Should Jews Live Apart Again?

Hebrew Union College Campus

One question that growth of Christian communities that are taking the Benedict Option poses to Jewish communities is whether more of us should be following them – and our Orthodox brothers and sisters – into lives of greater Jewish communalism in the face of changes underway in wider society?

(And to clarify – the Benedict Option is not an alternative to living within society at large, and does not contemplate disengagement or withdrawal, but calls for communal living within the broader context of society.)

We Are Used to Being Apart

Naturally, living apart – voluntarily or otherwise – is nothing new to Jews. At times, greater communalism has served us well, strengthening the bonds that unite us as a community, serving as a barrier to assimilation. and enabling us to better address and withstand persecution from outside.

Yet at other times, communalism became insularity, leaving us out of touch with the outsider world, and simultaneously making us easier to isolate, attack, and even (as in the Holocaust) exterminate.

There is an argument to be made that despite the dangers implicit in spreading ourselves among the goyim in the Diaspora (intermarriage, assimilation), there is the virtue of keeping us engaged, keeping us from being easily targeted.

But when being close to the goyim stops serving our purposes – when being a physical part of a wider, interfaith community leaves us cut off from the rest of our people and subject to harassment or worse, the attractions of communalism begin to eclipse the risks.

This is Urgent in Europe

We are probably not yet at the point in America where we are better off in our own communities. Many countries in Europe, however are in a different place. When we look across the Atlantic to our tribesmen and women in Europe, the trend in France, Germany, and other European nations appears to be to institute restrictions and condone public behavior that combine to make living among non-Jews increasingly challenging.

The choice is becoming stark: draw away from the wider population and form communities that combine physical proximity with strong support institutions; or emigrate. European Jews need to engage in country-by-country discussions about how they can continue living in a post-modern Europe, before weariness of persecution or outright fear drive them to Israel or America.

What about the U.S.?

In the United States, at the very least we need to avoid being boiled frogs. American Jews, particularly those of us who do not presently live frum lives, should begin discussing at what point it makes sense for us to start basing our decisions about where to live on the proximity to strong Jewish communities, and when it would make sense to reinforce and extend the our communal institutions to better support us in a changing world.

We do not have to surrender our practices in order to cleave closer to the observant community, and to broaden the role of our community institutions. Nor am I asking the Charedim to invite Reform Jews to live among them. I am simply suggesting that we will survive against the coming storms only if we are one people, a community of communities, a “Kehillat Godol.”

And we do have to start responding as a community to movements in wider society that threaten our ability to practice our faith in accordance with Jewish law and tradition. Vegetarian Jews must recognize a commonality of interest with their omnivorous tribesmen on questions of shechita. Public education advocates among us should also support measures that make Jewish education accessible to those who choose it. We should all take a stand against efforts to criminalize practices that lie at the core of our faith, including circumcision.

And it behooves us to watch out for other potential challenges to our faith, whether in the form of institutional anti-Semitism, the toleration of exclusionary practices or persecution, or efforts by outsiders to make Jewish practice illegal.

At the very least, we should consider whether we have allowed certain practices and institutions in our communities to whither, and whether it is time to return to a policy of more actively supporting them.

History has proven that as we live in nations aside from our own, the strongest guarantee of our continued safety and prosperity lies in the construction of strong communities and institutions. We don’t need to adopt the “Benedict Option:” we created it. We simply need to return to the time-honored practices that have served to shield our communities, our faith, our families, and ourselves from the vagaries of a non-Jewish world.

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.

Our Core Question

The critical question that concerns us all: is Halacha fixed, evolving, or irrelevant?

Some will answer “Halacha is fixed.”

Others will answer “Halacha is evolving.”

Some will even answer “Halacha is irrelevant.”

And there are many Jews still who will answer “What is ‘Halacha?’ ”

Your answer will determine where you sit come Rosh Hashanah, methinks.

 

A Question on Aristotle

Aristotle apparently didn’t believe in either creation or evolution.

Does that make all of his work worthless?

The Rambam would certainly not have suggested as much.

If that is the case, what standard should we, as faithful Jews, use to delineate those ideas and thinkers who stand outside the pale?

Alternately, should we place no limits on such study, provided that the student is first fortified with a deep knowledge of Jewish thought?

I lean toward the latter, but I am painfully aware that there are some lines of thinking that lead only into dark swamps, not enlightenment of any sort.

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 Un-Woody

“The artist’s job is not to succumb to despair but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence.”

— Woody Allen

Allow me to offer a modified counterpoint to Mr. Konigsberg’s pithy quote.

The Jew’s job is not to succumb to Woody Allen’s despairing vision of an empty existence, but to create meaning in our lives and by example light the way for others.

Good Shabbos!

The Great Book and the Empty Head

Empty, by Conor Lawless. Used under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license.

This morning in the shower I was thinking about the book of aphorisms that I have been assembling over the past year. There are around a hundred or so, all original (I think,) and I began to wonder whether they sayings should be allowed to stand by themselves, or whether I should provide some short context or commentary on each.

Thinking this through, though, I considered my most recent addition. It its unedited form, it went:

“ ‘Don’t work hard, work smart’ is a false choice. It should be ‘work hard, but with intelligence and integrity.’ “

Accurate, I realized, but not particularly catchy. Clearly in need of word-smithing, and probably some commentary as well.

The word “commentary.” It got me thinking about how I might make my most recent aphorisms into a d’var Torah.

So I picked one, and tried.

And I couldn’t come up with a d’var.

So I picked another.

Still couldn’t come up with even a Torah reference.

Then I picked another. And another, And a third.

And hard as I tried, I failed.

It was not pretty. There wasn’t a single reference to anything in Tanach, much less Torah, that I could come up with after five tries. The problem, of course, was not with Torah, but with my ghastly low degree of Torah knowledge. I had never had my own inadequacy in that department hit me so hard.

I fought off the guilt, swapping it for resolve to establish and sustain an upward trajectory of Torah study.

The Promise of Judaisms

R. Shai Cherry talks about “Judaisms,” about seeing our faith as not a single unified faith but as a cluster of different manifestations of the same core framework of belief.

I like that: as I’ve mentioned in the past, I think that the diversity of our faith is its greatest strength. Our ability to accept that diversity while reinforcing the crossmembers that hold us together will determine whether we thrive or perish.

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.

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?

More Tips on the Crisis

Three short thoughts about dealing with crises of faith.

  • Not all study is equally helpful. Kabbalah and Talmud are uplifting and clarifying, but they are of little help in addressing crises of faith. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that Jewish custom postpones study of these texts until long after the bokher has addressed the core questions in his study. The esoterica of Zohar and the niggling of gemara sometimes form silent arguments on behalf of the Accuser. Crises demand the aid of sages and works more accustomed to fundamental challenges of faith.
  • Guilt sucks. The yetzer hara thrives on guilt, and will use it every time as an opening into the soul. The way to address transgression, I’m finding, is determined teshuvah, driven by repentance and stripped of guilt.
  • Don’t ignore the writings of Reform and Conservative scholars and apologists. If nothing else, the Haskalah at its best created a respectable corpus of thinking and texts designed to address crises of faith. This does not come as a surprise: arguably, it is the Jews in these communitiesThis makes sense, given that the Jews in these communities were least insulated from them.

 

Given the choice of a full day fast and eight days without chametz, I would take the latter.

Some fasts are easier than others, but as far as I know, no fast is easy.

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.

Getting through the Crisis

What was most memorable to me about my most recent crisis of faith was that when presented with the fullness of a world without Hashem, wherein faith was mere fairy-tale, I did not recoil in fear, or revulsion, or dislike, or anger. The only emotional response was one of relief.

What turned me away from going further down that path was the realization that there was something fundamentally counter-intelligent (dare I say irrational) in a worldview that boils the universe and renders only that which we can perceive. It is like suggesting that water disappears when we boil it away because we can no longer see, taste small, feel, or hear it.

It was a quietly satisfying moment, for many reasons. Passing calmly through a crisis of faith is a step that suggests that I am more secure in my faith than I was when I was younger.

The crisis also reminded me that I need to resume my Torah study, and vindicated my conviction that I must also return to my studies of Jewish philosophy. ibn Pakudah’s thinking has always been helpful, for example, which suggests to me that some time with Sa’adya Gaon, Maimonides, and even the anti-Kababalists may be in order.

For how can we truly judge our ethos against a world of contending belief systems without understanding it, and without hearing the argument of the apologists with the same ears that hear the case of the rational secularists?

I guess this is all a long, rambling way of coming to a simple point: the most important lesson I learned was that the best response to a crisis in faith – whatever your faith may be – is study.

The A.I. Problem

Reading an excellent article about artificial intelligence last week, I began to wonder which force was the greatest danger to Yiddishkeit: radical secularism or artificial intelligence?

But thinking about it on the plane to China the other day, I realized that they are actually two parts of the same problem.

At its worst, radical secularism is mankind’s Oedipus Complex. Kill the Father to supplant Him, to become Him. If we “kill” G-d, we take upon ourselves the power to create sentience without any obligation to pause and question whether we should do it in the first place.

Fear for any individual – or species – who places the power to do something before the wisdom to ask whether it is the right thing to do.

Facing the Crisis

Last week, on my way to pick up my son at the school bus stop, and just as we were approaching sundown on Friday night, I was again reproaching myself for not being shomer Shabbos. As I mulled that – or even began to – I heard a voice: “what if all of this is a lie?

“What if we, for whatever reasons, have simply been brainwashed,” it continued. “What if this – all religion – is just a big illusion that we have created for ourselves, a super-Disneyesque consensual fantasy that we have just willed into being?”

How seductive, nay, beguiling, a thought it was. I was washed over with the sense that a great burden of guilt, reproach, and angst was being lifted from me.

Then I heard another voice inside as I passed the little school on Pierpoint. “That, surely, is the Yetzer Hara whispering lies again. A crafty one he is.”

Then the first voice spoke again. “What a clever ploy, this while the idea of a ‘yetzer hara.’ With a single idea, we have automatically disqualified any rational challenge to G-d’s existence.

I quieted then. And came the second voice. “But if rationality is a human construct, is it the only framework with which to apprehend the world? Is it even the best? And have there not been a long line of thinkers reaching into antiquity who have addressed that question?”

It was but one brick yanked out of a large wall of doubt, but it was enough to deconstruct – or begin the slow collapse – of the wall. At that moment, my crisis of faith began to pass, just in time for my son to climb into the car, and for us to head home for salmon and Shabbos.

Parting the Blue Pool

As we’re counting the Omeer, one last thought about Passover (till next March, anyway.)

I enjoyed TBS’ spots with the bearded buy parting his swimming pool.

Yes, it was a little irreverent.

But I also thought it was a subtle “Happy Passover” that was consistent with the Channel’s personality, and, frankly, in keeping with the self-deprecating introspection that Pesach invites.

Good Shabbos!

kA Treasury of Hasidic Stories

The importance of Hasidism to modern Judaism is difficult to overstate. The effect upon the entire Ashkenazi community of a movement designed at its heart to popularize observance and study was profound, even as the guardians of the traditional Torah communities responded with dismay.

One part of the great value of Hasidism has been the rich vein of stories and legends. Martin Buber did much bring those to a wider community, and now, thanks to the internet, we have these stories at our fingertips. The Hasidic Stories website offers a rich vein for any Jew, and especially for those of us who look for material to use in teaching.

Have a look, and have fun!

Woody’s Midnight

More so than any other film by Woody Allen in a very long time, I really enjoyed Midnight in Paris. I am a sucker for any movie that delves into the joys and frustrations of writing, and the way Allen explores inspiration, nostalgia, and the way many of us feel like anachronisms all touched a deep chord.

Yet something saddened me about Allen’s selection of Owen Wilson to play the “Woody” role. Wilson himself was not the issue. On the contrary, Owen is likable, sympathetic, and totally believable in the role. It was a bravura performance.

What disturbed me was that Wilson’s role represents the apotheosis of a gradual, film-by-film whitewashing that Allen has conducted on himself since the 1970s. Having his character played by an blonde-maned WASP hints at something disturbing: the possibility that Woody no longer sees himself as Jewish.

If that is the case, it would be sad for two reasons. First, it is always upsetting to see a Jew leave the enfolding wings of the Tribe of his or her own volition. But in Woody’s case specifically, he was in many way a model for an entire generation of Jews who identified themselves as “culturally Jewish.” If he is still that icon, is he aught but a beacon for others into the rocky shore of assimilation?

The sages teach us that it is never too late to begin the path of return. I pray for the day to come when Woody turns about to see what the Rebbe called the “pintela Yid” inside himself, and follows that light.

Pre-Shabbat Thought

“He might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every thing that proceedeth out of the mouth of the LORD doth man live.” Deuteronomy 8:3

And coffee.

Have a restful post-Pesach Shabbos!

A warning for my fellow tribesmen traveling from or in Asia during Pesach:

Asian airline caterers haven’t figured out Passover yet. That makes for some very hungry Chol Hamoed flights.

Trust me, I know.

German court justifies synagogue attack 

Source: German court justifies synagogue attack – Europe – News –

The echoes of approaching jackboots haunt the streets of Wuppertal, Germany at night. You can almost see the flicker of the torches.

Make no mistake, my friends. The surrender of Germany to the Allies on May 8, 1945 did not end anti-Semitism, racism, or Naziism in Germany. It just drove those things underground, where they lie dormant.

We are watching the black shoots of hatred sprout anew from the European soil.

This time, let us not go gently.

Fight the darkness with light.

The Bibi Gap

Gap between parties’ support of Israel at highest since 1978, survey shows; more conservatives view Netanyahu favorably than Dems

Source: 74% Republicans, 33% Democrats back Israel over Palestinians — poll | The Times of Israel

The problem here is not whether the world supports Benjamin Netanyahu. The problem for Israel, and by extension, for every Jew on the planet, is that the longer Bibi stays in office, the less people can tell the difference between Israel and Bibi.

Are we as a people ready to place the continued existence of our homeland on the same fragile little boat as a single man’s political career? Or is it time for the people of Israel to find a leader who can defend Israel with one hand and reach across to the rest of the world with the other?

Anyone who loves Israel must understand that without the world’s support, the days of our beloved land as a Jewish political entity are numbered, and that the day when the continued existence of Jews and Judaism on earth is once again at the mercy of others is nigh.

Jews in the High Castle

“I don’t plan on dying Frank, but I can’t live in fear.”

“I’m not going to pretend that it’s easy. I struggled with it for a while. But this is who I am, this is who my ancestors were. I’m not going to let them take that away from me.”

“One thing I realized about my people is that we have a different sense of time. These may be dark years, but we’ll survive. We always do. You’ve just got to find something to hold onto.”

Mark Sampson
“The Man in the High Castle.”

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