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American Jewry's Outdated Orthodoxy

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Most American Jews are orthodox. No, that's not a misprint, nor is it a sign that I've taken leave of my senses. In fact, the bulk of American Jewry is very orthodox. The problem is, they're very orthodox in their liberalism, not their Judaism — and therein lies the answer to all the costly studies, surveys and polls commissioned by Jewish organizations in their never-ending quest to understand why Jews are assimilating themselves out of existence.

Diaspora Jews have long suffered from serious psychopathologies, most notably a virulent strain of assimilationist self-hatred. Western Jewry in particular has been dominated by a form of assimilationism that emerged long before World War II, with precedents and elements found in both the German Jewish enlightenment and German Reform Judaism.

The innovation of German (and later American) Reform Judaism was that the Jews should ''define themselves away'' as a national entity. Instead, Jews would define themselves as just another ethnic group in their various countries of residence, but with their own religion — i.e. Germans of the Mosaic faith, Hungarians practicing Judaism, Russians of the Hebrew tradition.

The de-emphasizing of the national aspects of Jewishness was accompanied by religious adaptation and reformation. In order to make Jewish religious observance more palatable to the Protestant majorities around them, Western non-Orthodox Jews subjected their Judaism to substantial dilution, in the process co-opting a number of Protestant practices such as organs in synagogues and ''confirmation'' ceremonies.

In the aftermath of the Holocaust and the destruction of Europe's Jewish communities, America became the indisputable intellectual center for non-Orthodox Judaism. In an acceleration of a trend that had already begun before the war, a new form of Jewish assimilationism, the ''Liberalism as Judaism'' form of pseudo-Judaism, took firm hold in the U.S. This school of thought held that Judaism constituted nothing more or less than the American liberal political agenda.

The ''Liberalism as Judaism'' School argued that all of Judaism and Jewish tradition could be boiled down to a search for civil ''justice'' and secular ''freedom.'' Since it was axiomatic, in the eyes of Jewish liberals, that the liberal political agenda was synonymous with justice, freedom, and righteousness — and that the opponents of liberalism were evil and unjust — ''Judaism'' itself could be conscripted in the cause of promoting liberal partisanship.

In the era when liberalism meant civil rights, anti-poverty legislation and basic social welfare programs — that is from the mid-1930's through the mid-1960's — such a set of axioms seemed plausible to a great many. By aligning themselves with the forces of progress and enlightenment, Jews would promote their own acceptance and reputation, at least among thinking, ''progressive'' Americans.

Jews, so the thinking went, were well-served by joining these good Americans in their struggle for a better society — a society in which Jews would be appreciated and honored as comrades-in-arms in the battle for tolerance and freedom.

In short order the face of institutional Jewry was transformed:

* Numerous institutions devoted to the new ''Liberalism as Judaism'' orthodoxy arose in the American Jewish community. The mission of these organizations, sometimes stated and sometimes not, was the promotion of the liberal political agenda.

* The community ''federations'' also pursued liberal causes, and often operated as the Jewish analogue to Christian charity groups, funding general community hospitals and social services.

* Because the Jewish weeklies that formed the main communications network of American Jewry were generally owned and published by the federations, they invariably pushed a liberal editorial line.

* The ''defense organizations'' — Bnai Brith, the American Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Committee — which originally were founded in large part to battle anti-Semitism, joined the struggle for liberalism and often devoted the bulk of their resources and energies to the promotion of liberal causes.

* Large parts of the Reform and Conservative synagogue movements jumped aboard the ''Liberalism as Judaism'' bandwagon. Many Reform and Conservative rabbis devoted their weekly synagogue sermons to the advocacy of liberal causes. ''Social action'' committees abounded in synagogues and other Jewish community institutions, where ''social action'' meant only one thing — the liberal political agenda.

Liberalism Comes Home To Roost

From the start, though, there were problems with the formula of ''Liberalism as Judaism'' — that is, with the assertion that the essence of Judaism is nothing other than moral sentiments that may be conscripted in support of liberal ideological fads.

The chief problem was that if one accepted the equating of Judaism with liberalism, there really was no reason to remain Jewish. Surely Jewish tradition speaks nobly and highly of the search for justice and peace, but so does virtually every other religious or non-religious humanist tradition. After all, to paraphrase that famous old ad for Levy's rye bread, you don't have to be Jewish to be a liberal. And there were far easier ways to express and advocate liberalism and social justice.

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About the Author: Steven Plaut is a professor at the University of Haifa. He can be contacted at steveneplaut@yahoo.com.


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