That Thing We Do

I need an intervention. No matter how much I try to move away from writing about Noah Feldman’s The Orthodox Paradox, I keep getting called back by the tantalizing aromas of fresh opinions. The way it makes me feel part of something bigger than myself, the way it makes my worries wash away, the way it builds my self-confidence… My name is Micah and I am an Orthodox-Paraholic.

But maybe one last taste?

Andrew Silow-Carroll, the ever-insightful editor of the New Jersey Jewish News, wrote a follow-up to his op-ed “The way we do the things we do.” In that essay he argued that the Feldman essay–and a recent volley of intellectual fireworks between Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Conservative movement’s rabbinical seminary, and Joey Kurtzman, editor of Jewcy–demonstrated the growing schism between the “particularists” and the “universalists.” The particularists, like Wertheimer, see Judaism first and foremost as a culture and view Jewish strength in inverse relationship to Jewish assimilation. The universalists, like Kurtzman (and to a lesser extent, Feldman), see Judaism as a universally accessible philosophy that is compromised by the obsession over communal boundaries. Silow-Carroll is more sympathetic to the first position–indeed, he lives his life by the rules of the particularist–but in this new column, he wonders whether his “choices will ensure the survival of anything.”

It’s not that he thinks his decisions to live in a Jewish neighborhood, go to synagogue regularly and send his children to Jewish day school are misguided, but rather that he doesn’t have complete confidence that his strategy, or any strategy for that matter, will guarantee Jewish continuity. Among most Jewish establishment thinkers, it’s accepted wisdom that because the Orthodox are the fastest-growing portion of the American Jewish community, only a focus on religious ritual, Jewish education and segregated living will lead to continued Jewish strength. In the modern view, the assimilation and secularization of the Jewish mainstream over the last 70 years has been a failure for Judaism. But, says Silow-Carroll:

The problem with this analysis, as I wrote at the time, is that it presents the current Jewish era as the inevitable consequence of the history that preceded it as well as a predictor of the future that will follow it. To have performed the same exercise 100 years ago would have yielded the opposite conclusion: The Orthodox model would have been seen as the least successful model in Jewish history, in that 90 percent of its adherents abandoned its strictures for different lives in America and Palestine.

Jewish “particularism” would have been a social disaster even 50 years ago, when anti-Semitism was still a barrier in so many ways. No one can say which strategies will be demanded — and will make demands on us — 10, 20, or 30 years from now. Each generation calls forth its own corrective. If followers of the “Orthodox model” — and I include myself among them — think we’ve reached the end of Jewish history and that our children and grandchildren will come out as our clones in the Jewish choices they make, then we are very likely in for a shock.

Silow-Caroll’s op-eds and Kurtzman’s and Feldman’s essays make me wonder if perhaps the future of Judaism won’t be found in particularism or universalism, but perhaps in some yet-unforeseen synthesis of the two. Or perhaps a third way altogether. About the only lesson we can draw from Jewish history is that those who care about their Judaism in some way will also find some way to perpetuate it.

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