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.

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The Avoidance of Gluttony

Kashrut, pursued with determination, prepares the soul to avoid gluttony. The strictures of Halal do the same. Both are frameworks that demand consideration before consumption.

For its part, Christianity identifies gluttony as a sin, but interestingly does not provide a practical path to dodge the temptation in a prosperous society to become a foodie. Observation only, not at all a criticism.

To my knowledge, there are evangelistic ministries that consider the question, but such discussions tend to hit a theological dead end with Paul’s original rejection of the corpus of Torah law.

This suggests another reason why it is incumbent upon us as Jews to interact with non-Jews to promote their knowledge of our laws and practice. We are not now, nor should we ever be, a proselytizing faith. But as others faiths evolve and they seek answers in our practice, we have no reason to hold back that knowledge. On the contrary, an argument can be made that we should encourage such study, provided it is not with the intention of undermining or destroying us.

The Yiddishe Interface

Judaism needs people within the faith who are capable of and disposed to interacting with ha goyim. We as a people cannot, either practically or (in the context of our assigned role on Earth) morally withdraw from the world around us.

We can certainly have groups or kehillim who can and should do so. Our strength, I believe, lies in our diversity, and such communities are part of our mantle; there will always be among us souls of profound tenderness who can only thrive in places of refuge from the conflicts within the world.

But to survive as a people, as an am, we will need men and women of great faith who can still serve as our interface to the other nations of the world on at least partially common ground. Others need not believe what we believe, but they must know the truth about our beliefs and why we hold to them, not the lies that others might manufacture in our absence.

Where Gandhi Went Wrong

Since his assassination in 1948, Mohandas K. Gandhi has become something of a secular saint, recognized almost universally as a “great soul” who not only did much to liberate his own people, but who also changed the dialogue around violence and repression.

Gandhi lived by high principles that served him and the peoples of Greater India in the effort to cast off British rule. But Gandhi’s belief that his principles could withstand application to peoples and/or situations far different than those in which he lived was in many cases and unsupported conceit, and in other cases produced some convoluted thinking.

He believed that non-violence would have served India in the face of a Japanese occupation. He believed that the proper response of the Jews of Europe to Hitler’s Final Solution was to throw themselves upon the butcher knives of the SS death squads. And he believed that a State of Israel must wait until the Jews were invited back to their homeland.

Against the latter, Jewish philosopher Martin Buber penned an eloquent criticism. There is a complete text here, along with a broader overview of Gandhi’s relationship with Jews. At best, Gandhi was playing to the home crowd. At worst, he spoke from a willful lack of understanding of the true facts on the ground. Whatever the reason, little does more to tarnish the verity of Gandhi’s ethos than his offhanded treatment of questions around the Jews.

Probing Gandhi’s words on the subject, and contemplating the context in which he wrote them, it is little wonder that India has failed to sustain a Jewish community of any size. It also underscores that the time has come for a critical re-examination of his core beliefs, their roots, and their logical extensions.

Amoral Logic

How does a utilitarian approach to morality lead to the Golden Rule?

Anyone who studies a little bit of game theory has to believe that “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you” is, at best, an occasional outcome.

In Judaism, our love of G-d, combined with belief that we are all created in G-d’s image (spiritually if not physically) provides that path. Do we always live by it? No. But the more we live in consistency with our values, the more we are driven to take care of each other.

Utilitarian morality, on the other hand, begins and ends with looking out for Number One. For me, that’s a recipe for dystopia.

Seven Reasons I’ll Be On Trump’s Muslim Registry

Donald Trump’s policy advisers are discussing plans to establish a registry for Muslim immigrants in the US, a man believed to be a key member of the President-elect’s transition team has revealed.

Source: Donald Trump team ‘discussing plans for Muslim registration system’ | The Independent

If the president-elect goes ahead with this plan, we must each choose how to address it. Some will support it, and in the case of some, their reasons will be both understandable and rational. Others, including myself, will resist it in different ways. We could send our checks to the ACLU, but I think that this sort of thing demands more than a well-funded court battle: it demands a bit of moral sabotage.

As a Jew, I will be placing my name on that registry, as, I think, should every clear-thinking descendant of Abraham in the United States.  I will do it:

  1. To remember the Holocaust. We will not feed our fellow Americans into that same kind of nightmare.
  2. To remember all of the brave souls who, at the risk of their position or their lives, resisted Nazi oppression to help save Jews from the Holocaust.
  3. As an act of peace toward all Muslims everywhere, to show that whatever our disagreements, we are all brothers.
  4. Because in doing so we openly defy a government act that is at odds with the Constitution.
  5. Because I need to show my son that we are never powerless in the face of injustice.
  6. Because if we don’t, we’re next.
  7. Because G-d is Great.

 

America’s Choice

My wife and my 14 year-old son were discussing the election yesterday. And my wife said that this proves that we cannot put our faith in man or in Earthly institutions. We must put our faith in Hashem. 

She’s right. And it reminded me of a passage from the Tachanun:

And David said to Gad, “I am exceedingly distressed. Let us fall into Hashem’s hand, for His mercies are abundant, but let me not fall into human hands.”

We can trust people to represent us, but we cannot trust them to always have our best interests at heart, and, indeed, about all we can expect is for them to operate in the self-centered manner that economists call “rational.”

Do not put your faith in your leaders, elected or otherwise. Grant them a highly conditional trust at the very most.