Orthodoxy's Limitations

A community that cannot address problems as real as its members' economic suffering leaves a lot to be desired.

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This article was written in response to Yehudah Mirsky's working paper, Orthodoxy's Power, which was presented at the Bronfman Vision Forum's Judaism as Civilizations: Belonging in Age of Multiple Identities, a project of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation.

Going Against Secularism


What would be the fun of tradition if one couldn't use it to rebel against one's parents?

One or two generations ago, young Jews who craved their parents' disgust went out of their way to eat pork on Yom Kippur and marry non-Jews. For those of us in our twenties and thirties, the game has changed, but only slightly.
kiryas jewish orthodoxy limitations
Since our parents or even grandparents have already intermarried or otherwise rejected a life of Torah, how can we fulfill our generational duty of pissing our parents off? The answer is clear: go to Chabad-Lubavitch, have 12 children, and then refuse to eat at Mom's house since her food isn't kosher enough.

Despite Yehudah Mirsky's claim that the current rise of Jewish orthodoxy is a "mind-bending surprise," there is nothing surprising about young people--ideological thinkers by nature--gravitating toward whatever ideology reverses the choices of their elders, whether it happens to be Puritanism or Communism. Nor is this return to religion unique to Judaism; one finds the same phenomenon in Christian and Muslim communities today.

In these young people's eagerness to surpass what they see as the inauthenticity of their parents' relative secularism, one can see shadows of their parents' rejection of traditional faith thirty years prior, in favor of a way of life that at the time seemed more authentic to them. And one can look even further back to see similar religious revivals in the past, whether in the "great awakenings" of Christianity in early America, or in the invention of Hasidism in the wake of 17th century Jewish tragedies. None of this is news.

Mirsky believes that Orthodoxy has been successful because it offers its adherents answers to Kant's three basic philosophical questions: What can I know? What ought I to do? What may I hope? Very religious communities undoubtedly address these questions far more thoroughly than anyone else does. And the more religious the community, the more certain the answers to these questions become.

Yet the idea that orthodoxy offers "the answers" is fundamentally flawed--not for religious reasons, but for purely practical ones. In too many cases, the supposed ability that fervently religious communities have to help people with their basic needs in life is actually a mirage.

As Mirsky points out, "Orthodoxy" comes in many shades. But in its most unadulterated forms, it consists of a refusal to question the assumptions of a tradition--and a failure to wrestle with the Torah and the world at their most challenging points of contact.

For Jews, past failures to confront such challenges have often proved religiously or even physically fatal. When one removes oneself from real engagement with both the Torah and the world, one loses the possibility of creating a community that is self-sustaining. And it must be said that the most traditional of "Orthodox" Jewish communities cannot sustain themselves, and don't, no matter how many children they produce.

Self-isolating, extremely religious communities in Israel only survive through the efforts of those Jews whose interpretation of Judaism is sufficiently engaged with modern life to allow them to serve in Israel's armed forces.

While similarly self-isolating communities in the U.S. do not face existential threats, their relative autonomy is possible only because less religious Jews and others work to safeguard minority rights. More disturbingly, poverty levels are skyrocketing in such communities.

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Dara Horn

Dara Horn is the author of the National Jewish Book Award-winning In the Image and The World to Come.