Tuesday, April 7, 2009

I prefer Orthodox Quality to Orthodox Quantity (Derashah Shabbat Chol haMoed Pesach 5769)

The following is excerpted from "An Orthodox Ascendancy?" from March 24’s Jewish Week, by sociologist Steven Bayme:
On a family trip in the late 1950s to Hartford, Conn., a relative observed that nine new synagogues had opened in the city within the past year. Most were Conservative, some were Reform. When I queried whether any Orthodox synagogues had opened recently, my relative politely replied that Orthodoxy was entirely a matter of nostalgia and would soon go the way of the American buffalo.
In fact, the buffalo has made a remarkable comeback. At least equally remarkable has been the resurgence of Orthodox Judaism… Demographically, Orthodox Jews constitute at most 10 percent of the total U.S. Jewish population. Yet 23 percent of Jewish children are Orthodox, according to a United Jewish Communities report. Among affiliated Jewish homes 197,000 children are Reform, 153,000 are Conservative, and 228,000 are Orthodox. The smallest of the movements (Orthodox) contains 38 percent of the children of affiliated Jewish homes.

I can’t stand articles like that.

For one thing, this sort of coverage tends to lead Orthodox readers to a self-congratulatory triumphalism, an ugly brand of “We’re number one” which really means, when we look at the complete statistical picture, “We’re dying the slowest!”

There is no value to claiming ownership of the estate when the manor is burning; if Orthodoxy is to reign supreme because Conservative and Reform have lost more of their children to secularism than we have lost, then that is cause for klopping al cheit, not for raising fists in celebration.

But beyond disliking this triumphalist reaction, I fear that the entire sociological construct of evaluating success based upon numbers is misguided. It was wrong in the 1950s to think that we were weak because we were few, and it is equally wrong today to think that we are healthy because we are many.

I concede that we have always gauged Jewish health with numbers:
• The Torah is filled with censuses, countings and recountings of the tribes of Israel.
• HaShem’s earliest promises to our ancestors included, “ואעשך לגוי גדול,” “I will make you a large nation,” and “וארבה את זרעך כחול הים,” I will make your children as many as the sand at the sea, and the stars in the heavens.”
• In the Haggadah we trumpet the fact that we descended to Egypt במתי מעט, as a tiny tribe, and quickly multiplied under HaShem’s protection.

But numbers are neither the truth of a nation’s character, nor the certain foreteller of a nation’s future. Numbers are a statistic, a symptom to be deciphered one way or another depending upon the philosophical bent of the reader.

Just look at the great many foes who enslaved us and fought against us, and have disappeared; Egyptians and Babylonians, Greeks and Assyrians and Persians and Medes and Romans all had numbers on their side, and all have long since disappeared. Numbers did not help them.

And the same is true for the Jews, in the Torah; Gd explicitly declares that numbers do not influence victory:
• The prophet Gidon leads the Jews to war, and is told, counter-intuitively, to reduce his army, because not all of the soldiers are of good character.
• After the Golden Calf, HaShem tells Moshe He is ready to eradicate the entire nation, and begin again with Moshe alone.

How many are counted doesn’t matter nearly as much as who is counted, and what they are doing when they are counted.

Certainly, as we have noted, HaShem did set forth promises to Avraham and Sarah, pledging that their descendants would become many – but the point of the promise was that their descendants would be like them, would be future Avrahams and Sarahs. Being as numerous as the stars in the heavens and the sand at the sea is meaningful if we seek Gd as they did, if we serve as they did, if we spread Torah as they did.

Mishlei says, "ברב עם הדרת מלך, There is greater glory for Gd when a greater number of people serve Him" – but that’s because they are actually serving Him. The magic is not in the numbers, it’s in the service.

Thus, in the Beis haMikdash, the rituals were designed to include the maximum number of kohanim, because having large numbers of Jews involved in serving Gd would create greater glory; the Talmud actually tells of a muscleman kohen who wanted to carry multiple parts of the offerings himself, and the rest of the kohanim prevented it in order to involve more people. With many people performing Gd’s will, that is a number to celebrate.

When 20,000 Jews gather in Madison Square Garden and six times that number around the world to complete Daf Yomi, that’s something to celebrate. When we break records in the number of Jews enrolled in Jewish schools, the number of Jews who keep kosher, the number of Jews who put up mezuzot on every doorpost in their homes – those are the numbers that matter, those are the numbers that are the hope for a Jewish future.

From time to time, I am asked, “How many families do you have in the shul?” But I much prefer when people ask, “How many mispalilim do you have on Shabbos morning – and how many people are in shul at 9 AM?” “How many families use the mikvah?” “How many people come to shiurim on Shabbos afternoon, or Tuesday night, or weekday mornings, or Monday noon?” “How many people volunteer their time to keep the shul, the mikvah, the chevra kadisha, the LVKC, the Federation, up and running?” Those are the key questions for a community, those are the signs of spiritual health.

Steven Bayme’s article focusses on whether Orthodox Jews will take a constructive leadership role in the greater Jewish world, and he concludes, “The critical question… will be whether 21st-century Orthodoxy will be modern, open-minded, inclusive, and well-educated in both secular and religious realms.”

But before we ask whether the Orthodox can lead, or play nicely with others, let us ask whether the Orthodox can even survive. Numbers are interesting, but the picture they present is as incomplete today as it was in the 1950’s. When we know that our רב עם is הדרת מלך, that our great numbers are committed to the Divine mission, then we will know that our survival is assured.

1. There was a lot more I wanted to say on this, but it kept turning into a negative rant, which is bad form for a derashah. Also, it's for the third day of a three-day Yom Tov; time to keep it short and simple.

2. Gidon's troop reduction (Shoftim 7) was also to maximize the miracle, of course, but his method of reducing the troops is often understood as an attempt to weed out the inappropriate soldiers - see Rashi and Ralbag to Shoftim 7:5.

3. The principle of adding people to the service of Gd is found, among other places, in Pesachim 64b. The muscleman kohen is in Succah 52b.


  1. A though provoking derasha as usual. That's one thing I'll miss when you leave the pulpit rabbinate and head to Canada. Your derashot are aimed at the "everyman" rather than to the bais medrash bochur alone.

  2. Very nice. It makes me think about how good it is to make sure everyone at the seder gets a chance to participate - really participate - not just by eating the matzah and maror and listening, but by taking part in the telling.

    I hope you and your family have a wonderful Pesach.

  3. Well put. I prefer to think, too, that the question is less about which Jewish movement will dominate, but rather what it means for us to BE Jews. (It's always bothered me to hear the movements compete with each other and/or berate each other.)

    If the weather's nice enough, I still may walk over...

  4. Thanks, ProfK. I may continue to write derashot from time to time, because it's good exercise for me in a particular type of thinking. We'll see.

    Tzipporah - Thanks, and you and yours as well!

    Sorry we missed you...