Suburban Religion

I have always been bothered by the enormous shift from the world of Eastern Europe Jewry to the new suburban Jewry. In its wake it has left a void of many aspects of Judaism and much of the new approach seems geared to keep God out of one’s life. Jews in their myopia tend to see it only as a Jewish or Orthodox problem, but it alters all American religion. Many Christians have noted this change from old-time religion to the new faith and attempted to discuss the new Suburban Christian, and they grasp the ironies. I recommend for the ironies – Albert Hsu, The Suburban Christian. There several other works with similar titles. But no one has yet to fully put their finger on the issues involved in the change. So it was important to see a Muslim also bristling again this immense change by making fun of Suburban Capitalist Islam.

To understand this, know that ilm means knowledge in the sense of both law and reason for the law. Rambam’s Mishneh Torah and his Guide are both fiqh and the study of which is knowledge( ilm.). When you read this substitute year in Israel, study of halakhah, shul classes for his references. In rule #12 those are references to the messianic age, in the sense that suburban orthodoxy does not acutely wait for a messiah. The author makes fun of the acquisition of knowledge and not having it interfere with one’s life. One can master halakhah and keep it out of one’s life. There is no more growth and piety. He makes fun of how their right wing is mainly characterized as those violating the materialism. History is avoided.

The author makes fun of how one can study much “contemporary law”  and one can debate for weeks whether something is permitted or forbidden but that debate obscures the real issues that one is no longer living in the religious world of the past. In this set up, “Knowledge’ has been set up as this idealized form of certainty and conviction.” offering self-justification and a sense that one has the answers. Finally, these classes have degenerated into self-help and a commodity for marketing.

Any of this sound familiar?

“Suburban Capitalist Islam” – List of Beliefs

1) American culture is the primary definition of the way we dress, the food we enjoy, the entertainment we seek (Movies, TV, video games).
2) Islam can be understood practically as a filter of the ‘bad’ aspects of the American lifestyle out of ones life. The bad aspects are the obvious haraam (forbidden actions). It can also be an encouragement of the ‘good’ aspects of American life.
3) Since Islam is a filter of good and bad, one needs to obtain ‘ilm’ (religious knowledge) in order to learn how to behave. Studying ‘ilm’ is paramount in Islam, and most ‘ilm’ is in Arabic.
4) What is taught by people in classes at seminars and ‘events’ is a translation and summarization of what is considered ‘ilm’.
5) Your status is defined by how much of this seminar-event-based ‘ilm’ you know.
9) What defines a good Muslim is how well integrated he is with Suburban-Middle-class Society (job, wife, kids, house) plus the combination of his ‘ilm’
10) With real ‘ilm’ we can combat a Non Suburban-Capitalist-Islam. The end result of Non Suburban-Capitalist-Islam is a lifestyle absent of the luxuries and principles of Suburban Capitalist Islam, primarily #1.
11)  Suburban Capitalist Muslims are moderate. They are moderate because they are largely indistinguishable from non-Muslim Americans within the workforce, except for a beard/Hijab and some dietary requirements.
12) Imam Mahdi (AS) and the Dajjal are topics of events far in the future. They are so far that they are largely understood as metaphors without meaning.
13) Islamic history is something left to be studied in a superficial manner, because most of Muslim history is filled with various mistakes and evil people. It is far more important to learn about the primary sources of ‘ilm’ and attend more seminars.
Suburban Capitalist Islam is inherently an American cultural product. What most Muslims in the West experience as the Islamic message is actually American culture filtered through certain Islamic injunctions. Under this paradigm, Muslims are able to argue day in and day out over details as to which particular filters/knowledge/’ilm’ they should apply in their lives, while ignoring the overarching logical breakdown and inconsistency between their belief system and their actual lifestyle, filled with TV, video games and shopping.
What are the youth to do with themselves while they are struggling in being ardent abstainers from these aspects of Western society? Surely, Islam must provide some alternative?

Largely this gap has been filled with the pursuit of ‘knowledge’. The message has been that through knowledge you are empowered to controlling your own Islamic future. While knowledge has been important to Muslims since the time of the Holy Prophet (S), it is only now that we see studying being associated so directly with piety and spiritual progress. ‘Knowledge’ has been set up as this idealized form of certainty and conviction. The more knowledge you get/purchase/sit in, the more everything about Islam makes sense, the more easier it becomes to justify the abstaining from the few ‘bad’ things surrounding us and also rationalizing our largely Western lifestyle as being halaal. And doesn’t everyone want self-justification and doesn’t everyone desire for it all to make sense.

Most of these ilm-sessions are set up as the Islamic equivalent to very secular self-help seminars. This cultural stand-in has allowed for competing institutes and community programs to emerge, each giving their own message of specific information-based knowledge. And it should be carefully noted that what is being peddled is information-based knowledge versus knowledge of the self or other forms of tacit knowledge which was how much of Islam was implemented in Muslim lifestyles.

A primary consequence of this Western approach towards Islam is the productization of ‘Ilm’, religious knowledge. What does Western society bring if not the concept of marketing? Catchy slogans, professional videos ads, hype-machines and superstar personalities have been built up to bring ‘Islamic knowledge’ into our lives. No one could deny, if given the opportunity , ‘American Muslim Institutes’ would be clamoring for some sort of witty ad selling their wares during Superbowl commercials. Frankly, if given the opportunity, they would want their own team and hijab-laden cheerleaders.

Full versions here and here.

12 responses to “Suburban Religion

  1. I hope you plan to write about the counterpoint to suburban religion, which I suppose is urban religion.

  2. It’s amazing how much ideology is invisibly conveyed via American consumerist culture.

    On the other hand, what is the real critique? That American Orthodoxy is “inauthentic?”

    When Scholem characterized halakhic orthodoxy as a “well ordered house” was he not basically pointing out that it served to displace God from the discussion? Talk of God and revelation is disruptive and can have some potentially anarchic consequences.

    Arguably this move toward the predominant available model of social stability is actually a conservative move.

    Also, note that the American self-help ethos was exported to Judaism via the modern mussar movement long before the rise of contemporary suburban Judaism. Perhaps that’s one reason it penetrated so effortlessly.

  3. AS-

    I think you got it by your use of the word ideology.

    Karl Mannheim defined the term ideology in his 1929 Ideology and
    Utopia as a worldview that determines the way we define a situation.
    Ideology is considered a distortion of the original meaning, as a
    false consciousness. Implicit in this formulation was the ability to
    somehow remove the distortions of ideology. Jacob Katz in his studies of
    Orthodoxy used ideology in this manner.
    (and by extension so do most bloggers- stick to 1929)

    Clifford Geertz took issue with considering ideology as a distortion.
    Rather, all ideology is embedded in a cultural construction that bears
    the meaning, symbolism, and moral order of the society. Following this
    approach, Robert Wuthnow shows how ideology creates situations where,
    for example, Orthodox Jews and Evangelicals share a common ideological elements.
    The ideology of suburbia shapes Muslims, Jews, and Christians.

    Furthermore, Michel de Certeau point out how ideology is always
    spatially located, and Antonio Gramsci and Pierre Bourdieu note that
    our discussions of ideology separate living from thinking.

    My post was a consideration of the spatial role of ideology- suburbia.
    Unlike the Katz framework of Reform –Orthodox, Left-Right. The ideology
    of suburbia is the overarching framework for all sides. But what are the alternatives?
    Help me think this one through.

    Your comment from Scholem was also made by Rav Kook and Rosensweig, they all saw Rabbi S.R.Hirsch as content without form. But each gave different answers. More importantly, I am not sure that their critique of 19th century bourgeois Judaism is the same as what is needed for suburban Judaism.

    On Mussar, I assume that you are referring to Andrew Heinzes’s book. On that I disagree. But that would be a future post.

    Jeff- Don’t ask me a question like that until I submit the manuscript of Volume II to Palgrave and submit my Maharal paper from this past summer.

    • I suspect that in spatial terms if suburbia is the all-encompassing profane, then the alternative is a return to sacred space.

      People who make aliyah sometimes speak about seeking both an escape from America’s relentless saturated consumerism and a desire to return to a holy place.

      One notable thing about American consumer culture is that it can co-opt any symbol. As a result there is nothing left that is categorically sacred. Even cemeteries are getting kitchy (not to mention crowded by strip malls). What is the Orthodox equivalent of “put Christ back into Christmas”- “Take the vacation out of Pesach”?

      I really don’t have suggestions. The Logos became text, how does the text become Logos once more in forsaken world? There is a profound fear about talking too much about God after God stopped talking.

      • AS- I really do not see your point about text and logos. You are pulling this neo Heideggerian move of reading ontotheology into stuff. How is this useful for strip malls? No clue.

      • The sacred can be seen in many layers of consumer culture and postmodern life. In the view of Durkheim, anything can become sacred, and as such, this includes commodities (Judaism knows this very well for obvious reasons).

        Within many Ultra-Orthodox communities, for instance, this is also a given. Although one may see Tuvia’s Judaica, Kosher Castle, or the local Pathmark as purely commercial commodities, these have an especially sacred meaning within a community that does not have the synagogue-sermon-pastoral care model seen within most Modern Orthodox suburban communities and the sense of organized religion seen in communities where you go to a service at a set time that includes a sermon, in a synagogue featuring social, volunteer, educational, and pastoral services, with a rabbi trained in the nuances of management, pastoral psychology, and other areas germane to the pulpit (in the seminary model). Rather, in the non-Modern Orthodox world, where you daven at any number of minyanim in any possible number of settings, commodities take on a sacred space as a socio-religiously-cohesive element in the community. I believe this is an example of Featherstone’s premise that the sacred is able to sustain itself outside of the formal institutions of organized religion within the consumer culture that is almost emblematic of Haredi life within a community such as Monsey.

      • You are confusing an external descriptivist account of the sacred with an internal, phenomenological encounter with the sacred.

  4. I think that one need not look further than Monsey or North York as examples of this phenomenon. To use the language of Diamond, places such as the ubiquitous strip mall on Rt. 59 or Bathurst Street have become sacred space for these communities. Suburbia does carry on its own unique ideology, and I think that one can look at the popularity of the Prosperity Gospel within suburban evangelical churches as an example of this in the theological sense, while observing trends among the Orthodox such as Pesach in hotels or the Dominican Republic, kosher sushi and exotic cuisines, and other trends which tell a uniquely sociological religious tale of Orthodox amalgamation.

  5. My point was that without any possibility of sacred space the only alternative is sacred consciousness which is pretty hard to achieve these days when all we do is talk about texts and can’t relate to the texts as immanent.

  6. AS- What do you think of Fishbane’s attempt to speak of immanence in Sacred Attunements??

  7. I doubt any of it will appeal to suburbanites. Creativity and aesthetics are for bohemians. People who turn inward go on prozac. The interpretive tradition is subsumed by artscroll.

    • There is so much conflation of issues here that it is becoming genuinely difficult to discern the line of argument. Please unpack.

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