Numerous observers of American life and culture, includingreligious scholars, political scientists and economists like RobertFogel, have forwarded the idea that the U.S. is in the midst of a FourthGreat Awakening, a period that began during the 1960’s which hasfeatured a rise in fundamentalist religion. Like earlier periods ofhistory, this period of religious awakening has had a significant impacton social practices and political life and controversies over issueslike abortion, ‘family values’ and gay marriage, a culture war betweentwo different conceptions of morality, one religious and the otherhumanistic and secular emphasizing rights rather than tradition and adivision of the U.S. into ‘red’ and ‘blue’ states. These two booksconsider some of the dimensions and the consequences of this FourthGreat Awakening for the Jewish community and, in the case of Lerner’sbook, more specifically for politics. Unfortunately, neither book drawsdirectly on the literature on religious awakenings and one of the booksmistakenly refers to the current situation as the Third Great Awakening.
Samuel Heilman’s Sliding to the Right offers thefirst systematic and detailed analysis of an important trend in onesegment of the Jewish community, a rightward turn among Orthodox Jews.By way of disclosure, this reviewer allegedly once told Heilman (in mysecular youth) that it would be unlikely that I could ever engage in theobservances that he did. Within the next decade, my life began tochange 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 ofOrthodox life, draws on a broad range of evidence: historical data,demographic and sociological studies including some of his own, a seriesof interviews and observations at an institute designed to train‘hareidim’ for the work world, and a content analysis of posters andannouncements in several Orthodox enclaves in the New York metropolitanarea. A number of his assertions, however, are not based on robust data,suggesting the need for additional research. For example, the impact ofthe year or two of religious study in Israel that has become enormouslypopular merits elaboration. It is thought that many if not most youngpeople “flip” in Israel and upgrade their level of observance. Lessoften discussed, and not mentioned at all in this book are the “kids atrisk” for whom the year in Israel sometimes has a very different impact.While time spent in Israel has clearly contributed to the rightwardturn, its impact requires closer study.
The cover encapsulates the paradoxical aspects of the moveto 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 fatherwears what appears to be a light suede yarmulke, is clean shaven and isdressed in a rugby shirt and khaki pants. The son (or son in law) wears ablack suit and white shirt, a black velvet yarmulke, is bearded and histzitzit (ritual fringes) are visible. The mother and daughter ordaughter-in-law also have contrasting styles of dress: the older womanis bare headed and is wearing short sleeves and perhaps a pair ofslacks. The younger woman has an ankle length skirt, long sleeves, ablouse with a high neckline and a scarf covering her hair. They areclearly different yet, it’s obvious that they are a family. Indeed, thetwo men sit together at a table learning a religious text together. Thisfamily scene is not uncommon. All over the country and the world,children have moved to the ‘right’ of their parents just as others havebecome less religious and “gone off the derech.” Differences inclothing style do not merely represent generational differences intaste: the black suit, white shirt, presence and type of head coveringdenote a level of observance and lifestyle. But, they are at the tabletogether just as hundreds of thousands of Jews all over the worldcelebrated the Siyum Ha Shas.
Sliding to the Right provides much of the historicalcontext, offers some causal explanations and explores some of theconsequences of this shift. It begins with the enormous growth of theOrthodox community in the post-World War II period when significantnumbers of Holocaust survivors migrated to America. While this is animportant turning point demographically, it might have been valuable toalso consider the earlier formative years of the Orthodox community inthe U.S., in the first three decades of the 20th century, when the YoungIsrael movement and rabbis trained in Europe and in the U.S., likeHerbert S. Goldstein and Joseph Lookstein, outlined the contours of‘Modern Orthodoxy,’ an approach that adapted Orthodox customs to anAmerican setting which, as historian Jeffrey Gurock points out, was inmany respects a compromise with a limited willingness to strictly adhereto religious law and a conscious decision to create a big tent ratherthan to drive people away from Orthodoxy and from Yiddishkeit.
The book reviews the impact of greater levels of formalJewish education on various behavior patterns, especially the year ofpost-high school study in Israel, which, according to Heilman, placesyoung people in ‘total institutions,’ the kind of setting where personaltransformations take place. These practices, combined with a greatertendency to turn to texts and to be influenced by teachers rather thanparents, is indeed a striking trend. Heilman contends that the move tothe right is a shift toward greater stringency rather than a greaterconsistency between law and practice. It would have been valuable tolearn more about the different dynamics between the lessening gapbetween law and practice (e.g. the decline in the social acceptabilityof ‘eating out’ in nonkosher restaurants) and changes that are notgoverned 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 ismore nuanced. Indeed, Heilman describes the range of behaviors among theModern Orthodox identified in a study he did with Steven Cohen. In someinstances, the ‘contest’ occurs within the home when parents andchildren differ about the selection of a yeshiva or seminary or overwhether or not a child should attend an Ivy League college. This is notalways the case, however, when parents are keenly aware of highintermarriage rates. On an institutional level, the term ‘contest’overlooks instances of collaboration between various groups, like therecent outreach conference cosponsored by the Orthodox Union and Aish Ha Torah.
Michael Lerner’s The Left Hand of God explores thepolitical impact of this rightward turn in American life. Lerner makeshis major point quite clear on page 1 when he points out that “Theunholy alliance of the political Right and Religious Right threatens todestroy the America we love. It also threatens to generate a popularrevulsion against God and religion by identifying them with militarism,econological irresponsibility, fundamentalist antagonism to science andrational thought, and insensitivy to the needs of the poor and thepowerless.” The rightward turn might be modified by introducing peopleto what he calls “a spiritual politics — a spiritual framework that canlend meaning to their lives.” This quest for meaning has, in his view,“…largely been ignored by mainline churches” and the emphasis on thepolitical Left has stressed “inclusion” and has kept religion out ofpolitics in contrast to the Right which has recognized the merits ofintegrating politics and religion. The Left, most notably the Democraticparty, has overlooked the quest for meaning among large numbers ofAmericans and, in Lerner’s view, has had an elitist approach: he pointsout that “the Democrats seem to prefer to believe that a vast number ofAmericans are just plain dumb.” Also, people on the Left “…feel queasyeven 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 andpolitics captures the quest for meaning that is a central element incontemporary American political culture. The Right recognizes thisyearning and according to Lerner, the sense of community that is part ofthis quest for meaning is more often found among more fundamentalistcongregations, both Christian and Jewish, than among mainline Christianand Liberal Jewish communities.
Lerner offers a series of specific recommendations andstrategies that could reinvigorate the Left and create a synthesisbetween its political philosophy and the quest for meaning in Americansociety creating a “Spiritual Agenda” for American politics thatresponds to contemporary problems both domestic and global. He pointsout that much of the globalization backlash is “not just economic butalso cultural and spiritual. People worldwide increasingly resent theculture of selfishness and materialism that globalized capital bringswith 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 theoristswere predicting that secularization and science meant that the world wasbecoming more rational and that religion was declining in importance.Clearly, this has not been the case. These two books provide importantdescriptions of the dimensions of contemporary patterns and, in the caseof The Left Hand of God, presents a blueprint for responding to the future.