By now everyone has read, reacted, or over reacted to the essay by Peter Beinart, The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment. For a summary and links to many reactions, see JTA or Alison Ramer and Menachem Mendel. I also assume everyone has read the interesting three part interview with Jeffrey Goldberg at the Atlantic.
My interest remains focused only on religion and how it plays itself out in people’s lives. I will leave to other people and other blogs to deal with the politics. However, in the second installment of the interview with Goldberg, I found the following snippet dealing with religion.
Jeffrey Goldberg: It’s interesting to me that you, an Orthodox Jew, don’t answer the question about Zionism in any sort of theological way whatsoever.
Peter Beinart: I didn’t call myself an Orthodox Jew; I said I attend an Orthodox synagogue. But anyway, it’s a reasonable question. I feel a spiritual connection through Jewish observance–when I’m in shul, on Shabbat, even through kashrut. And I feel a spiritual connection to Jewish people–a certain delight at certain Jewish idiosyncracies, at a sense of global peoplehood.
My immediate question is what does this say about those gen x’ers who floated into Orthodoxy during the great revival of the last decades. How do they combine the warm of Shabbat with their liberalism, theological openness, and not fitting into the rigid Orthodox categories. Would the post-orthodox vortex of those demanding rigid definitions of belief and practice throw him out of their sectarian imaginary? Does he fell uncomfortable around Orthodox political views? So I emailed Peter and received the following response.
Although there are a lot of Orthodox Jews in my family (my mother is Sephardi, which doesn’t always translate easily into American categories), I was raised in a Conservative synagogue. I began going to Orthodox synagogues in my 20s.
What appealed to me was the dedication to Jewish learning, which I have come to believe is the only path to Jewish continuity. I feel in many ways limited by the fact that I did not attend Jewish school, and want my children to learn more, far more, than I did at their age. In a way, I’m more concerned with their knowledge than their observance, though I suspect and hope that the latter will follow the former. (In any case, we’re less strictly observant than some). If they can feel confident in a Jewish religious context, it will always be available to them, even if they drift away for periods of their lives. I’m also attracted to Modern Orthodoxy’s vision of a life in which one can be faithful to halacha (though I myself could be more faithful) and also truly at ease in the world, recognizing the truth and beauty in non-Jewish things.
In addition, I have always felt a sense of community that I consider precious: the involvement that people have in each other’s lives, the long, lazy stretches of time during a shabbat meal or at the park on Saturday afternoon, a series of friendships that are not based on work (which I find is very common in Washington), the amount of time we spend in each other’s homes, the way we watch each other’s kids grow up.
I think I’ve also been lucky because my community is very tolerant both in terms of observance and political opinion, even on Israel. (I didn’t realize quote how tolerant until I wrote my essay).
That makes it much easier for me to deal with those parts of Orthodoxy that do trouble me: for instance, the participation of women. I might have grativated to some more egalitarian conservadox minyan, but the fact that there are so many successful, empowered, articulate women in my community makes me feel more comfortable on questions of gender. There is also a sense of irony and good humor about Orthodox Jewry’s foibles among our friends that I greatly value.
So I suppose I compromise my liberalism to participate in an Orthodox community, but I’m willing to do so because I am so enriched by it in so many ways. (And perhaps because I fear that a more universalistic Jewish community would be less of a true Jewish community). So it’s a little like Zionism. I recognize that to be a Zionist I have to compromise my liberalism: I have to support a Jewish state, which by definition will never be able to provide absolute equality to its non-Jewish citizens. But I try to do so while still hoping for as much liberalism as possible. I’ve never felt my community is demeaning or disrespectful to women or gays or lesbians or non-Jews, even as I do remain bothered by the roles according to all those groups in mainstream Orthodox practice.
I’ve also been inspired by various people who are far more learned than me who are also highly critical of certain illiberal, even racist, tendencies that they see in the Orthodox community, and in Israel. They have modeled for me a life of Jewish commitment that is not morally complacent, and which is zealous about the rights and dignity of non-Jews, both in the US and the Middle East.
On the essay itself, I’ve been pleasantly surprised–even moved–by the reaction from the Jewish Week and from Nathan Diament, who runs the Washington office of the OU. I don’t expect that publication or organization to agree with my views on Israel, but if there is marginally more concern for the declining Zionism of non-Orthodox Jews, and for the kind of attitudes expressed at the 2002 Israel rally, where a largely Orthodox crowd booed a call to recognize Palestinian suffering, then I will be gratified.
We seem to have a functional religion adding value and community to life. His religion is not very theological. Regarding problematic ideas and values, we see an important role played by those who are ironic or critical toward towards their Orthodoxy as helping to make Orthodoxy more welcoming. It seems these friends help lower any religious tensions or cognitive dissidence. I was pleased to see the tolerance and acceptance of diversity within the community, or at least among his friends and acquaintances.
If you comment, limit it to religion. Post the politics on one of the other blogs.