Sectors of American Judaism: Reform, Orthodoxy, Conservatism, and Reconstructionism

By Jacob Neusner | Go to book overview

20
A SOCIOLOGICAL ANALYSIS OF CONTEMPORARY ORTHODOXY

CHARLES S. LIEBMAN

Who in fact are the Orthodox Jews? One part of the answer concerns the social and economic groups in American Jewry sympathetic to Orthodoxy. Professor Liebman answers that question by asking another: Who is accessible to the power of the Orthodox position? The answer to that question, it is clear, is not wholly to be derived from sociological facts. At the same time we learn about those Jews, whom we have already met, who are so new to America as not yet to have divided themselves among the established social and cultural groupings, and who are so totally Jewish in upbringing and perspective as to render the inquiry of sociology peripheral and unimportant.

For Orthodoxy as a social phenomenon is less important than Orthodoxy as a religious state, and Orthodox communities are shaped around religious beliefs, rather than--or despite the power of--social position or economic status. Still, in the analysis of Orthodoxy itself, we are able to make important distinctions based upon the position of the Orthodox person in society. It is here that Liebman proves most illuminating.

At the same time he tells us about a group we should hardly have assumed to be Orthodox at all: Non-observant people who see themselves as Orthodox. They too constitute an important datum in the study of the religiosity of American Jews, especially since Reform and Conservative Judaism gain considerable strength from non-observant people of the same sort. Yet important numbers of superficially secular people continue to identify themselves as Orthodox, and that presents an important evidence on the vitality of the Orthodox alternative in Judaism.

American Orthodoxy, in contrast to almost all other groups in Jewish life, has, until most recently, lacked a degree of self-consciousness. This is not surprising. One of Orthodoxy's greatest sources of strength in the past has been in viewing itself as completely identified with all of Jewish history and tradition. Hence it saw no particular rea

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