Friday, March 30, 2007

A Brief Guide to Orthodox Jewry

Menachem Butler sends regularly to his large company of admirers material from obscure sources that he locates while prowling the Internet. Hopefully, the practice will continue, but without impeding the academic progress of a young man from a family that has been a blessing to our people who himself is blessed with admirable personal and intellectual qualities.

A recent offering is another exercise in pseudo-sociology, this from a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who to borrow from one of her footnotes is guilty of “egregious narcissism” as she describes in a lengthy article her visits to a Chabad girls’ school and a Christian school. At least with respect to the former, she manages to get much wrong. Why is it that academics and journalists stumble badly when they write about Orthodox Jews? The answer cannot be that they are ignorant, although there is an excess of this quality. More likely, they know or think they know much about the subject before the research and writing begin, bringing to the task a bunch of preconceptions. They find what they set out to find and too much of what they set out to find is unfavorable, contrary to the methodology of cultural anthropology and sociology. They do not bring to their assignments either empathy or awe, two qualities that should be present when outsiders are examining the behavior of a group that they insufficiently understand.

We read often about real and alleged wrongdoing by this or that Orthodox Jew or about some inconsequential intra-Orthodox conflict. Do we read or know about, to take one example, Hamodia which is a well-edited and attractive English-language daily newspaper that is published by a chassidic group? There is an emphasis on social pathologies among religious Jews, although the incidence is far less than it is elsewhere and although it is hard to find another group that has established such an extraordinary network of self-help projects as the Orthodox have.

There are guides detailing how to live a religious Jewish life. What follows is a brief, albeit incomplete, guide to the sociology of American Orthodoxy.

As with all of American Jewry, Orthodox population figures are estimates and there is disagreement regarding the total. Likely, the figure is between 500,000-600,000, reflecting steady but not rapid population growth despite a remarkably high fertility rate, notably in the fervently Orthodox sectors. Growth is held down by defections away from Orthodoxy which probably exceed the gains achieved through outreach, although it is not possible to be sure, as well as by aliyah and the expanding singles phenomenon which while not as widespread as in the general society, has a considerable impact on the Orthodox community.

Despite their small number, the Orthodox comprise an array of subgroups. While internal divisions are not as fractious as they once were, there are significant differences in practices and beliefs. I reckon four major subgroups – Modern Orthodox, Centrist Orthodox, Yeshiva World and Chassidic. There are, in turn, nuances and distinctions within each of these groupings. There are moderns who veer toward a greater acceptance of modernity and others who tend toward greater Orthodoxy. In the yeshiva world, there are those who keep the door a bit open to what the outside world offers and there are those who want to keep it shut. Among chassidim, there is the well-known division within Lubavitch between the messianists and anti-messianists and we know of intra-Satmar conflict.

Ideological and theological conflict over Israel has become less intense. Orthodox Jews once identified themselves as Democrats and fairly liberal on social issues. That has changed enormously, reflecting a powerful conservative trend, especially among the fervently Orthodox. The impact of the general society is bi-directional. There is some adaptation, including in attitudes, dress and lifestyle elements – an example is recreational travel – while there are expanding forbidden zones as efforts are made to guard against outside influences that are hostile to religious values and requirements.

Yeshiva or day school is imperative for nearly all children of school age, with each subgroup having schools it identifies with. With few exceptions, chassidic groups have their own mini-school systems. The strong tendency is to continue religious study past high school, here or in Israel, and among young men often for a significant number of years. This reflects both communal norms and higher educational patterns in the larger society. Secular higher education is often delayed, but contrary to what many think, it takes place, with the most Orthodox taking advantage of arrangements that are tailor-made for them.

Work patterns vary. Those of a modern orientation tend toward the professions, chassidim toward entrepreneurship and yeshiva world graduates toward communal employment, including teaching in yeshivas. Again contrary to popular supposition, Orthodox participation in the labor market is no less – and it may be above – what it is in the general society. Reflecting both societal trends and financial necessity, Orthodox women have increased significantly their participation in the labor force.

Large family size, tuition, religious requirements and communal imperatives such as the need to live in areas where Orthodox cluster and real estate is expensive result in considerable financial stress. Breadwinners who earn what may be regarded as a decent income, cannot get by. There is a tendency for parents to provide support. There are also considerable pockets of Orthodox affluence.

The Orthodox are not immune from what occurs in the outside world and so there is a growing incidence of divorce, drug abuse and other pathologies. A listing of the major Orthodox voluntary projects dealing with these and other needs would occupy more space than is available in this column.

The Orthodox seem always to be in a hurry. This isn’t surprising in view of family size and commitments, simchas and communal events, work obligations, synagogue attendance, Torah study and the determination to assist those in need. Being Orthodox is not easy. Thank G-d, there is Shabbos.