Monday, February 11, 2013

The many hats of Orthodox Judaism... or the Narcissism of Small Difference

So I think Simi Lichtman is fighting the good fight with her new article over at the Huff Post (though the bastards probably didn't pay her for it!)

I agree that its annoying that Hasidim are always chosen to represent religious Judaism. Like her I wish people knew more- about Judaism, in particular, but knowing more about anything is fine. She wants to educate outsiders about the different practices and beliefs contained under the rubric of "Orthodox Judaism" and I say sure: Education is great. Educate away.

But because I am a Mean Old Blogger I do have some quibbles:

She wrote: In reality, Orthodox Judaism is a term that can apply to everyone from the girl in the pants, studying philosophy at a top university to the teenage bride in her long sleeves and long skirt, meeting her husband for the first time at the wedding. 

No one meets their husband for the first time at their wedding. The kids don't always get a right of refusal, but they always meet ahead of time.

She wrote: Aside from the fact that every major Orthodox synagogue I've stepped into has had English-Hebrew prayer books.

Plenty of awesome (RW) Orthodox shuls have Hebrew-only prayer books

Let's pause here to note that in the two examples above Ms. Lichtman is committing the very sin her article derides. She also seems to have an incomplete understanding of the nuances of Orthodox Judaism.

Other general notes:

(1) It would be nice if everyone understood the nuances of Orthodox Jews in the ways that Orthodox Jews do, but come now: Can you tell me the difference between Sunni and Shia Muslims? Do you know how Baptists and Methodists are unalike? So, glass houses and all.

(2) The basis of the whole article is Narcissism of Small Differences (See Emo Phillip's great joke)  The ants can tell each other apart, but no one else can. This is because the differences the ants notice don't matter to humans. For example, Ms. L says she wrote her article after reading  something in the Harvard Crimson that contained this excerpt:
Some have tried to draw sharp distinctions between the East Ramapo and Williamsburg crowd and the 'Modern Orthodox.' Those differences are cosmetic, not ideological."....[t]here's nothing modern about keeping men and women separated at prayer services, or preventing women from singing Torah. There's nothing modern about embracing strict interpretations of Jewish law. There's nothing modern about having an all-Hebrew prayer book."
This isn't true? I'd say based on this excerpt alone the Crimson got it right: The differences between Teaneck and Williamsburg are largely cosmetic. Certainly to an outsider the only differences that matter are non-doctrinal. We both hold women back. We both enforce dress codes. We both rely on Rabbis rather than science, history, archaeology, linguistics, etc., when it comes to interpreting the law. The differences are things we notice that don't just register on the outsider's radar.

But doesn't Williamburg go further? Aren't they more extreme? Sure, there is a spectrum. But both Williamburg and Teanek are on it. That's the point the Crimson seems to have been making. Clearly, Teaneck and Williamsbug occupy different spots on the spectrum, but what's interesting to the outsider is that they are both on this particular spectrum while, say, Topeka or Park Slope are not.

She writes: Somehow, Orthodoxy has come to be defined by its more extreme members

Let me clear this up for you. Orthodoxy is defined by its more extreme members because its less extreme members continue to make believe that MO and RW/UOJ are the same sect. You don't find the RW/UOJ making this mistake. They are pleased to cut off their left flank and to publicly denounce MO leaders like R' Solivetchik and R' Lamb and R' Weiss. The RW/UOJs don't trust LW kashrus. They don't touch LW torah. They don't send their kids to LW institutions or employ their graduates as teachers or Rabbis.

Meanwhile, the LW aggressively chases RW/UOJ  for approval. They run to RW/UOJ  rebbes for blessings and fill their classrooms and pulpits with the alumni of RW/UOJ yeshivahs. And though you do find some LW parents discouraging their offspring from attending RWOJ schools, it still keeps happening.

How can you expect to win a culture war, if you won't fight it as fiercely as your opponents?

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