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What Christians Can Learn From Orthodox Jews

That’s the question my friend David Goldman, an observant Orthodox Jew, asks in his essay on Jody Bottum’s Commonweal piece. Excerpts:

Gay marriage was political poison just a decade ago, but has triumphed today because of the sudden shrinkage in conservative Christian ranks. The gay marriage issue is a lightning-rod for the gathering storm of secularism, and for an obvious reason: sexual liberty has been the most effective adversary of biblical religion since Pinchas killed Zimri and his Midianite mistress. From the Temple prostitutes of Ishtar to the pederasty of classical Greece, paganism has offered sexual license while biblical religion restricted sex to marriage. Anyone who came of age during the 1960s remembers why traditional culture cratered in the handful of years before 1968: my generation was the first that was told that we could have all the sex we wanted without having to get married. The sexualized ambient culture has eaten the young of the Christian conservatives.

Goldman says the traditional Jewish view is that sexual license is part of the paganization of society. Coming at it from a very different perspective, the late sociologist Philip Rieff identified the collapse of the Christian sexual ethic (which for all intents and purposes is that of Orthodox Judaism) as a sign that Christianity itself was collapsing. I recently wrote about Rieff and his view, first offered in 1966, that the Sexual Revolution was a sign that the West was undergoing a “deconversion.” When Christians cease to believe in the Biblical standard of marriage and sexuality, they find it hard to continue believing in Christianity, or at least practicing Christianity. Rieff, who was not a religious man, believe it had to do with a loss of the “sacred order” that holds a culture together.

Goldman continues:

The Church (like the Evangelical movement) is in trouble because the sexual revolution already has re-enchanted the world with a wicked sort of magic. Nothing is more uplifting in the setting of a faith community and nothing is so corrupting when set loose. It is Dante’s She-Wolf in the first Canto of the Divine Comedy, the predator whom Dante could not pass, che mai non empie la bramosa voglia, e dopo ’l pasto ha più fame che pria (who never satisfies her greedy will, and after eating is hungrier than before). There can be no conservative religion where sexual morality has unraveled.

… There are some concessions that traditional religion cannot make without sacrificing its authority, and the character of the human family is one of these. Orthodox Judaism survived decades of cultural isolation when conventional wisdom predicted that it shrink to the status of an irrelevant sect. Orthodoxy has thrived, on the contrary, precisely because it refused to abandon Torah values, while progressive Jewish denominations are shrinking. Christians should take encouragement from the Orthodox example and remain true to their principles. And Jews should continue to set an example of faithfulness to Torah values in the public square as well as the synagogue. The robust growth of Torah-observant Judaism has a radiating effect on the culture around us, most of all through our influence on traditionally-minded Christians. That is why the Orthodox organizations are right to take a public stand against official sanction of gay marriage, even if the stance is unpopular.

Goldman, contra Bottum, says believing Catholics (and other orthodox Christians, I presume) should give up on the idea that they can meaningfully influence the wider culture by silencing themselves on Biblical sexual morality, and instead learn from Orthodox Jews how to live and to thrive as a cohesive religious minority in an alien culture. I think he’s right. Read his entire essay.

If my church compromised it’s teaching on sexual morality for gays and straights alike, or my parish refused in a significant way to observe the teachings of the Church, I would walk, if only to be out of the way when the thing collapses. There is also the matter of Neuhaus’s Law: “Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed.” With Dante, I agree that there are many worse sins than sins of the flesh, but it is becoming clear from observing the decline of Christianity over the past 50 years that there is no solvent more effective against Christianity than baptizing sexual license. Rieff was an agnostic, but he got this right, I think: Once Christians (and Jews?) throw out the Biblical teachings on sex, there is nothing they won’t ultimately accept. Why this is true I don’t know, but it certainly seems to be the case.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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