Post-Orthodoxy and loss of the 20th century definition of Orthodoxy.

Since it has reached my attention from people in real life -not online- that the term post-orthodoxy has gone from a meme to a buzz word, I will devote a few more posts to the term. Unlike my original post on the term among gen –y, I have been told that some people 35 years older are finding it a meaningful buzz word. I am not sure what we will have in the end of these posts, but here goes.

Let us now consider the term from the perspective of a thesis ‘POST ORTHODOXY’: AN ANTHROPOLOGICAL ANALYSIS OF THE THEOLOGICAL AND SOCIO-CULTURAL BOUNDARIES OF CONTEMPORARY ORTHODOX JUDAISM NEHEMIA STERN (unpublished MA, SUNY Binghamton, 2006.) Stern is studying for a PhD in anthropology and I assume that someday he will be a fine scholar. I thank him for providing me with a copy. However, the thesis was a journeyman’s work and he should not be judged on it. I will be reorganizing the material, providing a tighter framework than the original and a stronger conceptual scheme.

Stern claims that the clear sense of Orthodoxy as a fixed denomination as defined by the era of Rav Moshe Feinstein is over. Now we have a wide variety of practices and many lines to divide people formerly under a common banner of the term Orthodoxy. Meaning that the working definitions of the 1970’s and 1980’s are gone and people are now without a fixed order and have to work things out afresh.

Stern claims that lay people are now figuring out what it means to be Orthodox through their discussions on the internet, in turn this creates the formation of many micro cultural identities. The micro-cultures are the many echo chambers, group thinks, and blogging communities that have created new cultural boundaries.

Stern insightful point is that topics that once had a variety of accepted rabbinic opinions, in which one knew that there were liberal and strict opinions has now been reframed as whether one is a heretic, outside orthodoxy and whether one accepts rabbinic authority. Inside/outside has replaced strict/lenient. The topic that is mediated is no longer the halakhah as found in the Rabbinic books rather the topci debated is Rabbinic authority. Topics are no longer debates of two rabbinic authorities in which a practitioner accepts one position. Now, there is only one correct position and those who disagree are heretics.

Even very small decisions in the grand scheme of things, such as a decision whether to eat Hebrew National franks is not decided as a Kashrut question, but as a snowball discussion about gedolim, science, rabbinic authority, and obedience. Rather than a strict and lenient position questions open up a Pandora’s box of issues of boundary issues.

Finally, these changes are incomprehensible using older models so the baby-boomers are clueless. Stern claims that those whose model is still from an earlier decade have trouble with the new shifts and mixing of older categories. There are dozens of patterns of belief and practice, few of which continue the recognized older patterns.

In sum, Post- Orthodoxy is the sense that the older definition has faded, that everything is now pitched as question of boundary and heresy. In this new era, lay people create their own boundaries using blogs and newspapers and are thereby creating a post-Orthodox world of new identities.

In a post Orthodox world the choice of practices and rituals one performs or takes part in, tell more about a person then his/or her choice of denomination. Separations are made through practices and not so much through beliefs. This paradigm of praxis differs markedly from the ways in which Rabbi Moshe Feinstein attempted to shape Jewish Orthodoxy within the twentieth century. For Feinstein the boundary of that which is intolerable rested on ones denomination. For example, Feinstein could recognize one who desecrates the Sabbath as being within the
frame of Orthodoxy, so long as that desecration occurs out of a sense of teyavon (desire). Thus, if one is required to work on the Sabbath to feed ones family that is considered ‘desire’. If one watches television on the Sabbath out of a sense of loving television, that
too is desire. However, the instant that desecration turns into an ideology, an intolerable deviation suddenly occurs. Thus, Reform and Conservative Judaism’s acted as intolerable deviations (from the stand point of Orthodoxy) because they ignored or negated (from the Orthodox perspective) various practices and rituals out of a sense of ideology, and not desire.

In the post Orthodox era of the twenty-first century, individuals gather either on the internet, in groups, or via letters to the editor, and discuss this wave of ‘crime’. In the process of discussion, various sensibilities and ideologies are being negotiated. These negotiations pierce the philosophical heart of what it means to be ‘Orthodox’ in the twenty-first century. The definition of rabbinic authority, the role of rabbinic authority, the delineations between Science and Torah, between governmental control and communal practice, are under a constant process of negotiation and mediation. Some individuals may discuss these themes in an effort to forge definitive answers. Yet in many ways, these efforts are irrelevant. Answers have never been reached. These discussions however, serve a social function. They operate to demarcate and define social and religious boundaries between people. By discussing that which is intolerable, by questioning the very notion of the intolerable, an Orthodox group, “supplies the framework within which the people of the group develop an orderly sense of their own
cultural identity”

Whereas in the previous century the discourse rested on the interpretation of the opinions of the cultural broker (indeed there existed a plurality of mutually respected interpretations), in the 21st century the discourse has shifted slightly to the authority of the culture broker (Da’as Torah) and subsequently to the creation of theological boundaries and separations.

Thus over two packages of heretical franks…The conversation that ensued was ethnographically fascinating in that we could not discuss the legal topic of Kashruth without discussing the meta-thematic issues of Rabbinic authority.

Individuals who were primarily educated in the previous century may have difficulty comprehending religious conceptions that question classical boundaries… Where once two or three delineations were enough to categorize ones Orthodoxy, today a plethora of different delineations are being made.

Stern offers lists of the controversies of the last few years, all well known to those who are keeping up with the world of blogs. The controversies include Slifkin, metizah bepeh, organ donation, bugs in the water, shidduch crisis, Hindu temple hair, and Chabad messainism, Much of the MA is devoted to a collection of snippets about these topics.

Stern claims that these controversies eroded the fixed positions of religion and science, religious authority, and education. There are five new criteria that have destabilized the older definition: Jewish outreach, Gedolei Yisroel, the semiotics of holiness and purity, and invoking of acceptance of rabbinic authority They created unclear lines of who is on what side. And most importantly, they have served among lay people, who inhabit blogs, newspapers, and eat at pizza shops, as a means for them to argue, debate, and reach new understandings of Orthodoxy.

The new positions created in these popular venues are not intellectual or even ideological positions but cognitive frameworks for dealing with change. Reactions are in crisis mode and emotionally charged because of the need to regain a stable world order. For Stern, these new restructures, even when speaking about Rabbinic authority, are highly personal. An Orthodoxy “that is constructed of our own experiences, language, culture, and temperament”

A feeling of ‘dramatic crisis’ is created, as the boundaries and definitions of Orthodoxy are called into question…. Controversies and newly found religious stringencies are used to help reinterpret a definition of and a boundary for Orthodox Judaism.

For the purposes of this thesis, religious fundamentalism occurs when an individual (or a group of individuals) reflexively reinterpret their theological assumptions. In this paradigm, modernity acts as a backdrop to this reinterpretation. Fundamentalism then acts as more of a cognitive then an ideological framework. Martin Reisbrodt in his essay Fundamentalism and its Resurgence in Religion (2000)… For Reisbrodt religious fundamentalism refers to a“type of religious revival movement which reacts to social changes perceived as a dramatic crisis. In such movements people attempt restructure their life worlds cognitively, emotionally, and practically, reinvent their social identities and regain a sense of dignity, honor, and respect (2000. 271).

The physical sites of such controversies may be a pizza store, a kitchen, the internet, or the pages of a newspaper
The standard Orthodox meta narratives that deal with, denominationalism, rabbinic authority, and secular knowledge are no longer enshrined in stone when viewed in the light of a world “that is constructed of our own experiences, language, culture, and temperament”

Post-Orthodoxy is a term for those drawn into the vortex of ever new controversies, those who feel an urgency to deal with them, and those who use them to help create new lines.

To be continued in a Part Two with some of Stern’s examples of the new varieties and my own reaction to Stern attempt at providing historical causality. But do you think his analysis rings true?

Copyright © 2010 Alan Brill • All Rights Reserved

8 responses to “Post-Orthodoxy and loss of the 20th century definition of Orthodoxy.

  1. Was the defining boundary of the 1950s, M&Ms (mechitza and microphone) all about strict interpretation of the letter of the law? There are enough responsa that show poskim being doubtful about this. See, for example, a recent post on Text & Texture, about microphones on Shabbat. One possek talks of microphones as possibly not inherently prohibited, but muktza machmat mius dereformim.

    [edited by siteowner- please skip the download of broad 19th century analogies. if you had a specific case in a specific year with a known specific effect that would be different.]

    However, he is right about the role of a more grass-roots form of communication being at the root of a reexamination of boundaries. The internet has empowered the common man to make his voice heard, and suddenly kindred opinions join in debate and marginal amorphous groups gather more force than was ever conceivable before.

    I very much like the definition:
    Post-Orthodoxy is a term for those drawn into the vortex of ever new controversies, those who feel an urgency to deal with them, and those who use them to help create new lines.

    In that sense, Post Orthodoxy is an era, not a group; it describes the current state of Orthodoxy, and that description resonates with me.

    • Was the defining boundary of the 1950s, M&Ms (mechitza and microphone) all about strict interpretation of the letter of the law? There are enough responsa that show poskim being doubtful about this. See, for example, a recent post on Text & Texture, about microphones on Shabbat. One possek talks of microphones as possibly not inherently prohibited, but muktza machmat mius dereformim.

      No one said that and that is a different discussion. These debates were left to the Poskim. People did not label those who used microphones as heretics or violating rabbinic authority.People knew that most prohibited microphones, Baltimore had a grandfather clause to use them, and that out of town YU rabbis used them. But it did not create three groups or lead to accusations or social divisions.
      Even the collection of boundaries that separated Conservative and Orthodox were not taken seriously by most lay people as creating two groups.In fact, it was hard getting most lay people to take any of this seriously until the end of the 1970s. Once you were labeled as Orthodox, you were Orthodox. Internal division within Orthodoxy did not drive definitional divisions. even within a YI there would likely be 4-5 levels of kashrut. On one extreme considered all dairy is kosher and used the non-shomer shabbt butcher and baker to the other side that drive out of its way to the bakery with a specific hekhsher. That is not true today.

      • So you agree that at least at the leadership level, people were fighting identity battles and drawing boundaries for decades. One may then see the current situation as the successful outgrowth of the boundary drawing of the 1950s, with one important limitation. You document that hamon ‘am did not truly feel that the boundaries were clearly demarcated. Today, even though many people bought into the successful rabbinically initiated identity politics of the past, there are a lot of people who still do not accept them, and today, with the very bottom up communications tools, such as blogs and email lists, these hamon ‘am are becoming more visible and form informal groups and make their voice be heard. Fascinating, but somewhat less revolutionary than Stern would have us believe.

      • So you agree that at least at the leadership level, people were fighting identity battles and drawing boundaries for decades.

        No I do not agree. The microphone case did not create boundaries, on the contrary it shows the lack of boundaries. The leadership was not having identity battles- there were real disagreements for the sake of heaven in which social demarcation was not demanded. Definitions of Orthodoxy were drawn 1948-1957 using Conservative as a foil, but once in place they stayed there for 50 years. And boundaries of Agudah, using MO as a foil, were drawn 1963-1965 and then stayed there.
        Laity in the 1960 did not pay attention because they were disinterested and hypo- critical, now the laity is hyper-critical.

  2. There were many great posts this weekend, and I will not address all the important points made here. However, I wonder if the Post-Orthodox (Po-O?) discussion has omitted the antipathy to Zionism I find among many of my peers? It seems like MO assumed a strong Zionist bent that many people cannot get behind. I am surprised there has been less talk about this than seemingly smaller issues of doctrine or kashruth.

  3. Jonathan Hirsch

    Some other factors of post orthdoxy is the perceived triumph of Orthodoxy. Some now want to adopt what they perceive as the critical success factors of Orthodoxy- general high level of ritual of observance- yet they want the intellectual freedom of the Conservative movement.
    Yet, at the same time the problem is that the Modern Orthodox establishment has little to offer to engage people from the above mentioned intellectual viewpoint.

  4. One thing that this thesis has hit upon is the rapidity and punctuality of crisis in the past decade.

    This is not just a product of new modes of communication. The destabilization of Orthodoxy certainly owes its origins to trends that have been taking shape since a stable orthodox identity formed including:

    The growth of self-contained Hareidi communities and self-contained Modern Orthodox communities.

    The inability to extricate American consumerist culture from American Popular culture leading to the inexorable penetration of American popular culture into all but the farthest reaches of Orthodoxy.

    The under appreciated influence of the ba’al teshuva movement. (in effect, the importation of a crisis culture)

    The fact that current rabbinic-communal leaders do not share institutional and/or familial ties.

    And contra Chakira I think that there is a growing apathy toward Zionism as an ideology that previously was used to demarcate intradenominational boundaries, now replaced with an overarching shared pragmatism toward Israel. Other issues are then needed to maintain these borderlines.

  5. based on what you have said, how do we know that this is a move to a post Orthodox era and not simply a re-alignment of boundries that will soon enough set in.
    my comment was meant to respond to Prof. Brill’s. it some how was posted above

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