To outsiders, religious groups seem to be undifferentiated masses of adherents. From the inside, there are varying degrees of religiosity and nuances in practices and beliefs that often are not picked up by outsiders, particularly those who traffic in stereotypes, a failing that afflicts some who are allegedly adept in the sociology of religion.
Religious groups also reflect social change, how the external world brings about mutations in the behavior and attitudes of group members. Change can be in the direction of greater or lesser religiosity or concurrently in both directions, a phenomenon that is evident in contemporary Orthodox Jewish life. Among some, modernity results in a diminution of religious commitment, while among others the reaction against modernity provokes the opposite outcome. The Modern Orthodox or MOs especially are subject to this dualism, although it is to an extent true of all sectors of Orthodoxy, as well as other religious groups.
Of the three primary religious paths available to the MOs - moving away from Orthodoxy, stability in religiosity and greater religiosity - successive National Jewish Population Surveys indicate that moving away from Orthodoxy is the most prevalent path. There is much qualitative evidence pointing in the same direction. There is also a high incidence of stability, as is demonstrated by the steady enrollment increases in MO day schools, this despite a) defections from Orthodoxy, b) some movement toward greater religiosity and c) significant MO aliyah. The least likely path for MOs is becoming charedi or fervently Orthodox.
This last direction is the subject of "Sliding to the Right," the new book by Samuel Heilman who has been fixated for quite a while on the prospect of a charedi take-over of Modern Orthodoxy. The book is an expansion of a Heilman lecture published last year in "Contemporary Jewry" (Vol. 25, 2005) under the title "How Did Fundamentalism Manage to Infiltrate Contemporary Orthodoxy?" What follows is a nasty picture bereft of the slightest feelings of empathy or understanding of the nuances that abound in Orthodox life. In Heilman's distorted telling, Orthodox Jews are in the Dark Ages or rapidly heading in that direction, as they are engulfed in a sea of fundamentalism, a term that he uses promiscuously in his obsessive determination to assign negative characteristics to these Jews.
As an antidote to Heilman's concocted conspiracy, it's worth reading Aaron Rose's, "The Haredim: A Defense," published in the latest issue of Azure. Rose is an ex-charedi.
Heilman's main fixation is not with charedim whose life-style he describes in stereotypic fashion without any appreciation of their differences or career and educational paths. He is most exercised over the MOs who are betraying Modern Orthodoxy by becoming less modern, although in dress and numerous other behaviors they are quite distinct from charedim. This change arises from sinister - meaning fundamentalist - forces that conspire to move MOs into the charedi camp. As with all conspiracy theories, Heilman's is constructed out of a daisy chain of circumstances that exists largely in his mind.
His starting point is the MO day school where charedi teachers bring "their ideological baggage." Once inside, they import "a worldview and ethos that conflicted with that of modern Orthodoxy," seeing "their presence in the day school as evidence of the ideological weaknesses and flaws of the modern Orthodox worldview" and instilling "in their students many of the values and ideas of the yeshiva or even the contemporary hasidic world. In effect, these people were agents-provocateurs who came from one segment of the Orthodox world to influence another by undermining many of its acculturationist values ... One of the reasons why they were willing to step out of their enclaves and into the defiled domains of the day school," was that this allowed them to promote "a haredi, fundamentalist message."
To be generous, this is nuts. These are teachers in co-educational schools who do not set the curriculum or ambiance, schools where Zionism and modernity are constantly on display. As with teachers everywhere, some have an impact. But agents-provocateurs? If Heilman would approach his subject as a sociologist and not as a polemicist, he would at least ask how is it that far many more MO students abandon religiosity.
The conspiracy continues with a year or two of Israel study after high school. If you think that young men and women go to Israel because of their love for the Jewish State and yearning to be there, you have it wrong. In Heilman's conspiratorial mindset, anxieties that predate "a more reactionary Orthodoxy, led increasingly to the practice of sending day school graduates for a year or two" to yeshivas and seminaries in Israel.
There is no allowance for the possibility of students or, as likely, their parents deciding to move somewhat away from modernity without embracing fundamentalism. There is no recognition that they may be rejecting what Rabbi Saul Berman has termed "the debasement of the low secular culture in America." There is no allowance that MOs have come to appreciate the glory of Torah study, in part as a consequence of ArtScroll's magnificent publications which Heilman describes as having a "haredi outlook." There is no acknowledgement that a bit more religion might be a good thing.
Heilman concludes his description of the new Orthodox dystopia by comparing Islamic schools and yeshivas, something that he has done in previous writings. The comparison is odious, even morally obscene, in view of the suicide bombers and other evils attributable to the former. This does not curtail a writer who concludes his nasty polemic by writing that the "new Orthodox fundamentalist guardians of the faith could turn out to be its jailers."
Indeed, Heilman has reached a point where he is the prisoner of his own fantasies and falsehoods.