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    Does Orthodoxy know where it’s going?

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple appeared in the Jewish Chronicle (London) on 23 November, 1990.

    Wherever you go in the Jewish world today, you meet the prophets of doom.

    Jewry is an endangered species, they tell you. Jews are disappearing on all sides. Intermarriage is reaching frightening proportions. Birth rates are abnormally low.

    Most Jewish children get no Jewish education, or at best a mere smattering. Communities with once glorious histories are disintegrating. What our enemies, with their policies of annihilation, could not achieve, we are bringing upon ourselves because we do not care enough.

    Judaism is on its last legs. Let’s not prolong the agony. Let’s say Kaddish for ourselves in advance (maybe our children will not know enough or be Jewish enough to do it for us) and lie back and await the inevitable. Thus say the panic-mongering pessimists.

    No one denies we have problems, of massive proportions. But face the facts as you must if you are to be fair and you discover that once more in Jewish history the Almighty has not abandoned His people.

    Lo almah Yisrael: Israel is not bereft. God has created the remedy before the malady. There is hardly a spot on the world Jewish scene where, side by side with the evidence of drift and desertion, there is not also building up a new spirit of Jewish loyalty, commitment, learning and determination. In particular, there is a rebirth of Jewish Orthodoxy.

    You can’t miss its visible manifestations. Not all are present to the same extent in our own community, or in any given place, but taking the Jewish world as a whole, they are all there.

    Day schools, yeshivot, religious universities…. scholars, sages, books, periodicals, reprints of classical works of learning… boys with kippot, protruding tzitzit, holy books under their arms… women with hair covered, women attending mikvaotglatt kosher meat, kosher milk, mechitzot where they did not exist before… a proliferation of Chasidic groups, new shtiebls, mitzvah campaigns, Orthodox scientists and professionals, businessmen with Talmud study groups in their offices, travellers with tefillin in their hand-luggage wherever they go — the list is endless.

    It is one of the miracles of our age. Orthodoxy that once was given up for dead is alive and well. One is reminded of what Mark Twain said, that the reports of his death were greatly exaggerated.

    How many follow the whole Orthodox pattern, Shabbat, kashrut, mikvah, the lot? In a few places there are heavy concentrations of the fully observant; overall they are a tiny minority.

    But it is a more helpful approach to use not so much a behavioristic as an ideological criterion. See Orthodoxy as an idea (and remember that Emerson said that ideas have tremendous power: they are at work even when people are asleep), and ask: how many identify with the idea of Orthodoxy in theory, and to a greater or lesser extent in practice?

    The answer is that whatever the statistic is, it is growing. The established nucleus of shomrei mitzvot is more self-confident. There is an accretion of ba’alei teshuvah, coming from what is often the periphery of Jewish life back to their roots.

    Traditional congregations are becoming more traditional. Non-traditional congregations are, in some respects at least, becoming more positive towards tradition.

    Orthodoxy is probably the healthiest segment of the Jewish people. It is based on knowledge, not mere gut feeling; there is more Torah study going on today than ever in history.

    Its loyalty to Judaism is reflected in daily commitment, not just in lip-service. It is lived in warm communities; to be Orthodox is no longer a lonely struggle.

    It mixes in general society from a position of strength, not insecurity; even the Chasidic groups are involved in some form of relationship with the culture of the environment. It has higher birth rates and lower intermarriage and assimilation rates than any other Jewish group.

    One must be wary of prophesying (the Talmud warns that these days only the idiot and the immature purport to prophesy, and I would not like to be accused of being either), but it may be that the struggle between the forces of disintegration and traditionalism will see us ending up as a somewhat smaller, but more knowledgeable and observant Jewish people: in other words, as a body corporate that is thinner but fitter.

    Yet Orthodoxy will abort much of its potential unless it can urgently recognise and correct some of the inner weaknesses that may partly be the outcome of quick and feverish growth.

    Not all these problems are found on the local scene: and when I pinpoint them, I do so in the interests of the issue and without the slightest intention of being personally offensive to this individual or that group.

    First, Orthodoxy suffers from chronic fragmentation. The problem is not that Orthodoxy is not monolithic and has, within a shared ideology, differing modes and styles — Ashkenazi and Sephardi, Chasidic and Mitnagdic (and Chasidism itself contains many diverse groups), the more Samson Raphael Hirschian (Torah im derech eretz) and the less, the more Abraham Isaac Kookian religious Zionist and the less.

    The problem is not that there is no uniformity, but that there is often name-calling, suspicion, denigration, almost civil war, in place of what Rabbi Dr Norman Lamm has called “the harmony of a complex of elements in which each retains its own singularity and cherishes its differentness,” and in which there is mutual love, respect and appreciation.

    There is, next, the question of how to handle extremist elements. Their passionate sincerity everyone recognises, but perhaps they do not always see the overall good of the Jewish people, and often they present what Chief Rabbi Jakobovits has called an unacceptable face of Orthodoxy.

    There is the controversial issue of the Orthodox attitude to non-Jews, with some seeming to have developed a superiority complex, perhaps as part of a defence mechanism. The dignity of every human being, Jew or gentile, is intrinsic to Jewish theology, and surely needs restating.

    There is the question of how to evaluate Israel. Many of us humbly dare to discern in Israel a messianic beginning; those who are more cautious need not only to consider a theological stance, but to be seen to be committed to making Israel ever-more messianic.

    Orthodoxy must also clarify its approach to non-Orthodox movements. Surely they, too, are looking for God and His word. Respect and courtesy towards them do not imply recognition that they are right. To denounce them is unlikely to make them change their minds.

    What the non-Orthodox fail to understand is the true status and significance of Torah; surely the bigger mitzvah would be to help to turn them back in the direction of Torah.

    A major problem is that Orthodox individuals and organisations are sometimes perceived as making compromises with ethics and bringing Torah into disrepute. Whether the accusations are true or not, it is bad already, as the old saying has it, that there is a rumour.

    Ethical scrupulousness, without qualification or condition, is an absolute requirement for every Torah-abiding Jew. Further, instead of being known or perceived as rude, elitist, opportunistic, insulting, interfering, self-seeking and aggressive, the world should see the Orthodox Jew at all times as gracious, civilised, courteous, modest and pious.

    And as a postscript: Orthodoxy ought to give thought to its own perception of itself! As a movement, should it work through politics or piety? Should its methods be those of militancy or of Moses-like modesty? If power corrupts, political militancy also represents a threat to internal integrity. Because there is so much weakness in Jewish life today, because Orthodoxy is less prone than any other group to the loss of souls through assimilation, intermarriage, and conversion, because it has such a powerful inner dynamic, it is undeniable, as an editorial in an American periodical has declared, that Orthodoxy is “now charged with the ultimate responsibility for the souls of all our brothers.

    “This thought must permeate all our efforts… For it means that if Orthodoxy fails to meet this historic challenge, we take all Jews down with us” (“Jewish Life,” Autumn/winter 1977-78).

    If, then, Orthodoxy can carefully conserve and cultivate its strengths, responsibly contain and control its weaknesses and understand that now is the hour when great things are possible for God and His Torah, then will it be able to turn an impossible dream into glorious reality and help to lead the Jewish people and mankind into the age of the Messiah.

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