If I could travel forward in time —maybe a hundred years — and encounter a random group of young Jews who could trace their origins back to a Jewish family living in the UK in 2019, one thing is more or less certain. The Jewish family that they traced their origins back to would be significantly more likely to have been strictly Orthodox than anything else.
The strictly Orthodox simply have much better demographic prospects than other denominations. Charedi women, on average, have between six and seven children. Non-Charedi women have fewer than two. The Charedi population remains a minority in the Jewish population overall, but within about a decade, half of all Jewish children born in this country will be born into Charedi homes. The UK Charedi population has been doubling in size roughly every two decades for some time now, and even though they are still some way from becoming the majority, they are clearly heading in that direction. And Charedi Judaism is “stickier” than other forms; people leave that part of the community of course, but they leave other parts of the community in higher proportions, typically travelling in a more religiously liberal or secular direction.
So, in many respects, Melanie Phillips (JC December 7) is right. What is happening in the Charedi parts of the Jewish world today is a kind of “Yavneh”: a focused attempt to rebuild the Jewish world in the aftermath of a tremendous moment of destruction, the Shoah, not wholly dissimilar to Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai’s efforts after the destruction of the Temple in 70CE. Yavneh 2.0 draws today on three essential principles: an unrelenting emphasis on the strictest interpretation of Jewish law; a clear separation from wider society and the dangers that exist there; and a determination to replenish the Jewish population by creating large Jewish families.
Non-Charedi forms of Judaism, including centrist Orthodoxy, simply don’t have the same demographic prospects. Numerous indicators show this, including ageing populations, higher rates of intermarriage, lower levels of Jewish social propinquity and weaker levels of Jewish practice. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to see which way the demographic winds are blowing.
But does that mean that tikkun olam — a Jewish form of social justice— is a fraud, as Phillips claims?
It’s certainly true that many non-Orthodox Jews understand an essential element of their Jewishness to be a commitment to social justice. Issues such as international development, climate change, immigration and racism have become key foci of many non-Orthodox programmes. It’s also empirically true that these types of issues resonate more strongly among non-Orthodox Jews than traditional ideas such as strict observance of kashrut or Shabbat. Thus Judaism is being transformed in the non-Orthodox world — it is becoming more universalist, more outward-looking, seeing many parts of the world aflame, and seeking to bring a greater sense of justice to it, whilst other more ethnocentric and halachic notions are toned down.
At the same time, the demographically advantaged Charedi world is becoming more particularist — shutting itself off from the wider world in many ways because of the dangers it sees lurking there. It emphasises collective self-preservation: ensuring that halachic Judaism protects itself at a time when the allure of modernity, with its passions for rampant individualism, wanton consumerism and instant gratification, are so great. But in so doing, its levels of engagement with the wider world are being conceded — the big issues that are so central in non-Orthodox circles are marginal at best.
Thus demographically, the Jewish world is becoming polarised into two increasingly hardline camps — the universalists and the particularists. But Judaism has long grappled with how to strike an appropriate balance between these two poles. Focusing too hard on one inevitably results in the downsides of the other. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” says Hillel. But then he adds: “If I am only for myself, what am I?”
Demography will run its course— its die is cast; there is little we can do to change that. But in the long-term, Judaism will be most successful when it figures out how to preserve its particularism whilst caring for society as a whole. That’s an extraordinarily difficult balance to strike, but to my mind, that has been our challenge since the days of Abraham: through us, through our particular ways of being, all the families of the earth should be blessed. If we fail to do that, what exactly is the point?
Jonathan Boyd is executive director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR)