Why do British Jews suffer from Multiple Personality Syndrome?

We should reflect on how and why we have divided into different branches if we want to avoid further schisms in future


Close up image depicting a rear view of two Jewish men sitting together inside a synagogue. They have their heads bowed in prayer and they are wearing the traditional Jewish skull cap - otherwise known as a kippah or yarmulke - on their heads. Horizontal color image with copy space.

October 14, 2022 15:11

If one thing is certain about the Jewish community it is that consensus is notoriously hard to come by. Even humorously we take a certain perverse pride in the old joke about where there are two Jews there are three opinions. And let’s not get started on Israeli politics. Viewpoints, then, vary wildly. So wildly in fact that world Jewry itself, though seemingly having one body, can be understood as having a mind fragmented into multiple personalities.

As such, there are powerful views emanating from the religious right, modern orthodoxy, and the liberal left.

What lies at the heart of these differences is how the values of our ancient religion should be expressed; indeed, how religious practice itself should be expressed. Reflecting on our personal deeds within that religious framework over the High Holy Days, it is appropriate to also reflect on how we move forward as a unified faith without further schisms. To begin that process, the fragmentary dynamics at play should be considered.

Many of these dynamics, of course, are generated by external forces Jewry had little control over. It may be rooted in our collective consciousness, yet we never asked for the countless sufferings and repeated displacements experienced down the centuries. Nor is the associated outcome, the major split into Ashkenazim and Sephardim, one Jews ever planned for.

By contrast, fragmentation arises from social change. The Industrial Revolution, for example, initiated internal forces for transformation. From any need for conformity to the diktats of small-town Jewish life and religious pressure there was suddenly a release. Sholem Aleichem ably demonstrated this with his Eastern-European shtetl characters on which the musical Fiddler on the Roof was based (as the enlightenment advances, Tevye’s daughters, against tradition, want to choose their own husbands: “unheard of, absurd”, sings Tevya).

More recently, in her book Concealed, Esther Amini described the switch from life in oppressive Mashad in Iran to an open-minded America.

What our history shows is that once freedom gains a hold, and where subjugation no longer forces Jews together, there is space, and a questioning begins about how Jewish life should be led.

That is, though, also how Ashkenazi denominations develop: fragments, groups, manifesting as Reform, Liberal, Modern Orthodox, Conservadox, Masorti, etc. It furthermore reflects how (despite work by organisations like the Board of Deputies) parts of the Jewish whole lose the ability to communicate and divisions deepen. In their widespread survey the Washington-based Pew Research Center recently put it understatedly: “Members of different branches of American Judaism generally do not feel they have ‘a lot’ in common with one another.”

While the Ashkenazi “personality” may have fragmented over time, Sephardim, recognising their many geographic origins, have applied a different approach. As Lucian Gubbay stresses in Memorable Sephardi Voices, leniency in Jewish law where possible, alongside prayer and ritual observance, is the guiding principle in maintaining cohesion. It’s not perfection — some Sephardi communities still remain separatist. But it’s a different mindset, emphasising a “milder” outlook, and at the least has avoided multiple Sephardi denominations being created.

Alongside this general trend, and representing another fragmentation, are Charedi communities that have turned inwards. One extreme example is the insular Satmar community Kiryat Yoel in Upstate New York, portrayed by Nomi Stolzenberg and David Myers in American Shtetl. Such Chassidim (as well as other sects: Breslov, Chabad, and others included) shun mainstream culture, to varying degrees, in an effort to maintain their “purity” and combat attrition. Justifiable or not, how does traditionalist behaviour, generally, affect the larger Jewish body?

One outcome concerns the growth of Yeshivot; there appear to be more operating today than at any other time in Jewish history. It’s no bad thing to have large numbers learning. But exactly what are they learning in this increasingly right-wing atmosphere (Yeshivot in Gateshead, Baltimore, and Jerusalem, are examples)? And as graduates take up roles in formally more moderate institutions — schools, synagogues, Batai Dinim — what impact does that have? It barely comes under scrutiny.

To assume Torah learning cannot be subverted by ideology is surely wrong. And we see a consequence in the matter of get, where women can be penalised in divorce settlements. If halacha is interpreted in ways detrimental to people’s lives — indeed, turns them from Judaism — warning signs should go up like flares in the night.

The concern with a Charedi brand of Judaism becoming progressively dominant, however, shouldn’t be confused with the fact that right-wing thinking has a point when it comes to assimilation. For some Jews there is a relentless movement away from any of the community’s groups.

According to Pew’s findings (from which we can make rough assumptions about UK Jewry in the coming years), 41 per cent of US Jews identify with no branch of Judaism; even though, counterintuitively, 72 per cent partake in cultural activities like cooking Jewish foods. It’s unsurprising. We already know how some reject what they see as irrelevant Jewish rituals and practices altogether. Instead, they become Buddhist Jews (BuJews), or favour their own personal “spiritual” path (DIY Jews). Some may also become extremely left-wing. In several instances that has translated into attacking or demeaning Judaism. For example, saying Kaddish for Palestinian terrorists (activists did it in London during May 2018, and a group called IfNotNow in Los Angeles in May 2021). Others simply discard religion in any form, and thus their Judaism, in favour of atheism.

Pew’s research additionally shows that the non-orthodox intermarriage rate rose to 61 per cent. And irrespective of one’s position on Jewish lineage, the chance those couples’ children will have a non-Jewish spouse was 82 per cent compared to 34 per cent for individuals whose parents were both Jewish. Meanwhile, the average number of orthodox Jews across all age groups was only 9 per cent; by no means an encouraging figure — especially in light of the extensive efforts by the outreach (kiruv) movement.

Overall, Pew’s numbers highlight a cross-denominational lack of success in forging inclusivity or transmitting Jewish tradition down the generations. Social processes must be relevant to an individual, stressed philosopher Karl Popper. Yet there’s clearly a factor missing for making Judaism, let alone orthodox Judaism, attractive.

It’s a common long-term goal, perhaps? But should that be Israel, education (culture, Torah, etc), Tikun Olam or something else entirely? A focus has proven elusive.

For historian Jack Wertheimer of the Jewish Theological Seminary, there’s a deeper factor involved: the notion of “peoplehood”. More than having common cause, it’s about feeling part of something. And yet, when interests diminish — whether for Soviet-era Refuseniks, philanthropy (ie when charity donations reduce, such as during Covid), the building of Israel as a nation, or the maintenance of Holocaust memory — even those formally strong binds of “peoplehood” weaken, and communal identification suffers.

Inevitably, rabbis of different persuasions and various communal organisations attempt to address attrition. Any religious coercion aside, recent years have seen upsurges in school building and projects promoted to make Jews more knowledgeable and unified (eg Shabbat across America and Canada, Shabbat UK, the United Synagogue’s Tribe youth group, Moshe House, Limmud). But, given the statistics, is it stemming the tide?

Tackling the problem from another direction are movements focused on outreach such as Chabad, Breslov, and Aish Hatorah. Whether such outreach helps the community in advancing into the future or whether it draws (mostly young) Jews away from centrist orthodoxy, impacting that future, has, it seems, hardly been given a thought.

If Pew’s research is anything to go by, reflection is undoubtedly required. Indeed, as the pandemic recedes and Jews return to synagogues in something approaching their former numbers — to the pleasure of community rabbis — do we just go back to the way things were? Or should we be considering whether current attempts (and enough attempts) are in fact working to stop the fragmentation of Jewry into different personalities? And if not, why?

Dr Jonathan Myers CPsychol is an organisational psychologist and director of Psychonomics

October 14, 2022 15:11

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