A couple of weeks ago I read a Slate article on a new book, The Chosen Few. According to the review, the book's authors argue that after the Roman destruction of the Second Temple, the Rabbis/Pharisees came to dominate the Jewish scene, and their emphasis on education set an economic bar that few Jewish families could match. As a result, many Jewish families simply opted out, and so the Jewish population underwent a major reduction over the ensuing several centuries.
It's an interesting thesis, although I'd need to read the book to evaluate it; I certainly have questions about it. But my point tonight isn't this particular case; rather, it's the idea that a rabbi, or a group of rabbis, could make a demand which would cause people to leave Judaism en masse.
Jewish history seems to indicate otherwise; long before the modern "create your own Judaism" age, groups which were uncomfortable with a particular definition of the religion simply went their own way, taking the name of Judaism with them: Chasidim, Sabbateans, Kabbalists, Rationalists, Karaites, and so on... No one has ever successfully trademarked the word Judaism.
Look at the push for education today. For the past 10-15 years, those in the Orthodox would who have felt that the institutional insistence upon Jewish day school education is too much have not filed for visas to flee Orthodoxy, much less Judaism. Rather, they have created their own models - charter schools, half-day schools modeled on the Talmud Torah system, on-line schools, and so on. [I expect that this will only grow with the toll from Hurricane Sandy; I can't imagine how Long Island schools will respond to the many, many families who had once been full-pay, who will not be able to afford it for next year.]
The same is true in kashrut, where rabbis and kashrut organizations insist on a standard [bug-checking, quinoa, cholov yisroel, pas yisroel] which many Orthodox families resent, and even oppose outright. None of them are ceding ownership of Judaism, though; far from it, they accuse the rabbis of inventing a new religion.
Ditto for the many other elements which are often characterized as a "shift to the right" - black hats, no mixed dancing, and so on. Are any of the condemned practitioners (much less a majority) saying, "You can keep your Judaism, I'm leaving?"
And as I said before - this obstinacy is not new. We have many historical examples of Jews defining Judaism as they chose, and ignoring those who defined it differently.
So I have a hard time believing that rabbis have been able to define Judaism against the opposition of the population - certainly if that opposing population was as large a percentage as the authors of The Chosen Few contend.
What do you think?