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.