Shimen was in many ways the ultimate galuti (diaspora) character. For Shimen, power meant nothing more than the ability to live his life according to his community’s traditions and to pass on his cultural and intellectual legacy to his children. The capacity to move armies was not among his aspirations. He was suspicious of, if not downright antagonistic to, political authority. So, it would be no small irony if some version of the Yiddishkeit that he lived were to ultimately be revived in Israel.

In the meantime, the casual observer might be forgiven for concluding that a revival of organic Judaism in Israel seems unlikely. If American Jews have failed to balance universal and particularist values (as discussed in Part 1), Israeli Jews have failed to balance laws and social norms (as discussed in Part 2).

To appreciate why this is so, let’s meet Shimen’s cousin, Yossel. Yossel grew up in a family of Gerrer chassidim in the town of Dvort, near Lodz. After his bar mitzvah, he studied in his hometown in the beis medrash of Rav Meir Dan Plotzky, where he was regarded as a promising Talmudic scholar. But, like many of his friends, Yossel felt stifled by the lack of economic and intellectual opportunity available in his provincial town and social milieu. At the age of 16, he left for the more metropolitan Warsaw, where he abandoned the chassidic way of life and eventually took up the study of law. Unlike many of his friends who had traveled a similar path, he did not join the communist Bund, but rather became active in Al Hamishmar, a radical Zionist party with representation in the Polish Sejm that was opposed to anti-semitism and chassidic Judaism in approximately equal measure. In 1935, Yossel left for Israel, joining Kibbutz Beit Alfa. Since Yossel was educated and witty, and not cut out for manual labor, he quickly became active in the politics of the kibbutz movement, taking an active role in moving Beit Alfa from the socialist Mapai movement to the more hard-core Mapam movement.

Yossel’s Zionism was rooted in the understanding that the Jews had no future in Poland and that without a state of their own, they had no future anywhere. But, for Yossel and his friends, Zionism was about much more than just self-defense; they sought nothing less than the transformation the Jewish psyche. In the years leading up to the foundation of the state, Yossel anticipated that statehood would force the Jews to overcome old habits of quietism and forbearance and to replace the authority of elders and sages with the authority of the young and vital. He hoped the state would become an arbiter and enforcer of new values and would use its authority to promote ideas and virtues central to the nationalist ethos.

In his enthusiasm, Yossel failed to grasp that Jewish nationalism stripped of the very traditions that defined the Jewish nation would lead to policies riddled with self-contradiction. Yossel’s nationalist impulse was sufficient that, in the aftermath of the foundation of the state, he strongly supported welcoming to Israel Jewish immigrants from deeply traditional backgrounds, despite the immense cost of absorbing them. But, in the absence of shared beliefs and practices, this impulse was inadequate to overcome Yossel’s antipathy for Jews who did not share his new view of the world. Yossel was thus entirely sympathetic to state policies in which traditional Sefardic immigrants were dumped, against their will, in distant development towns or in secular kibbutzim such as his own Beit Alfa, with the intention of transforming “human dust into a cultured nation”, as Ben-Gurion put it.

Yossel even regarded his own cousins who came to Israel after The War with a certain degree of contempt for their weakness; they, in turn, were ashamed to speak of their experiences. Shimen, who went to the United States after The War, was most certainly not ashamed to speak of his experiences and on the one occasion he visited Israel, he and Yossel argued bitterly. Shimen insisted that there was heroism in maintaining one’s dignity and faith in the face of terrible suffering and Yossel was just as insistent that dying helplessly in a concentration camp could never constitute dignity or justify faith. Shimen was disgusted that Yossel supported the state’s decision to commemorate The War by emphasizing the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, as if the mere murder of six million Jews were an embarrassment unworthy of commemoration for its own sake.

To be sure, Yossel did see in Zionism some elements of the biblical narrative and viewed the return of the Jews to Israel in millennial terms. But his millennialism derived more from Hegel’s romantic nationalism and Marx’s dialectical materialism than from the prophesies of Isaiah. Yossel’s ideological collectivism required that the Jewish state supersede Jewish communities. He wished to replace traditional religion with socialism and communal social norms with state laws.

Yossel’s contempt for traditional Jewish communities was, to say the least, not a promising foundation for the revival of organic Judaism. As I explained at great length earlier, the regulatory welfare state cannot replace moral communities. Its top-down structure fails to incorporate the moral intuitions of its members and its attempts at social engineering are doomed to backfire. But, for Yossel and other escapees from the shtetl, religion and free markets were evils that needed to be overcome and the state was the vehicle for overcoming them. The result is that Yossel and his fellow collectivists who wished to liberate themselves from the tyranny of rabbis have instead subjected generations to come to the tyranny of bureaucrats.

On the face of it, none of this augurs well for the revival of Shimen’s version of communal Judaism in Israel. Simply put, organic Judaism cannot take root among those whose primary identity is Israeli rather than Jewish. If this is true for Yossel’s generation, it is even more so for the generation of Yossel’s granddaughter, Adi, whom we shall meet in the next post. Moreover, as we shall see in the post (or two) after that, the religious responses to secular Zionism have themselves further exacerbated the problem. If Shimen wouldn’t quite fit in with either Yitzy or Ben in the United States, he’d be even more lost having to choose between Itcha Meir and Bentzi in Israel.


Gentle Ben

Yitzy and his first cousin, Ben, grew up in Brooklyn in the 60s and 70s, not far from each other – geographically or ideologically. Their parents, all Polish survivors, shared sensibilities not unlike those of Shimen. Yitzy and Ben sometimes learned gemara together, talked baseball ad nauseam (“Stottlemyre is not in Seaver’s league, what’s the hava amina!?”) and shared Hardy Boys books. Both attended boys-only yeshiva elementary schools and high schools that taught secular studies in the afternoon.

But, like two raindrops falling on a mountain ridge that randomly run down opposite sides of the mountain, Ben and Yitzy drifted apart.  For reasons of mere convenience, Ben attended schools that defined themselves as Zionist and invested time and effort in general education, while Yitzy attended schools that rarely mentioned Israel and complied in a somewhat resigned manner with state requirements to provide a general education. After their bar-mitzvahs, Yitzy began to dress yeshivish and Ben didn’t. After high school, Yitzy continued in beis midrash and Ben went to Columbia University. These days they have little in common beyond baseball.

What is it about life in Orthodox enclaves in America that makes this bifurcation almost inevitable? Why is Shimen’s rooted and balanced fidelity to tradition not a stable state in an environment dominated by Heidis? Let’s outline the process.

Unlike Shimen, who didn’t feel a need to impress his friends and had only limited interaction with larger American society, both Yitzy and Ben are always aware of and playing to two audiences: the observant Jewish world inside the ghetto and Heidi’s world outside the ghetto. To the inside audience, they focus on what distinguishes them from the outside world; to the outside audience, they focus on what they have in common with the outside world.

But the extent to which Ben plays to the outside audience is much greater than that of Yitzy. Ben remains an observant Jew, but interacts with Heidi’s world as a matter of course on a daily basis. He has internalized Heidi’s cosmopolitan assumptions about the world far more than he realizes. He is just a bit uncomfortable with his community’s provincial-seeming loyalties; he values tradition up to the point where it seriously impedes self-fulfillment; he privately regards observant Jews as holding immature and foolish beliefs about the world. He is culturally and politically a blue-state American, even if committed to the set of lifestyle constraints characteristic of his community.

Under these circumstances, Yitzy and Ben drive each other further and further apart. Ben’s slouching towards Heidi’s world alerts Yitzy to the dangers of lowering the fences. As Yitzy raises the fences through conspicuous bridge-burning signals, Ben is both offended by what he regards as a debasement of Judaism and embarrassed, fearful that Yitzy’s behavior will lower his status in the eyes of outsiders. Furthermore, as Yitzy’s community progressively devalues what Ben believes is his competitive advantage – the ability to bridge between worlds – Ben seeks less affirmation from Yitzy’s world. Increasingly, his primary audience is Heidi.

Ben is a principled fellow. As he internalizes more of Heidi’s values but remains committed to halacha, he feels like a hypocrite – a state of affairs for which he has an exaggerated distaste. His solution is to tweak halacha a bit, round a few edges, de-emphasize a few things and re-emphasize a few others. Now, don’t get me wrong; I’ve got nothing against tweaks. If you recall, Shimen took some liberties too and I regard that as a feature not a bug. But Ben isn’t Shimen.

When Shimen’s instincts ran up against the letter of the law, he knew just how far he could push and he felt completely comfortable doing so. Shimen was sufficiently at home in halacha that such conflicts caused him no anxiety and he was sufficiently respectful of halacha that he wouldn’t think of tampering with it to reconcile it with what he chose to do. If that’s hypocrisy, he was in favor of it.

Ben, however, is reconciling halacha with values that he has imbibed from outside of it and he knows it. He’s not confident enough to just push at the edges in his own practice while leaving halacha alone. He’s exactly knowledgeable enough to dredge up and tendentiously interpret Jewish texts in a rather unpersuasive attempt to drag halacha in his preferred direction. The exercise is doomed to failure because it is chasing a moving target. So long as Heidi sits prominently in Ben’s mental audience, his halachic red lines will never lag more than a decade or so behind her progressive red lines. Ben’s children will be Heidi.

This, then, is how Yitzy and Ben grew apart. It could not be otherwise. A free and open society like the United States tempts members of distinct sub-cultures to choose a primary audience. This question is the mountain ridge; once it is decided, all else flows in a determined direction.

I don’t want to overstate my case. Certainly, many American Jews – of various institutional affiliations – manage to perch themselves at the small plateau at the top of the ridge, skillfully balancing their commitments. The very best people who daven with Yitzy and the very best people who daven with Ben all carry on Shimen’s legacy in an honorable way and remain as connected to each other as Yitzy and Ben were in their youth. But, the ridge is narrow and unstable.

Even the most well-integrated committed Jews in America live compartmentalized lives. They play successfully to two audiences, but never quite at the same time. Some of their kids remain on the ridge, but many become either Yitzies or Bens. The Yitzies will beget more Yitzies behind ever higher walls and the Bens will beget Heidis who beget Ambers. None will beget Shimens.

I would like to believe that, with time, the Yitzies will become less cynical and formalistic and the Bens will become less acculturated and self-conscious. But I fear that nothing approximating Shimen’s Yiddishkeit is likely to survive for long in America or anywhere else outside of – here it is at long last… Israel.

The rest of this series will be devoted to the potential for the development of organic Judaism in Israel, why it has been so delayed and why it is inevitable.

Cynical Yitzy

Observant Jews in an open society dominated by Heidi’s values need to make choices. To what extent ought we take advantage of the opportunities that Heidi’s world offers and to what extent ought we segregate ourselves to avoid its temptations?

Shimen could afford to be rather blasé and pragmatic about such matters. While he was very appreciative of the openness of American society and the freedom it gave him to live as he chose, American culture was for the most part nothing more than background music for him. It didn’t penetrate too deeply into his world, so he didn’t need to react to it beyond the occasional krechtz. Shimen was sufficiently rooted in his own culture not to feel threatened by Heidi’s culture.

This is not the case for Yitzy, a typical graduate of a hard-core Litvish yeshiva, a bit younger than Heidi. Yitzy grew up in a ghetto inside Heidi’s world. Though he has been encouraged since childhood to avoid pop culture, he lives in New York surrounded by the products of mass media wherever he goes. Yitzy fully appreciates that Heidi’s world is accessible and tempting to him, and for precisely this reason he understands the threat that it poses to his way of life and especially to his ability to pass it on to his children. He is not unsophisticated, but he is wary. Unlike his more modern cousin, Ben, whom we’ll get to know in the next post, Yitzy tends towards segregation rather than accommodation. Let’s consider how.

Yitzy is meticulous even about the apparently trivial details of halacha. He is careful to be no less exacting with the seemingly arbitrary traditions as he is with those having a specifically moral resonance. He avoids prettifying halacha by smoothing its jagged edges.

Yitzy is instinctively suspicious of fashionable utopian ideas. Obviously, Heidi’s wish to liberate individuals from the strictures of communal institutions is a threat to his most basic commitments. But Yitzy has a sober enough understanding of the world to further grasp that Heidi’s aspiration is rooted in a wildly optimistic view of both human nature and of the state institutions that must inevitably replace the communal ones.

Yitzy chooses not to provide his children with the sort of education that yields social capital more easily redeemed outside than inside their community. The ability to learn gemara is best rewarded within his society, while academic achievements will always be valued and rewarded outside his society. Yitzy is afraid that if his kids get too good a secular education, they’ll ultimately give their allegiance to the society that best appreciates the skills they have to offer.

All of this makes good sense and is more or less a continuation of Shimen’s view of the world. It would all be harmless, even admirable, if Yitzy were just one of the brown M&Ms in the variety pack. But, as we discussed in the previous post, Yitzy lives in a community in which everyone is as conservative as he is. As a result, his understandable caution doesn’t play out so elegantly.

In the aftermath of The War, the student population of yeshivas was heterogeneous and the kind of people who chose to teach in these yeshivas thought of themselves as more devout than their own parents. Both of these facts contributed to an educational approach that emphasized book knowledge over mimetic tradition. The most faithful products of this approach self-selected to become Yitzy’s teachers. As a result, the version of halacha that Yitzy learned in yeshiva – the one that matters for him – is over-codified to the point of counter-intuitiveness and often baroque in its pointless complexity. It is very much a second-language, formal and sapped of real life, designed to saturate the mind with distracting details.

Yitzy isn’t merely careful not to slight arbitrary-seeming traditions; he actually favors them over those with more universal meaning. Because the barriers to entry to Heidi’s world are so low, Yitzy revels in the performance of costly activities that broadcast his loyalty to his own community. He has become a veritable signaling machine. Such signals are indeed important and I’ll be the last to under-estimate their value.  But in Yitzy’s world, an escalating parade of loyalty-affirming signals has crowded out the more intuitive and substantive aspects of tradition.

To take a rather benign example, in earlier times in the United States, not eating non-kosher meat or Hostess Twinkies was sufficiently onerous to serve as an effective signal. When the easy availability of kosher meat and snacks rendered such signals insufficiently costly and hence ineffective, they were replaced by more onerous signals. Kosher was replaced by glatt kosher, followed successively by chasidishe shechitayoshon, hydroponic vegetables, and so on up the ladder of costliness and strictness.

Unfortunately, not all signals are quite that benign. When Yitzy demonstrates his loyalty to the home team by burning bridges to the outside world through, for example, denying himself or his children basic skills necessary for earning a living or interacting with outsiders in a civil manner, he is imposing a cost on third parties. Apart from sometimes encouraging boorishness, such bridge-burning increases dependence on the largesse of the very society of which Yitzy is trying to remain independent.

Similarly, the pragmatic rejection of utopian ideas that Yitzy inherited from Shimen’s world has, in Yitzy’s monochromatic world, morphed into a decidedly non-pragmatic ideology. Heidi overvalues fairness at the expense of other moral flavors – a flaw with catastrophic consequences, as we have seen – but her excesses in this direction do have manifest benefits, especially for cultural minorities like Yitzy’s community. Shimen appreciated these benefits and steered clear of the flaws simply by maintaining his community’s traditional balance between universal and particular moral values. But Yitzy and his friends are cynical even about the positive aspects of Heidi’s ambition for fairness and this cynicism sometimes leads them to wink at moral violations. Unfortunately, as some discover too late, when we tolerate delinquents just because they’re on our team, we soon become their victims.

In short, Yitzy does battle with Heidi by becoming her mirror image: she overvalues fairness and he undervalues it. In the next post, we’ll meet Yitzy’s more modern cousin Ben, who does battle with Heidi by lagging a decade behind her.

Was Shimen Haredi?

If we’re to understand the direction in which observant Jewish communities in America (I’ll get to Israel later) are headed, we’ll need to first overcome one common misconception.

Many people imagine that the binary division of observant Jews into modern orthodox and haredi (in Israel, national-religious and haredi) is some sort of immutable law of nature that always was and always will be. Given that dichotomy, they put Shimen in the haredi box. In fact, Shimen was completely unaware of any such dichotomy and the attempt to shoehorn him into such a box is anachronistic.

Yes, Shimen spoke Yiddish and davened in a chassidic shtiebel. He was not acculturated into American society and was suspicious of all sorts of characters outside his community. But, on the substance, he pre-dated the institutional split between what are now called the modern orthodox and haredi worlds.

Consider some of the issues that, for better or worse, are now commonly regarded as litmus tests for membership in these worlds. Is an advanced secular education essential for living an integrated Jewish life or a gateway to acculturation and assimilation? Is Zionism a step in the redemptive process or a secular revolt against religion? Are stringencies in halacha showy over-reaches or commendable precautions? Are leading rabbis simply experts in halacha or oracular fonts of wisdom in all areas? We can go on and on, but this will do.

Shimen was not a party to any of this. He was a practical man. As far as Shimen is concerned, if you think an education will get you ahead in life, go ahead and if not, don’t – as long as you also learn Torah. A sovereign Jewish state is probably good for the Jews, whether or not it’s a step in the redemptive process. Some chumros (stringencies) are better, some are worse; suit yourself. In the worst of times, rabbis exhibited inspiring righteousness and often profound heroism, but political acumen is not necessarily part of their repertoire.

Shimen’s division of the Jewish world cut through an altogether different axis. For Shimen, there were Polish Jews, the thoughtful and cantankerous types who defined the norm for him, and an assortment of other types, each of which suffered from some stereotypical flaw. These included Litvaks (learned but cold and elitist), Hungarians (warmer but overly concerned with appearances), Yekkes (upright but uptight) and, at the bottom of the totem pole, Amerikaners (earnest and eager but naïve and Jewishly ignorant). Shimen carried his resentments around with him, but if you were learned and a mentsch, he didn’t check your tzitzis.

In fact, a generation of yeshiva-educated baby boomers growing up after The War moved comfortably along the spectrum running from frum and segregated to modern and assimilating. On the one hand, they inherited deep feelings of alienation and resentment towards acculturated American Jews and their establishment. On the other hand, as is common with children of immigrants, they rushed headlong into professional achievement and American culture, often including the 60s counter-culture. The resulting tension played out in many interesting ways, including various singular combinations that are fast becoming extinct.

The success of Orthodox institutions in America, especially beginning in the 60s and 70s, has had some unintended consequences. Large educational institutions are not artisanal studios; they are instruments of mass production. Even if graduates inevitably choose their own divergent paths, these institutions define a standard against which one must self-define. Furthermore, since such institutions compete for students, they inevitably cluster around certain standard forms – at the lowest level of granularity, modern orthodox and haredi. Eventually, such institutions are around long enough to produce their own teachers, creating a feedback loop that narrows and hardens institutional identity. Graduates of the various standard educational types then sort themselves out to different neighborhoods, like Teaneck and Boro Park, where they don’t need to interact and where there is intense pressure to conform to the right stereotype.

One consequence of this is that a certain type of crossover character is disappearing. There are no more Litvishe gedolim playing chess at the opera. There are no more chassidic rebbes’ wives studying in Hunter College and no more future chassidic rebbes in Breuers. There are no more talmidim of old-school gedolim simultaneously teaching philosophy in university. It’s important to emphasize that none of these (very real) characters thought of themselves as renegades; their paths seem unusual now, but were perfectly natural not that long ago.

To be sure, such free spirits are typical of the chaos that attends dislocation and the ferment that precedes the development of institutions. Segregation of distinct sub-communities is an indication of communal maturity and has been common throughout Jewish history. But there are two aspects of this particular instance that bear a bit more analysis. First, the rise of institutional education at the expense of communal immersion has produced a book-centered form of religion very much at odds with Shimen’s world of tradition, as I described earlier. Second, in this case, the division of a messy continuum into distinct segregated sub-communities is merely the preliminary phase of a process in which segregation leads to polarization.

I’ll discuss these developments in the next post (or two), but for now suffice it to say that if Shimen were alive today, he’d be homeless yet again.

After Shimen

One winter afternoon just a few years after my conversation with Heidi at Princeton, I stood in front of the Gerrer beis medrash in Jerusalem waiting for the chevra kadisha van transporting Shimen’s aron from the airport to the Mount of Olives to pass by so that the Gerrer Rebbe, the Lev Simcha, could briefly mumble a few words in Shimen’s honor to the usual gaggle of hangers-on. The throngs who came to honor Shimen on his final journey were all long murdered or had never been born.

Shimen left behind no surviving children, but some of his friends in the Gerrer shtiebel did. Some of them, typically the first ones born after The War, somehow failed to appreciate having the weight of a million dead children on their shoulders and moved as far away as they could. Others, often the youngest, understood the unspoken message and chose to return to the bekeshe and spodik. Most grew up to be heimish and balbatish (two Yiddish terms lacking American equivalents, linguistically or conceptually) like their parents, but still not quite the same.

Let’s face it. What was special about Shimen and his cronies was, to some extent, the product of very specific and tragic circumstances. They had lived in a closed world and then seen it destroyed. On the one hand, their Yiddishkeit was deeply ingrained and fully internalized; on the other hand, having been robbed of their families and communities, they were as independent and self-determining as human beings could be. They had no need to impress anybody or to signal loyalty and they held no illusions. In short, they were authentic in ways that most others can’t afford.

So, let’s confront the question that I’ve been eliding since the very beginning of this series. Is there any empirical reason to believe that Shimen’s clear-eyed traditionalism is any more viable than Heidi and Amber’s orthodox progressivism? This will be the subject of the fourth part of the series.

We’ll be leaving Shimen behind and taking a sober look at the development over the past few decades of those American Jewish communities that still claim the mantle of traditionalism. The key grounds for pessimism are that the forces at work in these communities seem to be entirely centrifugal. That sweet spot in the center in which Shimen could be free of illusions but still unapologetically deeply traditional is becoming virtually uninhabitable. The confrontation with the world outside the community’s walls – Heidi’s world and, subsequently, Amber’s world – has forced Shimen’s would-be descendants to choose between stultifying segregation and over-weening accommodation. The center can’t hold.

So much for the United States and the diaspora generally. But, at last, we come to Israel, another topic I’ve chosen to set aside until now. The problem in Israel is somewhat different than the one in the diaspora. Shimen’s world was centered on tight-knit traditional communities, but at the very center of the Zionist ethos upon which Israel was founded lies the replacement of these communities with the state. This challenge to traditional communities has evoked radically different reactions in Israel from secular, national-religious and haredi societies, respectively, each of which has enfeebled traditional communities in its own way.

In the coming posts, I’ll dig into the details of this rather bleak assessment. But, after all that, I’ll explain why I am nonetheless very optimistic about the future of Jewish traditionalism. Surprised? Stay tuned.

Heidi’s Beliefs

Heidi objects to Shimen’s world because, unlike her own beliefs, Shimen’s beliefs are not evidence-based. And, indeed they are not. But Heidi’s conceit that her own beliefs about the world are evidence-based is amusingly naïve. The very question of what constitutes evidence presumes all sorts of beliefs about how the world works. Yes, perhaps I’m nitpicking; after all, those beliefs are shared by everyone. But, even if we discount those sorts of elementary beliefs, Heidi holds many more implausible beliefs than she thinks she does. Let’s have a look.

Heidi has rejected the fairly traditional society in which she was raised in favor of the more cosmopolitan society with which she now identifies. Since this transition is salient in her consciousness, she tends to focus on and espouse certain beliefs about human nature that rationalize her transition and give her chosen path meaning. Thus, for example, Heidi believes that apparent differences in average ability or achievement among different populations are either illusory or the result of discrimination, exploitation and oppression; culture is never an explanatory factor. She believes that most apparent differences between genders are socially constructed and not rooted in human nature and that overcoming these socially-constructed differences is feasible and harmless. Heidi believes that traditional institutions that encourage cultural distinctiveness and segregation are barriers to universal brotherhood and that abandoning them in favor of new institutions expertly designed for the perfection of humankind will lead to a more peaceful and prosperous world.

I’ll spare you a learned analysis of the empirical grounds for these beliefs, but perhaps we can agree that “evidence-based” would be a strong term. I will, however, argue on Heidi’s behalf that these beliefs share with Shimen’s beliefs the property that they are primarily intended to give meaning to her moral commitments rather than to create them and that Heidi isn’t actually very invested in establishing their truth in any conventional sense.

In fact, although Heidi raised her daughter Amber on these beliefs, they are rather marginal in her operative view of the world. Heidi actually lives a rather segregated, elitist and conventional life that for the most part reflects the values on which she was raised. Heidi might find it unseemly to blame culture for the failures of certain populations, but she doesn’t have or want much to do with them or their cultures. She might regard gender differences as socially constructed and overcomable, but she has mostly internalized those differences and lives accordingly. She might find traditional mores divisive, but she violates them only quite self-consciously. In short, Heidi highlights her anti-traditional beliefs primarily because she takes so much of tradition for granted.

But Amber has been raised on Heidi’s anti-traditional beliefs without the benefit of the traditional background that Heidi simply assumes. Amber suffers from the fact that, unlike Heidi, she has no heritage from which to define a trajectory into the future, not even one to rebel against. She doesn’t have conventional choices to default to, so her life is an unending series of burdensome decisions. She is jealous of her third-world friends, who were raised with defined identities and traditions that they can either flaunt or overcome. Amber is angry even about the life of banal privilege that denies her the cachet of victimhood.

Heidi’s foolish, if harmless, beliefs about human nature have led to Amber’s considerably less benign beliefs. Lacking any tradition to draw on, Amber and colleagues have invented a new religion founded not on a shared moral heritage, but rather on imaginary shared persecution and invented shared doctrines. These doctrines don’t merely give meaning to a prior moral heritage – as do Shimen’s beliefs and, to some extent, Heidi’s – they are actually the basis of a new moral absolutism. Amber is an ideologue.

Amber takes seriously Heidi’s belief that all differences in outcomes between different groups must be the result of oppression. She devotes her energies to identifying successful communities to penalize and alleged victims to patronize and proselytize. Amber takes seriously Heidi’s belief in the absence of essential differences between genders, so she rejects gender dichotomy altogether. She demands that the state regulate private speech and behavior to obliterate the very memory of binary gender, inter alia by magnifying the significance of transgenderism and other such marginal phenomena. Amber takes seriously Heidi’s belief that traditional norms are divisive. In the name of universal brotherhood, she seeks to destabilize precisely those traditional values that are common to all societies and that make cross-cultural harmony possible. Like many true believers, Amber wishes to use the power of the state and the wrath of the mob to silence heretics and lynch idolaters.

Traditional belief, like Shimen’s, gives the moral life direction, depth and meaning. Those who abandon such belief often err in taking for granted the moral values that it bolsters. The loss of that belief and those values does not lead, as Heidi would have us believe, to a life of rationality and clear-eyed reason, but rather to beliefs less tempered by the hard-earned wisdom of the ages and to values less amenable to sustaining a viable thriving moral community and tradition.


This ends Part 3 of the series. In the next, and final part, I’ll deal with a glaring fact that I’ve deliberately set aside until now. Shimen is long gone and he has left behind no children. This isn’t merely a sad biographical fact; it symbolizes that Shimen’s world is gone. What, then, comes next?

The Fear of Heaven

Not everyone is quite like Shimen. So let’s consider the question of belief from a more typical perspective.

For our purposes here, I’ll regard canonical Jewish belief as consisting of the three principles I mentioned earlier: that the Torah was revealed to the Jewish People by God, that those who follow the Torah will be rewarded in this world or another one and that Jewish history is directed towards messianic redemption. How do these beliefs contribute to the viability of Judaism? Specifically, how does Jewish belief contribute to sustaining Jewish norms? And how can Jewish belief itself be sustained in the face of Heidi’s arguments against its plausibility?

It’s quite straightforward how belief strengthens commitment to action. Clearly, the belief that the Torah was revealed and so represents some transcendent truth implies that there is an objective moral order and a human capacity to live by it. It is this belief that instills in us the humility to respect tradition even in the face of our base inclinations and our grand moral theories. Moreover, it is this belief that renders coherent our moral intuitions regarding non-fairness flavors of morality: restraint (kedushah and taharah) and loyalty (kavod and yirah). As we saw in the first two parts of this series, respect for tradition and the broad scope of morality are the keys to Judaism’s viability.

Similarly, the belief that good deeds are rewarded and bad deeds are punished, even if only in another world, incentivizes good deeds and disincentivizes bad ones. What is most important is the sense that one is being watched, rather than the salience of the punishment. The conviction that infractions are seen is so crucial to deterrence that experiments have shown that even the mere exposure to an image of a watching eye sometimes deters moral infractions. The belief in punishment in another world is a meaningful deterrent simply because it suggests that there is an eye that sees and an ear that hears and that all of one’s actions are recorded.

Finally, the belief in eventual redemption gives a life lived in accord with the Torah direction and purpose. It orients the believer to a view in which the Jewish way is dynamic and not stagnant and in which a participant is advancing some larger historical process. In addition, a less appreciated point about formalized messianic belief is captured by the joke about the fellow who is offered to serve as sentinel entrusted with heralding the Messiah’s arrival: it doesn’t pay much, he’s told, but it’s very steady work. The anticipatory nature of redemption in Jewish belief paradoxically softens eschatological fervor and prevents the calamities associated with “hastening the end” that afflict cultures in which messianic longing is repressed.

Here we face the hard question: Jewish belief encourages and directs the Jewish way of life, but can such belief be sustained? To put it bluntly, how can we be enjoined to assent to claims that do not seem credible?

First, observe that the three principle beliefs mentioned above are all aspects of the single belief that Judaism is a directed process linking our past with our future. The aspects of this single claim are that (a) the process evolved organically from some non-arbitrary point (we call that “revelation”), (b) the process is headed toward some non-arbitrary point (we call that “redemption”), and (c) being part of the process self-reinforces (we call that “reward and punishment”). The rest is commentary.

Next, observe that the belief that the society we live in is a link in a directed process that connects our past with our future is a necessary belief, like the belief in the reality of free-will, scientific induction and morality. As we saw earlier, every society must believe that or face debilitating collapse. In short, the core of Jewish belief is the bare minimum that a society requires.

If we are sufficiently socialized, we can default to this belief without giving it much thought, just as Shimen does. The default belief is simply part of our emotional character; in such cases, we call it yiras shamayim (fear of heaven). Yiras shamayim is almost orthogonal to the issue of one’s opinions: you can formulate clever arguments in favor of Jewish belief and yet lack yiras shamayim and you can formulate clever arguments against Jewish belief but nevertheless have yiras shamayim. Think of David Hume formulating clever arguments against scientific induction, but fully expecting to see the sun set in the evening and rise in the morning.

It should be obvious that the benefits of belief for sustaining Jewish norms, as we enumerated above, accrue not from intellectual assent to claims but from yiras shamayim. Not for naught is all of classical Jewish literature prior to Saadia Gaon and the Rambam – biblical, tannaitic and amoraic literature – filled with exhortations and narratives extolling the importance of yiras shamayim and almost free of discussion regarding the importance of assent to claims about the world. (I overstate my case here a bit: it’s true that the Torah makes claims about how the world works and, by implication, we are meant to believe those claims. But the meta-discussion about the state of mind that the Torah wishes us to have is never about doctrine and always about yiras shamayim.)

Of course, we aren’t all socialized quite as well as Shimen. We can’t default to the belief that the society we belong to is a link in a directed process that connects our past with our future without a very strong sense of which society we belong to. Gerrer chassidim, committed Jews, heimish Jews, all Jews, educated westerners, human beings, sentient beings, Met fans? Similarly, we don’t have the luxury of defaulting to beliefs that are explicitly challenged in some of the cultures with which we interact. In such cases, we might be inclined to make explicit and defend our beliefs.

At a sufficient level of abstraction, Jewish default beliefs are easily defensible. There is ample evidence that Judaism is indeed a uniquely viable process. Jewish tradition has proved itself to be viable over millennia; it is well-adapted to human moral intuitions, carefully balancing the universal and particularist flavors of morality; it strikes a balance between a living oral tradition and a written tradition of analysis and codification. As I have been arguing throughout the first two parts of this series, if I have to bet on the viability of one culture – and, by the way, I do – I’m putting my money with Shimen.

I know that my definition of Jewish belief “at a sufficient level of abstraction” doesn’t work for everybody. There is a tradeoff here between gripping the soul with the narrative power of concrete beliefs and gripping the intellect with the plausibility of abstract beliefs. Shimen doesn’t face this conflict, but many others do. For some, it may be enough to believe that Judaism has evolved helter-skelter from some special origins in the murky past, but others might need to feel certain that every detail of Judaism such as it is today can be traced directly to an original revelation in a specific place at a specific time. For some, it may be enough that the process is limping forward in some vaguely-understood positive direction, but others might need for the ultimate destination of the process to be specified in terms of concrete political events and miraculous interventions and for signs of the imminence and inevitability of such events to be already discernible. For some, the satisfaction of leading a life bound to Torah is its own reward, but others might need to be assured that the righteous reap rewards and the wicked suffer punishments in the most prosaic of ways, preferably instantly and in plain sight. Each person strikes the balance that works for them.

I’ll discuss the sociology of all this in the fourth part of the series. For now, the important take-away is that for Shimen – as well as for other committed Jews with more explicitly articulated traditional beliefs – Jewish belief is subordinate to action. Jewish belief motivates and frames commitment to Jewish norms and is meaningless in the absence of such commitment. If we define ideology as a commitment to specific beliefs about the world that logically and chronologically precedes and defines one’s normative commitments, then Shimen’s world is not an ideological one.

As we’ll see in the next post, this is not the case for Heidi’s world.