Earlier this fall, a new book on the topic of intra-Jewish conflict in America received a great deal of media coverage, due, in part, to its fortuitous release just as the Lieberman nomination was sparking a heightened focus of attention on the Jewish, and in particular Orthodox, community. Reviews of the book and its provocative themes in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, Commentary and various Jewish publications provided commentators of diverse Jewish stripes with an opportunity to advance their views on the causes of strife and prospects for communal peace within American Jewry. The very real issues raised by the book and the author’s treatment of them merit the attention of the JO readership as well.
Ever since the advent of the Emancipation and the societal sea changes it wrought, factionalism along religious and political lines has been a fixture of Jewish communal life. And, although the second half of the 20th century saw the sunset of many of the Jewish movements that had sprung to life in the preceding 100 years, and the twilight of others, unity within the ranks of our people remains as elusive as ever.
In Israel, where Jewishness inheres in the national warp and woof, it does not surprise that intra-Jewish dissension abounds, pitting the secular against the religious, the Sephardic underclass against the Ashkenazic elites, and the post-Zionists against everyone else. In America, however, the acceleration of Jewish assimilation and intermarriage and the shedding of all Jewish identity by ever greater numbers of Jews might have been expected to lessen the fractiousness. In fact, it has exacerbated it.
It is this conflict-ridden state of American Jewry that is the focus of Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry, a new book by former New York Times reporter Samuel Freedman. He skillfully crafts a moving portrait of a contemporary American Jewry riven by religious and political schisms and, ultimately, by irreconcilably divergent conceptions of what it means to be Jewish.
Freedman, who now teaches journalism at Columbia University, knows how to tell a tale, and makes full use of his narrative talents to weave a tapestry of eight vignettes, each highlighting a particular tinderbox of American Jewish communal strife. With an uncommon ability to make an abundance of detail engrossing rather than mind-numbing, Freedman excels at fashioning such details into period pieces that vividly recreate such elements of the 20th century American Jewish experience as the once-thriving Yiddishist and Labor Zionist milieu and the emergence of a nascent Orthodoxy in the decades following the Second World War.
Samuel Freedman Meets Rav Saadya Gaon
Jew vs. Jew’s central thesis, developed subtly throughout the book and argued squarely in its epilogue, is that "except for religion, none of the pillars of Jewish identity in America can bear its weight any longer." Although he is reluctant to acknowledge that "the Orthodox themselves have prevailed," the author is very clear about what he believes is the upshot of his book: "the Orthodox model"---that is to say, that only religion defines Jewish identity – "has triumphed."
This conclusion, so politically incorrect in the current "I’m OK, you’re OK" Jewish climate, is predictably unsettling to people like the book reviewer at the Forward who found Freedman’s epilogue "infuriating," but, in refutation, could muster only the retort that "it presents a single moment in Jewish time... as... a predictor of the future that will follow it." That, of course, is precisely what sociologists (and some journalists) do for a living---predict the future from trends of the present.
Interestingly, that same reviewer, in a column some months ago, assailed the writer David Klinghoffer’s assertion that "the defining Jewish criterion must not be blood, or culture... or any of the innumerable substitutes for Judaism that have been proposed by factions among our people... but Truth alone"---essentially, a more traditionalist version of Jew vs. Jew’s basic premise. What distressed the reviewer about that contention was its perceived "dismissal of the various ways some 83 percent of North American Jews live their Jewish lives," as well as, apparently, what struck him as Klinghoffer’s insufferable temerity in capitalizing the word "truth"---an unpardonable no-no for enlightened moderns who quite absolutely detest those who profess a belief in absolutes.
The reviewer proceeds---by all indications, in total seriousness---to enumerate "a partial list of what a traditionalist might regard as ‘substitutes for Judaism,’ but what a more generous observer would see as the glory of Jewish creativity and re-invention, from Sinai until today." The list includes Jewish gastronomy, genealogy and comedy, creative kippot, adult study classes on Bible, kabbala, history or Jewish cooking (which study constitutes "Torah lishma"), the federation system, the suburban synagogue (unfairly "maligned [as]... bourgeois and soulless"), bar mitzva candle-lighting ceremonies, the Marx Brothers and... "pick-and-choose Judaism." So there we have it – not merely the glorification of the utterly vapid trappings of American Jewish ersatz "Judaism," but their equation with what our nation received at Sinai. This, in capsule form, is what Samuel Freedman and others earnestly concerned about the future of American Jews and Judaism are up against.
Freedman is not the first, but merely the most recent, writer to propound this conception of religion as the one truly indispensable element of Jewishness. Several recent books have advanced the same view, most notably prominent neo-conservative thinker Elliot Abrams’ Faith or Fear, which generated similar "buzz" to that now being stirred up by Jew vs. Jew. And, of course, as Abrams himself observed in his book’s concluding section, the notion that Judaism is the essential determinant of Jewish identity is merely a rephrasing, in the contemporary idiom, of Rav Saadya Gaon’s famed aphorism, "Our nation is a nation only by dint of its Torah." Implicitly, then, these writers confirm a basic fact of Jewish history: that the inexorable march of events has its own way of settling long-running ideological debates and consigning to obscurity, and at times, ignominy, even the most temporally vigorous of "Jewish" movements – and that the American Jewish experience of the century just ended is no exception.
A Fair-Minded Effort
Although Jew vs. Jew addresses highly contentious topics like pluralism, feminism and the Israeli peace process, it strives admirably for impartiality, and usually succeeds. The author, raised in a self-described "intensely secular" home and presently Conservative-affiliated, makes no secret of his own religious and political sympathies, but prefers to let his cast of characters tell their own stories and his readers draw their own conclusions.
Freedman does not flinch, for example, from showing secular Jews to be capable of truly despicable attitudes and behavior towards their observant fellow Jews. He balances his description of Orthodox rowdies hurling invective and objects at mixed prayer services at the Kosel with accounts of secular American Jews screaming obscenities at a Lubavitcher youth or referring to Kiryas Yoel’s Satmar populace as "the most horrible people that G-d put breath in," and of feminist-minded liberal Jews labeling their more traditional fellow congregants "Neanderthals."
In the lengthy chapter on the battle over a proposed Orthodox campus in the Cleveland suburb of Beachwood, Freedman’s narrative lays bare both the hypocrisy and deep-seated loathing of the area’s non-Orthodox residents. Decades earlier, these very same Jews had overcome anti-Semitic opposition to a Reform temple’s move to Beachwood, couched obliquely as concern over quality-of-life and zoning requirements. This did not prevent them, however, from waging their own unrelenting, no-holds-barred battle to keep their town from becoming a "little Jerusalem" and going the way of another, now largely Orthodox neighborhood whose main thoroughfare they dubbed "Rue de la Peyes." Citing the same sort of aesthetic objections to which they had once been subjected, they blamed the Orthodox for the deterioration of Cleveland’s urban Jewish neighborhoods, a process the non-Orthodox themselves precipitated through their "white flight" to the outlying suburbs.
Freedman is also refreshingly forthright in his treatment of Denver’s short-lived interdenominational conversion project in the late ‘70s, pointing up the inherent limitations of cooperative initiatives in the religious realm. He documents the unraveling of the project, until its eventual collapse "under the weight of its own contradictions, fundamental differences in doctrine that no amount of belief in Klal Yisrael could wish away." In typical fashion, the author lets the protagonists describe how what was envisioned as a daring experiment in pluralism turned its Orthodox participants into nothing more than, in one Reconstructionist rabbi’s words, "mikvah dunkers."
Not surprisingly, the Orthodox rabbis involved came to feel "theologically fraudulent" as they were reduced to providing an imprimatur of legitimacy to Reform conversion candidates they had barely met, who bypassed kabbalas ol mitzvos "in favor of the Ten Commitments, which had been hashed out at the Regency Hotel, not handed down at Mount Sinai." The project’s collapse prompted Rabbi Stanley Wagner, one of its Orthodox architects, to conclude that "it’s erroneous to build the idea of Jewish unity on religious or ideological compromise."
Errors and Omissions
Given the book’s degree of detail, the author has succeeded in rendering it quite factually accurate. Nevertheless, the alert and informed reader will happen upon the occasional serious error. For example, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch is cast as the ideological forebear of Modern Orthodoxy, enamored of the Emancipation, whose disciples "added [to Hirsch’s Modern Orthodox philosophy] two other core principles, support for Zionism and the willingness to collaborate with non-Orthodox Jews." Even a passing familiarity with Hirsch’s literary oeuvre and the history of German neo-Orthodoxy show such notions to be not only incorrect, but at diametric odds with the Hirschian weltanschauung. This is a not insignificant point, in view of the past efforts of some individuals to add luster to their version of Modern Orthodoxy by portraying that ideology ahistorically as a legacy of Rabbi Hirsch.
Equally glaring in a work of this nature is the author’s failure to discuss in any detail the rise and growth of the ba’al teshuva movement. This book is, after all, a treatment of the fault lines between Jews with widely divergent religious approaches, or none at all. The existence, and persistence over decades, then, of a phenomenon in which many thousands---one informed estimate places the figure at upwards of 100,000---of secular and non-Orthodox-affiliated Jews from all walks of life have made the often wrenching transition to one or another variant of the Orthodox lifestyle, merits significantly more than a passing mention. Put simply, would not those who have traversed the seemingly unbridgeable Jew vs. Jew divide be fitting subjects for at least one chapter in a book bearing that title?
Through the vehicle of his lushly detailed, heavily biographical sketches, Freedman succeeds greatly in humanizing his subjects and providing an intimate window into their underlying emotional and intellectual complexities. It is thus unfortunate that none of the book’s episodes feature as a protagonist anyone who is a product of the chareidi world, particularly given the author’s own estimation of that community’s current ascendancy and assured future prominence. Although the book devotes much space to a largely positive portrait of one fervently Orthodox individual, Rabbi Daniel Greer, his unusual background renders him a less than fully representative figure.
The Invisible Jews
More troubling than the occasional factual error or omission, however, is the book’s oversimplification – or worse – of the philosophical bases and practical realities of chareidi life. While his resolve to remain fair-minded and employ the dispassionate journalist’s voice throughout is both evident and laudable, Freedman clearly lacks an intimate familiarity with the Orthodox community that figures so prominently throughout his book.
Thus, in the world of Jew vs. Jew, all chareidim seem to eschew secular education and are thereby forced into lowly teaching positions; are bent on incorporating ever more mindless stringencies into their religious practice; shun contact with the outside world wherever possible; and view the yeshiva rather than the family as "the epicenter of Orthodox life." The overall portrait of chareidi Jewry that emerges, however subtly, is a decidedly unsavory, vaguely threatening one: an undifferentiated mass of extremist, angry people preoccupied with censuring others and living in ever-present fear of various real and imagined dangers.
Facile generalizations of this sort are not unfamiliar to Orthodox readers, who by now may have grown accustomed to these literary equivalents of the funhouse mirror, in which they glimpse an image of themselves bearing only the faintest resemblance to the reality of their lives as Orthodox Jews.
Freedman, too, is a well-intentioned outsider to Orthodoxy looking in, but with few if any clear windows on that world. In the book’s "Acknowledgements" section, the author mentions scores of individuals who contributed in some measure to his work, but only a small minority of those so acknowledged is Orthodox, and almost none of them chareidi. Orthodox-authored entries in the book’s bibliography are, similarly, virtually nil.
A writer seeking to faithfully portray a community that is not his own is bidden to allow the community’s own thinkers to articulate its positions and suppositions. Certainly, there is no dearth of highly intellectual, well-spoken Orthodox individuals, not merely "experts on Orthodoxy," who could fill that role if invited to do so.
Even a minimally informed grasp of developments within Orthodoxy in recent decades would suffice to dispel many of the outlandish myths about Orthodox life. For example, the ubiquitous presence of deeply observant Jews at all levels of the professional, academic and business spheres of contemporary life and the extensive outreach by Orthodox organizations and individuals alike to Jews from across the religious spectrum are easily ascertainable facts that belie the trite characterizations of Orthodox insularity. An awareness, as well, of the exponential growth of Jewish learning and a resultant deepened commitment to religious growth within all sectors of Orthodoxy would make readily comprehensible such phenomena as the proliferation of highly idealistic Kollel scholars who pass up potentially lucrative careers for a life’s calling of teaching and public service, and the trend toward heightened standards in the performance of mitzvos born most often of a striving for spiritual excellence rather than of one-upsmanship.
Yet, the failure to give authentic, eloquent Orthodox voices the opportunity to explicate the underpinnings of that community’s beliefs and way-of-life effectively relegates its members to the status of "The Jews Who Weren’t There" (not to be confused with the essay of similar title by Rachel Adler, the feminist scholar who appears in Jew vs. Jew’s chapter on feminism, sporting a kippa crocheted with the word "apikoros" and acknowledging that she’s "allergic to having rabbis tell me what to do"). Of course, Samuel Freedman is not the villain here; the marginalization of the Orthodox, and the "fervently" so in particular, is a long-standing fact of Jewish communal life.
Missing The Point On Modern Orthodoxy
Nowhere is Freedman’s tenuous grasp of the inner workings of Orthodoxy and its philosophical predicates more evident than in his coverage of both intra-Orthodox divisions and feminism within and outside of Orthodoxy.
He identifies Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik as the pre-eminent intellectual force within Modern Orthodoxy, which he equates with an attitude supportive of cooperation with non-Orthodox denominations and the sanctioning of women’s prayer groups. Yet, as is well known, Rabbi Soloveitchik was outspoken in branding the modern-day Jewish heterodoxies more sharply deviant from Jewish tradition than even the Karaites of yore, and publicly urged Jews to forego the mitzva of hearing shofar if the only available venue for doing so was a non-Orthodox house of worship. According to some of those closest to him, he also adamantly opposed such feminist-inspired innovations as women’s prayer groups, women’s dancing with the sefer Torah, and any manner of tampering with liturgical custom, and viewed the feminist enterprise as a whole with profound dismay.
In the book’s epilogue, the author puts forth his prognostications regarding the future of American Jewry, which he sees fragmenting into four distinct groupings: Chareidi, Conservadox, Reformative and Just Jews. The Conservadox camp, Freedman posits, will result from the merging of Conservatism’s right wing with a Modern Orthodoxy that will experience a "crisis of definition" over the feminism issue, forcing it to "give up its already tenuous partnership with the chareidim" and become fully egalitarian in its religious practices.
What this conjecture ignores, however, are recent indications that feminism has hardly taken root within Modern Orthodoxy as deeply as some would have us believe. A 1999 study by feminist sociologist Sylvia Barack Fishman, for instance, reported that "many [respondents] expressed the belief that the [women’s prayer] groups themselves were a transient or transitional phenomenon," and revealed a generational divide in which younger Modern Orthodox women tend to reject much of the agenda of "Orthodox feminism" of their mothers’ era. These findings are also confirmed by a recent survey of students at Stern College for Women, a majority of whom reacted to women’s prayer groups with "a sense of ambivalence, confusion and rejection." Likewise, Lincoln Square Synagogue’s much-ballyhooed experimentation with a female "rabbinic intern," who has since departed, was, according to the New York Jewish Week, " marked by bitterness and regret," and "confirmed the traditional Orthodox argument that a woman rabbi could be a sexual distraction."
More fundamentally, Freedman’s vision of a future "Conservadoxy" fails to consider that for all their doctrinal spats, the various sectors within Orthodoxy all affirm the centrality of a belief in the Divinity of both the Written and Oral Torah, save for a handful of religiously radical, albeit vocal, individuals on the movement’s fringes. This foundational tenet, among others, opens a yawning ideological chasm that will not readily be bridged merely because the "[right wing] faction of Conservative clergy and laity already follows much of halakhah and espouses a good deal of... social conservatism."
Indeed, Freedman’s notion of the kind of traditionalism that would enable Conservatism to link arms with even the most liberal form of Orthodoxy is itself rather superficial. Thus, to support his assertion that, throughout the late nineties, the Conservative movement "embraced traditionalism in a series of major actions," he can cite only that denomination’s program of chapter-a-day Bible study (which parallels, writes Freedman, the Orthodox system of "reading the Talmud... a page a day") and its promulgation of policies barring intermarried Hebrew school teachers and summer campers who are not halachically Jewish.
Flaws on Feminism
As a preface to his chapter on the controversy that roiled a liberal Los Angeles congregation over whether to institute liturgical references to the Imahos (the four Matriarchs), the author undertakes a brief general treatment of gender issues in Judaism. Although his discussion contains several errors of fact, e.g., that women are prevented from performing mitzvos from which they are exempt, such as shofar and succa, that only female characters in the Torah were barren, he commendably avoids the more egregious factual distortions that are standard features in much of feminist-oriented writing in this area.
Unfortunately, Freedman’s prefatory discussion does share another tendency of women’s movement polemics that is aptly captured by the writer Hillel Halkin, certainly no Orthodox apologist himself. Halkin decries the "heedless assumption that if Judaism has not traditionally treated women as men’s ritual equals, this must be either a careless oversight on its part or simply gross sexism.... That in separating the sexes ritually Judaism may be making a statement about sexuality and sexual differentiation that is fundamental to itself,... indeed, that Judaism and feminism may be so opposed in their values that one must choose one or the other, does not even seem to have occurred [to many writers on the topic]."
Thus, Freedman speaks repeatedly in terms of "the tension between doctrine and custom on one side and the... belief in gender equality on the other." In so doing, he fails to perceive that those on the traditionalist side of the feminism issue do not reject the notion of gender equality per se, but hold a radically divergent conception of the nature and meaning of equality as applied in a spiritual, rather than secular, context. In Rabbi Mayer Twersky’s succinct phrasing: "Unlike its mathematical counterpart, ontological equality is not expressed in sameness or identity. While the Torah, assuredly, does not discriminate against men or women, undoubtedly it does discriminate between them."
In addition, for Freedman to write that in the ‘70s and ‘80s, "Who is a Jew?" was a question that "the female half of the American Jewish population was asking in terms of religious and social equality" is to blithely ignore the thousands of observant women, many of them every bit as accomplished and dynamic as any of their liberal counterparts, who believe they have an altogether satisfying answer to that question. This calls to mind a recent New York Times story on the Israeli Supreme Court decision permitting the Women of the Wall to hold women’s prayer groups at the Kosel. The story was captioned "Religion Loses a Round to Women In Israel," in cavalier dismissal of the innumerable Israeli women who not only emphatically reject the Women of the Wall’s agenda, but hold the deep conviction that in eschewing women’s prayer groups, "religion" is elevating women’s status rather than denigrating it.
Jew vs. Jew’s failure, mentioned earlier, to devote attention to the ba’al teshuva phenomenon, is felt particularly keenly in this chapter. The author’s efforts to provide "equal time" to differing viewpoints would have profited greatly, for example, had he spoken with some of the ba’alos teshuva featured in feminist sociologist Debra Renee Kaufman’s Rachel’s Daughters, or others who have returned to observance more recently. Even a reference to Kaufman’s above-mentioned landmark study of 150 newly observant women and her findings that "the most valued part of their lives has to do with their lives as women within Jewish orthodoxy" would have been meaningfully revelatory for the book’s readers.
The author might also have added to this chapter’s balance had he noted certain facts tending to show that Conservatism’s ever wider embrace of the feminist agenda stems less from a genuinely-held reinterpretation of halachic dictates than from a reflexive, politically correct submission to its laity’s demands to defer to whatever societal currents happen to be swirling about. While the fact that, in the words of Conservative academic Daniel Gordis, "both the halakhic agenda and the outcomes of halakhic discussions are now set by [the Conservative] laity," is demonstrably true in many contexts it is perhaps most pronounced in the movement’s approach to halachic issues involving women.
Thus, Freedman writes that "[a]fter four years of bruising debate among its faculty, the… [Jewish Theological Seminary] voted in 1983 to admit women for rabbinical training." A more accurate account, based on the Seminary’s recently-published official history, would have informed the reader that then-Chancellor of the Seminary Gerson Cohen had initially opposed women’s ordination but immediately dropped his opposition when a Seminary-commissioned survey found that the laity supported such an innovation; that Cohen initially was opposed by the Seminary’s entire Talmud faculty; and that he set about creating an independent commission on the issue, half of whose 14 members were laypeople and only one of whom was on the Talmud faculty, which enabled him to "ram the commission’s report down the Faculty’s throats." Indeed, leading Conservative Rabbi Joel Roth, who authored the pivotal paper supporting women’s ordination, notes that although "most of [the Seminary’s] world-recognized luminaries" opposed that move, "there were strong efforts to make them kiss the papal ring and accept the decision as infallible."
Similarly, the book admiringly describes how a feminist group called Ezrat Nashim almost single-handedly brought about the Conservative movement’s decision to include women in prayer quorums and call them up to the Torah, thereby rectifying "an affront to their intelligence, talent, and dignity." Surely, however, the reader would have been edified by Rabbi Roth’s observations on how the movement’s initial support for egalitarianism as an alternative approach in the interest of pluralism, has by now reverted to being the movement’s exclusive approach, with more traditional Conservative Jews being labeled misogynystic and morally deficient. Roth writes that "[w]hen Ramah camps simply ignored the Chancellor’s dictate that multiple minyanim be provided and instead provided only egalitarian minyanim... [or] when clear intimations are made that Conservative rabbis who oppose women in the minyan no longer have a place in the Movement, the commitment to pluralism is undermined." Or, as prominent Conservative scholar David Feldman summed up Conservatism’s exclusionary tendencies: "Convinced of, or insecure about, the moral correctness of our position, we declare the others to be immoral; we stigmatize dissent, we solicit uniformity."
When Emotion Prevails
Perhaps one of Jew vs. Jew’s most significant contributions is in focusing attention on the large role played by raw emotion in fostering and perpetuating intra-Jewish tensions. In virtually every chapter in the book dealing with discord between Jews with varying levels of religiosity, there appears, often barely noticeable among the verbal fusillades and ideological posturing, at least one comment that reveals the visceral emotional reactions churning beneath the surface of ostensibly principled disagreements.
In one poignant, and unfortunate, scene, Si Wachsberger, later to emerge as a leader of local efforts to oppose a planned campus of Orthodox institutions in Beachwood, Ohio, tells of being upbraided by an Orthodox shul-goer for tending his garden on Shabbos. The incident, along with other real or imagined slights of non-Orthodox Jews and Judaism, left Wachsberger with a sense "of being judged, scorned, found deficient as a Jew."
In many other contexts, though, ranging from Long Island’s Gold Coast to a bucolic Chassidic enclave to the pinnacle of Ivy League academe, the author portrays non-observant Jews whose sensibilities are seemingly offended by the mere fact of Orthodox Jews going about their Jewish business, as it were, taking advantage of the opportunity America affords them to live an unabashedly observant life.
Thus, the book’s prologue opens with a brief sketch of two neighboring couples in Great Neck, New York, who got along amicably until one of the couples became, in the other’s eyes, "fanatics... [who entertained] five or six other families from their synagogue" every Shabbos. Even the religious couple’s erection of a succa on their front lawn upset their still-secular neighbors as an act of "flaunting it... [i]n your face." Eventually, the secular couple moved away, after coming to feel progressively "surrounded, encroached upon, and implicitly judged."
In a similar vein, Freedman observes, "the hidden issue in the Yale Five case," in which Orthodox students sued to be exempted from Yale’s policy mandating on-campus residence in its mixed-gender dormitories, "to be found nowhere in all the legal documents, was who established the definition of Jewish, and more specifically Orthodox authenticity." His assessment receives direct confirmation from the pained acknowledgment of Betty Trachtenberg, the Yale dean of students who rejected the students’ exemption request: "Here I am, a person who identified as a Jew, raised my kids as Jews…. I didn’t want anyone to call into question who I was."
In truth, it is not only the Orthodox who evoke such reactions from those less observant. A case in point is last year’s acrimonious debate within the Reform movement over its proposed "Ten Principles" mission statement, which initially advocated an ambitious turn towards tradition, only to emerge after numerous drafts as a much-eviscerated "Statement of Principles." The proposed platform elicited strong reactions, both pro and con; typical of many of the negative responses was a letter to Reform Judaism magazine warning that adoption of the Principles would "[imply] that those who do not practice these are in some degree less Jewish." The pervasiveness of that sort of reaction led the author of the Principles to respond: "Where do we get these feelings? The Reform movement has never spoken this language---and so we need to help each other rise above the guilt it reflects."
The kinds of emotionally charged reactions illustrated above likely have their roots in several sources. For some, encountering, or being confronted---inexcusably so---by those more observant than they, may evoke feelings of guilt and inadequacy regarding their lack of observance and Jewish knowledge. And for some, the very fact of their co-religionists’ open and unapologetic observance is a visceral embarrassment that thwarts their own determined efforts to enter fully into America’s assimilationist embrace, or at the very least, to keep religion in the private domain so as to blend unremarkably into a society which looks askance at publicly practiced religiosity. Like one of Freedman’s protagonists in Jew vs. Jew, many Jews are, sadly, moved to express their deeper attachment to truly meaningful Jewishness through the living room display of a "line drawing of a davening Hasid, beaver hat on head," while, paradoxically, fighting to bar from their neighborhoods Jews whose religiosity is far less conspicuous than that of the "Hasid."
Moreover, the ability of Orthodox Jews to thrive in a wonderfully tolerant America while practicing, to varying degrees, a selective engagement with their host society, constitutes an implicit, if unintended, rebuke to the great numbers of Jews who have jettisoned parts or all of their Judaism in the belief that one could not "have it all." In this regard, ironically, the greatest unspoken challenge may be sensed by secular Jewry as issuing not from chareidim less engaged with the broader society, but rather from individuals like the Yale Five who, as the historian Jack Wertheimer notes, "represent a new phenomenon: modern-Orthodox Jews who are open to Western culture but …much more willing, in the name of Judaism, to adopt a culturally critical stance." One wonders whether the recent criticism leveled by some Jews at Senator Joseph Lieberman for too much public talk of G-d and religion does not, beyond the surface rhetoric of concern for separation of church and state, likewise evince a deeper discomfort with the Senator’s apparent ease in leading an observant, G-d-conscious, yet thoroughly contemporary, life.
Indeed, some of the more curious features of the dominant American Jewish mindset seem explicable only by reference to a paradoxical mix of Jews’ insecurity, embarrassment and concomitant desire to hold the growth and visibility of openly observed, full-time Judaism to a minimum, on the one hand, and their inchoate spiritual longings, on the other. How else to satisfactorily explain what Nathan Lewin has called "the greatest obstacle to the continuity of Judaism in America… the slavish, mindless, and reflexive devotion of American Jewish leadership to the ‘Wall of Separation’ between church and state…. [which] is more revered… than is the Western Wall in Jerusalem?"
How otherwise to account for perennial surveys reporting, variously, that while Jews are the least religiously observant Americans, their Jewishness means a great deal to them; that on the list of Jewish study topics, intermarriage is at the bottom and the Holocaust is at the top, because the latter does not exact, as Jacob Neusner puts it, "much cost in meaningful everyday difference from others"; and that Jews, possessed of what Freedman calls "a perverse longing... for anti-Semitism," persist in scouring the horizon for lurking Jew-hatred despite all the evidence that it continues to wane?
Whatever its sources, the emotional subtext of internecine Jewish conflicts cannot be dismissed, and, as Jew vs. Jew demonstrates, its impact upon the outcomes of those conflicts should not be underestimated. So long as unannounced, emotion-driven biases continue to exert their influence, consciously or otherwise, on issues of shared Jewish concern, the prospects for mutually respectful resolution of such matters appear to be dim indeed.
At the same time, the book’s stark depictions of non-observant Jews’ sensitivities sound a cautionary note regarding the need for observant Jews to act – and interact---in a way that balances a pride in, and commitment to, their beliefs with an attitude and demeanor that conveys an acceptance of every Jew and respect for his or her intrinsic worth. Perhaps it is not too daring to hope that such displays of authentic Torah-based behavior towards fellow Jews will, of their own accord, spark an opening of new channels of communication and goodwill that will, ultimately, help banish the alienation and estrangement between brethren that have been our people’s lot for far too long.
Eytan Kobre, is the director of Agudath Israel’s Project Equal Educational Access and an occasional contributor to various Anglo-Jewish publications.
These writers confirm a basic fact of Jewish history: that the inexorable march of events has its own way of settling long-running ideological debates and consigning to obscurity, and at times, ignominy, even the most temporally vigorous of "Jewish" movements---and that the American Jewish experience of the century just ended is no exception.
The avenue of exploration from within---what Hirsch called selbstbegreifendes---of Orthodoxy’s internal premises, is one the author does not seem to have pursued. But Samuel Freedman is not the villain here; the marginalization of the Orthodox, and the "fervently" so in particular, is a long-standing fact of Jewish communal life.
For some, encountering, or being confronted---inexcusably so---by those more observant than they, may evoke feelings of guilt and inadequacy regarding their lack of observance and Jewish knowledge.
And for some, the very fact of their co-religionists’ open and unapologetic observance is a visceral embarrassment that thwarts their own determined efforts to enter fully into America’s assimilationist embrace, or at the very least, to keep religion in the private domain so as to blend unremarkably into a society which looks askance at publicly practiced religiosity.
The ability of Orthodox Jews to thrive in a wonderfully tolerant America while practicing, to varying degrees, a selective engagement with their host society, constitutes an implicit, if unintended, rebuke to the great numbers of Jews who have jettisoned parts or all of their Judaism in the belief that one could not "have it all."