Sunday, November 02, 2008

Memes and Judaism: Why Orthodoxy is Changing

Guest Post by Yossi Ginzberg

Yossi Ginzberg is a frequent commenter on this blog. He and I often see eye to eye and at times we disagree. This is no less true of a lengthy dissertation which he submitted to me for publication. It is available here its entirety. Its original purpose was to respond to critics of his earlier ‘tounge and cheek’ guest post published here not long ago entitled How Frum Are You, Really? But ulltimately it expanded to its current form.

First the disclaimer. The views expressed in this dissertation do not necessarily reflect my own. That said there is much there with which I agree. Many of the issues he touches upon are issues that have been and will continue to be covered here.

His theory - if I understand it correctly - expands upon Dr. Hayim Soloveitchik’s theory as described in his own essay, Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy which can be found here.

For those unfamiliar with it, Dr. Soloveitchik had come out with his own theory about why there is a slide to the right. In a nutshell he blames it on the lack of emphasis on mimeticsm.

The best definition one can give for the term as he uses it is the transmission Judiasm via family Mesorah. He proposes that this traditional way of transmitting Judaism has been abdicated in favor of the printed word - Seforim. A family tradition that has been passed on for generations is no longer recognized as legitimate in the face of the written word of various recent Poskim. A Chazan Ish Psak for example is seen as far more authoritative than a tradition passed down for generations. Thus the slide to the right. This is an oversimlifcation but I do believe it describes his theory at its very basic level.

Yossi sees the current trend not solely as an embracing of the ‘book’ but as much an embracing of memes from other sources. For example Chasidim have for various historical and sociological reasons become integrated into overall Orthodoxy and Chasidic Mesorah is now being transmitted to all of Orthodoxy. I think that there is validity to this argument.

The following are some excerpts with which I more or less I agree:

I feel that my beloved religion is being hijacked, that the beautiful tolerance for emotion and spirituality added to deep study that was the innovation of Chasidus is slowly being perverted into a series of ritualized observances that mix ignorance with superstition and are slowly replacing- and usurping- intelligent observance.

For quite some time, almost every segment of American Orthodoxy has been complaining loudly over perceived changes to their beloved religion. …How did we get to be a people of only black hats and only long skirts, with such limited tolerance for anyone who refuses to be so attired?

An example of a comparable current Jewish meme would be the eschewing of higher secular education for the sake of learning Torah, even after marrying and having a family to support. This meme has spread immensely over the past few decades, to the point that in probably most Orthodox communities today worldwide, more newlywed men are learning full-time than are working.

The effect of this meme is the dramatic growth of kolel communities, and all the amenities that attend that such as more seforim published, more shiurim, and so on.

Another effect, not as beneficial and certainly not as well understood, is this: Since kolel women are trained to earn a living, they are far more financially independent than Jewish women have ever been, and are thus free to release themselves from unhappy marriages with far more ease than was ever before possible. They have in fact been doing so in numbers that have astounded the religious community, which used to think itself immune to the widespread and fast-growing divorce rate among the secular.

An undesirable subset of this meme is the added pressure on the “best” potential kolel boys to marry girls from wealthy homes, so that they can continue to learn. This desire adds pressure to the less wealthy, by reducing the available boys to choose from dramatically.

…there has been a great confluence of customs stemming originally from widely varied sources, customs that years ago would never have been found in the same home. More, being misunderstood as improvements in religious practice rather than compromises and familial custom, they are spread via modern communications to relatives and friends worldwide, in a way that could never have occurred before inexpensive telephony and email.

Another possible factor is the overwhelming increase in the speed of technological advancement. Older people, feeling anxiety at the new world and its innovations, would be more likely to adopt new strictures out of simple lack of knowledge…

…It doesn’t take long for a newfound stricture to become the norm, by which point it does in fact halachically obtain some validity, and in issues of tznius at least, become the new standard…

The “frumming” of clothing has also manifested itself in attitudes toward hair-coverings for women.

This is not only a standard for the teachers to adhere to and to teach: It is also in most cases now a prerequisite for the parents to observe if their children are to be considered for admission to the school.

As mentioned, the kolel meme has had a side effect of at least partially increasing the number of divorces in that community. This may or may not be considered a bad thing, since one might legitimately assume that a wife in that community is well aware of the status loss she will have, so if she decides to leave anyway she must have compelling reason.

More important to the issue here is that most memes will have some side effects, and some of those might be unpredicted and undesirable. The increased difficulty of supporting multiple kolel couples relying on the same parents, along with the rise in awareness that not every man in kolel should be there, will likely trim the percentage that enters, and reduce the length of stay for others.

An awareness that a young man not in kolel can still be a good husband, father, and Jew will surely lead to greater acceptance of secular education. It will also probably help better deal with the issues of “kids at risk”, as the absolute stigma of not being a yeshiva student will ease. Too, along with the advanced education and different jobs will come more Internet use, and more homes with connections even in the most religious communities.

This will work to further broaden attitudes through exposure to the secular, working from within. This type of exposure to the greater world outside is credited by most with being the major underlying cause for the breakup of the Soviet regime, so it isn’t too far-fetched to think it will have an impact on the frum world, despite the best right-wing attempts to regulate Internet use to work-related tasks only.


Below is a self written bio of Yossi Ginzberg:

About me? I am the Jewish Forrest Gump, having had the good luck to have met many, many gedolei Torah and seen many many aspects of Judaism from many angles. Having grown up (as much as I have grown up, anyway) mostly in the Midwest myself, I self-identify as a Jewtheran due to the wonderful confluence of Torah and repression. I spent several years in Israel, some before my Bar-mitzva and some in my 20's.

I have had the privilege of learning from R. Chaim Zimmerman, R.M.A. Freund, The Tenker Rav, R. Elya Lopian, R. Chaim Shmulevitz, and a host of other famous and not-so-famous rabbis.

My avocation is teaching Judaism to potential baalei teshuva and gerim on Manhattan's Upper West Side, and I am the "spiritual advisor Yossi" in the best-selling "The Year of Living Biblically". When not teaching I ponder the meanings of the universe and enjoy the great "shefa" that Hashem has graced this world with.

Second Update: 11/2/08 4:45 PM CST