RESPONSE: American Orthodoxy Then, Now & Tomorrow

Samuel Heilman Tradition Online | October 9, 2023
[This post was scheduled for publication before the events currently unfolding in Israel.]

In 1998 when I wrote my essay for TRADITION’s “Sea Change in American Orthodox Judaism” symposium, we were nearing the end of the twentieth century – the only century in which most of us had ever lived. It had been a tumultuous 100 years for Orthodox Jewry in particular, with its waves of immigration at the start (often consisting of those who arrived as Orthodox Jews but soon dropped that affiliation). Other features of the century included the subsequent dislocations of economic depression as well as the subsequent unimaginable horror and destructiveness of the Shoah, with its particular tragedy for European Orthodoxy, whose leaders had discouraged emigration to America or the Zionist settlement in Palestine, claiming that their kind of Judaism would survive better in Europe—advice that proved deadly wrong and led to a huge massacre of those people who followed those urgings. The latter part of the century witnessed Orthodoxy rebuilding itself in America, establishing more thriving educational institutions, synagogues, and communities than it ever did in anti-Semitic Europe and the Soviet Union.

Asked to reflect on American Orthodoxy 25 years ago, I was looking then at a triumphalist religious community that was already showing lines of internal fracture. On one side were the so-called Modern Orthodox who, unlike most of pre-Holocaust American Orthodoxy, had firmly established their presence and intellectual leadership but unlike earlier Orthodox immigrants, they had successfully held onto their American-born generations through the creation of day schools and summer camps that showed it was possible to embrace the promise of the American democratic social order, education, and culture without abandoning Orthodox identity. On the other side were Haredim, who at mid-century had been forced unwillingly to America by the destruction of European Jewry. After their initial disorientation and disillusion, they had in the last third of the century also rebuilt and begun to challenge the Modern Orthodox in defining American Orthodoxy. While the former signaled their success by producing university graduates and American professionals, the Haredim effectively infiltrated and dominated the rabbinate, much of Jewish education – especially yeshivas – klay kodesh, the institutions of kashrut certification, and rabbinical courts. The contest between these two poles of American Orthodoxy—one acculturative and the other contra-acculturative—was about to begin in earnest in the 21st century.

In 2006 I predicted that Orthodoxy was “sliding to the right” (in a book by that name), meaning that in behavior, outlook, and ethos, more and more Modern Orthodoxy was becoming at home in the Haredi world. They had bought into the idea that, as I titled my book in 1992, these contra-acculturative Jews were truly the “Defenders of the Faith,” and that their willingness to keep American culture at arms-length (rather than embracing its promise as Modern Orthodoxy had) would guarantee continuity—the ultimate prize that Orthodoxy claimed to be closing in on more than all other Jews.

That tendency has only increased. Not only have many Orthodox chosen to blur the lines between the Haredi way of life and what was once a proudly Modern Orthodox worldview, but they have ceded the leadership of many of their Jewish institutions to it. The rightward movement of Orthodoxy has continued not only in ritual behavior and religious leadership as well as among the rabbis and teachers of Jewish learning but also in political outlook and attitudes toward the American ideals of pluralism and democracy. Differences still exist between the two groups but pale compared with the rest of American Jewry. Thus, for example, a Nishma Survey released in September 2023 reported that while over 80% of self-identified Haredi Jews in the sample claimed to have voted Republican in the last few Presidential elections, only nearly half of the self-identified Modern Orthodox did. In contrast, the Pew Research Center surveys, including the 2020 study, show that Jews are among the most consistently liberal and Democratic groups in the United States population. Seven in ten Jewish adults identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party. Clearly, the Orthodox are overwhelmingly to the right of this. To be sure, there are still liberal and democratic values that are more likely to be reported by those self-identifying as Modern Orthodox, but American Jews are increasingly influenced not only by their Haredi counterparts and teachers but also by their Israeli counterparts who, mostly as a result of their party affiliations, are willy-nilly finding the liberal and democratic ideal unappealing—a tendency that cannot help but have an impact on a Modern Orthodoxy that remains highly Zionist and has used Israeli yeshivot and seminaries as instruments for the education of their adolescent children, many of whom ultimately make it the template for their Jewish lives. To put it simply, we can longer assert that the “modern” in Modern Orthodoxy is overwhelmingly liberal. Whether this tendency will continue toward the extreme, turning Orthodox Jews toward a reactionary fundamentalism, blending contra-acculturation into xenophobia, ethnocentrism, and the intolerance of anti-pluralism is impossible to predict. Given the historical tendency of those societies who share those characteristics to often veer toward anti-Semitism, as we learned in the previous century, all bets are off.

Historically, victims of anti-Semitism learn to embrace liberal political policies that share a concern of protecting a society’s most vulnerable citizens, and that’s what anti-Semitism makes of the Jews. Moreover, the contra-acculturation that is so baked into Haredi Orthodoxy is only possible to sustain in a democratic, tolerant, and pluralist society. If America ceases being that way and becomes a right-wing White Christian xenophobic society the “peculiar” Orthodox may find themselves, as they did during the Trump years, the target of rising anti-Semitism.

All this is not to say that Haredim have remained unchanged and untouched by the modern world. The powerful impact of the internet – 49% of the self-identified Haredi respondents in the Nishma survey claimed they used the internet (“unfiltered and unblocked”) to gain information about voting. The access to the internet has undermined the top-down monopoly on information from the rabbis and yeshivas that was a hallmark of Haredi life. Given the nature of surfing the net, all sorts of information that was for years off-limits or simply unavailable is now streaming unfiltered across the devices in the hands of Haredim. To be sure, the lack of secular education (and in many cases competence in English) in the Haredi world often warps their understanding of what they discover online. But, clearly, there has been an impact on them and it will grow.

Secondly, as we have seen in the infamous East Ramapo school district controversy when Haredim find themselves in political power in modern America and use public resources to sustain their institutions and control the tax coffers and power structure, this leads to a backlash and often stigmatizes them as well as all Orthodox Jews. As it is, much of America cannot perceive the nuances of what are, from their perspective, small differences within Orthodoxy. The enmity towards one sector easily spreads to others. In short, the “malkhut shel hesed” (R. Moshe Feinstein’s descriptor of America as a nation of kindness) that has been the way many Orthodox Jews view the United States, might not remain that kind.

Thirdly, the Orthodox engagement in American politics has clearly led to strange and dissonant alliances and impacted on religious values. These adaptations have created hybrids that are nothing like the past forms of traditional Jewish life that are still bathed in “holy nostalgia.”

In 1998 I argued that Modern Orthodox Jews were often engaging in compartmentalization rather than striving “to illumine and deepen their Jewish understanding and practice by perceiving it through the prism of contemporary cultural attachments and a secular university education,” which was once the promise of their religious outlook. Haredim, I suggested, eschewed this kind of dualism. But it turns out I was wrong. In the last 25 years, we have discovered an insidious compartmentalization among them that in the 20th century was kept in the shadows but in the 21st has been revealed. While the Haredim try to be scrupulous in the observance of their interpretation of mitzvot and present themselves as “ultra-Orthodox,” a term they did not choose but is still used as a cognate for Haredi, it turns out that when it comes to such matters as sexual abuse, financial improprieties, and corruption, the Haredi community has quite a few folks—including those counted among their elite—who have been putting such irreligious behavior in a separate and hidden compartment of their lives and communities while still claiming they are “very frum.” We are no longer shocked when a prominent rabbi, educator, landlord, or business person in the Haredi world gets caught and convicted of such improprieties. As long as the Orthodox world does not stigmatize and devalue these bad actors, this is likely to continue. In many ways, the compartmentalization that is part of Orthodox life in every segment of the community is perhaps the most stubborn problem of this way of life.

Demographically, the Haredi segment has been growing, mostly by its fertility rather than its ability to attract newcomers—although the latter are often quite prominent. As an example, the New York State village Kiryas Joel, an almost completely Satmar Hasidic enclave, grew by 18% between 2020 and 2022 according to the U.S. Census (in the same period New York State as a whole declined by about 2.6%). The same sort of growth can be found in almost all Orthodox enclaves with significant Haredi populations. Yet, if what is happening among Israeli Haredim is an indicator of processes going on in the parallel American group, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics the proportion there has been a steady decline in religiosity among other Israeli Jews, an echo of the increasing number of American Jews who describe themselves as unaffiliated with any religious Jewish denomination in America. While most Haredi children remain Orthodox through adulthood, starting in the 1980s increasing numbers reported leaving the fold, while those joining have decreased. As more and more have allowed the modern world and information about to it to seep into their population, the impact on their loyalty to their way of life appears to be at risk. In Modern Orthodoxy, at the same time that there is a slide to the right, there are significant numbers of day school graduates who have left Orthodoxy altogether. While Modern Orthodox institutions reflect the rightward shift, many families in the Modern Orthodox community also report children and grandchildren who no longer consider themselves Orthodox by any measure. This trend is not likely to diminish in the foreseeable future, given that Orthodoxy has consistently obliterated the middle ground.

While all segments of Orthodoxy still emphasize the power of community that their way of life offers, the last twenty-five years have demonstrated that these communities still exclude some who wish to take part in their community. Among the most prominent of course are LGBTQ individuals who are religiously observant but generally limited from living openly in the community, and those who are in same-sex marriages are generally shunned. With regards to marriage, singles of all types often find the Orthodox community is mostly interested in getting them married rather than finding a place for them.

The increasing presence of Jews of color—including Jews by choice, those who have been adopted, the products of intermarriage, and those who come from Africa (often by way of Israel)—do not always find a comfortable place in the American Orthodox world. The former editor of the Yeshiva University Observer, a student newspaper, wrote in 2020, “Racism is part of why I left the Hasidic community. The slurs, the nauseating primate analogies, and the overwhelming fear of a non-existent Black threat made it impossible for me to remain Hasidic with a good conscience.” She added, that the Modern Orthodox “are more covertly racist, shrouding their bigotry in a veneer of community, but they are racist nonetheless.” There are of course elements in the Orthodox world who agonize over this and other prejudicial behavior but it will probably take some dramatic and unexpected event to change these tendencies.

Finally, there are signs of a modest backlash in the direction of tolerance and pluralism. The movement to allow women to study Torah and take on communal and spiritual leadership roles, the partnership and egalitarian minyanim in many Modern Orthodox communities, the outreach of Chabad that has forced many of its shluchim (emissaries) to accept a variety of Jewish behaviors that are far from Hasidic, have all increasingly gained more prominent places within the American Orthodox environment—as have Orthodox rabbis who are willing to be open to the variety of American Jews who are looking for a way to connect to their Judaism. Whether these trends will grow or shrink remains to be seen. It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future—let’s check back in another 25 years.

Samuel Heilman is professor emeritus of Sociology at Queens College and the Graduate Center of, City University of New York. In 2024 he will serve as Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Effron Center for the Study of America, Princeton University.

1 Comment

  1. DAVID L. KLEPPER says:

    Thanks for a truly excellent retrospective. Possibly more attention could have been given for those youngsters with parents that are often prominent in the North American Conservative Jewish community, receive the best Jewish education that the Conservative movement can provide, and then, very logically in my opinion, decide to become totally observant and join Orthodox congregations. Some, after Aliyah.

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