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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