Uneasy in Babylon by Barry Hankins & the culture wars of Orthodox Judaism

Remember the culture wars in Modern Orthodox Judaism between 1995-2002? The age of Edah, the founding of YCT, the promulgating of the doctrine of mesorah, ban of WPG and furthering women’s role in the synagogue, the decline of the Orthodox Caucus and RCA Roundtable, and the tehillim rallies against the new President. Did anyone record the events week by week? Did anyone produce a book by 2003 delineating the struggle within Orthodoxy?

I recently discovered that the similar struggles within Southern Baptists were immediately documented by Barry Hankins in his well received book Uneasy in Babylon in 2003. The book had several good reviews here and here. His book explains to the moderates that the new conservative forces were not a throwback to some Fundamentalism, and he explains to the conservatives that the moderates were not liberals rather they expected a broad accepting Church.  He explains the differences in various liberal and conservative positions seeking  to inform his readers that they are not all the same. Most importantly, he shows how a leadership role for women was the wedge issue that divided the groups. Let me know if any of this sound familiar in Modern Orthodoxy.

The books starts with the once upon a time story that In 1967 southern Baptists were at ease in their enclave as Southern, Christian, Baptist- subculture “it was the catholic church of the south. ” However, by the end of the twentieth century it was no longer homogeneous (1) During this era there was a grand compromise of placing in control neither right or left. No one was seen as excluded, and their were various emphasis by congregations on mission to others, truth, service, and personal conversion (6)

In 1979, there were conservative appointments that were portrayed by moderates as a start of a takeover- originally seen as mild violation of grand compromise. (7) In the 1980’s conventions and meetings grew n size as each side began to recruit organize and mobilize. Liberals were seen as not believers and conservatives seen as power hungry.  Both sides focus on worst case scenario of the other’s position. (12) Hankins to avoid the conflict avoids using the words fundamentalist or liberals but conservatives and  moderates.

Many tried to tarnish the conservatives as Fundamentalists,  but Baptists were not fundamentalists in 1930’s. They have a denominational independence, they use different terms, are active missions,  (Compare Modern Orthodox vs Ultra-Orthodox split). Conservatives start in the 1980’s with rhetoric that they are the only true church (15) Prior to the 1980’s, Baptists have a negative view of evangelicals as narrow, card-carrying, and anti-denominational. Evangelicals are Yankees, Lutherans, or those preoccupied with Orthodoxy.   (16-17) Yet, by the end of the 1980’s there was a growing sense that they are becoming evangelical, reading Schaffer, and Christianity Today. (21)

Hankins has an interesting point on the difference between those groups like SBC  or RCA/ YU orthodoxy that is full service, in contrast northern Evangelicals and Artscroll/Community Kollel  are interdenominational in their publishing, in outreach work,  in colleges (and yeshivot),  and in periodicals.

The real story starts in 1996 when Albert Mohler takes over the seminary in Louisville Kentucky and turned it sharply right, accomplishing in three years a decade worth of turns. A turn to the right with a speed and velocity that overtook most students and faculty (28, 81) (Was it like this in Judaism?)In 1996, Mohler made women’s issues as the sole litmus test of hiring and firing, it left only a hardline group. Can a women be a preacher? He asked all incoming faculty and he made those faculty sympathetic to women clergy uncomfortable enough to leave. All speakers, authors, and affiliate personal could not affirm women clergy.

Hankins points out, and I have been saying it for years, that you can be hardline without being sectarian or fundamentalist. (or Haredi)  (85) Moderates could get phd but not speak in the university, now one should not read wrong authors in class, guest speakers now needed an ok. (28)

At the start of 1996, moderates called conservatives who didn’t accept critical theories morons. (33)The moderates had a false sense of academic elitism.  They saw themselves as conduits of college and graduate school study but Hankins points out that their sense of themselves was inflated and ideologically driven (Think of the Torah uMadda advocates).In reality these  moderates or liberals faculty were rather conservative by ivy league standards . (97, 104) Moderates say the right as combative in an un-Christian way against liberals, women’s roles, gays, and democrats  (98) This process removed the diversity of evangelicals (104)

The conservatives also started to portray America as a Christian country and to see state, university and media as against religion.  (119-120)

The seminary did not turn for inspiration to the new generation of believing philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga, Keith Yandell,  nor did they turn to Evangelical defenses and rebuttals of historical study.

Albert Mohler embraces post-modernism to argue that (1) truth is not universal or objective but socially constructed, hence one only knows it through the Church (  AB- compare halakhic man’s Kantian constructivism to only knowing the text though mesorah of authorized Rabbis.) (2) There is no metanarrative that all are bound to, so one should accept the  Christian narrative. (3) The text has lost its meaning in Western culture so we can affirm the inerrant Bible without worrying about historical research.(47-48)

The book concludes that no Baptist congregation was ever punished for its stance on women’s leadership or participation, the only ones that were punished were those allowing same sex marriage (226).

After remaking the seminary, between 2003 -2010 -Albert Mohler turned outward and became an outspoken leader in American Evangelical religion whose positions are to the right of his colleges, but this does make him a return to Fundamentalism or superstition.

So where was this like Modern Orthodoxy circa 1996-2002? After?

(Let me know typos in comments and I will correct them.)

4 responses to “Uneasy in Babylon by Barry Hankins & the culture wars of Orthodox Judaism

  1. Great post Rabbi Brill. My former professor Charles Marsh at UVA also wrote about this in his book “Wayward Christian Soldiers.” I’m curious to hear the parallels in the Jewish Orthodox community.

  2. I have thought about the parallels to Modern Orthodoxy over the years since i read Uneasy in Babylon several years back. The author himself notes most religions move to the left so the SBC move is significant and therefore the parallel to Modern Orthodoxy is striking.

    However, the reason why the SBC moved to the right is because of the growth and industrialization of the South throughout the post-war 20th Century, which brought about confrontations with American Culture which the Northern Baptists experienced in the earlier twentieth century leading to the Mainline/Fundamentalist breaks in the 1920’s.

    The same cannot be said about the Orthodox ‘move to the right’.

    I don’t think that Modern Orthodoxy was more engaged by American Culture during the 1990’s than previously.

    A stronger parallel is the rise of Fundamentalism and the Fundamentalist/Evangelical alliance described in “The Book of Jerry Falwell”, where the lines between Fundamentalist and Evangelical were blurred in the 1980’s, similiar to the lines between ‘Yeshivish/Chareidi’ and “Modern Orthodoxy”.

    • I don’t think that Modern Orthodoxy was more engaged by American Culture during the 1990′s than previously.

      During the earlier period of MO, the ideal for some was rabbi dr. speaking to HS graduates. (Boston and Maimo were exceptions). The self-perception of Jewish Action magazine was of non-college educated. Most baby-boomers were first generation college, shop keeper family. By the 1990’s it was a broad engagement with culture.

      I think both books offer insights. MO is not identical to any Evangelical phenomenon; the books offer insights each highlighting a different aspect.

  3. After the Six Day War it was clear that secularism and Zionism was successful in filling the needs of the Jewish people for security and economic development. What was religion’s role? You wanted a livelihood, go to college. You wanted safety, learn how to fight. Each group in Orthodoxy was pushed to justify its existence. From one end the militant Gush Emunim offered their particular grandiose religious- nationalist solutions for bringing the Messiah & redeeming the world. They were a huge success, leaving the rest of MO with their limited ideals of TuM and Torah im Derech Eretz as smaller, less noble people aiming for a decent job and a life in the suburbs.

    From the other end the charedim were expanding quickly, each group offering the certainty of being authentically Jewish, and with it a total identity. MO without charismatic rebbes or a network of advanced yeshivot, bais yaakov’s & neighborhoods was hard pressed to meet the challenge. MO in recent decades is a result of this pincer movement. It has become part of the right wing support for the occupation, a me-too enthusiasm for pan-halachacism, a yearning for gedolim they can call their own. The residual liberal rump has been reduced to obsessive criticism of charedim, feminist issues in synagogue ritual, and crusades for the protection of minors from abuse. No group in MO has been willing to identify openly and courageously with contemporary versions of modernism and secular culture because the rules of engagement reward frumkeit, moralism and intense Jewishness.

    In the case of the conservative churches, the situation as I imagine it was quite different. There was no internal competition who can be the frumest of them all. There was the trauma of the 60’s sexual revolution, the rise of non-white communities with their own values, and a general feeling that secular humanism was destroying the moral fabric of America. Jewish neo-conservatives like Kristol, Podhoretz and Krauthammer took up these anti liberal crusades, but the effect on the religious community was minor in comparison to the effects of the charedim and settlers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s