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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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.