Peter Beinart on his Orthodox affiliation

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.

6 responses to “Peter Beinart on his Orthodox affiliation

  1. I have only met a handful of people like Peter Beinhart (a friend of my extended family) , who are attracted to Modern Orthodoxy for the reasons he describes. and then mostly in enclaves like Kesher and parts of Silver Spring, the UWS, and perhaps parts of LA.

    These people generally would not call themselves “baalei teshuva” nor do they fit that mold which generally involves 1) active recruitment or involvement in an official outreach program 2) some kind of soul searching/life crisis 3) a rejection of liberalism and liberal feminism 4) a somewhat naive commitment to an idealized hareidi ideology/mythology.

    In the time that I’ve been living off the coasts I have encountered an exploding population of people in this latter category, especially in places like Dallas and Detroit where hareidi revivalism is flourishing while modern Orthodoxy is struggling.

    I’m still waiting for someone to write a serious book on the modern BT movement which was started by handful of charismatic rabbis and has become one of the major economic engines of the hareidi world.

    [By the way, Kesher actually has a quasi egalitarian minyan – the “cookie minyan,” where you will likely find many of Mr. Beinhart’s friends davening/singing with their young children with equal participation of both sexes and no mechitza. Not all of those people make it upstairs for the official service on a given shabbat.]

  2. It would be fascinating to survey some Orthodox synagogues to see what proportion of their population shares Beinhart’s values and approach to Orthodoxy (in the closet or not). I suspect that a) it is a sizable proportion of many synagogues, and b) the spiritual leaders of those shuls — not realizing how much of it exists — generally under-cater to the needs of that portion of the population.

  3. I have a good friend who was president of an Orthodox synagogue while he was also defending someone who turned out to be a member of Al-Qaeda. His former client had more of a problem with my friend’s connections to Israel than his Jewishness. When he was honored at his shul’s annual dinner, it was not surprising that the Al-Qaeda connection got top billing from everyone who spoke when it came to saying something funny.

  4. a) it is a sizable proportion of many synagogues,

    Without any serious sociological work – we get divergent guesses ranging from a small number to a majority. With such a wide range, I suspect we may be talking about several different factors.
    Most of the narratives of the journey to Orthodoxy were about warmth and community.
    Those that seek warm and community but are a-theological may be a majority. Those that are ironic and skeptical- not as many. Those that are liberal we have surveys at- 25%. What are all the sub factors in this approach?
    Orthodoxy of the last decades tended to focus on trees at the expense of forests, little bursts of ideas and not fundamentals. I am not sure that a large percentage looks at big questions or from an outsiders perspective even if the old answers no longer satisfy.

    b) the spiritual leaders of those shuls — not realizing how much of it exists — generally undercater to the needs of that portion of the population.

    What do you think they should do? What should they be like?
    If one has a clueless rabbi – why would it serve you better if they thought on a 11th grade level instead of an 8th grade level? Maybe we want rabbis to stay out of our hair, so the clueless the better. How could they serve the needs of the liberal, when you have discussed how they could not even read a Beinhart article with comprehension?

  5. I grew up in a YU-affiliated, modern-orthodox shul out of town (outside NY). Most of the membership was not orthodox, even as there were about 20-30 committed core frum families. Among this core, there were some “Haredi-leaning” families, but the community itself (including these families) was very open and warm even toward those who had different orthodox ideologies.
    Those “masorati” families were attracted to the shul because 1) they liked the traditional service because they grew up with it 2) they were attracted to it by the shul’s organized social activities. My experience in NY and NJ was that many modern orthodox shuls were self-focused; there were few people outside the range of modern orthodoxy, as the service was not ‘user-friendly” (e.g. page numbers were not announced, etc.), and, in many places, there was little singing, and the service went too quickly for someone who was not fully educated (or even those who were fully educated!) to keep up. In some shuls, no one bothered to say hello. It is not surprising that in those outlying communities in which the orthodox are forced to interact with the non-orthodox, that there are more non-orthodox Jews who find an orthodox shul attractive; the ideological fissures between different groups of Jews are not as wide. Once the orthodox community becomes too big and too self-sufficient, there is no perceived need to reach outwards. Nor is it surprising that the lack of focus on spirituality in many places will not attract others (I’m surprised such places have been able to continue for so long). I find this self-focus troubling and wish such communities would become more aware of the potential to influence and be enriched by the wider community. This would require a concerted effort on the part of the local rabbinate to address these issues

  6. I find it difficult to speculate on what proportions of members of a particular synagogue think actively about fundamentals. I do find it interesting, though, that hundreds of Orthodox synagogues with hundreds of member families have huge attendance every Saturday morning, yet struggle to build a quorum of ten men on weekdays. And I would submit that few pray with a minyan elsewhere.

    Does this mean that there is tacit acknowledgement in such synagogues (or even acceptance), that members are using the Orthodox experience for the communal benefits, and once they’ve obtained sufficient communality on Saturday morning, they are exempt from further religious obligation?

    Breinart’s tolerant community, as well as many other tolerant communities within Orthodox synagogues, probably does feel that way.

    I have seen several spiritual leaders of such congregations, though, who speak publicly almost entirely of halachic minutiae. They become irrelevant to the segments of the congregation who don’t participate in all that jazz.

    And then there are some spiritual leaders who recognize the pattern, realize they can’t beat ’em, and join ’em. If the biggest synagogue event is a chulent-making contest, the smart rabbi dons an apron.

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