Thursday, January 28, 2010

Post-Orthodoxy Reconsidered II

Gil Student has engaged my previous points about 'Post-Orthodoxy.' His cogent observations (and those of some of my commentors) deserve consideration and response. However, before turning to these, it's important to define our terms.

One definition would compare Post-Orthodoxy to, mutatis mutandis, post-Evangelicalism which is, itself, defined as '
former adherents of Evangelicalism. includes a variety of people who have distanced themselves from mainstream evangelical Christianity for theological, political, or cultural reasons. Most who describe themselves as post-evangelical are still adherents of the Christian faith in some form.'

I'm not really comfortable with this type of definition. First, Christianity by definition, determines who is in and who is out through very precise theological litmus tests. (Recall the fact that the Eastern and Roman Churches split in 1054 over what, to the Talmudically trained, can only be seen as a kvetch.) Orthodox Judaism, though, has somewhat more leeway on issues of belief (and less in matters of practice). The definition of Post-Evangelicalism, thus, seems more attuned to a move from Haredi/Yeshivish to Modern Orthodoxy. Then again, it's a very awkward fit.

I think what we're really talking about is a number of different trends, which present themselves differently in Israel and in the United States. In fact, I dare say that the difference in venue is partly responsible for our points of contention. Since, despite my ongoing contact with the American Orthodox community, I am more intimately aware of the situation here in Israel, it is to it that I will refer here.

The typical topic of discussion in Israel concerns three, inter-related topics: A decline in observance, (aka Dati-Lite); a galvanized Orthodox Left (religiously); Abandonment of Orthodoxy (aka הורדת כיפה) and the never-ending saga of the Shiddukh Crisis. All three are a result of the Post-Modern surge in absolute personal autonomy. The belief in that autonomy, which finds expression in every aspect of life, undermines (among other things): rabbinic authority, intellectual and religious humility, the ability to form long-lasting relationships (which demand mutual concessions), and (IMHO) sexual restraint.

The lessons of Late Modern (leading into Post Modern) philosophy are ubiquitous and conveyed by every medium. In this sense, the trends noted above are both social and ideational. They are social because they have been internalized by society. They are ideational, because they are based on ideas. However, they have been internalized, across the board, in a semi-conscious fashion. In other words, they have their profound impact because they impose themselves upon unself-reflecting people.( And, unfortunately, Israeli religious men and women, are frequently trained not to reflect upon their lives and values- or they lack the education to responsibly do so. In light of the very limited parameters of religious thought that is taught in our schools, this can often lead to tragic results. I will have more to say about this in a later posting.)

In the present context, the Israeli phenomena that are closest to what is presently described as 'Post-Orthodoxy' are the Religious Left and Dati-Lite. Both phenomena are reactions to, or rejection of, the specific texture of National-Religious Judaism as it's developed over the course of the last twenty-five years.

[To Be Continued, אי"ה.]


MJ said...

Why are you mixing up post-modern with modern? Radical autonomy is a modern concept that began to be questioned even before the rise of the postmodern.

Your use of the term ideology has a definite Marxian resonance, but uncritical acceptance of pervasive ideas is not itself indicative of something like false consciousness. When the uptake of such ideas results in social rupture and upheaval instead of social reproduction it is a good sign that it is not ideology at work. Why are you so dismissive eof the possibility that what you term post-orthodoxy is driven at least as much by a critical response to orthodoxy.

Deference to rabbinic authority, what you term intellectual and religious humility, and the uncritical acceptance of gender roles are modes of reproduction that do not work any more as a result of trends inherent in modernity and a critical reaction to how power functions within society.

What is postmodern is that instead of chucking religion or orthodoxy people are reengaging with it while renegotiating its existing power structures. That's just something Orthodoxy is going to have to deal with. In previous generations it had the buffer of mutually negotiated denominational lines. Post orthodoxy is not granting their co-coreligionists that buffer zone.I don't see how a pompous call to lead an examined life will change that one iota.

Jeffrey Woolf said...

First, I advise you to cease being nasty. If not, I will not post any more of your comments.

Second, I will adjust the PM/M distinction.

Third, unless you're Israeli, you don't realize that self-reflection based upon knowledge is precisely what Israeli discourse lacks.

Fourth, who said I dismiss the idea of reaction to Orthodoxy? I'm not finished with my discussion yet.

Fifth, people can creatively reengage their tradition. There are, however, limits as to what is or is not acceptable within the realm of halakhic discourse, as it has developed over two millennia.

aiwac said...


If anyone's being pompous it's you.

Your liberal use of polysyllables (really big words) and sociological analysis reminds me of Orwell's essay , "Politics and the English Language".

You could have just said "people can and should observe Judaism however they see fit, and you have no right to tell them otherwise". Instead, you hide the argument under a pile of buzz-terms like "power structure", "renegotiating" and so forth. Are you that afraid that your argument will not stand on its own?

The fact that there are people conducting "renegotiations" does not make this breakaway inherently legit in the eyes of halachic/Orthodox Jewry.

Liberalism (at least as I understand it) sees any action done of free will to be OK. This is not the case with Judaism, so stop viewing the latter through the eyes of the former.

The internal contradictions will only give you a headache.

MJ said...

Prof. Woolf, I was not attempting to be nasty, but when people superfluously invoke the Classics it tends to arouse a bit of bile on my part.

(However, given your criticism of my tone I consider it strange that you then allow a comment that certainly trumps what I wrote in nastiness.)

In recent years I have only lived in Israel off and on for several month stretches at a time but your remarks, while echoing what I have heard other (anglo?) Israeli academics like, mutatis mutandis, Menachem Lorberbaum complain about, may reflect the larger political culture but not many of the sincere individuals I have worked with.

Finally, what is acceptable within halakhic discourse may have limits but obviously the post orthodox who identify as Dati recognize that not everything goes. But, halakhic discourse, if it is only seen as belonging to a rarefied class of men, is inherently incapable of engaging in dialogue with these kinds of critical challenges because it allows itself to set the rules of the discourse as it sees fit (see eg, Aryeh Frimer's critique of Tamar Ross's book.)

aiwac, Where I come from we use this terminology because of its descriptive and explanatory power. No more than one would accuse a scientist of pomposity for using her terms of art should someone in the humanities be maligned for doing so when it is done to convey a point as precisely as possible and not to be obfuscatory.

Your criticism also seems a bit selective. Why have you found fault with Prof. Woolf, lehavdil, for sprinkling his writings with Latin or using "really big words" like "ideational"?

In any event, your reconstruction of what I supposedly wrote is rather off the mark as I was offering analysis, not justification.

Jeffrey Woolf said...

I will (IY"H) address your substantive points in a posting. However, I resent your comments about my style of writing. I was taught that it is not only proper, but desireable, to quote the classics, when apt. Such an inter-textual writing strategy is the hallmark of rabbinic prose.

Indeed, I was raised to believe that such reliance upon the great works of the past educates the reader and is the mark of the cultured individual. The same goes for use of foreign languages.

The style might be old-fashioned. It is, nonetheless, the one I have always used.

aiwac said...


Where I come from (also academia), terminology like that which you used is a pseudo-scientific method all too common in the humanities. Its purpose is generally to hide slanted opinions and value judgments behind a wall of neutral-sounding terms and concepts.

My problem is not the "big words" per se, it is with your being disingenuous. If you have an opinion, just say it.

Also, I find it funny that you claim Rav Frimer "moves the goal posts" (without evidence, mind); you do the exact same thing by reducing halacha and custom to mere "gender roles" and "power struggles" that can be moved at will. Rather materialistic of you, I must say, and it speaks to what appears to be your misunderstanding of how halachic/Orthodox Jewry works. Read more Peter Berger and less Karl Marx.

Rabbi Woolf actually makes an argument and backs it up with arguments. You might consider doing the same.

Anonymous said...

I find it ironic that frum Jews understood Kant so so well for such a long time-- until Prof. Woolf. As MJ astutely points out, radical autonomy did not arise in shira hadasha or the YU gay panel. It arose in the first critique. If MO's like yourself did not claim to be intellectual descendants of a neoKantian philosopher I would forgive you the point. But come on! From Grunfeld to Soloveitchik to Wurzberger and down to Paul Franks every intelligent MO has known that radical autonomy is the MODERN problem.

Jeffrey Woolf said...

This quibbling over who's responsible for radical autonomy is beside the point and verges on the silly. It's a fact that its extreme manifestations have only emerged in the last thirty years or so. That's my concern, and my point.

One of the less attractive aspects of academic discourse is the compulsion to zero in on apparent inaccuracies in the description of the etiology of phenomena, thus missing the point.

Shlomo said...

I was taught that it is not only proper, but desireable, to quote the classics, when apt.

I was taught that it was lazy, as you assume that they have done the intellectual work for you and do not check your ideas down to their foundations.

Such an inter-textual writing strategy is the hallmark of rabbinic prose.

Not of the Rambam's prose.

Jeffrey Woolf said...

Who said I didn't check their ideas? I was, after all, trained in the History of Ideas.

As for the Rambam, so what?

YoelB said...

I just found this blog and haven't read everything yet, but since it's the internet I'll jump in anyway.

The material abundance of Western society gives rise to several phenomena:

•Once there is relatively reliable assurance that you won't starve, humanity's natural tribal tendencies manifest in the form of group identification by what products one consumes or the wearing of a group costume*

•The tendency of people who, (like most of us) come from impoverished backgrounds is to start eating every day what they might once have eaten on special occasions to the great detriment of their health
•The erosion of middle class virtues of thrift, hard work and planning ahead and the expansion of the vices shared by elites and the underclass

* Compare modern photographs of yeshiva bachurim to photographs from before WWII; even at Mir, etc. the prewar bachurim mostly just looked respectably dressed (and would not have been terribly conspicuous on any urban street) but any "Jewishness" of their wardrobe is pretty subtle to the modern eye.

YoelB said...

All of these are phenomena institutionalized by the chareidi revolution, all are examples of the erosion of the on-to-one culture transmission per Haym Soloveitchik's mimetic transmission in favor of mass indoctrination.

Yes, chareidi revolution. In many ways the chareidi renaissance is founded on a perception of the Jewish people that chareidi thinkers share with early Zionists: In Brecht's mordant words (which if I recall correctly, he put into the mouths of East Germany's Stalinist masters,) "The people have failed us. It is time to elect a new people."
Zionism sought to do this in its way. The chareidi revolution may have had different ends, but it was no less radical, even though it sees itself and promotes itself as the continuity of tradition.
When Zionism met reality -- running a clandestine, and then a real state, for example -- it changed to meet the challenges, ultimately self-correcting in a more democratic and free market direction. So far, the chareidi revolution has tended to follow the totalitarian path; its increasing violence is therefore a worrisome sign, at least if one is hoping for reliable water and food supplies and reasonable health, which it will take the technology of modern society to provide. Radical Greens think that there are about 5 billion too many people, which is partly why they support the jihadis: they think that the jihad will bring down modern civilization and lead to the desired die off. Perhaps Judaim might survive; we do have the institutional memory of how to live as dhimmis, though those who romanticise this have forgotten the extensive conversion of Jews to Christianity and then Islam in the first millennium of the Common Era.

Isn't one aspect of the chumraization of Orthodoxy the de facto introduction of theological litmus tests and the expansion of accusations of heresy? That sounds an awful lot like a Christian, not a Jewish phenomenon. Maybe it's a phenomenon of revolutionary doctrines in general, and totalitarian/authoritarian ones in particular. Even the American Revolution, which was primarily anti-authoritarian, had its purges (Kenneth Roberts' classic novel Oliver Wiswell is a painless way to learn about this) but the history of the French Revolution, and its descendents, national and international socialism has been extraordinarily bloody. The central question is: Is the doctrine seeking to transform human nature on an industrial scale? The French Revolution did; international socialism, and fascism/national socialism certainly did; Iran’s Islamic Revolution did and does. Zionism did, and the chareidi revolution did-- and does.

It could be argued that the chareidi mass approach was necessary, given the shattering of Jewish society at the hands of the Nazis, yemach shemam. It could be argued that a mass approach was an inevitable reaction to the mass nature of modern society. But to pretend that it’s not a modern revolutionary phenomenon is delusionary or deceitful.