A friend points out that the rate of attrition of American Jews is much higher than the standard estimates suggest. After a million Russian Jewish immigrants and perhaps half that number of Israelis, the numbers of American Jews remain static — which implies that a comparable number of American Jews have fallen off the radar. The sociologists employed by the American Jewish organizations, for all their pessimism, have not caught up with the implosion of the liberal wings of American Judaism. Orthodoxy (both Modern and haredi) is flourishing, but little else.
There still is a lot of wishful thinking out there. Today’s Jewish Ideas Daily leads with a defense of non-denominational Judaism, under the rubric, “Who Needs Denominations?” Author Yehudah Mirsky wonders whether the Reform and Conservative denominational structure makes sense in today’s world:
If one feature of modern life is the ascendance of reason and science as sources of knowledge and authority, another is expressiveness, the conviction that the truth is to be found in one’s own subjectivity and in the recesses of one’s own experience and passions. This impulse, helped along by new technologies and forms of organization that make for more diffuse structures of authority and belief, and by currents like feminism that link the expressive ideal with the demand for equality, has powerfully reworked all of contemporary religion. In Western societies today, even the most stringent form of traditionalism is chosen; if it does not find an echo in the subjective experience of the individual, it will not long endure.
In short, Rabbi Mirsky thinks that in the modern world every Jew will make up her or her own Judaism to suit “the subjective experience of the individual,” in a free-form sort of organization that allows for such things.
That is substantially what the Reform movement has been doing for years, as I wrote in the Feb. 2010 First Things. The Reform movement has lost a third of its members in the past decade. If you are looking for something the validates your subjective experience, there are lots of other things besides Judaism that will accommodate you. The founder of the ultra-liberal Jewish denomination of Reconstructionism, Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, was himself a Jew of traditional habits, who did not believe in God. The synagogue, he said, is where we say kaddish (act as mourners) for the religion of our fathers. An older generation of Jews felt obligation without believing; their children and grandchildren fall away from Judaism altogether.
Rabbi Mirsky adds,
Today’s American Jewish denominations are very much the products of their time and place and of the specific circumstances of American religious life as a whole, heavily shaped as that life has been by essentially Protestant nomenclature and modes of organization. Interestingly, the denominational structure is dramatically different from that prevailing in Israel or other places in the world. No less interestingly, the denomination registering the greatest current growth, or at least the greatest internal retention rate, is the one with the least centralized structure and the most thoroughgoing demands on the faithfulnamely, Orthodoxy.
Jewish denomination structure does indeed derive from Protestant nomenclature, because the liberal denominations are a response to liberal Protestantism in the first place. The founding premise of Reform Judaism is the abandonment of Election and the consequent messianic hope of restoration of the Temple. Conservative Judaism emerged from the German society “Wissenschaft des Judentums” (Science of Judaism) which wanted to keep the outer form of observance with a rationalist inner core. Both are shaped by Christian culture. And that is why neither has any purchase in Israel, where there are few Christians to whom to accommodate. For Israelis, the synagogue is simply normative, traditional Judaism; you go, or you don’t.