Sunday, August 06, 2006

Sliding to the Right (Religiously)

Everyone, it would appear, is talking about Professor Samuel Heilman's new book, Sliding to the Right: The Contest for the Future of American Jewish Orthodoxy. Unfortunately, the book itself is, as far as I know, unavailable in Israel. Happily, though, the lecture upon which it is apparently based is now on-line, and it's possible to get an idea of the basic contours of its argument. (Hattip to the indefatigable Menachem Butler.)

I managed to read it over Shabbat (though the piece is more fitting for Shabbat Hazon than Shabbat Nahamu). It led me to consider writing a fuller piece about Professor Heilman's 'take' on contemporary Modern Orthodoxy, once I put my hands on the book, itself. In the interim, while there is much that the author writes with which I agree, there are two points wherein I take issue with him.

1) Part of the reason for the right-ward shift of the Modern Orthodox community is due to the fact that the level of halakhic seriousness of the community was deficient. Take, for example, the observation of Rabbi Milton Polin, in his introduction to the RCA Siddur, that the project was undertaken because more people go to daily minyan than ever before. That's a very telling comment about both the status quo ante and the status quo post. One has to admit that from that angle, the so-called 'shift to the right' has been a welcome, salutary development.
Obviously, it has been a mixed blessing because those who've interpreted the Law do not represent the a priori values of the community. Here, rather than in the increase in observance, lies the problem. If the Posqim don't value a broader education, inter-communal cooperation or Zionism their rulings will be reflective thereof. [This, of course, speaks to the delicate question of Halakhah and Religious Policy. I hope to address this in a series of studies, in the near future.]
This down-side has been adumbrated by a number of other factors, best detailed by Professor Haym Soloveitchik in his now classic study Rupture and Reconstruction (and the responses thereto).

2) I think that Heilman's representation of the Haredi world in North America is inaccurate. True, there is a lot of public toeing of the anti-secular line. On the other hand, the percentage of American Haredim who attend College and Graduate School is growing tremendously (and here a study on the impact of Touro College on Ultra-Orthodoxy is a definite desideratum). This has opened the door to wider involvement in general culture (far beyond the limits of parnassah). In addition, the creation of a parallel, westernized, Haredi consumer culture is a very significant development (and confirms the interpretation offered by Robert Bonfil of Jewish involvement in Renaissance Italian Culture in the quattrocento, cinquecento, and seicento that psycho-social distance between the Jewish and Non-Jewish worlds facilitates cultural borrowing).
My point is that the so-called 'slide to the right' has been paralleled by the adoption of significant elements of the Modern Orthodox agenda by portions of that same 'Right.' This, by the way, has not been lost upon the Haredim of Eretz Yisrael. The word is that many here oppose marrying into non-Israeli Haredi families because these are perceived (correctly) as 'too modern.'


Tzemach Atlas said...

Interesting thought but I disagree with the base assumption that matriculation in an institution or taking some courses is the path to change culture. Instead I believe in absorbing culture through osmosis. No one is immune to this process from Satmar to reform. They all evolve in response to the powerful forces across the board. And there is a fundamentalist current in all the groups that resists change, any change. In modern orthodoxy this manifests itself in going black hat as a perceived refuge from the all consuming ocean of modernity. This is only symptomatic of the failure of the MO to deal with modernity on its terms, despite all the rhetoric.

Menachem Butler said...

Prof. Woolf -- I have recently come across the many MA theses written by students at Touro College (Jerusalem), many of which focus on ultra-Orthodoxy, and they are unparalleled and QUITE good.

BTW -- would you like me to mail you my copy of Prof. Heilman's new book? I'm sure that you'll be stopping by 5a sometime in the near future...