The Vanishing Non-Observant Orthodox Jew? A Reply to Zev Eleff

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Matt Williams

Zev Eleff’s “The Vanishing Non-Observant Orthodox Jew” takes its cue and a piece of its title from an infamous 1964 Look Magazine cover story “The Vanishing American Jew.” The writer, Thomas B. Morgan, a senior editor at the time, argued that due to a loss of affiliation coupled with inter-marriage rising at an alarming rate, the Jewish community was set to see a major demographic downturn in the coming years.

This, of course, represented, at best, a distorted view—as sociologist Leonard Saxe has generously said—and, at worst, an ignorant one that both fed the public narrative of “an ever-dying people” and, even, influenced the creation of expensive, identity-driven policy projects based in nothing more than perception. This mythos is alive and well today—fifty-three years later—and, as the American Jewish community has fractured into an even greater amount of sub-movements and denominations since then (mirroring a general restructuring of American religious life since World War II), so too has this myth been dusted off and repurposed to do all sorts of “thought leadership” work.

Eleff’s piece, then, is a nice example of a fairly common tale. Though his gift for storytelling is evident and the little vignettes that he weaves throughout his larger argument are tremendously fun, the fact remains that though the term “Non-Observant Orthodox Jew” might be in decline in the rhetorical culture of Jewish-themed publications, from a sociological standpoint, that might not be the case at all. I’m not sure one can make an argument about a category disappearing without making the argument about who does and does not belong in it.

What does Eleff mean by non-Observant? Where are his lines drawn (lines that he knows have evolved drastically over the past few decades)? Where are the studies to support his claim? Where’s the data?

Indeed, the numbers we do have—despite historian Jeffrey Gurock’s metaphor of the winnow and chaff—point us in a different direction. The latest study that looks at American Jews broadly, the 2013 “A Portrait of American Jews” put together by the Pew Research Center, noted that a little less than four out of five Orthodox Jews value observing Jewish law (Essentials of Jewish Identity, page 57 of the Full Report) leaving over 20% of the Orthodox community ostensibly “non-Observant” (of course, here too we have a definitional problem).

Pew also found that the Orthodox community’s red lines—when it comes to the notion of Jews or Jewishness in general—were not as hard and fast as some might think. 75% believe that you can still be Jewish and work on Shabbat. 85% believe that you can still be Jewish if you’re strongly critical of Israel. 57% are still willing to include Jews who don’t believe in God. And, even 35% say that “a belief in Jesus Christ” does not eject you from the Jewish community (Essentials of Jewish Identity, p. 59 of the Full Report). While these numbers are all lower than the other denominations studied, they were still surprising for many observers of the community. Actually, the fact that I’ve introduced this dataset into the argument—one tangentially related to the “non-observant Orthodox Jew” but one that might give us a partial glimpse into how Orthodox Jews think about the nature of “non-observance”—speaks to the relative dearth of data on the subject at all. In other words, tangential—right now—might be the best we got.

Now, while it is true that Orthodox Jewish affiliation has seen attrition in the mid-to-late twentieth century and while that seems to no longer be the case, we really do not know why and, further, we really know nothing about the diversity of observance and belief among Orthodox Jews today. Even that attrition might itself, in this context, be overstated due to the lack of clarity around whether or not denominational movements are actually reflective of “observance” as a meaningful category. As Jay Lefkowitz pointed out in his 2014 essay “The Rise of Social Orthodoxy: A Personal Account,” observance itself is a tricky thing. Some observe in public and not in private. Some observe at home but not abroad. Some say they observe but don’t. Many observe out of social concerns or convenience as opposed to what they might define as real belief or commitment.

And, of course, many disagree about what constitutes observance. Additionally, what are we to make of Jews who are adopting observances (in various stages or forms of becoming ba’alei teshuva, becoming Orthodox)? What are we to make of Conservative Jews who identify as traditionally observant (“traditional” being, again, an incredibly complex and ill-defined term)? These questions are just a few that begin to describe just how fluid and complicated any attempt to define a block of “non-observant Orthodox Jews” must, in reality, be.

All of this is to say that we do not have the data to make the kinds of arguments that Eleff would like to make. For example, to hypothesize, let alone prove a causal relationship between the rising cost of day schools and attrition from the Jewish community would require not just a tremendous amount of research but also an upending of the implications of existing datasets. As Pew implies, attrition away from Orthodox Judaism is at an all-time low and yet, as reported by Avi Chai’s Day School Census, day school tuition increases every year. Eleff’s other claims of “saber-rattling” and “a loss of perspective” are also not subject to a critical, data-based mode of inquiry.

So, before we start talking about the “Vanishing Non-Observant Orthodox Jew” as a real thing instead of as some rhetorically dubious political category, let’s take a step back. Let’s acknowledge the complex historical legacies of such arguments, the distorted views they’ve often purported, and define our terms before we go and collect data, analyze it, and report those findings. Until then, we do not really know what is going on. We’re all peering through the proverbial keyhole trying to make sense of an elephant.

To put it a different way: compelling narratives do not always bear out in the data and religious myths don’t always turn out to be true. While political categories are often fun to debate in the ether, if we really do want to figure out whether or not there is actually a vanishing non-observant Orthodox Jewish community or a fracturing of observance within the Orthodox Jewish community or the growth of a large, parallel ex-Orthodox community, then we’ve got some work to do.