Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Future Trends in UOJ (Ultra Orthodox Judaism)

Predictions of the Future.

This blog is supposed to be about future predictions. While I have diverged from this topic often since the blog's foundation, I think it's time to return home. And so, I hope to do a series of monologues on predictions of various sorts.

Let's start with the Ultra Orthodox Jewish (UOJ) sector. I call it a sector as opposed to a “community” because there is hardly any consensus within this highly diverse consortium of ragtag groups, which is serious problem for its long-term survival, a point which I shall return to at a later time.

One observation that I must make as a prelude to predicting future trends in the UOJ sector, is its past. It never ceases to impress me how the world seems to have forgotten how persecuted, isolated and cornered Jewish Orthodoxy was (let alone Ultra-orthodoxy) until quite recently. Of course, I don't personally have any recollection of those envious days. But as a student of history, I can't help take notice that Jewish history pages are vociferous and unequivocal on this matter. For approximately 150 years --since the early nineteenth century until after world war II-- traditional Judaism was under siege. The forces of change were overwhelming. It wasn't just for ignoble “conform to the prevailing winds and be acceptable to gentiles” reasons that reformers sought to eliminate or modify centuries-old laws and practices. There were, moreover, idealistic motives for change: the system just wasn't very logical. Not playing music on the day of rest, for example, runs diametrically against the very spirit of the day of rest. So does the prohibition against travel, which is something uniquely suited for a day of rest and recreation.

A quick survey of the field demonstrates that the core of Judaism was radically reshaped in those years. Judaism went from a religion where the normative behavior is shulkhan-aruch-bound to one in which the normative behavior is rooted in tradition but democratically determined through systematic reevaluation of all its tenets and practices. This was very true in Europe where the majority of Jews had adopted some level of reform by the mid nineteenth century. But it is even more pronounced in America where Orthodoxy barely even existed before WWII. Jewish immigrants to America in those years were extremely eager to shed their outlandish European customs and adopt the American way of life and fulfill the American dream.

Have we completely forgotten those good old days? I continually long for those times when there was all the reason NOT to observe and practically no good reason to observe; whereas at this stage of the game the reverse seems to be the case: there is every reason to be observant and there is hardy any sufficiently good reason to drop out of the system. The wind is blowing in a different direction and so the sail boat boat has been re-routed accordingly.

If I had lived in the 1850's in my ancestors' native land, I would have been a happy camper. I would have been a member of a burgeoning reformed community and my liberal views and and hash criticism of accepted dogma would have been welcome like water in the desert. Now I live in an environment where my thoughts and words fall on deaf ears. The contemporary right-leaning Jewish community craves for spirituality and is just not interested in any intellectual reasoning about the basis of their religion. The left-leaning Jewish world, on the other hand, is so far ahead of me in the game of integration and assimilation into the American mainstream that I am as alien to them as a newly arrived immigrant. They clearly have more in common with a typical catholic Italian than with me. They don't speak my language, both literally (my native tongue is Yiddish) and figuratively (they are not sensitive to the non-American idiosyncrasies of the Hasidic world, such as bluntness when making requests).

So where do I stand?

Well, from the previous depiction of events, the future seems bleak. However, I've got an ace up my sleeve! There is some great news. The “gospel” (=good news) is that there is a very bright future laying ahead of the me and the OTD community in general. I have been predicting massive defections from orthodoxy for many years now but I am now finally seeing concrete data that corroborate this reversal of the magnetic pole. The “Footsteps” movement did not exist when I first executed the “Great Rebellion” in January 1999 (Yeah, I know, it's not the softest of terms for this event but remember: I am an erstwhile hasid, so I'm not quite used to sugar-coating; so yeah, it's also a “transition” but rebellion is more like it). I had zero friends with whom I could find common ground in this unbearably challenging journey to American-hood. I truly felt like an immigrant in a foreign land; only that most immigrants have the benefit of the support of co-immigrants during their early, trying times whereas I did not have this benefit. By now, Footsteps is a thriving organization and community and I have every reason to believe that this trend will only multiply and intensify in the years to come.

I'd like to articulate several factors which I believe will be influential in bringing to bear my prediction of massive defections from Orthodoxy:

1) Internet Information. We live in the “information age”. During the technology age (from which we recently emerged), ideology was obviously not important. It was an age of applied science, technology and industry. This is no longer the case. Anyone who is abreast of the latest news knows that the big names in the American Economy are now Google and Facebook, which have trumped the economic stalwarts of old, such as Standard Oil, Carnegie Steel and --later during the consumer age-- retailers and service providers such as Mcdonalds, Macy's, Walmart etc... In this “information age” it is inevitable that information that indicts and ultimately incriminates Orthodoxy will come to light, since the Orthodox world thrives on misinformation and concealment of certain knowledge which it deems heretic or dangerous. The Ortho world knows it cannot confront this information head on for it will lose at trial. Its defense strategy is the American legacy one of “plead the fifth”: let's hope the prosecution doesn't have enough evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt and if they do let's buy some time through extensive deliberations and appeal of the verdict.

2) Extravagance. Unlike my parents' and grandparents' generation, which constituted the progeny of Holocaust survivors and Holocaust survivors, respectively, the new generation is not bothered by the sense of attack felt by the previous generations. They don't perceive a threat to their very existence and so they can afford to divert their attention to other topics. They don't harbor the gut feeling which equates losing one's religion with losing one's very identity and unique existence. They don't feel the need to establish a "status-quo" environment in America before any questions of reform can be addressed. Needless to say there is still a giant mountain of prejudices and biases, which must be scaled laboriously before the other side may be reached. But there is just one less obstacle in the way in the current generation: there is no sense of an attack, physical or spiritual. Naturally then, curiosity will set in and those who are talented enough will inevitably encounter a great deal of damaging evidence to the Ortho system and will seek to take action as a logical result by proposing changes or --barring that-- dropping out.

3) Rabbis are losing control. It used to be that information was centralized, both in the secular and the religious world. Now with the prevalence and immediacy of the Internet, the community leader is likely to be bypassed or overriden. Religious claims can easily and quickly be vetted on the Internet and alternative theories and ideas --stemming from lay individuals, peers of the information-seeker-- may be consulted. This significantly weakens the Rabbi's leadership and hegemony over his community.

4) Structural changes in the community. Williamsburg no longer resembles an Eastern European Shtetl. Many shops and stores there have been recently renovated and many more will likely follow suit as old, arcane business models fail to compete against modern ones. As the Williamsburg small business owner is confronted with the need to deal with modern computer systems, for example, they are also drawn into other fields which suck them out of the ghetto walls and into the “unprotected” world. They may, for example, develop an interest in learning how to use Microsoft office or how to make money in the stock market. This quest for acquisition of more competitive survival methods will ultimately lead to serious clashes with the mainstream world and those clashes will have to be resolved one way or another. If, for example, the stock market book mentions a movie and the reader is now intrigued by the movie and after watching it becomes impressed with the actor and learns that the actor is Christian and then learns the actor's biography and discovers that the actor is a nice guy after all, this chain of events poses an ideological dilemma for a religiously observant person. After all, both lifestyles cannot be valid simultaneously. If the UOJ is the true representative of the “chosen nation” and is loved by god who has a monopoly of all that is good and true, then how does this Christian actor or actress fit into the picture? Are they not loved by god? They sure seem like nice and decent individuals and they sure got the money to back up this appearance (“money talks”).