Browsing Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan’s new book Contemporary American Judaism, I note a great deal of ritual acknowledgement of “Jewish diversity” and not a word about Jewish fertility. That is a deadly flaw, for the sort of Judaism the author espouses will disappear if only because it does not motivate Jewish women to have children.
The book is subtitled, “Transformation and Renewal,” and argues in Humpty-Dumptian fashion that Judaism is anything that Jews say that it is. Rabbi Kaplan writes:
...Orthodox Jews are holding to an essentialist definition. Those who do believe that there is an essence to Judaism believe that is therefore possible to speak of “normative Judaism,” which posits that there is one long unbroken chain of tradition that the heterodox (the non-Orthodox) have deviated from...While an essentialist definition would be useful, it does not reflect the reality of Jewish religious diversity. Some of the new Jewish religious philosophies and approaches developed over the last two hundred years denied that the Jews were God’s chosen people, rejected the obligatory nature of Jewish law, and, in a few cases, abandoned the belief in God entirely.
Kaplan’s enthusiasm for “Jewish religious diversity” would be more convincing if the “new Jewish religious philosophies” were attached to people likely to remain Jewish for more than a generation or two. Secular Judaism is a self-correcting oxymoron, for the simple reason that secular Jews have few children (1.2 per female by one estimate) and most of these children intermarry — so that one generation hence the present cohort of secular Jews will disappear.
What of the liberal Jewish denominations? As Matthew Wagner reported in Jewish Week last May 10,
The National Jewish Population Survey of 2001 found that of the 46 percent of US Jewish households belonging to a synagogue, 33% were affiliated with a Conservative synagogue, a 10% fall from the 1990 survey. In contrast, the Reform Movement was up from 35% to 38% and Orthodox Jews rose from 16% to 22%. Two percent were affiliated with the Reconstructionist Movement and 5% with “other types” of synagogues.
As Yeshiva University’s Chancellor Norman Lamm observed, the Reform got an artificial boost by counting children of non-Jewish mothers in their ranks. More important is that the Orthodox are having most of the children. As Steven Bayme wrote recently in Jewish Week,
Demographically, Orthodox Jews constitute at most 10 percent of the total U.S. Jewish population. Yet 23 percent of Jewish children are Orthodox, according to a United Jewish Communities report. Among affiliated Jewish homes 197,000 children are Reform, 153,000 are Conservative, and 228,000 are Orthodox. The smallest of the movements (Orthodox) contains 38 percent of the children of affiliated Jewish homes.
Secular and Reform Jews have 1.2 to 1.5 children per family, according to most estimates, while modern Orthodox families have 3.3 to 3.5 by different estimates, and Haredi familes have 6.6 children.
No theological argument will persuade Rabbi Kaplan that such a thing as “normative Judaism” exists. No matter. Like Israel wandering in the desert during the forty years after the Exodus, there isn’t much to do but to wait for the old generation to die. Forty years from now Rabbi Kaplan as well as the great majority of the Reform movement will be dead, along with most self-identified secular Jews. By that time there will be an Orthodox majority. Is that normative enough for you?
Patience, patience. I know it’s a bad habit, but I can’t help looking at my watch.