Orthodox Jews – Praised by Columnist – Dissed by Readers

David Brooks had a very positive article about Orthodox Jews in Thursdays’s NY Times called “The Orthodox Surge”. He even found a number of ways to praise the Orthodox consumerism prevalent at Pomegranate, the upscale Kosher Supermarket in Flatbush.

Brooks points out that Orthodox Jews seem destined to become the majority NY denomination in the not too distant future:

Nationwide, only 21 percent of non-Orthodox Jews between the ages of 18 and 29 are married. But an astounding 71 percent of Orthodox Jews are married at that age. And they are having four and five kids per couple. In the New York City area, for example, wile Orthodox Jes make up 32 percent of the overall Jewish population, they make up 61 percent of Jewish children. Because the Orthodox are so fertile, in a few years, they will be the dominant group in New York Jewry.

In the section of the article where Brooks supported his praise of the Orthodox, he nicely described what Torah observance accomplishes:

The laws, in this view, make for a decent society. They give structure to everyday life. They infuse everyday acts with spiritual significance. They build community. They regulate desires. They moderate religious zeal, making religion an everyday practical reality.

It was a very positive article, but the comments were overwhelmingly negative in dismissing Orthodoxy. The criticisms included women’s rights issue, the need for conformity in the community, the classification of Orthodoxy as fundamentalist and many of the other classic issues people have with Torah Observance.

Perhaps critical people are much more likely to comment, and the hundreds of thousands of people who sympathized with the articles thrust on a whole, disagreed with the 446 mostly negative comments. Or perhaps there’s still a lot of education needed to show people the depth, meaning and beauty of Judaism.

22 comments on “Orthodox Jews – Praised by Columnist – Dissed by Readers

  1. My favorire reader comment from that article:

    Andrei Foldes in Forest Hills said:

    Working in construction, I have had the good fortune to serve the Orthodox community for decades now, and I have grown to admire many things about these people. Their love of learning is perhaps their brightest star.

    I never cease to be amazed at the sheer number of schools packed cheek by jowl in their community.

    That last word is the key, as Mr.Brooks points out. This is a real community. You feel it on the streets filled with people wearing all the same simple clothes, you see it in the balconies and front porches filled with children at play. And these porches and balconies tell another story. These houses and people have their faces turned outward, toward the community and the neighborhood, not inward, towards glowing TV screens.

    And that is another key – NO ONE watches ANY television. That ensures that their children are their own, not creatures of commercial mass media. Finally, regardless of age, whether children or adults, they are uncommonly curious people. I say “uncommonly” because this natural human curiosity that you could see pretty much everywhere a number of years ago now has become rare indeed in the more “normal” parts of town.

    So when I get in my truck and drive beyond the eruv and out of the neighborhood, I have a real sense of having left behind an island of civilization.

  2. Two unrelated thoughts that both relate to the Brooks article:

    1) If you were to describe, in general terms, most of the values (without getting into the intricate and often linguistically-demanding detailed explanations of practical minutia) that distinguish Torah Judaism (or, as I like to call it, “legit Judaism”) from the other things that pass for Judaism today (Reform, Conservative, etc.), then what you get is a list of values that are mostly quite well compatible with the values of middle America. It is primarily in large cities that the secular culture has taken a turn so opposite the direction of Torah Judaism. Orthodoxy’s values are not nearly so alien to the culture of normal American towns as the secular inhabitants of large cities might otherwise lead you to believe.

    2) Food for thought: Consider the South African experience. In South Africa, if I understand correctly (and this is all secondhand knowledge, so Jews from Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, or Rhodesia feel free to correct me), the various Germanic “Reform” movements and their offshoots never really took a solid hold. What you got as a result was a culture where the only thing that most South African Jews thought of as “Judaism”–even if they themselves were off the derekh–was some form or another of what we today would consider Orthodoxy.

    In America, by contrast, most secular Jews grow up assuming, simply out of ignorance, that Reform not only is a form of Judaism (a proposition with which I would take serious exception) but that Reform/Conservative/etc. actually are the ONLY real form of Judaism. Most secular Jews I know have little if any knowledge of what Torah Judaism actually involves.

    Brooks’s article gives me hope that maybe, at some point in the future, we will get to the point in America where, when people (Jew and gentile alike) think of “Judaism,” they think of some sort of Orthodoxy, rather than of gaudy bar mitzvahs at country clubs preceded by a few months of frantic cramming and followed by a lifetime of ignorance of the Torah that is our G-d-given heritage.

    I like the South African sense that, even if the boat sails out to sea, the compass will still know where True North lies. In a country where the compass points to Reform, it is difficult for a sailor to navigate back home even if he decides that it’s time to turn the boat around!

  3. Mark Frankel asked:

    “Let’s ask it another way: How can the Torah lifestyle, with it’s focus on straight married white males and females, compete for the Jewish heart and mind against the more diverse and inclusive American lifestyle”

    I don’t think that we have to engage in apologetics. I agree that it would be like shooting fish in the barrel to examine what passes for culture, education, family life, the arts, in the secular world today etc. The main ingredient is showing the beauty of such a way of life via Shabbos and how the Torah demands that we sanctify what the secular world views as either an animalistic or simply a necessity of human life, as opposed to engaging in cultural one upsmanship.

  4. The article, as are many by David Brooks, was excellent. It is a great display of sophistication, nuance, awareness of detail, and appreciation for what makes Torah observant communities unique. Far too many of the commenters appeared to be either ignorant of the basics of Torah Judaism , and/or hostile, despite their having a knowledge level of anything Jewish less than a first grader in any yeshiva. Unfortunately, we have a long way to go in dealing with the phenomenon of the self-hating Jew, a particularly vicious branch of the world’s oldest social disorder-anti Semitism.

  5. I’m defining orthodoxy, for the purpose of this discussion as I believe Brooks did, which is Torah Observant.

    Now of course Torah Observance is not an all or nothing thing, as many FFBs and BTs will tell you. I’m comfortable with a minimalist definition of Torah Observance if that’s where your coming from. Exactly what the parameters of such a definition are beyond the scope of this comment, but perhaps you’d like to write a post about that.

  6. “I disagree. I think a life of Torah Observance is good for every Jew.”

    Clearly, not “every Jew” agrees with you. :)

    Seriously, though, that’s specifically why I said “Orthodoxy in its current form”. If you look at the Sephardi world you’ll get a better idea of what I’m getting at. For the most part, there are no “denominations” among Sephardim. They are all part of the “family” not matter their perceived level of external observance. You can see it in practice if you go on a chol hamoed outing in Israel. You see these enormous families, with people dressed from halter to hamburg, enjoying the chag as, well, a family… accepted for who they are.

    We’ve defined orthodoxy so narrowly, yes even including the “range” from MO to UO, that there are just too many people left on the “outside”. It’s THAT orthodoxy that is not for everyone. And no that orthodoxy is not the sum total of “Torah Observance”.

  7. This may be a bit obvious or even corny…

    But I find it just a little striking that the degree of diversity or the “continuum” of religiosity within the broad framework of Orthodox or maybe better “Halakhically-bound” Judaism is so much more greater when compared to the non-Orthodox movements. This seems to appear to reflect the incredible diversity that is clearly found in physical nature itself!

    Does that “prove” anything..of course not..but I still personally find this aspect of Orthodox Judaism pretty cool..

  8. I disagree. I think a life of Torah Observance is good for every Jew.

    I would of course agree with the obvious statement, that not every person can live in every community. But in America with it’s observance diversity, there is a place for every Jew to observe Torah.

  9. There’s no question it can be good, and is for most of us. But you can’t dismiss those who have issues, by assuming “education” will take care of it. It its current form, orthodoxy is not for everyone.

    And yes, it’s much better in Israel. Not just for the obvious reasons, but also because, to tie in to some other comments, there is much more room for individual approaches here. Like I’ve said before, the term “orthodox” is less relevant here as the vast majority of Jews live on a continuum of religiosity.

  10. Menachem, I wouldn’t call it PR.

    I live in a community where FFBs and BTs are happy that they are Torah Observant Jews, even with the issues that exist. We try to improve our community, but we’re not dragged down by a focus on the negative. On a regular basis we have a life filled with meaning, purpose, family and community.

    Even in it’s simplicity, due to his lack of knowledge, the short format, and the venue, I think Brooks got it right. It’s good to be an Orthodox Jew in America! (And as I think you might point out: It’s better to be an Orthodox Jew in Israel :-)

  11. .. and perhaps, to finish Mark’s ending, there is validity to some of the critical comments which Brooks’ simplistic piece glosses over. We might need more than just a PR campaign to make observant life more appealing to the majority of Jews.

  12. Shmuel, technically you’re absolutely correct. But the reality is that there are very few non-whites in our community and from what I’ve read by non-white converts (and white converts), the inclusiveness often leaves something to be desired – to put it mildly.

    Your comment highlights that the difference between what the Torah says and how we practice often differs noticeably.

    I personally think that even though our practice often falls short of the ideals, a Torah life, with it’s many different modes of practice, has so much to offer to a Jew in America. I think there’s room to communicate that more clearly to the American Jewish population.

  13. That Jewish heart and mind may just have to go on aliyah. We might be witnessing a great but corrupted empire on the skids. That corrption could be contagious..

  14. Perhaps one could start by deleting the “white” part. The Torah doesn’t care about how its adherents would be classified according to present-day racial demographic categories, and there are Jews with all types of physical appearances.

  15. Let’s ask it another way: How can the Torah lifestyle, with it’s focus on straight married white males and females, compete for the Jewish heart and mind against the more diverse and inclusive American lifestyle?

  16. In response to Mark’s question: The Torah contains both values (emphasis on individual vs. emphasis on larger group), and the question becomes where do we see the competing values highlighted, what are the implications for us in various situations, and what are certain people and/or communities going to emphasize?

  17. Mark asked, “Is Torah Judaism individualistic because it’s counterculture (as Brooks describes it) or is it conformist because our communities have so many social and religious norms?”

    Communities and individuals are two different things. You can have an internally conformist group. limiting aspects of individual autonomy within it, that goes counter to the predominant culture around it. That is not the same as some typical suburban kid becoming a hippie or political radical.

    That said, there are instances of Jews becoming baalei teshuvah as an expression of individuality.

  18. Sorry meant to say “of their own life” at the end.

    Let me add, that on the flip side there are many Orthodox Jews who themselves have never really considered the implications of the Jewish Tradition, Torah m’Sinai, being a shomer mitzvot etc. and are only “religious” because that’s how they were raised.

    So again I would argue that yes in today’s world everyone has lots of choices on how to life their life. But how many are consciously making these choices?

    I wonder….

  19. David-

    While I agree that the comment may be indicative of a large segment of the secular world, I disagree that most Jews are non-orthodox because they themselves actually have actively chosen that path.

    Most people regardless of level the religiosity follow the lifestyle they grew up with. Thus, most Jews are not “choosing” to not be religious because most secular or non-orthodox Jews have never stopped to actually think about whether there truly might be “something” to the Jewish Tradition, Torah m’sinai, keeping Shabbat and other mitzvot etc. etc.

    So how much personal autonomy are people really engaging in? Most people I think do not realize how much they are NOT choosing the course I’d their own life.

  20. Is Torah Judaism individualistic because it’s counterculture (as Brooks describes it) or is it conformist because our communities have so many social and religious norms?

  21. The Times’ readers are mostly leftists and Brooks is a moderate. This explains their different views about conservative (small c) religions in America.

    Leftists are OK with individualism when it suits them, but emphatically not when it’s politically incorrect.

  22. I think this comment is indicative of the general public attitude:

    “Any lifestyle that discourages individualism and brings religion in public arena is anti-American.”

    Posted by Jack/Las Vegas, March 8, 2013 at 12:51 p.m., in the NYT Picks section.


    But that’s consistent with the fact that only 10% of Jews are orthodox, isn’t it? If most people liked religious orthodoxy, they would practice it themselves.

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