Friday, July 18, 2008

The Future of American Judaism?

There's an interesting post over at "Angstgnostik Reconstructodox Modern Orthoprax" (or XGH or whatever he is calling his blog today) called Our Strategy. XGH is an orthoprax Jew who likes Orthodox practices but accepts the DH and many other modern beliefs that, in one way or another, undermine traditional Orthodox beliefs. For the past few years, he has been taking widely disparate ideas and crashing them together in am intellectual Judaism-modernity supercollider, in the hopes of generating new super-particles ideas that might reconcile this conflict.

His most recent post sets out a broad program for what he is doing. In short, it is an attempt to bring in a more critical, open, and modern understanding of Judaism while at the same time keeping a more traditional orthoprax lifestyle. This is left-wing Modern Orthodoxy, with a bit of Reconstructionism thrown in.

I think he has identified the broad outlines of the future of American Judaism, and it is similar to the one that I (and Steve and Diane, I think) advocate, at least in very general terms. Here's why.

Some current RW Orthodox thinking requires shutting out some contemporary ideas, even if they are true or useful or powerful. Instead of dealing with these head-on, these thinkers and communities simply ignore them. This sort of head-in-the-sand approach might build communities, but the communities face the ever-present risk of being undermined as soon as people are exposed to contrary ideas. That works for a while, but it is no way to hold a community together in the long run.

At the other extreme, it is not clear to me that secular / cultural / non-halachic / non-traditional approaches to Judaism can survive as Judaism. These movements may end up doing much good, but by untethering themselves from the essential characteristics of Judaism, they risk drifting too far from anything that we might meaningfully think of as Judaism.

That leaves the broad middle. A type of Judaism dedicated that embraces the important and good aspects of modernity but remains "a people that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations" as last week's parsha put it. Taking halacha and tradition seriously, but retaining the flexibility to chance halacha when there is a compelling need. In short, a dedication to both tradition and change. Sound familiar?

It should. This is the same approach as the one advocated by Conservative Judaism in the first half of the 20th Century. That movement worked well in many respects and did not work well in other respects. Part of the problem with Conservative Judaism today, as people have noted, is that many lay people have very little understanding of, and thus little interest and involvement in, the greatness of traditional Judiasm. Reversing this is one of the challenges facing Conservative synagogues.

There is an open question as to whether this approach to Judaism will emerge as a more modern shift in Orthodox thinking or as a more traditional shift in Conservative practice. It may even come from the Reform movement if it could re-embrace halacha and tradition, and subordinate its radical individualism, in a serious way. But whereever it comes from, I think it is the future of American Judaism.

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