The Return to Tradition

Return to Tradition, summer 1992

The return to tradition.

Everybody in the Jewish world is talking about it. Secular children have become Lubavitchers. Young, liberal couples are sending their children to day schools. Reform rabbis are donning yarmulkes and waist-length tallises. Lighting Shabbat candles with the children is becoming the rage. “Benching” is again a communal function.

There is no doubt that a significant shift has taken place in Jewish life, at least in conscious sentiment. The traditions of rab­binic Judaism, which were often mocked and discarded by the Jewish establishment and the Jewish masses in both the United States and Israel, are being treated with new reverence. Orthodoxy — once derided by reformers, liberals, and radicals as a dying superstition — has reclaimed its authority in Jewish life. Although most Jews no longer live by its precepts, they have come to believe that the “real” Juda­ism is traditional Judaism and that Ortho­doxy is the only true source of Jewish strength and survival.

Today, thousands of secular and liberal Jews give millions of dollars to the Lubavitchers. Although they are not pre­pared to change their personal lifestyle, they are prepared to support those who do. Today, feature writers about Jewish life in the Jewish and national press quote tradi­tional rabbis and religiously observant Jews in depicting what Judaism is all about. The writers have come to assume that Orthodox opinion is more authentically Jewish and, above all, more newsworthy. The Lubavitcher Rebbe and Shlomo Carlebach have become media stars. Even Reform and Conservative rabbis now praise Orthodoxy and designate the Orthodox as the hard­core saving remnant of Jewish spirituality. Liberals can afford to deviate from Ortho­doxy because the saving remnant guaran­tees the survival of the Jewish people.

The return to tradition is both nostalgic and radical. It is nostalgic because it seeks to recapture the Jewishness of the past. It is radical because it is often embraced by Jews whose families long since abandoned the religious tradition. The yarmulke as a familiar headgear on college campuses and at symphony concerts is something radi­cally new. Events and institutions created by the secular world are now deemed an appropriate setting for traditional “the­ater.”

Why this resurgence of Orthodox pres­tige and power?

The most obvious reason is concern for Jewish survival. The open society that liberal and secular Jews praised and de­fended has turned out to be a mixed bless­ing. Millions of Jews used their liberty to become educated and prosperous. They also chose to make their Jewishness a minimal commitment. While climbing the social ladder, Jews were enthusiastic about their freedom. Once they reached the top, anxiety set in. What if their incredible success in an open society should lead to assimilation and the disappearance of the Jewish people in the Diaspora? What if freedom should prove as powerful as the Holocaust in decimating the ranks of the Jewish people? The Orthodox insistence that they, and only they, can guarantee Jewish survival became a powerful appeal to guilty Jews who did not believe in Orthodoxy but who could not imagine any viable alternative.

The Americanization of the American Jew was completed by the 1960s. No new large wave of Jewish immigration appeared. Second- and third-generation American Jews felt comfortably American, especially with the decline of anti-Semitism. They felt no need to prove their American iden­tity by discarding the embarrassing ethnic baggage of the past. The de-WASPing of America and the rise of ethnic pride move­ments made them hungry for ethnic roots. The Eastern European shtetl, which their parents and grandparents had fled, was revived in romantic fantasy. Orthodoxy, which had been intimately woven into the fabric of this village life, was equally romanticized. Hasidic rebbes and Chelm stories became the rage. In a world where acting Anglo-Saxon was now easy and ordinary, dabbling in tradition became exotic and extraordinary.

The war in Vietnam helped to usher in what many intellectuals now designate as the postmodern world. Science, reason, and optimism were out. Spirituality, intu­ition, and pessimism were in. Objective truth vanished. Subjective feelings tri­umphed. Male left-brain “rigidity” was rejected. Female right-brain creativity was applauded. Meditation and mysticism be­came daily routines for millions.

In such an environment, the old super­stition turned into the new wisdom. The Torah became a fountain of spiritual truth. The Kabbala became the secret key to the universe. Roles were reversed. The spiritu­alists were on the attack. The rationalists were on the defensive. Jewish youth were caught up in the experiments of New Age thinking. If they had any strong Jewish interest, Jewish mysticism, or an Orthodox version thereof, was there for them.

Meanwhile, stimulated by the immigra­tion of militant ultra-Orthodox Jews after the Holocaust, American Orthodoxy had changed its organizational profile. Reject­ing the old self-image of being peripheral, passive, and doomed, which characterized prewar Orthodoxy, the Lubavitchers, in particular, wedded their reactionary mes­sage to the most advanced, American-style public relations techniques. They mobi­lized an army of underpaid devotees who were eager to become “missionaries” to the Jews. Their well-funded, aggressive stance became a role model for other tradi­tional groups. When the guilt of freedom, the search for romantic roots, and the postmodern world arrived, they were ready to take advantage of these new-found op­portunities. Like the Christian fundamen­talists, their zeal, combined with their organizational talents, made them much more skillful at recruitment than the smug establishment. The advertising and fol­low-up skills that secularists had invented were now theirs.

The most powerful reason for the return to tradition lies in the very nature of the Conservative, Reform, and Reconstruc­tionist movements. All three, from the very beginning, made a crucial, perhaps fatal, decision. In their eagerness for legitimacy, they sought to “kosherize” the changes, sometimes radical changes, that they were making. The authorities they chose to sanction these changes were the very docu­ments that Orthodoxy used. Like the Or­thodox, they appealed to the Torah and to the Talmud to give them permission to do what they did. Of course, they provided a different interpretation. But the problem was that the Torah and the Talmud are basically Orthodox documents. They fit Orthodox Judaism with very little adjust­ment. They do not fit Conservatism, Re­form, and Reconstructionism. A liberal Jewish lifestyle, embracing everything from free choice to feminism, cannot be derived from these documents, unless you burst them out of their context and make them mean what they obviously do not mean.

Conservative, Reform, and Reconstruc­tionist Jews are always apologizing, al­ways trying desperately to prove that they are Torah-true. But, as any observer can readily see, only the Orthodox are really Torah- and Talmud-true. If you base your legitimacy on the Torah and Talmud, and you are not Orthodox, you lack credibility. In the end, the sham and the pretense show through. Once the drive for social accep­tance with the secular world is spent, and the drive for Jewish authenticity begins, the only “authentic” movement is Ortho­doxy. Reform and Conservatism become merely watered-down derivatives. They have no real documents of their own. Their only strategy for survival is to do more and more Orthodox things. (Maybe if Reform Jews are dunked in mikvas, they will come to see Reform as more authentic!)

What does this return to tradition mean? What significance is to be found in the new Reform davening, in the fascination with traditional ritual, in the fervor of the new ba’al teshuva (returnee).

The first item of note is how thin it is. While a small minority of young Jews have become full returnees, repudiating the secu­lar world and joining ultra-Orthodox com­munities, the overwhelming majority of returnees are only partial. They want to do traditional things only once in a while, on a marathon weekend for Pesakh, at a bar mitsva, at a wedding, on a trip to Israel. They are too secular to want to do religion often. But when they do it, they want the “real” thing.

For this reason, the Conservative move­ment is shrinking and Reform is expand­ing. Conservative Judaism is not enough for the full returnee and too much for the partial returnee. Full returnees are turned off by the moderation of the Conservatives, while partial returnees do not want to be lectured about daily observances. Reform now provides a taste of tradition without burdening the returnee with the guilt of nonconformity. You can have your hour of traditional “schmaltz” on a Friday night or a Saturday morning and renew your secular life immediately afterward. You can belong to a Reform temple, sponsor a fundraising event for the Lubavitchers, and go to the symphony with your Gentile girlfriend. Partial returnees are rarely bur­dened with demands for consistency. They can feel traditional without doing many traditional things. Tradition is a “now” experience instead of a consistent life plan.

The return to tradition means the death of ideology in Jewish life. Contemporary returnees are rarely interested in the ques­tion “Is it true?” They are much more interested in the question “Is it Jewish?” Orthodox ritual is revived because it is good for Jewish survival, not because the theological ideas that spawned it are be­lievable. Even the Lubavitchers recom­mend action over belief. Say the prayer even if you do not believe in the prayer. The act of recitation will turn you into a believer.

Everything is linked to the urgency of Jewish survival. Integrity vanishes. The ideological framework of rabbinic Judaism is torn down and replaced by a bland commitment to doing more and more Jew­ish things. Does the El Male prayer refer to an afterlife in Paradise? Who cares, it’s Jewish! Does the bedeken (veiling) cere­mony before the wedding arise out of the male chauvinist need of the groom to identify the bride he has purchased? Who cares, it’s Jewish! Does the recitation of the ten plagues at the Passover seder suggest that God is a vengeful deity who punishes the good together with the wicked? Who cares, it’s Jewish! Sincere belief goes out the window. The body of tradition is retained. But the heart of tradition, its be­lief system and world view are dead. Only the ultra-Orthodox pay any attention to the necessity of both. And then not always.

The return to tradition means the new self-confidence of the Orthodox. On the one hand, there is the creeping polariza­tion of the Jewish community between the militant ultra-Orthodox and the secular­ized Jews (whether they be formally reli­gious or openly secular). On the other hand, there is the growing intrusion of Orthodox demands on the general commu­nity through the new army of devoted missionaries, who present themselves as our teachers and serve as a wedge of indoctrination and pressure. Partial re­turnees, who are ambivalent about tradi­tional lifestyles, are like putty in the hands of these missionaries. They do not want to be Orthodox. But they feel guilty not being Orthodox. They believe that the “real” Judaism is the old religious tradition. Only the Orthodox, in their eyes, have any legitimate authority. Despite the smallness of their numbers, the Orthodox have turned non-Orthodox Jews into ideological defen­dants. The ultra-Orthodox do not wish to participate in the general Jewish commu­nity; they wish to control it through a form of spiritual intimidation.

How do we respond to the return to tradition?

We refuse to view the return to tradition as something positive. The segregated lifestyle of the full returnees is unattractive to contemporary Jews who embrace an open society. And the ambivalent stance of par­tial returnees is without integrity or prin­ciple — an effortless, nostalgic indulgence.

We refuse to give the Orthodox the authority they do not deserve. We do not play the Torah and Talmud game. Only by boldly proclaiming that our authority lies in reason, conscience, and the Jewish ex­perience will we be able to counter the new intimidation. In that respect Humanistic Judaism can play an important role. We are the only Jewish movement willing to de­clare our independence from the old losing strategy. We cannot find our legitimacy in the sacred documents of Orthodoxy. The Torah and the Talmud are historically interesting, but they are not and cannot be the constitution for dissenting Jews. Only when we have a literature that clearly expresses what we believe will we be free of the curse of apology, inferior status, and hypocrisy. If we do not need to be “kosherized” by tradition, we do not need to return to it. There are other ways to be effective Jews.

We refuse to endorse the notion that only Orthodoxy can guarantee the survival of the Jewish people. The most dramati­cally successful Jewish movement in the twentieth century was Zionism. Zionism means more than the reestablishment of an independent Jewish state. It also means the redefinition of Judaism as an ethnic cul­ture. Only a bold cultural Judaism, which is unafraid to proclaim its radical break with Orthodoxy and to live with the virtues and risks of an open society, can reach the vast majority of Jews.

The return to tradition is a powerful challenge to Secular Humanistic Jews. It is also an opportunity to make our unique message heard.