As the United States was born, in Germany modern Judaism came into being. Moses Mendelssohn was the pioneer, leaving the shtetl to become a gentleman in the city. At the beginning of the 19th century Napoleon accepted Jews as fellow French citizens. Mendelssohn conceptualized and modeled the modern, Jewish educated man flourishing in Christian society, Under Napoleon, Jews established a new modus vivendi with Christians, reforming Judaism in return rewarded for full French citizenship and social standing.
With the enforced coziness of the shtetl community gone and with Judaism reconceptualized as open to its Christian neighbors, all modern Jews of the next generation were faced with a challenge: what does it mean to be Jewish? And how to be Jewish? These early 19th century Jews developed a new religious Jewish stye whose reforms were attuned to the Christian religion of their neighbors. Reform Judaism established synagogues in the style of Protestant churches. The architecture, mode of worship preaching, music and values of Jews were now consonant with their Christian neighbors. Like their neighbors, Jews developed a new reading of the past that elevated the Bible above post-Biblical Judaism.
This early Reform Judaism was the basis for all later Jewish modern movements in the US, including the traditionalist breakaway Conservative movement at the end of the 19th century.
Orthodoxy formed in response to and in repudiation of Reform Judaism and the modernity it represented. There was no Orthodoxy before Reform.
In the 19th century Jews prayed in “Jewish churches” a term that is both welcoming and dismissive at the same time.
In the late 20th century, the Jewish Renewal movement emerged with the expressed goal of creating a Judeo-Christian continuum. As with other Jewish movements (such as the formation of Reconstructionist Judaism half a century earlier) this new formulation was an articulation of the spirit of the times for Jews generally, across denominations.
The culmination of external and internal forces today have resulted in a Judeo-Christian sensibility in which it is now normative for Jews and Christians worship side by side, and often as families, in both churches and synagogues.
It is not uncommon for Christian clergy to co-officiate with rabbis at Jewish-Christian weddings.
There are obvious cultural and theological differences between Judaism and Christianity. Outside of Orthodoxy, traditional Jewish beliefs are not normative. In fact, to be a modern Jew means to reject the traditional beliefs that were dogma for many centuries. And the majority of Jews don’t believe in the Reform Movement’s 19th century formulations of dogma — which has been rewritten several times since. In fact, most Jews are all but atheist in belief as successive Pew polls attest. Jews have atheist synagogues and atheist rabbis and these are in good standing in the Jewish establishment.
The Synagogue Crisis
In 2023, synagogues are closing at an increasingly rapid rate and new ones are not opening in any significant way. And the synagogues that are still standing are empty, and increasingly so. It has long been the case that the remaining synagogue members Jews express their support by being members, not by attending services. Jews don’t pray.
Given this well-documented lack of religiosity in practice and atheism in belief what defines Judaism today?
Christianity and Anti-Semitism
In the United States, Christianity is the hegemon. This may be invisible to Christians but is almost tangible to non-Christians. In fact, if you are not sure if you are a Christian or not, ask yourself if you feel the United States is a Christian country. If you answer “no” that is a pretty clear indicator that you are a Christian. A fish doesn’t know it is swimming in water. What other reality can there be for a fish?
Jews carry ancestral memories of centuries and generations of Christian persecution. The recent revival of ancient horrors such as the Easter pogrom (Poway, CA 2019) and synagogue massacres (Pittsburg, PA, 2018), as well as the Christian mob attack on the Capitol (January 6, 2021) and many other acts of Christian-inspired acts of violence, are a stark reminder that the Judeo-Christian time of redemption is not yet a reality.
What is most concerning is that liberal and cultural Christians have not been as forthright as they should in denouncing Christian violence. The Christianity of the January 6 insurrectionists was scrubbed from the congressional investigation videos, a landmark University of Chicago analysis of the attackers’ motives failed to even ask the question about religious motivation (Dr. Robert Pape, 1/5/22). The mainstream reporting of the 2018 Pittsburg massacre — the worst attack on Jews in the United States — ignored the murderer’s explicit Christian motivation.
And so, even the most secular Jews will continue to be reminded of their Jewishness by their surroundings. And hence, there will be a continued for defined Jewish spaces, permitted by the Christian society.
The Future of Judaism
Orthodoxy is growing in numbers through their normative large, young families. If you are married by the time you are 20 and have 5–10 children and your children do the same it is no wonder that it is not uncommon today to live to see 1,000 living descendants.
In Chicago, the Reform and Conservative synagogues of post war period are being sold to Orthodox yeshivas and synagogues.
Christianity is also on the decline so the growing affinity of liberal Jews to liberal Christians won’t save liberal Judaism either.
What is to be done?
A Vision for Judaism
Famously, Jews love to study advanced academic studies. Moses Mendelssohn charted this path. Unlike the prominent Jews of Andalusia over half a millennium earlier who made their mark in Muslim society as physicians, statesmen and even military leaders, the path to acceptance in Christian Europe ran through the university.
Jews love to study Jewish studies. Look at the explosion in academic Jewish studies.
But this also works on a popular level. Orthodoxy was decimated in the Holocaust. For example, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, Lubavitch was reduced to the rebbe and several dozen followers. Today it has grown to be a global force with tens of thousands of adherents.
At the center of the Orthodox lifestyle and practice is the yeshiva. Torah study. You don’t have to believe in everything to be an Orthodox Jew in good standing but you do need to have spent time in rigorous Torah study in yeshiva. And this has expanded to the Daf Yomi, a significant commitment to study a double page of the Talmud every day of the week. No time off. The Talmud is extraordinarily difficult to understand. It was written in Jewish Babylonian Aramaic some 1,800 years ago as the protocol of arcane and highly technical discussion about Jewish law. And yet, Daf Yomi is widely popular attracting tens of thousands of committed students.
I believe that as synagogues continue to decline, rigorous Jewish study is the model for future Judaism. And there is evidence that this is already working. The unexpected success of the Chicago-based Svara Talmud institute is evidence that committed Jewish study works for non-Orthodox Jews too.