Maran zt"l

If the present torrent of articles and retrospectives about Maran Ovadia Yosef continues for another year, we will still not have anything close to a full picture of the man. They will still be writing about him in a thousand years.

Some of the articles have been excellent. Some less so. Most at least granted that his enduring greatness was in the realm of Torah and halakha, and while they did not ignore his notorious outbursts, they saw it as part of a much greater whole. My own attempt to capture what I can in 800 words will appear in this week's Jewish Week. As an organizing device, I look at three distinct meanings of the term "ga'on" and apply each of them to Maran.

The crush of people at the levaya was suffocating, the eulogizers were barely audible from where I was, cell service in Ge'ulah was not quite ready for half a million people, many of whom were taking pictures, etc. Yet I am glad I could go and I'm glad my son Rafi (9) was able to come with me. It was a lesson in kevod ha-Torah that we may never see the likes of again. That is why I wanted my son to be there with me.

Last I spoke to Rav Benny Lau, we were trying to convince a publisher to commit to a translation of R. Benny's biblio-biography of Rav Ovadia, Mi-Maran ad Maran. The publisher's concern is that there will not be much of an audience in English. I'm considering launching a kickstarter campaign to raise the money for the project. Would you buy the book? Would you contribute to the campaign?


Ironic Orthodoxy and Other Notes on the Pew Study

Several years ago, I posited the existence of an emerging group that I called "Ironic Orthodox." I characterized this group as being quite comfortable within Orthodoxy, but largely non-ideological, even skeptical of systematic ideologies. Later, I posited that this group tends to welcome non-observant Jews into their communities without judging and without a hidden kiruv agenda. I noted that this could be discerned a little bit among members of my generation (I was born in 1976) but to a greater degree among those who came of age after the turn of the millennium. That is, my wife and I noticed that this type of attitude was more typical of our students than our peers.

I think the data contained in the new Pew study bears this out. This has to be qualified by a caveat. Whereas the overall snapshot of American Judaism is large enough to be statistically meaningful, once we start looking at cross sections like Modern Orthodox Jews between the ages of 30 and 49, the sample sizes become much, much smaller and their predictive value wanes significantly. Only 154 Modern Orthodox Jews (the segment I'm most interested in, for obvious reasons) TOTAL were surveyed, further divided into 4 age cohorts. Unsurprisingly, the largest margins of error pertain to the Orthodox (p. 119 of the study). Some of the results simply scream "small sample size." So I'm taking a lot of these observations with a grain of salt, especially when broken down by age cohort.

If you haven't yet seen Alan Brill's observations on the study, that's the place to start. A good part of his discussion centers on the graph about Orthodox retention rates:
A lot of hay is being made from the increase in retention rates (though some are simply looking at Orthodoxy's 48% retention rate as a static figure). From 22% retention among the Jews of the Silent Generation to 83% among GenY/Z. As the survey (and BZ) notes, it's possible that this doesn't reflect a generational shift but a steady attrition rate from Orthodoxy throughout life. And yet, I find it difficult to believe that 19% of dropouts from Orthodoxy leave after they turn 65.

The more significant data comes from what lies below the top line (and hopefully Pew will give us the tools to drill down even more specifically). Forget about the % of dropouts and look at where they went. Specifically, look at whether they joined another denomination, or became "non" (non-denominational, non-religious, or non-Jewish). Among those age 65+, a solid majority (58%) joined another denomination. 19% went "non." In subsequent generations, you have something of an ebb and flow with regard to becoming "non" - 32% of Boomers, 26% of GenXers, and 16% of Millennials. I can't really explain the spike in conversion out of Judaism amongst ex-Orthodox Boomers or the spike in non-denominational affiliation among ex-Orthodox GenXers (when nobody left Judaism completely, apparently). It's strange and non-linear, and I suspect that it is statistical noise.

When it comes to joining other denominations, though, the decline is linear and consistent. And astounding. From 58% among the Silents to 28% of Boomers to 17% of GenXers to 1% of Millennials. You want to know why the ranks of Conservative Judaism are shrinking, it's because they are no longer picking up Orthodox dropouts in any significant numbers. This passes the eye-test as well. I was a college campus rabbi at the school that gets more day school grads than any other outside of New York. I know plenty of Orthodox dropouts, and very few of them joined other denominations.

Orthodox retention does not necessarily imply greater observance among young Orthodox Jews. Rather, as I speculated in the aforementioned posts, Orthodox Jews who leave observance are remaining, by and large, within the Orthodox orbit. They are the analogue of the Israeli datlashim who, as the saying goes, "want their kids to be ex-Orthodox like them."

We would thus expect that younger Orthodox-raised Jews, though more likely to remain Orthodox, are less religiously observant than their parents. Unfortunately, there were very few specific questions about religious practice, and what we have is not segmented by age and denomination (hopefully they'll publish tools to rectify that), so it is impossible to prove my hypothesis. The closest we get is 17% of Modern Orthodox saying they do not keep a kosher home (that is well beyond "eat fish out" Orthodoxy) and 19% handling money. [While it's a neat theory, I do not accept BZ's contention that this jarring statistic about money on Shabbat is the result of misunderstanding the question, which contained a double negative. 19% of Modern Orthodox answered the question thus, and Modern Orthodoxy is the best-educated segment of the Jewish population according to the survey.]

This increase in Orthodox non-observance is not an anomaly. Outside of the US, Canada, and perhaps Argentina, Orthodoxy is the default expression of Judaism, and a wide spectrum of observance is tolerated and expected. It was the norm in the US as well until the post-WWII migration to suburbia. I believe we are witnessing the beginning of a shift back to an American Orthodoxy that tolerates non-observance. It does not bode well for other denominations.

Some other notes on the study:
  • Modern Orthodoxy has emerged as an elitist movement. It accounts for 3% of American Judaism, but it is the best-educated and has the highest percentage of high-income earners. Its adherents are most likely to understand that Judaism is BOTH ethnicity AND religion (a more sophisticated and correct understanding of the reality). No group puts more of a premium on ethical life, intellectual curiosity, Israel, or community. In the aggregate, Modern Orthodox espouses more "essentials" of Jewish identity than any other segment, and it is not even that close. It is clear that a multiplicity of emphases and core values is characteristic of Modern Orthodoxy (p. 57). As we know, it is hard to balance so many essential values. So you might expect this segment to be small but high-achieving. This, of course, is a double-edged sword.
  • There were a few cases where the question and the analysis are incompatible. For example, there was a series of questions to the effect of, "Are you still Jewish if you X?" In the analysis, it was posited as "is being Jewish compatible with X?" These questions only make sense if you presume Judaism to be a religion, not an ethnic/national/cultural identity. Obviously belief in Jesus is incompatible with being Jewish in the religious sense, but one who believes in Jesus can still be a Jew. These questions are thus simply restatements of the question about whether Judaism is a religion or a culture.
  • Thus, Ultra-Orthodoxy, the segment most likely to view Judaism solely as a religion, deviates from everyone else when it comes to "work on Shabbat" being incompatible with being Jewish. Ultra-Orthodox seem to be most willing to consider someone non-Jewish for a particular belief or practice. Interestingly, Ultra-Orthodoxy has highest % of those who say being critical of Israel is incompatible with being Jewish. (Ultra-Orthodoxy and Reform have a similar % on that question, as do Modern Orthodoxy and Conservative). That said, the two segments of Orthodox Jews are most likely to think that believing Jesus is the Messiah is compatible with being Jewish. So even within Ultra-Orthodoxy you have a significant number who believe that a Jew is a Jew is a Jew (Yisrael af al pi she-chata).
  • Another confusion exists where a question asks about denominational identification, but the results and analysis speak of affiliation. Identification and affiliation are very different things. As BZ points out, there are lots of people who identify as Reform Jews who do not affiliate with Reform institutions. I would contend that there are also significant numbers of people who affiliate with Orthodox institutions who do not consider themselves Orthodox Jews. In fact, the term Orthodox is an exonym, as internally we talk about "frum" and "Shomer Shabbos." That is, orthodoxy does not view itself as a denomination (and I suspect that some of the non-denominational "just Jews" in the survey are frum). There's a lot more to say about identity vs. affiliation (particularly, I can affiliate without pigeonholing my "identity"). Perhaps another time, when I can convince someone to pay me for writing about it.
  • Jews of no religion are consistently called secular and cultural Jews. These categories exist, but I think that most of these folk are ethnic Jews. Ethnicity implies both culture and lineage, and is a good descriptor of what many American Jews are.
  • Time for a fast break of interesting tidbits gleaned from the study:
    • Only MO truly believes that the Israeli government is making sincere peace overtures.
    • There are an estimated 5.7 million halakhic Jews in the US, of whom 4.4 million identify as Jewish.
    • On a related note, there are twice as many out-converts as in-converts. Such is the life of a minority culture. 
    • Among Jews age 50 and under, Orthodox and Conservative are virtually neck and neck in terms of numbers. Among Jews over 50, there are three times as many Conservative Jews as there are Orthodox Jews. 
    • The growth of Orthodoxy is attributable almost entirely to the growth of Ultra-Orthodoxy.
    • Only 1% of Jews in their 20s are Modern Orthodoxy.That doesn't make sense. Small sample size, I suppose.
    • More Christians than Conservative Jews believe that God gave Israel to the Jewish people. It's close, though. Reform is not close.
    • College attendance doesn't significantly correlate with attitudes toward Israel. So much for that myth. 
    • For Modern Orthodox, the most widely accepted essentials of Jewish identity are, in descending order: Ethical life, Israel, Jewish law, Holocaust, community, justice/equality, intellectual curiosity, food, sense of humor.
      For Ultra-Orthodox: Jewish law, ethical life, community, Holocaust, food, justice/equality, Israel, humor, intellectual curiosity. The biggest difference is that Ultra Orthodoxy bumps Israel down and bumps food up.
    • 2/3 of Ultra Orthodox say they can converse in Hebrew. Not buying it.
    • Orthodoxy outpaces others in terms of donations, memberships, Hebrew literacy, education, etc. No surprises there.
    • In favor of accepting homosexuality: Ultra Orthodox: 20%, Modern Orthodox:  50%, Conservative: 80%. Those numbers work out pretty neatly.
    • 81% of Modern Orthodox Jews attend religious services at least monthly, as opposed to 71% of Ultra Orthodox Jews. That's because, as every frum Jew knows, Ultra Orthodox women tend not to go to shul.
    • Roughly the same percentage of Modern Orthodox, Ultra Orthodox, and Reform Jews attended non-Jewish religious services last year. But when it comes to Christmas trees, 4% of Orthodox have them, (really?) and 30% of Reform.
    • More Jews by religion (43%) thnk humor is important than Jews of no religion. Is it possible they were joking?