering the American Jewish landscape?

According the the study, Orthodox Jews — be they modern or so-called Haredi Orthodox — view religion as an important matter in their lives (“83% of Orthodox Jews [and 86% Evangelicals] say it is a very important factor, while only 20% of non-Orthodox Jews say so”), they “attend religious services frequently,” and they “believe in God with absolute certainty.”

I struggle, earnestly, to see the problem with these findings, how the idea that a religious person would find religion important in his or her life and attend religious services, could somehow represent a schism in American Jewry.

If anything, the surprise and the danger here is that all Jews didn’t find these things more important. Shouldn’t we see a connection to our heritage as a positive thing? Wouldn’t we want Jews of any background or level of affiliation to also value our rich heritage and to consider Judaism as something central to his or her life? Somehow, something tells me that attending religious services and believing in God isn’t some modern Haredi perversion of our faith or power-play to Evangelical Christianity.

We shouldn’t rue signs of commitment to Judaism as an alliance with evangelical Christians, rather work to encourage all Jews to stake their claim in the heritage of Israel.

Judaism isn’t a game of cultural eugenics and demographic one-upmanship. It should be a presence valued and treasured by us all. We all need to delve further into our roots, expand our knowledge as Jews and boldly proclaim to the world, “I’m a proud Jew.” When there is already so much divisiveness in the Jewish community, we should celebrate any trend towards Jewish growth – and work tirelessly to make Judaism powerful and accessible to every last Jew, regardless of the labels we place upon them.

Mordechai Lightstone is a rabbi, a director of digital communications, and the creator of exceptional experiences for Jews in tech and digital media. He can be reached on Twitter @Mottel

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