Holy Ignorance part II

This post is continued from Part I here. I will start from the middle of the book where he deals with the change to religion even when embedded in a territorial enclave. This thread will be 4-5 posts. I am delighted to have Prof. Ferziger reading along to help discuss whether Roy’s theories match the Orthodox community. My comments are limited to the American community. So after reading it, does it apply to Orthodoxy? Which parts?

Roy thinks that in the 1970s-1980’s there was a turn to religion that could be considered a mass conversion, people re-affirmed their faith. People now become reborn, re-committed, and choose to stay religious even when their peers or siblings did not. In the Jewish case, people become Orthodox as choosing Orthodox over their Conservative upbringing, as BT, as actual converts, and as finding the Shabbos table or the learning appealing. The category of sociological believer disappeared for those who became religious. No longer were you Orthodox just because your parents belonged to an Orthodox synagogue. (It may be returning and I will deal with that in a later post.)

Roy thinks that there are four elements to religion and culture: religious markers, norms, religiosity, and theology.
Religious Markers are movable sign that show one’s allegiance to one group and rejection of another. Many of the debates of dress code or whose kosher supervision are demarcation of one’s community.
Norms are the ethics, morals, and values. Roy discusses how in the 19th century – even when France was becoming atheistic – the Christian and secular schools had the same basic values. There was a convergence on sexual abstinence, hard work and discipline. Now we have divergent values on sexuality where abstinence is no longer preached in secular culture, so sexuality becomes the marker of secular versus religious communities. The marker is more important than actual statistics. A secular math major is more likely abstinent than the revivalist teen who is likely to have children out of wedlock.
Religiosity is the lived inner world of religious feeling and the way believers define themselves with outside world. Threat of the outside or need for salvation. Are they separatist, good neighbor or humanistic.
Theology- are the beliefs, doctrines, laws, and edicts as passed down by the millennium as they are discussed in the classic books, interpretive communities are created and texts are interpreted. For Roy, most of the flashpoints and controversial issues discussed are not in the theology/halakhah group but in the religious marker group. Specific practices are isolated and used to demarcate, when they never had that function in the past.

Roy thinks that culture always has the marginal and deviances. Even religious communities had the misfits, the fools, the brothel, the period of carnival, homosexual behavior, and addiction. There were always outlets for mockery without upsetting system, places and times to sin without questioning the bigger system. The community, diocese or kehillah knew that it needed to be managed not restricted. People were also not expected to police the private life. Hypo-crisy is the sense of a low critical sense of the margins was always tolerated.

Roy’s new point is that the new religious societies of the last few decades suppress the marginal elements and deviations – they seek a purity of standard because one has converted or joined the group. If one did not want to keep the rules then one did not have to join. According to Roy, therefore the new communities , if they stay the way they are, are permanently instable because there will always be deviants. On the simple level- the meme of half-shabbos went viral because Orthodox Jews assumed or fantasied that once they choice to be frum then all future decedents will share their 1975 or 1990 moment of commitment to purity. Roy has more to say: “the conviction that all members of a society must explicitly share one belief system is absurd and can only result in permanent coercion.” If one is seeking purity then there will be doubt and suspicion of other people. Traditional society avoided an all or nothing approach by accepting sin. Think of the mussar books or Rav Nahman. One can no longer give a sermon that everyone is sinner even though that is the reality, but because we focus on religious marker of belonging or exclusion. There is a greater Calvinism even in Orthodox Judaism in that one is either saved or not; I cannot give a speech calling everyone a sinner or a sheketz anymore and preach that mussar is the means to right oneself. Sin is only outside the religious community. And virtue is only in the community. (111)

Roy thinks that secularization by itself does not change values. Even if one loses one’s belief then one can continue to have the same values. Roy thinks that this recent wave of religion has lead to an exculturation – when the religious no longer identify with the surrounding culture. It is no longer a place of synthesis but of fighting to keep the values of culture out.

In the past, the religious and the secular as well as the government shared values of a good life, good neighbors, educated and prosperous community. Roy arguing from his area of expertise shows how Islamic law did not negate the well-being of the social, intellectual, and economic realms. Islamic rulers reigned in shaariah by restricting it in certain areas, giving it loose interpretations, and by modeling it on and working with western law. In contrast, the new demand for shaariah is an abstraction w/o history and culture and without the actual working of community and law. You can say the law is whatever you want when it has no direct application to ruling a country. Islamic law becomes an alternative value system to outside pagan culture; a religious marker and not a religious law. If a religious law does not have a common horizon with society in a synthesis way then it is a religious marker and alternative value system. Much of this has similarities to the new formulations of halakhah. (113-115)

This return to religion separates religion and culture and creates religious markers isolated from any historical context, and a sharp break of believers and non-believers. Roy argues that real religion was never pure or isolated. Secular, other faiths, and deviants could define terms and give expression to religious words. The Jewish Enlightenment, Jewish literature, academia, and romantic appropriations were all once readily accepted. The meanings of Jewish thought, Halakhah, Hasidism, Midrash, or Talmud were defined by Buber, Agnon, Scholem, Yerushalmi, Idel or Menachem Alon- now there is a trend to limit the true meaning to those in the religious camp. They own the words. They can even ban the other side from using their proprietary words. For example Muslims in Malaysia are banning the use of the word Allah by Christians and Buddhists even though it was a linguistic or cultural use. I am sure that many Orthodox would ban the use of words such as halakhah by Reform Jews and they would not, if they knew, want to get their Hasidism from Buber. (118-119)

Chastity and abstinence were the religious norm in the Middle Ages and therefore the actual transgressions were a marginal problem because they did not challenge the system. People who transgressed knew they were deviants. In contrast, in the contemporary era sexuality is now a positive value for everyone. The ideals of marriage have changed for everyone and media and the internet keeps culture and religion on the same page. So in this current world, the Catholic Church’s voice and the haredi voice is inaudible. Therefore they are incongruent with current values against asceticism and abstinence. Roy claims that what used to be on the margins is now out in public. People display and coming out about their sexual orientation, there are pressure groups for acceptance of people’s orientations, and a shrinking of the private sphere.

Currently, people demand acceptance of their individuality and authenticity of their decisions. The same argument used by contemporary religion to argue for its acceptance. On the questions of the new sexual ethic and gay marriage, religion blames the pagan culture-it blames materialism, pornography, and selfish pleasure. In contrast, Roy argues that this is a fallout from the split of culture and religion, therefore the scandal is permanent. There is no realm of deviance in religion anymore to tolerate these changes, religious society always had its sinners. So when there are religious markers against sexuality or gay marriage they appear not as references from a past culture or the glory of noble traditions rather, they appear as dictates from a religious hierarchy devoid of pedagogy.

Roy gives two cases: The first case is that of a rural priest with family, which is clearly against the Church’s celibacy laws. But the local parishioners were all in favor of keeping him as their clergy because he was good at the job, they wanted an allowance for deviance. His second case are chastity rings or vows of abstinence that do not and cannot work to attain purity because of the gap of religion and the new culture.

On a more controversial note, Roy sees the problem of gay marriage not as a result of secularism but of religion’s removal of culture, there is no longer any realm for deviance. According to Roy, homosexuality made one of the greatest cultural shifts. It went from criminalized in the 1960’s to currently protected and to consider rejection of it as hate speech. It is now out in the open so this new religious world cannot assimilate it so it becomes a major religious marker. There are homophobic campaigns and anti-feminist campaigns. (125-6) These become the major signs of us versus them and religious demarcation. They are now used a the sign of purity of community more than prayer, study, or kindness. (128-129)

On a completely different note, Roy cites an Italian proverb that “a translator is a traitor” Judiasm has similar quotes on translation as kissing through a veil. Roy thinks that the new religiosity loves translation because it allows one to dodge the historical and cultural resonances of the text. The sacred text is now outside the cultural realm. Historical, linguistic, and literary knowledge is unnecessary if one has the correct religious purity of doctrine. The cultural realm of the clarity of writing is lost. In addition, one can portray past eras of history as entirely in conformity with the current vision of religious purity. (138)

To be continued in Part III

4 responses to “Holy Ignorance part II

  1. My experience of the growth of Orthodoxy was like this. For the most part the generation that came of age around 1970 were not baal teshuvas, they came
    from Orthodox families, but in a large measure the parents were sociological Jews, to use your term or moderate shteibel Jews, who were still connected to European Orthodoxy. Because the parents were to different degrees heimish, they sent their kids to charedi yeshivas, a move that both gave them nachis,and was horrifying at the same time. Newly minted charedi young people, mechutzafim, confronted frum parents on many fronts, dress, college, style and place of davening. There was a failure of nerve on the part of the parents and a successful Oedipal revolution by these young people, who while depreciated their parents over- idealized their teachers. paralleling in many respects the generation of ’68 and the hippies. This outdoing of parents is becoming more difficult. This last Agudah convention highlighted by the hysterical, fanatic speeches of Rabbis Avraham Schorr and Shimshon Sherrer are examples of children justifying their place in the world by being even more frum than their charedi parents.

  2. “For Roy, most of the flashpoints and controversial issues discussed are not in the theology/halakhah group but in the religious marker group.”

    The RW Orthodoxies, regardless of whether they are Muslim or Jewish, are unwilling to make this distinction. Head covering and “modest” attire for women are the classic examples of religious markers that have been so fetishized. Their sociological context have been subsumed into revisionist readings of source texts that are then promulgated as the (explicit and exclusive) word of God, thus, upping the ante for sociological moderation.

    Where, it seems to me, this becomes more complex is when State power becomes complicit in the sociology. This is certainly true for Islam, in which the unfolding events in Egypt will be an interesting reality check on many political theories discussed over the past few decades. But, it is also critical in our more parochial discussions of Judaism.

    On your final point, it seems to me that the issue within Orthodoxy is not translation per se. As an unlikely source for cutting to the crux, R. Meiselman just wrote in Mishpacha: “When I deal with most products of today’s yeshivos, I have to assume they’re not proficient in independently learning a Mishnah Berurah, so I have to teach them how to read a Mishnah Berurah. I have to assume the only seforim they’ve seen in mussar and machshava are ArtScroll books, and so I have to get them exposed to primary sources. Many of them are not equipped to go through things inside.”

  3. Aside from the issue of modest dress, there is no mention of the role of women, generally considered a watershed issue and key differentiator between the various degrees of religious adherence. Is the regulation of the behavior of half the population simply a “religious marker”?

  4. I was intrigued by that last bit about translation. There’s no doubt that Artscroll play a hugely important role in the fundamentalist move in Orthodoxy. And Roy is right on – Orthodoxy has used English translations to “dodge the historical and cultural resonances of the text.”

    At the risk of overgeneralizing, the tone and tenor of Artscroll translations is to smooth out the text, reduce or remove ambiguities, and to make the translated text correspond closely with only one of the many existing traditional interpretations for these texts (or even harmonizing/synthesizing multiple traditional interpretations into one). By de-problematizing the text, they limit the space and need for interpretation. The text means only one thing, notwithstanding that our own tradition shows incredible diversity of possible meanings living in tension with one another.

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