New Secularism – Old Danger

Response Article To "Liberalism: Its Peril and Its Deliverance"

The threat of secular liberalism is not a moral threat, but rather the same old temptation to cast off the yoke of Mitzvos in favor of unleashing our joie de vivre in its fullest. To handle this threat we need to consider a way to satisfy human needs and desires without abandoning Torah and Mitzvos.

Kislev 5780 / December 2020

“I grew up in a Charedi family where religion was force-fed: Do it because it’s written, without feelings, without comprehension, without explanation. By the time I was fifteen I despised religion. Now, at the age of 28, I would love to believe once more, yet I cannot. There are moments when I experience flashes of faith, but they are fleeting. It never lasts. Deep down I continue to hate religion. To me, the entire concept simply means suffering.”

Thus began a letter to the Charedi website Akshiva, established to provide an address for Charedi men and women to unload their hearts and receive counsel from a Charedi team of experts. The question, not untypical among those published on the site, expresses a personal, human problem that relates to religious life. Sometimes, perhaps more often than not, those posting questions on the site express discomfort at the pressures of Charedi communal life and the social codes they are expected to follow; these, it seems, drive many to leave the fold.

The distress reflected in such questions does not derive from some heart-rending moral dilemma, nor for that matter from a sharp critique of Charedi religious ideology. It originates in personal angst that ultimately climaxes in religious crisis. The typical reason for departure from the Charedi fold is not a heightened tension concerning ideologies and ideas, but personal pain. The relevant individual experiences religious life as an ever-increasing burden, though he continues to maintain his belief in the Torah and its laws. Finally, something snaps.

I do not wish to dismiss the importance of ideas in shaping our personal and social lives. Moreover, I certainly do not wish to make light of the challenges presented by liberal ideas to the Charedi way of life. But unlike the position taken by Rabbi Pfeffer in his article, I do not believe that liberal ideology is our great new threat. The dangers Rabbi Pfeffer pointed out doubtless exist, but they are not the central challenge that Charedi Judaism – and, indeed, Judaism in general – faces today. Ideological battles taking place between liberal and conservative ideas are of course important, but they are far from being the central arena of the struggle for the future of Torah Judaism.

Even today, Torah Judaism is successfully navigating ideological challenges by adopting the positive aspects of liberalism and rejecting those parts that are radical and flawed

Torah Judaism has dealt with ideological challenges throughout the millennia of its existence. Sometimes it flatly rejected a rotten ideological fruit; sometimes it ate the flesh and tossed the peel, adding a new hue to Jewish tradition; and sometimes it adopted the entire fruit, peel and all, as complementary to Torah wisdom. In Rabbinic parlance, the third option is referred to as “the beauty of Yefet shall abide in the tents of Shem.” Even today, Torah Judaism is successfully navigating ideological challenges by adopting the positive aspects of liberalism and rejecting those parts that are radical and flawed. But the deeper issue we must face is what I call “the challenge of life itself,” which I believe threatens the core spirit of Torah Judaism. Overcoming ideological challenges, important though it may be, will not protect the Jewish world from the dangers threatening to engulf it. The key battle is taking place elsewhere.

Below, I will briefly explain why a great tide of secularism threatens the Charedi education system, irrespective of matters of morality and ideology. I will also suggest a direction for how we may be able to stem the tide.


Results That Matter

For a moral ideal to threaten competing moral views, it needs to prove itself not only intellectually but even in the field. The ideal of Marxist socialism gained popularity for eminently understandable reasons. Its call for economic equality and the abolition of social classes as a means for eliminating poverty captured the human imagination, offering a solution to heartbreaking problems that have troubled humanity for millennia. Yet, ever since the exalted ideal crashed on the shoals of bitter reality, costing the lives of tens of millions and spreading tyranny, hunger, and human suffering all over the world, its popularity rapidly declined. Today, clear-sighted people flee similar ideas with disgust, despite their surface charm. Even if we cannot explain Marxism’s theoretical flaws, reality speaks for itself. Some will call this philosophy conservatism; I prefer to call it simple common sense.

The liberal set of values, whose influence Rabbi Pfeffer rightly fears, is likewise highly attractive at first glance. Most of the world has been won over by these ideas, and consequences can be seen everywhere, for better and for worse. But when a Charedi or religious person tries to compare the moral condition of liberal society to that of the society in which he lives, he surely has no reason to pine for liberalism.

Liberal society as reflected by popular culture – movies, music, literature, and other forms of entertainment – comes across as being wholly decadent. Though the picture is more complex than the broad brushstrokes I paint, the level of violence and vulgarity that pervades education systems, the inconceivable sexual license that reaches every child the moment he gains Internet access, and the fragility of the liberal household (if such a household still exists), all speak for themselves. To these, we can add the sense of communal alienation, the almost compulsive legitimation of so-called gender-fluid identities, and sometimes even a fierce hatred for community and for nationality, for borders and for what they represent.

In the face of such poor results, the Charedi individual, who lives in a relatively stable world of community, family, and nation, is rarely enticed by the promises of liberalism. The temptation of progressivism, notwithstanding its idealistic charm, melts away upon contact with reality. Charedim rightly feel that their traditional lifestyle produces far better outcomes. We have every reason to take pride in the charity empires our society has created, in the close-knit communities that provide a never-failing source of support, in our robust family stability, and in our ability to bring up children in a wholesome environment and educate them to Torah and good deeds. Our pride in all these things is neither pretension nor part of Charedi apologetics; Charedim are sincerely and justifiably proud of their way of life, and have good reason to feel this way.

Charedi Judaism might have some difficulty in articulating its position vis-à-vis liberal morality, but it stands proudly against it in practice. And this – the matter of outcomes – remains the ultimate standard. Whether in terms of human happiness or in those of moral conduct, Charedi Judaism does far better than liberal society. Liberalism seeks to justify poor results by magnifying marginal phenomena among ideological rivals and minimizing the enormous price it exacts from followers. Notwithstanding such efforts, we can generally rely on the sharp instincts of Charedi individuals to understand that which meets the eye.


The Ideology Question

This is not to say that clashes of values do not exist, or that we are exempt from the dilemmas between liberal and Torah morality. As noted above, Judaism has always dealt with such dilemmas. The Rambam reconciled Aristotelian physics and philosophy with Judaism; Kabbalists peppered their teachings with the spirit of mysticism that surrounded them; and the same is true of Chassidism in its time and the yeshiva “lomdus” system (analytical system of Talmudic study) today. All these were results of encounters with intellectual and cultural phenomena outside of Jewish community borders, and Judaism was greatly enriched from the sparks that flew out of the encounter. We are well-versed in the art of rejecting the illegitimate in that which is outside of Torah, and “converting” the good in others. R. Eleazar immortalized the message in the following Talmudic citation: “The Holy One, blessed be He, did not exile Israel among the nations save in order that proselytes might join them, as it is said: And I will sow her unto Me in the land; surely a man sows a se’ah in order to harvest many kor!” (Pesachim 87b).

Our very own “liberal exile” is no different. Rabbi Pfeffer speaks the truth when he mentions the great contrast between the absolutism of autonomy in liberal morality and its place in Jewish morality. The clash of values has produced no few sparks, some with positive outcomes and some that have wreaked significant damage to the vineyard of Israel. But we should use similar methods for similar cases, and follow the example our predecessors have set us. They emerged stronger from the clashes of their times, and we can do the same. This is a challenging arena, but not the one over which we should be losing our sleep.

As founder and manager of the Akshiva website, and having seen thousands of questions posted by Charedi men and women in recent years, I can say that very few questions relate to ideological-moral dilemmas deriving from the Charedi-liberal dissonance. For the majority, the bitter reality of Western liberal society is quite enough to counter the threat.


The Challenge of Life Itself

“Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav: Israel worshipped foreign gods only to give themselves license to perform sexual transgressions in public” (Sanhedrin 63b).

These words of the Sages mark the real battle line between Charedi and liberal society; the great war we must fight is the “war of life.” The permission of sexual license in public, of which the Sages spoke, is not just an expression of some dark impulse, animalistic and uncontrollable, which drove the Jewish People to change their entire worldview. It is the “power of life” itself. Man wishes to live, and he perceives the imprisonment and repression of this “power of life” as running contrary to his own nature.

The liberal idea described by Rabbi Pfeffer leads on the one hand to social disintegration, but it also releases enormous forces within the human soul that seek release and expression. Man’s desire to fully realize himself as an individual; the longing to act unfettered, to think without limits and speak unrestrained, to see without blinders; the permission to experience almost everything – all these are tremendous forces that seek realization, and which are fully unleashed in liberal society. Human hearts are filled with passion, with love and ambition, curiosity and craving, and liberalism resonates with us – even with Charedi Jews committed to the Torah and its values – because it allows them a full expression. Yes, liberal license can be terribly destructive, but this knowledge hardly sets the soul at ease.

The Charedi strategy of isolationism has met with phenomenal success. The official dropout and growth rate data provide ample proof of this. It is a strategy that protects Torah society from unwanted exposure to foreign values, morals, and actions—as Rabbi Pfeffer writes at length. But in order to enable this separation to be continually effective, we need to hold not only to the weapon of fear, but also (and perhaps primarily in our times) to the weapon of life. It is incumbent upon us to build institutions and infrastructures that incorporate the full scope of an earthly “joie de vivre” within a Torah framework. Limiting the war against outside influences on repression alone will raise the internal tension of the Torah-Charedi individual to unbearable levels.

The more we learn to realize the “forces of life” within us in an appropriate way, striving to allow them proper expression, the less our desires will lead us astray. The more we instruct ourselves and our children to realize the experience of couplehood and family within the permitted framework, the easier it will be to stand against the sweeping forces of life in the outside world. If we assist our sons and daughters realize their talents as fully as possible, and allow them, within proper boundaries, to think freely and express their curiosity, we will lower the level of dissonance between religion and the flood of vitality present in broader society. All these can be done entirely appropriately, without any harm to halacha, the worship of God, Torah values, and the stability of communal and family life.

Within our Charedi world of Torah, inside the transparent walls we justifiably erected, we must strive to allow and encourage as great an expression of our human life forces as possible. This, I believe, is the main arena of our struggle against liberal society; I wish us all good luck.

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