Slid­ing to the Right: The Con­test for the Future of Amer­i­can Jew­ish Orthodoxy

Samuel C. Heilman
  • Review
By – May 14, 2012

Numer­ous observers of Amer­i­can life and cul­ture, includ­ing reli­gious schol­ars, polit­i­cal sci­en­tists and econ­o­mists like Robert Fogel, have for­ward­ed the idea that the U.S. is in the midst of a Fourth Great Awak­en­ing, a peri­od that began dur­ing the 1960’s which has fea­tured a rise in fun­da­men­tal­ist reli­gion. Like ear­li­er peri­ods of his­to­ry, this peri­od of reli­gious awak­en­ing has had a sig­nif­i­cant impact on social prac­tices and polit­i­cal life and con­tro­ver­sies over issues like abor­tion, fam­i­ly val­ues’ and gay mar­riage, a cul­ture war between two dif­fer­ent con­cep­tions of moral­i­ty, one reli­gious and the oth­er human­is­tic and sec­u­lar empha­siz­ing rights rather than tra­di­tion and a divi­sion of the U.S. into red’ and blue’ states. These two books con­sid­er some of the dimen­sions and the con­se­quences of this Fourth Great Awak­en­ing for the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty and, in the case of Lerner’s book, more specif­i­cal­ly for pol­i­tics. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, nei­ther book draws direct­ly on the lit­er­a­ture on reli­gious awak­en­ings and one of the books mis­tak­en­ly refers to the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion as the Third Great Awakening. 

Samuel Heilman’s Slid­ing to the Right offers the first sys­tem­at­ic and detailed analy­sis of an impor­tant trend in one seg­ment of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, a right­ward turn among Ortho­dox Jews. By way of dis­clo­sure, this review­er alleged­ly once told Heil­man (in my sec­u­lar youth) that it would be unlike­ly that I could ever engage in the obser­vances that he did. With­in the next decade, my life began to change and I have in fact moved grad­u­al­ly but sig­nif­i­cant­ly to the right’ in the more than three decades since our conversation. 

Heil­man, a well respect­ed soci­ol­o­gist and keen observ­er of Ortho­dox life, draws on a broad range of evi­dence: his­tor­i­cal data, demo­graph­ic and soci­o­log­i­cal stud­ies includ­ing some of his own, a series of inter­views and obser­va­tions at an insti­tute designed to train harei­dim’ for the work world, and a con­tent analy­sis of posters and announce­ments in sev­er­al Ortho­dox enclaves in the New York met­ro­pol­i­tan area. A num­ber of his asser­tions, how­ev­er, are not based on robust data, sug­gest­ing the need for addi­tion­al research. For exam­ple, the impact of the year or two of reli­gious study in Israel that has become enor­mous­ly pop­u­lar mer­its elab­o­ra­tion. It is thought that many if not most young peo­ple flip” in Israel and upgrade their lev­el of obser­vance. Less often dis­cussed, and not men­tioned at all in this book are the kids at risk” for whom the year in Israel some­times has a very dif­fer­ent impact. While time spent in Israel has clear­ly con­tributed to the right­ward turn, its impact requires clos­er study. 

The cov­er encap­su­lates the para­dox­i­cal aspects of the move to the right, espe­cial­ly among the young, and the chal­lenges it pos­es. The illus­tra­tion depicts three gen­er­a­tions of a fam­i­ly, obvi­ous­ly mod­ern’ par­ents, more right wing chil­dren and an infant. The father wears what appears to be a light suede yarmulke, is clean shaven and is dressed in a rug­by shirt and kha­ki pants. The son (or son in law) wears a black suit and white shirt, a black vel­vet yarmulke, is beard­ed and his tzitz­it (rit­u­al fringes) are vis­i­ble. The moth­er and daugh­ter or daugh­ter-in-law also have con­trast­ing styles of dress: the old­er woman is bare head­ed and is wear­ing short sleeves and per­haps a pair of slacks. The younger woman has an ankle length skirt, long sleeves, a blouse with a high neck­line and a scarf cov­er­ing her hair. They are clear­ly dif­fer­ent yet, it’s obvi­ous that they are a fam­i­ly. Indeed, the two men sit togeth­er at a table learn­ing a reli­gious text togeth­er. This fam­i­ly scene is not uncom­mon. All over the coun­try and the world, chil­dren have moved to the right’ of their par­ents just as oth­ers have become less reli­gious and gone off the derech.” Dif­fer­ences in cloth­ing style do not mere­ly rep­re­sent gen­er­a­tional dif­fer­ences in taste: the black suit, white shirt, pres­ence and type of head cov­er­ing denote a lev­el of obser­vance and lifestyle. But, they are at the table togeth­er just as hun­dreds of thou­sands of Jews all over the world cel­e­brat­ed the Siyum Ha Shas.

Slid­ing to the Right pro­vides much of the his­tor­i­cal con­text, offers some causal expla­na­tions and explores some of the con­se­quences of this shift. It begins with the enor­mous growth of the Ortho­dox com­mu­ni­ty in the post-World War II peri­od when sig­nif­i­cant num­bers of Holo­caust sur­vivors migrat­ed to Amer­i­ca. While this is an impor­tant turn­ing point demo­graph­i­cal­ly, it might have been valu­able to also con­sid­er the ear­li­er for­ma­tive years of the Ortho­dox com­mu­ni­ty in the U.S., in the first three decades of the 20th cen­tu­ry, when the Young Israel move­ment and rab­bis trained in Europe and in the U.S., like Her­bert S. Gold­stein and Joseph Look­stein, out­lined the con­tours of Mod­ern Ortho­doxy,’ an approach that adapt­ed Ortho­dox cus­toms to an Amer­i­can set­ting which, as his­to­ri­an Jef­frey Gurock points out, was in many respects a com­pro­mise with a lim­it­ed will­ing­ness to strict­ly adhere to reli­gious law and a con­scious deci­sion to cre­ate a big tent rather than to dri­ve peo­ple away from Ortho­doxy and from Yiddishkeit. 

The book reviews the impact of greater lev­els of for­mal Jew­ish edu­ca­tion on var­i­ous behav­ior pat­terns, espe­cial­ly the year of post-high school study in Israel, which, accord­ing to Heil­man, places young peo­ple in total insti­tu­tions,’ the kind of set­ting where per­son­al trans­for­ma­tions take place. These prac­tices, com­bined with a greater ten­den­cy to turn to texts and to be influ­enced by teach­ers rather than par­ents, is indeed a strik­ing trend. Heil­man con­tends that the move to the right is a shift toward greater strin­gency rather than a greater con­sis­ten­cy between law and prac­tice. It would have been valu­able to learn more about the dif­fer­ent dynam­ics between the less­en­ing gap between law and prac­tice (e.g. the decline in the social accept­abil­i­ty of eat­ing out’ in nonkosher restau­rants) and changes that are not gov­erned by Jew­ish law like the rise in shid­duch dating.’ 

The sub­ti­tle makes the claim that there is a con­test’ between the Mod­ern Ortho­dox and the Harei­dim. Clear­ly, the sit­u­a­tion is more nuanced. Indeed, Heil­man describes the range of behav­iors among the Mod­ern Ortho­dox iden­ti­fied in a study he did with Steven Cohen. In some instances, the con­test’ occurs with­in the home when par­ents and chil­dren dif­fer about the selec­tion of a yeshi­va or sem­i­nary or over whether or not a child should attend an Ivy League col­lege. This is not always the case, how­ev­er, when par­ents are keen­ly aware of high inter­mar­riage rates. On an insti­tu­tion­al lev­el, the term con­test’ over­looks instances of col­lab­o­ra­tion between var­i­ous groups, like the recent out­reach con­fer­ence cospon­sored by the Ortho­dox Union and Aish Ha Torah.

Michael Lerner’s The Left Hand of God explores the polit­i­cal impact of this right­ward turn in Amer­i­can life. Lern­er makes his major point quite clear on page 1 when he points out that The unholy alliance of the polit­i­cal Right and Reli­gious Right threat­ens to destroy the Amer­i­ca we love. It also threat­ens to gen­er­ate a pop­u­lar revul­sion against God and reli­gion by iden­ti­fy­ing them with mil­i­tarism, econo­log­i­cal irre­spon­si­bil­i­ty, fun­da­men­tal­ist antag­o­nism to sci­ence and ratio­nal thought, and insen­si­tivy to the needs of the poor and the pow­er­less.” The right­ward turn might be mod­i­fied by intro­duc­ing peo­ple to what he calls a spir­i­tu­al pol­i­tics — a spir­i­tu­al frame­work that can lend mean­ing to their lives.” This quest for mean­ing has, in his view, “…large­ly been ignored by main­line church­es” and the empha­sis on the polit­i­cal Left has stressed inclu­sion” and has kept reli­gion out of pol­i­tics in con­trast to the Right which has rec­og­nized the mer­its of inte­grat­ing pol­i­tics and reli­gion. The Left, most notably the Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ty, has over­looked the quest for mean­ing among large num­bers of Amer­i­cans and, in Lerner’s view, has had an elit­ist approach: he points out that the Democ­rats seem to pre­fer to believe that a vast num­ber of Amer­i­cans are just plain dumb.” Also, peo­ple on the Left “…feel queasy even think­ing about ally­ing with spir­i­tu­al and reli­gious pro­gres­sives, let alone build­ing a spir­i­tu­al pro­gres­sive move­ment. Many on the Left, to be blunt, hate and fear religion.” 

In con­trast, the Right’s syn­the­sis between reli­gion and pol­i­tics cap­tures the quest for mean­ing that is a cen­tral ele­ment in con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can polit­i­cal cul­ture. The Right rec­og­nizes this yearn­ing and accord­ing to Lern­er, the sense of com­mu­ni­ty that is part of this quest for mean­ing is more often found among more fun­da­men­tal­ist con­gre­ga­tions, both Chris­t­ian and Jew­ish, than among main­line Chris­t­ian and Lib­er­al Jew­ish communities. 

Lern­er offers a series of spe­cif­ic rec­om­men­da­tions and strate­gies that could rein­vig­o­rate the Left and cre­ate a syn­the­sis between its polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy and the quest for mean­ing in Amer­i­can soci­ety cre­at­ing a Spir­i­tu­al Agen­da” for Amer­i­can pol­i­tics that responds to con­tem­po­rary prob­lems both domes­tic and glob­al. He points out that much of the glob­al­iza­tion back­lash is not just eco­nom­ic but also cul­tur­al and spir­i­tu­al. Peo­ple world­wide increas­ing­ly resent the cul­ture of self­ish­ness and mate­ri­al­ism that glob­al­ized cap­i­tal brings with it, even as they some­times accede to it, pur­chase its prod­ucts, dance to its music, and watch its movies and videos.” 

Just a cen­tu­ry ago, major social and polit­i­cal the­o­rists were pre­dict­ing that sec­u­lar­iza­tion and sci­ence meant that the world was becom­ing more ratio­nal and that reli­gion was declin­ing in impor­tance. Clear­ly, this has not been the case. These two books pro­vide impor­tant descrip­tions of the dimen­sions of con­tem­po­rary pat­terns and, in the case of The Left Hand of God, presents a blue­print for respond­ing to the future.

Addi­tion­al Title Fea­tured in Review

Susan M. Cham­bré, Pro­fes­sor Emeri­ta of Soci­ol­o­gy at Baruch Col­lege, stud­ies Jew­ish phil­an­thropy, social and cul­tur­al influ­ences on vol­un­teer­ing, and health advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tions. She is the author of Fight­ing for Our Lives: New York’s AIDS Com­mu­ni­ty and the Pol­i­tics of Dis­ease and edit­ed Patients, Con­sumers and Civ­il Soci­ety.

Discussion Questions