Orthodoxy's Power

What is it about Orthodoxy that has kept it alive in a marketplace of beliefs?

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The following working paper was written for the Bronfman Vision Forum's Judaism as Civilizations: Belonging in Age of Multiple Identities, a project of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation.

The survival--indeed, flourishing--of Orthodox Judaism is one of the many mind-bending surprises of contemporary Jewish life. In Israel, Orthodoxy has successfully managed to retain its hold on established Judaism and, in forms as wildly varied as the Settler Movement and Shas, has reshaped the public sphere and remade public policy.

In the US, where, by contrast, Orthodoxy must compete in a vigorous marketplace of beliefs, it has successfully crafted networks of institutions and ideas, distinctive practices and mores, and is increasingly visible in both Jewish communal life and American civil society. In both places, which together comprise some eighty percent of world Jewry, Orthodoxy has been able to win new adherents, even as those born into the fold drop off, a sign of genuine, if certainly complicated, dynamism.

Orthodoxy is not the only contemporary religious movement that seems to be beating the historical odds and giving modernization theory a run for its money; and that complicates the lives, not only of sociologists, but of so many of us--Orthodox people included--who have long been operating with a distinctive story of modernity.

Supposed to Die Out?

Once upon a time, the Western story went, there was religion. A powerful phenomenon in its time, it had become tamed in the cool light of reason, an intermittently helpful and most often harmless handmaiden to the great and steadily-advancing projects of secularism and modernity. There were, to be sure, some who tried to hop off the Progress Express, indeed at times turn it around; they were called "Fundamentalists" and were to be pitied, really, and, when needed, put in their place.orthodox jewish scribe

Now, it is unclear if anyone ever really believed this story all the way down, or believed it in massive numbers, or believed it all week long, including Saturdays and Sundays. But in one form or another it enjoyed very broad currency among significant elites (well beyond the enforced atheism of Communism). Indeed to this day, many Western elites have a hard time crediting the stated motives of religiously-driven actors, confidently--or nervously--translating those faith-based claims into the presumably more malleable lexicons of economics and sociology.

Of course, before this view appeared in the cool form of sociology it had emerged white-hot from the minds of Enlightenment figures who had fought religion with a passion and determination which could only be called, well, religious.

Indeed today's social thinkers like Talal Asad are writing what every thinking Orthodox person has long known in his bones, that there is nothing neutral or value-free about secularism, and that it is not as pacific a dispensation as it seems. And the great sociologists--Max Weber, Emile Durkheim--were well aware of religion's power, suasion, and necessity, and well understood what its seeming passing meant, or could mean, for morality, and for humanity.

Three and a half centuries after Spinoza, two and a half after Mendelssohn, one and a half after the stunning collapse of traditional Jewish society in Europe, just half a century after the Holocaust (the triumph of Satan) and the creation of Israel (the triumph of Jewish Prometheanism), Orthodoxy still commands and wins adherents. And while nearly all the above were European events not directly affecting Mizrahi Jews, they too have been engaged with secularism and modernity in one form or another--indeed regularly had it shoved down their throats on arriving in Israel--and yet their fealties have been resilient too.

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Yehudah Mirsky

Yehudah Mirsky, a former US State Department official, lives in Jerusalem and is a Fellow at the Van Leer Institute and Harvard.