Judaism and the Benedict Option

As described by conservative commentator Rod Dreher, who is both an expert in and advocate of the practice. the “Benedict Option” refers to the voluntary withdrawal by contemporary Christians from the wider society into segregated, or even cloistered communities, much in the way that Benedictine monks did during the more unsettled parts of the middle ages.

These modern Benedictines have, in Dreher’s words, “ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of American empire, and who therefore are keen to construct local forms of community as loci of Christian resistance against what the empire represents.”

Dreher continues:

“Put less grandly, the Benedict Option — or “Ben Op” — is an umbrella term for Christians who “accept [Alistair] MacIntyre’s critique of modernity, and who also recognize that forming Christians who live out Christianity according to Great Tradition requires embedding within communities and institutions dedicated to that formation.”

The public discussion among observant Christian communities around the Benedict Option reached a crescendo during the latter half of President Obama’s second term. At the time, it was possible to foresee America living for decade under a government that was unsympathetic to the concerns of Americans shaken by the speed and magnitude of change in public mores. It has since dropped off, but one gets the feeling that observant Christians are waiting to see how far Trump is – or is not – willing to go to reverse that trend, or even to slow the pace of change.

The logical question when reading about the Benedict Option is to ask whether there is a Jewish version. Are observant Jews in America as alienated by the changes in American society as are observant Christians? And are they ready to change the structures of their communities to address them?

Few who read this would disagree that they already are, and have been for centuries. Indeed, as Dreher and others have noted, the most relevant model for the Benedict Option in the context of a modern society is not the original Benedictine communities themselves, but observant Jewish communities. The place of worship becomes the center of the community. Communities establish religious schools offering different mixes of secular subjects and religious teachings as an alternative to public schooling. They build social institutions designed to support observant life. And they are serious about weekly communal activities.

Two questions emerge from this, then.

  1. How are we as Jews – as individuals and as a community – to respond to Christian communities taking the Benedict Option?
  2. Is it time for Jews of all denominations – Conservative, Reform, and Deconstructionist as well as Orthodox – to begin rethinking our physical assimilation into wider society?

I’ll address each in separate posts in the coming weeks.

Torah on Shabbat

One of the questions about Jewish practice that has always vexed me is the issue of Torah study on Shabbat.

On the one hand, Shabbat is a day of total rest of mind and body.

On the other hand, Torah study is a joy in itself.

Can we not, then, study Torah on Shabbat?

Daniel Jackson on Belief and Rationality in Judaism

Although the challenges presented by the natural sciences have receded, fresh challenges have taken their place and seem to pose much harder and more far-reaching questions. The field of biblical criticism has unearthed a mass of evidence that the Torah is a composite document that reflects the prevailing ideas of other cultures contemporaneous with ancient Israel. How, in the light of such claims, can one adhere to the belief, required by Maimonides in his eighth principle of faith, that the Torah we have in our hands today is the very same Torah that was handed down by Moses, and that it is all of divine origin?

Torah min haShamayim: Conflicts Between Religious Belief and Scientific Thinking”
Dr. Daniel Jackson

TheTorah.com

The erudite polymath Daniel Jackson, whose day job is professor of computer science at MIT, delves into the heart of the Jewish struggle between the belief in Torah as the faithfully transcribed word of Hashem and the rational challenges posed by biblical criticism.

I read the article hoping that Jackson had discovered a Rambam-like balancing point, but that is as yet too much to ask for. Judaism has made its peace with science thanks to Maimonides, and more recently with Darwin. But while he offers no guide to the textually perplexed, he does end with a subtle reminder that there is a difference between doctrine and the mitzvot, and that while must observe the latter, our greatest danger is to base the edifice of our belief on the infallibility of every bit of our received doctrine.

I couldn’t agree more. I think it is possible to believe that Torah is the divine essence transcribed through the poor tools of human language, and that the very reason the Oral Law and the Rabbinic Writings are so important is that, in toto, they represent a quest for perfection of our understanding of the essence of Torah. The Pentateuch in our Seferim Torah is the heart, but the Oral Law and the Writings are the body, and neither can live without the other.

Not Yet Time for Vegetarianism

“[Rav Kook wrote that] the mitzvot light the way to the perfection of the future – a time when the animals will have been transformed into humans, and humans into angels. Thus kashrut is mean to prepare us for vegetarianism, a great step forward in the moral perfection of the human race – but must not be done before its time, for the complacency and self-satisfaction it might bring. Indeed, he wrote, one could imagine a bloodthirsty tyrant who prided himself on his vegetarianism, eerily presaging Hitler.”

Yehudah Mirsky

Talmud and the Death Penalty

A recent study cited in Forbes documented problems in the application of the death penalty in the United States. The provocative study suggests that one out of every twenty-five defendants sentenced to death in the U.S. is actually innocent.

The study, while not necessarily conclusive, strengthens my growing conviction that if we are going to be a nation that continues to sentence people to death, we must consider using a more Talmudic level of criterion in our sentencing. I am a longtime advocate of the death penalty, but it is difficult to continue such support when the possibility of a mistake is so high.

Much of my support of the death penalty lies in its source in Torah rather than my belief in the punishment as a deterrent to criminals. Yet it is becoming clear that our standards for evidence and sentencing fall short of the intent of Jewish law. That should trouble every Jew in America who supports capital punishment.

I’m Jewish, and I want to convert to Judaism

My feelings about conversions are complex. As far as I am concerned, all conversions are valid. I figure R. Hillel would have stood with me on that, and I believe my relationship with Hashem is what makes me Jewish, not a beit din.

Nonetheless, for a range of reasons, mostly personal, I want to reach a stage where I am considered Jewish under Halachah. I consider that a journey of discovery rather than a quest for some kind of spiritual legitimacy.

Ban the Snip, Ban the Tribe

In Europe’s Assault on Jewish Ritual Ben Cohen at Commentary leveled a double barreled j’accuse at the governments of Europe who are determined to outlaw circumcision and Kosher meat. His point, brilliantly argued, was a simple one: if you outlaw rituals that Jews are required to conduct as a core part of their observance, you are ipso facto outlawing Judaism itself, and making its practitioners criminals.
He does not stop there. He also takes on the apologists among our co-religionists who argue an equivalence between circumcision and female genital mutilation, or FGM.
To begin with, FGM has no religious basis, unlike male circumcision. Second, the removal of the clitoris entailed by FGM results in pain and medical complications that are infinitely worse than any of the outcomes of male circumcision; equally, it’s worth recalling that the benefits of male circumcision in fighting AIDS, as highlighted by the World Health Organization, are manifestly absent in the case of FGM. Third, the vast majority of men who undergo circumcision grow up unaware of the operation, whereas women subjected to FGM suffer hugely from the consequences for their entire lives.
Both his article and his response to a critical reader are worth a read.