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Developing Religious Resilience

A Jewish reader writes about yesterday’s NYT article talking about how radically American Jews are losing their religion and becoming assimilated:

Those data points are the driving reasons why I have trouble seeing myself attending anything but an Orthodox synagogue.  On most categories of observance I’m already closer to (in line with?) the modern Orthodox than Conservative congregants — but I do fall somewhere between them on gender egalitarianism (women rabbis, who counts for a prayer quorum, etc.) which makes even a liberal Orthodox shul a compromise on that ground.  (And in a marriage where one’s wife is theologically with the Reform, this is not a small compromise.)

But I want my (hypothetical) children’s (hypothetical) children to be (non-hypothetical) Jews. There are only two things that seem to correlate with that: raising families in an Orthodox community, and sending children to Jewish day schools.  This shouldn’t really be that shocking, though: the best ways to raise children who raise their children as Jews is to bring them up in a community where leading a Jewish life is seen as valuable.  There’s, perhaps, something sociologically sound in the commands of Deuteronomy: place the words of the law on your gates, on your doorposts, as signs on your hands and forehead, inscribe them in your heart — and teach them faithfully to your children.  How many thousands of years ago and they already knew that passing down religious practice from generation to generation had to be part of a lived example!  (There’s also wisdom in making it part of the central prayer — the Sh’ma — of Jewish life and daily prayer.)  It’ll be my (still hypothetical) children someday who lead me to stop eating, however carefully, in non-kosher restaurants.


So maybe what we’re seeing, in Judaism and in American/Western religion writ large, is the result of abdicating that responsibility — or at least the lived life that was so much a part of it.

Ah, well.  Too close to bedtime; I’ll cut off the floodgates of pessimism here.  But on a final note — yes, Christians need to start learning from Jews, and Jews from Christians, about how to live faithfully in this century and beyond.  We’re going to be in this together for the foreseeable future.  (Not that this at all makesthe 1/3 of Jews thinking it’s within the bounds of Judaism to accept Jesus as messiah any less of a WTF moment — bein’ in it together ain’t the same as bein’ the same thing.)

And one addendum: by Jews & Christians learning from each other, I didn’t mean to endorse a Haredi/Chassidish Benedict-style Option.  I’m … deeply skeptical; this is certainly not the life I lead or would want to (or be capable of).  But it might be the case that Orthodox Jewish practice, even at its most “liberal,” has a built-in version of the Benedict Option: you can be part of the wider world (in my case, an academic community), but you can’t socialize with them on Fridays/Saturdays, you frequently can’t eat with them, your sense of (and actual) calendar and schedule must necessarily be different from theirs.  Not to mention that building a sukkah makes you the neighborhood’s resident crazy people, especially when you almost smack your upstairs neighbors in the head with an 8-foot metal pole.

As much as this leads to a built-in Jewish social community, it also makes it harder to socialize with/form deeper relationships with non-Jews.  That is, a barrier to assimilation without ghetto walls.  I don’t know if there’s anything comparable in Christian communities within larger communities — but this might also be something that comes from years of being a minority religion.

I’ll stop thinking at you now. Thanks for enduring it.

Enduring? Hardly. This letter is a great example of why I cherish this blog’s readers. You often make me think.

I’m seeing the seeds of this within the Orthodox Christianity we practice. Our pastor says that if we don’t come to vespers on Saturday night, we are not to present ourselves for communion on Sunday morning. The idea is that you should prepare yourself spiritually for the central event of your week. It’s hard to do, in the sense that from 6pm until about 7:10 every Saturday night, you are in church for evening prayer. I had to leave watching the LSU-Georgia game last weekend in the fourth quarter to make it to vespers on time. This was not fun! I did not want to do this! But it shows one’s children, and oneself, what it is to make church a priority. I’m by no means totally consistent on this, but I’m better than I was, and God willing, will be more faithful next year. The point is that it’s a practice that sets one’s community apart.

Because Orthodoxy takes fasting so seriously, our calendar and our diets are different from everybody else’s. We fast almost every Wednesday and Friday, and during the prescribed fasts, Great Lent being the chief one. This is really difficult too, at first, though it’s something you get used to. After years of doing it, however imperfectly, I’ve begun to realize that this too is a practice that sets us apart, and builds a sense of community, of awareness that our individual and communal devotion to God requires us to do things that others do not do, even as we live among them.

Now, do I think fasting and vespers are essential to one’s salvation? No, not directly. As our priest reminds us about fasting, “This is medicine.” That is, it’s meant not as a punishment, but as an aid to holiness. Learning to deny oneself is part of acquiring salvation, certainly, and preparing oneself property for Holy Communion is as well. The point I’m trying to make here is that I don’t believe that God is not especially interested in us following specific rules. What He is interested in is our faithfulness to Him. Over time, I’ve come to see how these practices bring us closer to Him by reinforcing in us the fact — or what must become a fact — that He is our God and we are His people. It doesn’t really matter that you can’t eat a steak on Friday night, or go to the ball game on Saturday evening. What matters about that is that you have made obedience to God such a priority in your life that you are willing to sacrifice those good things for His sake. If you are part of a family and a community that practices these sorts of things, it seems to me that they really will move you closer to a conversion of the heart. After all, as a minority faith within American culture, you have to really believe this stuff in order to fast as the Orthodox church requires you to fast (and many Orthodox do not, let me be clear).

All of which is to say I have an idea about how the laws of kashrut (that is, Jewish dietary laws) work to reinforce a Jew’s sense of individual and communal identity.

In the decades to come, serious American Christians are going to have to learn from Orthodox Jews how to endure and to thrive as a minority religion. That is, how to build religious and cultural resiliency. And, as the Pew research reported by the Times shows, non-Orthodox Jews are going to have to learn from them as well.

(Hey readers, I’m going to be traveling most of the day, heading up to Wisconsin for tonight’s talk at Carthage College in Kenosha. I’ll approve comments as I can. Please be patient. I invite you to come to the talk, which is free, and which, I am promised, will include a rare personal appearance by none other than Charles Cosimano. Dare you miss the opportunity to shake the hand of the Patriarch of Cosimanian Orthodoxy? I know I wouldn’t.)

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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