The crisis of liberal Judaism is bound up with the crisis of liberalism, about which there are many moving parts with long, deepening historical legs. That is to say, the crisis of liberal Judaism and liberal religion cannot be analyzed in isolation from larger social, cultural, economic, and political dynamics. And if there’s a lot of anomie and social disintegration out there, I’d see much of the cause on conservative ideas and policies, not liberal ones, even though liberalism tends to get stuck with too much of the blame. It is said that liberals value autonomy over everything, when it is conservatives who have, in fact, privatized everything, from the economy up through the culture as a whole. In other words, a big part of the crisis of liberalism is conservativism.
The extra-Jewish and intra-Jewish dynamics relating to the crisis of liberal Judaism would include:
–The failure of the liberal establishment in the 1960s and 1970s to contain the damage wrought by the war in Vietnam, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. Unable to project its core values or to protect its members, the liberal establishment earned the contempt of the youth generation. (This would probably include as well the Jewish liberal establishment, whose leaders began to lose their hold on a younger generation).
–The radicalization of the New Left, plus the success of Civil Rights legislation provoked the furious rightwing reaction that kept Republicans in practically undisputed control of the White House up until the Clinton and Obama administrations. The composition of the Supreme Court is part of this Republican hegemony.
–30 years of Reaganomics, the withering of the public sphere and public sphere institutions, the withering of the civic sphere and civic sphere institutions, and the privatization of culture and cultural values, all accelerated by the technological innovation, especially in a now unfettered financial sector. (See here the increasing power of private money in the creation of new [conservative] Jewish culture).
–Intensified rhetorics and politics of fear and loathing in the general American public after 9/11, and the intensification of same among Jews in relation to the 2nd Palestinian Intifadah, the shelling of southern Israeli towns after the Israeli withdrawl of settlements from Gaza, the rise of Hamas, and fears surrounding Islam in the wake of the Arab Spring. The election of the most reactionary government in the history of Israel under Netanyahu, Lieberman, and Barak and the final cementing of the occupation in the West Bank threaten Israeli and Jewish culture with an indelible rightwing stamp.
–The general collapse of liberal, mainstream Protestantism and the rise of the Christian right alongside the rise of radical political Islam threaten Christianity and religion with an indelible rightwing stamp.
–The failure of the liberal Jewish establishment to lock in its constituency, to speak to a larger public, to educate its young, to interest a larger public in its discourse and practice, to identify or exploit contemporary spiritual currents, and to utilize, or even understand, the power of new media and new technologies, and to create new networks. Insofar as Liberal Judaism retains a vibrant center, it’s a center that remains self-enclosed, self-selecting, self-satisfied little enclaves largely out of step with broader social and cultural dynamics, which they seem not to comprehend. One sees a lot of this in the Upper Westside of Manhattan. Whistling in the wind, liberal Judaism has been constantly outclassed by the orthodox and their neoconservative fellow travelers, organizationally and ideologically.
But the good news for liberal Judaism is that conservative Jewish thought and culture has little to offer the larger Jewish public in terms of models except Meah Shearim and Kiryas Joel, and a Republican Party enthralled to Tea Party nutters. It’s unattractive, the palpable anxiety dominating conservative and neoconservative discourse –about America, values, Judaism, and Israel. The American Jewish public remains stubbornly liberal, for reasons that are unique to the Jewish community, its history, values, and political interest in strong, centralized forms of liberal governmentality that look out for the larger social good. “Liberal Judaism” should be of good cheer, embrace unaplogetically the value of autonomy, and critically embrace and engage the culture at large, and get its act together. I think it’s a “bad” thing when intellectuals schrei about autonomy and relativism, modernity, and modernism. As a great liberal once said, “There’s nothing to fear except fear itself.” About liberal Judaism, one might as well hold one’s breath, because I’m not sure regarding the other options .