American Orthodoxy

The Vanishing Non-Observant Orthodox Jew

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Zev Eleff

In November 1972, journalist Israel Shenker introduced The New York Times’ readers to the “Non-Observant Orthodox.” He had invoked the curious creature on Harry Wolfson’s eighty-fifth birthday. Harvard’s pioneering Jewish philosopher, Wolfson had for a long while preferred this taxonomical designation over “irreligious” or “secular.” Several years later, Wolfson died. The moniker, then, gained much more notoriety, making its way into a host of obituaries and eulogies for the late scholar. The term piqued several astonished observers. One declared the label “clever” but mind boggling, opining that it “did not make much sense.”

After all, this writer reckoned, how could someone identify as “Orthodox” and flout Halakhah? Halakhic obedience and Orthodox Judaism, it seemed, were synonyms. Isn’t that what so many consider this relationship today?

Decades ago, however, Orthodox Jews, were not at all befuddled. In these American sectors, it was well-known that Orthodox life and Jewish law could be decoupled, no philosophical apologetics needed. This sort of sociological separation yielded a variegated Orthodox profile.

So this category gained much more than a mere foothold. The Non-Observant Orthodox Jew emerged as an indispensable member of the Orthodox community, supporting its institutions and preempting those who would have preferred more rigid definitions for Orthodox Jews. True, the Non-Observant Orthodox Jew was by and large removed from Orthodox Judaism’s inner circle, but was also far from being an “outsider” in this community.

For a variety of reasons, many Orthodox Jews, mostly originating from Eastern Europe, did not remain steadfastly religiously observant. Those who did were in the distinct minority. For instance, the philanthropist Harry Fischel described the economic situation on New York’s Lower East Side during the final decades of the nineteenth century. Fischel refused to work on Saturdays, believing that God would make it all work out for the Russian émigré. In contrast to Fischel’s punctiliousness—and one recent attempt at deceptive retrospect—most Orthodox Jews honored the Sabbath and other dictates in the breach, hoping that their sacrifices would yield the financial wherewithal to observe more holy days in the future. Or, at least provide a more stable upbringing for their children who would dutifully obey their parents’ dictum: “Do as I say, not as I do.”

In the main, this group started out committed to their social and cultural allegiances to Orthodox Judaism. A case in point is a series of depositions that took place in the Law Offices of Stanley, Horwitz & Kiefer of Cleveland, Ohio. In September 1929, the law firm deposed ten card-carrying Orthodox Jews, all of whom were terribly saddened that the Cleveland Jewish Center had voted to adopt the rules and regulations of Conservative Judaism, even if it was not always too clear what in those interwar years constituted “Conservativism” and what stood for “Orthodoxy.” More than anything else, these disgruntled men were opposed to mixed seating in the synagogue. Most of the congregation was in favor of the change, however; a decision that led the minority group to sue because the congregation’s constitution guaranteed the upkeep of Orthodox Judaism.

Stanley, Horwitz & Kiefer knew just how to attack the situation, to the benefit of their clients, the Conservative defendants. They asked each member of the Orthodox plaintiff party whether he “engages in no kinds of business on Saturdays?” And, whether he shaves with a razor blade? Sure enough, some representing the Orthodox opposition worked on Saturday, explaining that their Sabbath desecration was a matter of economic survival. Moreover, these Jewish Clevelander testified that their inability to live up to halakhic expectations did not mean that they were willing to surrender the Orthodox character of their synagogue.

Similarly, an “Orthodox” real estate wheeler-and-dealer did not see much of a contradiction for his bold support of Orthodox Judaism in Cleveland and his daily abuse of the Torah’s proscription against shaving with a razor blade. In this pre-electric shaver epoch, here is the lawyers’ back-and-forth with Mr. Charles Arnson:

Q: I notice you are smooth shaven. Do you shave?
A: I do, yes, sir.
Q: Is that contrary to the tenets of orthodoxy?
A: It is, but I came here when I was a boy about eleven years old. If I had come here about twenty years old I do not believe I would with the intentions I have now, I always had.
Q: But although it is contrary to the tenets of orthodoxy you do shave?
A: It is true. You see, in my line of business I cannot come in that way. I come amongst people.

Halakhah was not an all-or-nothing arrangement for this group of self-described Orthodox Jews. On the one hand, these men made no claim that they abided by all the strictures of Halakhah (although they did feel that the rabbi ought to sport an unimpeachable record). On the other hand, the laymen contended that this did not disqualify them from the ranks of the Orthodox. Certainly, they did not agree with the theological points of view of the Reform and Conservative rabbis that preached from pulpits and filled editorial columns in the Jewish press. True, they did not frequent the synagogue all that often, behavior that was closer in line with the non-Orthodox rank-and-file. But when they did make it, say, to recite kaddish or for a bar mitzvah, their choice was invariably the Orthodox variety.

Withal, the Non-Observant Orthodox Jew generally despised any suggestion that their religious conduct was in better accord with other branches of American Judaism, as their sympathies were most in line with the Orthodox. Consider, for instance, another of the Cleveland witnesses’ response to the razor blade question:

A: … Rabbi [Solomon] Goldman called me in his office and asked me why I object to men and women together; and he says “Why do you do that, Mr. Katz? You do shave.” I says, “Rabbi Goldman, if I do that, is that a sign that I have to do everything; that I have to break up my Judaism entirely.”
Q: So that you find it convenient to violate some of the laws?
A: No; it is not convenient at all. It hurts me like anything doing this violation.”

There was no threshold of observance to register as a part of this social class of Orthodox Jews. Some Non-Observant Orthodox didn’t do much more than fast on Yom Kippur and refrain from pork. Others did all that they could, when the economics permitted them that luxury. Some were intermarried, lived far away from the synagogue but drove the great distance to listen to their Orthodox rabbi sermonize, likely on the importance of halakhic observance. These and some other permutations hardly made much logical sense. Yet, the religious arithmetic somehow seemed to square for the Non-Observant Orthodox Jew.

For their more observant Orthodox counterparts, the presence of these “half-baked” Jews in synagogues and day schools registered as a sober reminder of the truest struggles facing their community. Their concerns focused not so much on figuring out the best interpretations of Jewish law. Instead, their attentions were drawn to solving the myriad of challenges and contradictions between their form of Judaism and their Americanized lifestyles.

The Non-Observant Orthodox Jew was therefore an all too familiar entity within this segment of American Jewry. He or she was a taxonomical type, like the “Modern Orthodox,” “Yeshivish,” and the “Hasidic” Jew. In the late-1950s, Rabbi Howard Levine authored an article entitled “The Non-Observant Orthodox” for the Rabbinical Council of America’s flagship journal. In all probability, the Stern College professor had borrowed the term from the sociologist Marshall Sklare, who had several years earlier coined the phrase to describe “someone heterodox in personal behavior but who, when occasionally joining in public worship, prefers to do so in accordance with traditional patterns.”

The Non-Observant Orthodox Jew gained further currency in the 1960s. The well-known scholar Charles Liebman analyzed the “Non-Observant Orthodox” in several papers, counting this type of Orthodox Jew among the most religiously “compartmentalized” and modernly “schizophrenic.” Meanwhile, Rabbis Joseph and Haskel Lookstein popularized the nomenclature on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, sensitized by their work at Ramaz School, no doubt. To them, the Non-Observant Jew was commonplace within the Orthodox scene, “not unlike the fellow who exceeds a speed limit for one reason or another.” In both cases, the offender, to carry out the analogy, does not dispute the “right of the city to impose [speed] limits” nor the “obligation of the police to enforce them.” For the Looksteins—Joseph, the father; Haskel, the son—and other Orthodox optimists, there was much ground to be gained through outreach to the Non-Observant Orthodox. This is how a friend of the elder Rabbi Lookstein recounted the latter’s statistical sentiments:

My good friend, the late Rabbi Joseph H. Lookstein, served for many years as professor of sociology at Yeshiva University. He once reported to me how he had analyzed the structure of American Jewry somewhat as follows. Total population, 5,000,000; affiliated with Reform Judaism, ¾ of a million; affiliated with Conservative Judaism, a million and a quarter. Hence, the remainder, 3,000,000, are Orthodox. Since, however, experience shows that many of these 3,000,000 are not always punctilious in observing the mitzvot, most of them belong to the category of “non-observant Orthodox.”

Not everyone shared in these sympathies. This religious miscreant was a particular pest to the bona fide Non-Orthodox. In the 1970s, a Reform rabbi in Los Angeles complained about the disrespect angled at his colleagues and congregations. The “NOOJ,” as he deridingly put it, denigrated the “so-called’ Reform ‘churches’ as well as their ‘so-called rabbis.’” This, he continued, even though the “home to which [the NOOJ’s] little girl returns from her Day School is void of [a] Jewish atmosphere, books and ritual.” The embittered California clergyman then summed up the Non-Observant Orthodox Jew’s attitudes with the following list of unpleasant descriptions:

1. He will refuse to use a prayer book in a non-“traditional” synagogue. He objects less to the Reform Union Prayer Book, “because everyone can see from the way it opens and no Hebrew in it that it’s not a siddur.” The Conservative siddur, he says, is seductive because it looks like “the real thing,” opening “the right way” and containing a lot of Hebrew.
2. He generously misquotes Hebrew texts disremembered from his childhood.
3. His reaction to reports of any and everything innovative is “gornisht mit gornisht.”
4. His blood pressure zooms at hearing or reading “Torah-true Judaism” and “Torah Yiddishkeit.”
5. He makes a non-person of a Conservative or Reform rabbi.
6. He has a congenital dislike of using the greetings of Shabbat Shalom and Hag Same’ah, believing that Gut Shabbes and Gut Yomtov are more authentic.

In addition, a certain class of Orthodox Jews did not accept the Non-Observant Orthodox Jew’s excuse, especially when it came to economics. They would have preferred these Jews find another line of work, one that did not force the Orthodox Jew to “come amongst people.” That Jews were barred from colleges and professional schools did not help matters, but this was not a sensible justification, at least to Orthodox Judaism’s most pious of people.

Still, even this group had to admit that the Non-Observant Orthodox Jew was a critical segment of the Orthodox communal infrastructure. In the 1950s, one astute observer noted matter-of-factly that “many parents of Day School children are non-observant. In many communities they even constitute the majority.” By sending their daughters and sons to the up-and-coming day schools, the Non-Observant Orthodox were—probably unbeknownst to them—ensuring that day schools remained viable and that tuition was kept at a reasonable rate. The same goes for Orthodox synagogue membership.

Friend and foe, then, acknowledged the existence of this breed of Orthodox Jew. The disparaging attributes of the Los Angeles-based rabbi notwithstanding, it was apparent that the Non-Observant Orthodox Jew was a fixture within American Jewish life. He or she could be singled out, made into a caricature like any other visible personality.

Today, the rising costs of day schools and synagogue maintenance has a good deal to do with this endangered sociological species. In most Ashkenazic locales, the Non-Observant Orthodox Jew has all but vanished (the phenomenon is still present among America’s Sephardim). Notwithstanding all the Orthodox outreach operations, the attrition greatly outpaced the recruits. In 1982, historian Henry Feingold figured that the “size of this group is undeterminable but it may be more than half of the one million American Jews who classify themselves as Orthodox.” That figure seems far too high, but no more sensible estimate exists.

In the postwar period, the ranks of the Non-Observant Orthodox had started to diminish. Why? Long ago, my teacher, historian Jeffrey Gurock, called it a “winnowing” process, propelled by the Non-Observant Orthodox Jew’s—“the infrequent Sabbath worshipper who drives to services on holy days but stealthily parks his car around the corner from shul as not to embarrass himself nor offend his more observant neighbors”—heartier embrace of the Conservative synagogue or, on the flipside, religious-disenchantment-cum-assimilation.

The winnowing revealed a very committed core. The removal of the religious “chaff” resulted in a smaller but stronger Orthodox Judaism, reinforced by a coterie of day school-educated women and men, a wave of immigration of ardently observant Holocaust survivors, and a general upswing in religious commitment in the United States.

The more homogeneous character of the Orthodox community has also contributed to an increasing sense of rigidity. No longer so varied and vague, Orthodox leaders have tended in the past few decades to pay more attention to what ought to count as “Orthodox” and patrol community borders. The Non-Observant Orthodox Jew has been eliminated from the lexicon. It wasn’t always that way, however. Not when Harry Wolfson and other self-described Non-Observant Orthodox Jews accounted for a very visible, official, and unexpectedly helpful portion of Orthodox Jewish life in the United States.

Zev Eleff is Chief Academic Officer of Hebrew Theological College and Associate Professor of History at Touro College. His most recent book is Authentically Orthodox: A Tradition-Bound Faith in American Life (Wayne State, 2020).