The evolution of the current state of Orthodox Judaism has proven to be a major success in maintaining and perpetuating itself. That success as evidenced by its exponential growth over the last sixty years is largely based on how it handled its encounter with modernity. That is mostly due to how it educates its children. But all is not well.
A lot of young people from Orthodox homes of all stripes have gone astray from their religious practices and beliefs. This is commonly referred to as going Off the Derech (OTD). This phenomenon seems to have reached epidemic proportion. I don’t know if things are worse now that they were when the age of enlightenment took hold in the Jewish world. A lot of people went astray of their Judaism via the Jewish version of enlightenment called Haskala.
What makes this phenomenon unique in our era is how we have adjusted to the land of freedom and its open society. A society that is a direct result of the enlightenment. When the enlightenment first happened we were not prepared for it.
In the pre-enlightenment era, Judaism was practiced pretty much the same way it had always been practiced in its European (Ashkenazi) incarnation. Life as we know it today did not exist. One generation lived pretty much the same way the last one did. Generation after generation – Jews were treated the same way by their European hosts: shabbily. We were segregated into ghettos and persecuted. We were pretty much cut off and shut out from the outside world.
There was thus much more control over our lives by religious leaders. Pressure to conform was great. Those who did not conform had no place else to go. Not to mention the fact that few Jews had even the slightest notion of desiring to know more than they were taught by their teachers. Because of all this – outside distractions were of little significance to us.
When the enlightenment suddenly opened up new vistas for us, the floodgates of assimilation, free thinking, and heretical thought were opened along with them. Many Jews saw a new world of knowledge and lifestyle previously unavailable to them now beckoning. And they took advantage of it. The rabbis of that era were unprepared for this openness and had no way to control it. A lot of people from observant Judaism went astray of their traditions and beliefs.
Fast forward to 1950s. The Holocaust had just ended. There were millions of European Jewish survivors that had no homes to return to. A large number of them were the most devout among us. They would never have immigrated to America pre-Holocaust. They are the ones that listened to their rabbinic leaders who forbade them from immigrating to America. The fear was that the ‘Treifena Medina’ would (via freedom and the pull of assimilation) cause them all to go astray.
Post Holocaust – all those who refused to go, were suddenly survivors. They could no longer go back to the European cities and towns that were bastions of religious life pre Holocaust. They no longer existed. Furthermore their gentile neighbors were not all the anxious to see them coming back (to say the least!). These devout Jews immigrated to America. And that changed everything .
Over the last 60 or so years these people have created a society of religious Jews which I believe to be unprecedented in Jewish history since the destruction of the 2nd Temple. Because of the very foundation of religious tolerance upon which America is built – the Jewish people had the freedom to build the religious world of their choice in complete freedom.
About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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