Beliefnet
Excerpted by permission from "Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry" by Sam Freedman, published by Simon & Schuster.

In the struggle for the soul of American Jewry, the Orthodox model has triumphed. To say this is not to say the Orthodox themselves have prevailed, or that only the Orthodox denomination will survive on these shores. But the portion of American Jewry that will flourish in the future--and is flourishing already against a backdrop of ever more complete assimilation--is the portion that has accepted the central premise of Orthodoxy that religion defines Jewish identity.

The Orthodox model could not have won unless America, too, had won, for the victory of religion was made possible by the demise of secular Judaism. I use the word "demise" instead of "defeat" because Jewish secularism was not slain as much as it was loved to death. America made a promise to Jewish immigrants, and to its enduring grandeur as a nation it kept that promise. It welcomed history's wanderers into a greater whole. It absorbed the wonders Jewish culture had to offer. But once intermarriage is rampant, once bagels outsell doughnuts, once "Seinfeld" is a hit even in Boise, then Jewishness as ethnicity, as folk culture, as something separate and divisible from religion, is ceasing to exist in any meaningful way.

From the time massive Jewish immigration to America began in the late 19th century, religious Jews feared that the new land would undermine their faith. Instead, we see now, it undermined faithlessness. When the sociologist Steven M. Cohen probed the basis of Jewish identity in the late '90s, he discovered that religious practice had remained constant, even risen slightly, among Jews over the last half century. What had plummeted was almost every measure of Jewish ethnicity--friendships with fellow Jews, attachment to Israel, membership in Jewish institutions, commitment to social justice. Except for religion, Jews had little to hold onto that made them feel like Jews.

As a jazz fan, I might offer an analogy. From the late 1900s through the 1970s, jazz was revolutionized by waves of innovation, modal jazz replaced bebop, free jazz replaced modal. In the process, every rule of melody, harmony, and rhythm was shattered. And then, looking up from the wreckage, musicians realized there was nothing left to rebel against. They could only turn in one direction: to the past, to the tradition.

The same understanding is now shaping American Judaism, and the evidence of it abounds. The rancor between the denominations, genuinely bitter as it is, has obscured a different kind of dividing line--between the core of American Jewry oriented around religion and a periphery clinging to the eroding remnants of ethnicity. The Orthodox model is, in some ways, the rebellion of that fraction of American Jews who worship on a regular basis against the vast majority who show up only for the High Holy Days or a Passover seder or send out one of those popular new online holiday cards featuring Santa Claus and a menorah.

American Jewry's core announced itself in 1996 with the release of "A Statement on the Jewish Future," the product of a leadership conference convened by the American Jewish Committee. The statement placed Torah atop a list of five "fundamental values" for Jewish continuity, while omitting the concept of tikkun olam, healing the world with social justice. It endorsed a kind of internal evangelism to moderately active Jews while discounting outreach to most intermarried couples and disparaging "inclusivity [that] runs the risk of degenerating into a vague universalism." Most important, the statement carried the endorsement of 30 rabbis, scholars, and communal leaders, running the gamut from Reform to Modern Orthodox, from feminists to Yiddishists.

Throughout the late '90s, both the Reform and Conservative movements embraced traditionalism in a series of major actions. The Conservative branch mounted a program for laity to read a chapter of the Bible every day in an obvious parallel to the Orthodox system of reading the Talmud daf yomi, a page a day. In policies of greater symbolic than actual impact, the movement also barred intermarried people as Hebrew school teachers and banned children who are not halakically [according to Jewish law] Jewish from its Ramah summer camps.

The Central Conference of American Rabbis, the association of Reform clergy, adopted a platform that reversed the branch's historical contempt for ritual and religious law by commending "the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot [commandments]." Over months of acrimonious internal debate, it is true, the platform was watered down and its title changed from the provocative "Ten Principles" to the pallid "Statement of Principles." However diluted, it stood at a vast remove from the Reform movement's original dismissal of much rabbinic law as "altogether foreign" to a "progressive and rational religion."

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