The Orthodox Question


As I headed to Israel from the US, I happened to take a United flight that leaves on Saturday afternoon. Because it left before the end of shabbat (the Jewish sabbath) on Saturday evening, the flight was devoid of outwardly observant Jews – no kippot, no long beards, no long black coats. No one held a minyan at the back of the plane.

I found this image particularly striking because it was at odds with something else I had on my mind, Dov Waxman’s recent op-ed in Ha’aretz. Waxman highlighted recent survey data on Jews in NYC that shows Orthodox Jews form an increasing proportion of the New York area’s 1.5 million Jews.
Waxman’s writing was focused upon the Jewish angle. He noted that such a demographic change might mean the end of broad Jewish connections to liberalism and the Democratic party.
I wonder, however, about another dimension of the issue: how the growth of Jewish fundamentalism (for lack of a better word) is embedded within a larger religious turn of the last forty years.  US Christianity has seen the rapid growth of evangelicals (which has its own meaning for the US-Israeli relationship). Hindusim and Islam have also witnessed a return to tradition or, to put it another way, increasing levels of individual observance and piety.
This was hardly expected in the immediate post-WWII era when, some thought, modernity would usher religion into the historical dustbin. Who needs God when we have technology and economic development?
Yet for whatever reason, it turns out many people did want faith (As a refuge from the alienating and isolating aspects of modernity? As part of a search for community? As proof of the resilience of ascriptive characteristics? In response to the failure of economic and social efforts in many countries?) The result has been a global resurgence of religion.
But so what if many religions experienced such a turn? I think it matters because Waxman’s portrayal of Judaism in the future is dependent on the continuation of this trend. However, what if factors beyond Judaism that affect all religions shift and religion writ large changes direction yet again? In other words, I find Waxman’s portrait of the future plausible. I think it is fair to argue it is the most likely scenario. That said, I think it is important to consider the fact that it could be re-directed by global trends of which we are not yet aware.

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