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Benedict Option II: The Jewish Example

Four keys to sustaining strong, countercultural religious community

Editor’s note: See the first part of our Benedict Option coverage here.

Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option is the newest handbook for Western Christians who think mainstream cultural engagement is a losing proposition. Instead of fighting secular trends that seem unbeatable in the near term, Dreher argues, it would be better to focus on “building communities, institutions, and networks of resistance that can outwit, outlast, and eventually overcome the occupation.” This strategy is seen as revolutionary to Christians, who have deeply influenced Western society and now feel defeated as it turns against them. But Dreher’s approach is nothing new to Jews, who have long lived as a minority—and who have survived for thousands of years through a wide range of practices that sustain their communities across generations, even in the face of immense hardship.

Unlike their brethren in places such as the Middle East, Western Christians are so far removed from being a minority (17 centuries!) that they will have to make substantial changes to the way they think and live to be successful. As they focus more on preserving faith communities and less on gaining broader “influence,” Christians will need more than the right ideas—more than a manifesto. They will need to deeply examine their very manner of living in a society that glorifies individual self-expression and is skeptical of religion. Dreher—an Eastern Orthodox Christian—acknowledges this, and he challenges Christians of all stripes to dig deeper into their traditions and consider how practices sustain belief and identity. Some Christians, especially Evangelicals, may find this challenging. From my experience, there are at least four religious Jewish practices that Christians can learn from to flourish and propagate as a new minority.

First, control all aspects of education in your community and emphasize learning as a core part of the culture. Jews are famous for their focus on learning. We are, after all, the People of the Book. Our faith has made learning Torah the central element in our faith. But there is another rarely stated reason: only those who emphasized learning in Jewish schools and absorbing Jewish ideas were able to transmit their identity to subsequent generations; everyone who did not assimilated. As such, religious Jews build schools everywhere they go and (speaking from personal experience) take on enormous hardship to ensure that their children only go to such institutions. Public schools are not an option. And while some homeschool, most Jews believe that communal entities inculcate values and knowledge that could not be replicated otherwise.

Second, sustain culture, values, rituals, and identity. Education is only the start if a minority identity and set of beliefs are to be transmitted generation to generation. An independent culture, backed by its own history and narrative, and instilling a sense of quiet strength (and belief in ultimate victory over one’s opponents) must characterize a community, and especially the youth. Engagement and even partial integration with mainstream society is allowable, but it should be done in ways that do not undermine values and cohesion. For example, some Orthodox Jews (myself included) have found it is better to use radios rather than televisions and carry older-style cell phones instead of smartphones. It is okay to live in a city, go to a secular college, and work in a big company as long as you live and mainly socialize with your own community. Our dietary laws assist in this process: they reinforce on a daily basis a sense of difference and separation while teaching how to say no when appropriate—a great lesson for children. We must break bread either with our own or by ourselves and only in special (kosher) places with others. Judaism provides layer after layer of culture through its holidays (which are really days of teaching and celebration), attachment to Israel (with trips or expectations of trips to experience the Holy Land and a full year there after high school), daily and weekly rituals, unique foods and dietary restrictions, and so on.

Third, establish a dense network of social institutions to support individual communities as well as the broader diaspora. Jewish communities establish a wide network of institutions wherever they go—synagogues, schools, mikvot (ritual baths), cemeteries, gemachim (free-loan funds), professional support networks, and so on—as if the process was built into the DNA of the people. The unique Jewish mix of individualism and communalism encourages this development, but surely thousands of years of minority life must have nurtured the habit. When you live in small communities that must survive without the help of (and sometimes in opposition to) the government, you must quickly develop new mechanisms to support yourself. These various social institutions—some formally established, many just operating ad hoc or on the margins in smaller communities—play crucial roles not only helping people, but also bonding them together in a way that builds social cohesion, identity, and resilience.

Fourth, set aside one day a week to bond, learn together, and celebrate one’s uniqueness. A famous Jewish maxim says: “More than the Jew has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jew.” Although Shabbat (the day of rest from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset) is the most obvious feature of Judaism to outsiders, its importance to Jewish continuity is not well understood. By forcing a community to live within walking distance of each other (no driving is allowed), to isolate itself from the surrounding society (no telephones or televisions or radios are allowed), to pray and eat together (families with families), and to celebrate its unique history and culture (through Torah readings, speeches, and classes), the holiday does more to bond and interweave the community than any other single activity. And the process is repeated over and over again in community after community in almost every part of the world. There is thus a global network of Jews celebrating Shabbat that travelers can easily plug into and grow their own networks, solidarity, and identity. When I travel for work to the far reaches of the planet—to places such as Kathmandu, Asmara, Shanghai, and Istanbul—my religious life is not impoverished as much as nurtured and stimulated by the adventures Shabbat synagogues and meals bring.

Of course, there is a spectrum of religious Jews, ranging from those living in self-imposed ghettos to those who see active engagement with the world as an integral part of who they are. But the practices I describe here are common elements nurturing and sustaining Orthodox Jewish communities worldwide. And who can argue with success? Besides two millennia of survival as a minority, religious Jews today are rapidly growing in strength in the United States while the non-religious population shrinks. Whereas a few percent of American Jews at most were Orthodox in the early 1970s, today one in ten identify as Orthodox. And one in four American Jews under the age of 18 live in Orthodox households. The religious communities are going from strength to strength while the less religious or secular parts of the Jewish community are in decline.

Jews have always treasured practice over “right belief,” and I believe Judaism can offer Christians an example as they seek to replicate its success as a minority group. As Dreher insists, believers must “get the faith in their bones. Because if the faith is only in your head, if it’s only a series of arguments, you’re not going to make it.” Christians do not have to diminish doctrine in order to thicken the practices that can enable them to flourish as a minority—on the contrary, they’ll find that practices deepen it.

Seth D. Kaplan is a professorial lecturer in the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University.