Golden Rule Jews or Family Value Orthodoxy

I am not working on this right now, but thought that this article would help clarify a few thing that came up in the half-shabbos discussions.

The religion of much of the laity is not on a left-right spectrum or a frum or less frum spectrum. Many modern Orthodox congregation are made up entirely of people who choose it for the lifestyle and family values. Being Orthodox is about family on Shabbat, shiva calls, hospital visits, sharing simchas, and helping people out. They are oblivious to both doctrine and practice demarcations. They consider the warmth of the community as their Orthodox Judaism. Nancy Ammermann, the leading sociologist of congregations, calls the Christian equivalent “Golden Rule Christians.” She argues despite their lesser observance and liberal beliefs, they are not liberals and are not to be contrasted with Evangelicals, rather they are oblivious to most of the right-left issues.

Many congregants are concerned whether the Rabbi is good at shiva calls and hospital visits, not whether they went to Ner Israel or YU. They care about if the rabbi participates in their lives, welcomes new members, and gives divrei Torah or sermons about suburban life, not about the left-right flash points. And they are completely oblivious to ideology confusing Rav Frand and Aviva Zorenberg.

We can use a study of Orthodoxy using her categories developed about congregational life. JTS brought in Nancy Ammermann to do a study of the Conservative movement, but she accepted the statements of too many of the ideological talking heads as if they were empirical. This article was written 14 years ago; much has changed since then in American relgion. And Judaism is not the same as Protestantism. Nevertheless, her work is a good starting point for empirical discussions. Go read the 20 page article in full.

She points out that they are sincere, engaged, and have a relationship with God. They see themselves as neither lax nor liberal. She notes that ideologues and liberals are more likely to be found in urban areas. So innovations in an urban area like Riverdale or the Upper West Side, may have little to do with the Family Value Orthodoxy of Livingston, Scarsdale, Engelwood, or Great Neck. (I am only speaking of the big shuls).

This chapter is reprinted from the book LIVED RELIGION IN AMERICA edited by David Hall (1997), Pp. 196-216 with permission from the Princeton University Press

The first step in describing the religiosity of “lay liberals” is to recognize what these people believe and practice. Their religiosity is not just a paler reflection of evangelical fervor, but different in kind… Their own measure of Christianity is right living more than right believing. are characterized by a basic “Golden Rule” morality and a sense of compassion for those in need.

What is this good life for which Golden Rule Christians aim? Most important to Golden Rule Christians is care for relationships, doing good deeds, and looking for opportunities to provide care and comfort for people in need. Their goal is neither changing another’s beliefs nor changing the whole political system. The emphasis on relationships among Golden Rule Christians begins with care for friends, family, neighborhood, and congregation. In the neighborhood, they value friendliness and helpfulness. Many of these folk know what it is to be mobile and therefore what adjusting to life in a new location involves. “Doing unto others” means welcoming newcomers and offering routine neighborly assistance. Beyond such routine care, they are also convinced that a good person invests in relationships. That means being open and vulnerable, working through difficulties, being there during the hard times.

Among those we interviewed, older people were especially likely to describe the church as like a family, a place where people care for each other in times of need. When people of all ages talked about being dissatisfied with a church, it was rarely over doctrinal disagreements, but often over the failure of a congregation to care for someone in need.

Implicitly, most observers seem to measure strength of belief and commitment against a norm defined by evangelicalism, equating that with “religiosity” and painting these non-exclusivist, less involved practitioners as simply lower on the scale. In this essay, I suggest that “lay liberals” are not simply lower on the religiosity scale. Rather, they are a pervasive religious type that deserves to be understood on its own terms.

What I am describing may in fact be the dominant form of religiosity among middle-class suburban Americans. It certainly is among the middle-class suburban Americans in our study. It is their form of “lived religion.” Urban congregations were more likely than suburban ones to be activist,
They draw from Scripture their own inspiration and motivation and guidance for life in this world. Their knowledge of Scripture may not be very deep, but they have at least some sense that the Bible is a book worth taking seriously, especially as a tool for making one’s own life and the life of the world better.

This emphasis on caring also defines their picture of God. Just as our interviewees’ most common description of the Christian life was living by the Golden Rule, so the most common description of God was as a protector and comforter. God was experienced most often in moments of need. Even beyond times of crisis, these church members talked about seeing God’s presence in the ways “things just work out” or feeling more confident about everyday challenges because they know God will care for them.

Relationships with friends and fellow church members are important, then, but the relationship that perhaps defines the religiosity of Golden Rule Christians more than any other is the relationship of parent to child. A quarter of the interviews we analyzed contained explicit statements linking faith to the upbringing of children.

They are not in church only for their children (as we will see below), but religious training for their children is part of what they see as their obligation to the world. They would not be doing good or making the world a better place if their children were denied the training provided by the church.

Stresses in family life are among the items of most concern to the Golden Rule Christians in these two affluent suburban congregations. They spoke often of care for spouse and children as very important to them. They worried about the demands of their jobs and how to balance work and family life. Among the relatively small proportion who participated in various Bible study or discipleship groups at the two churches, discussions about work and family decisions were frequent refrains.

If Golden Rule Christians are characterized by their moral practices and their lack of creed, why call them Christian (or even religious) at all? Could they not be doing all these things based on an ethic generally available in the culture, the sort of generalized value system Could they not be members of a lodge or community club just as easily as of a church?

There are at least two reasons to reject that argument. The first is that they themselves insist on joining churches. They may join community organizations as well, but they talk about how important it is to them to find and join a church.
They simply see no other organization that puts caring for others so clearly at the center of its life. The more potent reason to reject Golden Rule Christianity as proof of secularization, however, is that Golden Rule Christians have not given up on transcendence. They were sometimes rather fuzzy on just what it is they experience, and they sometimes had to stop and think when we asked, but they almost always came up with answers to questions about their experience of God.Some said that they feel close to God in Sunday worship, especially in the music and in the opportunity for quiet reflection. Nearly half of those whose interviews we analyzed mentioned some aspect of the worship service as important to them, as a time when they feel God’s presence or find new insight and understanding for their lives…The parts of the service that involved participation and introspection seemed most important.

Others mentioned experiences with their children – births, for example – or moments near the end of their parents’ lives. One man reflected, “I think He [God] has always been a big part of our life, our married life, and our kids’ lives. I think our kids had a lot to do with making Him more real to us, and personalizing Him.” As these people encounter the power and grandeur of nature and the mystery of life’s formative moments, they again sense that something beyond themselves is present. Not surprisingly, they also sense this presence in times of special difficulty. Many of those we interviewed mentioned times of sickness and death as moments of particular closeness to God. Rather than eliciting questions or existential anger, these trials seemed to allow Golden Rule Christians to draw on a reservoir of spiritual energy.

Half of the people we surveyed define their faith more in terms of everyday morality than in terms of institutional commitment or theological orthodoxy. They would be likely to find a high-commitment sectarian congregation uncongenial.
While theologians might want to argue that the people I have termed “Golden Rule Christians” have no coherent theology, and evangelists might worry about their eternal souls, sociologists cannot afford to dismiss a form of lived religion just because it does not measure up to orthodox theological standards.

I have argued here that the Golden Rule Christianity we see today is explicitly nonideological. That is, it is not driven by beliefs, orthodox or otherwise. Rather, it is based in practice and experience. God is located in moments of transcendence and in the everyday virtues of doing good. The good person invests heavily in care for family (especially children) and friends, tries to provide friendly help in the community, and seeks ways to make the larger world a better place. All the while, the ideas of others are respected.

8 responses to “Golden Rule Jews or Family Value Orthodoxy

  1. I can totally confirm your description of Golden Rule Orthodoxy as the norm out there, at least from my experience of several years in the pulpit.

    I also think that this is in general the dominant form of religious life, whether nowadays in the suburbs, or during the 19th century shtetls, or in the then contemporary bourgeois Neo-Orthodox in Germany. Most people are not ideologues. They have deeply felt, genuine emotions, but they are not necessarily ideologues.

  2. They are oblivious to both doctrine and practice demarcations.

    What about those people who are not oblivious to but who do not care about the demarcations, or, more likely, do not wish to enter into debate about the demarcations?

    • tesyaa,
      Then you may already be a specific variety of liberal believer. Oblivious really means oblivious. There are really many out there who only notice if the nursery is good and if there are good groups for kids. They do not know that the demarcations actually exist.

      • I tried to make my comment non-specific.

        I’m familiar with both the ideologues and the “oblivious” believers you describe. I was wondering if the Golden Rule description applies to all non-ideologues, or is specifically referring to those who do not know more.

        I would describe many women and some men who arrived from the old country 100 years ago as lacking the education to distinguish between ideologies. What’s interesting is that with the exception of some baalai tshuva, today’s Orthodox Jews have received extensive religious education or have had the opportunity to do so. If, as you say, they remain “oblivious”, that is a remarkably interesting fact.

      • To both tesyaa and Arie,
        I want to leave 19th century and early 20th century cases out becuase they have differences from fin-de siecle 20th century [upper] middle suburbia.

        tesya, yes it is remarkable that people who had a day school education, sent their kids to day school, and now have grandchildren in day school can be completely oblivious. They think that day school orthodoxy is about being nice, teaching family values, the importance of the heritage, and connection to Judaism. But in the end it is a good neighbor orthodoxy.

  3. I was able to relate to a lot of what Ammerman wrote, in terms of social, lived religion as opposed to anything theological or denominational. In fact, most of my congregants do not identify as Orthodox. On Sunday morning the breakfast that follows Shacharit regularly runs for hours, as parents drop off kids at Hebrew School, sit down, grab some food, congregants come and go, and so on.

    “The parts of the service that involved participation and introspection seemed most important.” In fact, for us the highlights of the service (judging from people’s faces and mannerisms) usually are the prayers for America and the State of Israel, and the Prayer for the Sick (the misheberach). I would argue that, rather than transcendence, people are looking for connection to those around them.

  4. Re: obliviousness of the Jewish-educated laity.

    My Jewish education from kindergarten through Yeshiva College was composed (in volume order descending) of a) tanach and talmud, b) ritual, and c) Jewish history. Perhaps I was out sick every time they covered Jewish philosophy; I certainly don’t remember being tested on any.

    With that kind of background, obliviousness to doctrinal lines should be no surprise.

  5. Well stated. This is the basis for the undeclared war against divorced fathers in modern orthodox communities post divorce, and the near total loss of these men from the community.

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