Jewish Studies

Social Change and Halakhic Evolution in American Orthodoxy – In conversation with Chaim I. Waxman

How can we explore the relationship between sociology and religion? In celebration of Jewish Book Week, author Chaim I. Waxman discusses the modernisation and Americanisation of Orthodox practices and communities. 

Social Change and Halakhic Evolution in American Orthodoxy contributes to the study of contemporary orthodoxy. According to your research, how does socio-economic change affect American Orthodox communities?

Socio-economic change affects American Orthodox communities in a variety of ways. One the one hand, as a group they have very high incomes.Their median family income is several times higher than that of most Americans. The ultra-Orthodox have a significant proportion of families with low incomes, but they also have many with high incomes. Economic advances have had a wide-ranging impact; for example, they enabled Orthodox Jews to create new, more affluent communities and institutions. Their buying power has resulted in the availability of many products which fit their religious needs and desires. Their ability to travel widely has sparked the availability of a wide range of tours and cruises around the world with first-class amenities. Various economic advances have also enabled increasing numbers of Orthodox young men and women to engage in higher Jewish learning with their parents’ financial assistance. The growth of the kollel system, wherein young married men spend years in full-time Torah study was, was to a great extent, made possible by the ability of parents to contribute to that endeavor. These are just a few examples, one could write a book on this issue.

I must also point out that there is a flip side to that economic success, namely, the high cost of modern Orthodox Jewish living which leaves many struggling economically. When I speak of the high cost of Jewish living, a notion I learned from my colleague, economist Carmel Chiswick, I am referring to the high cost of such essentials for the modern Orthodox as quality day schools for their children which cost more than $20,000 per year per child—and these are out-of-pocket, non-tax deductible dollars; high costs for summer camps; high fees for synagogue membership; costs for a variety of annual institutional dinners which one is expected to attend; and, of course costs of maintaining a kosher kitchen, the costs associated with observing the Jewish holidays even without going to a luxurious hotel for Passover and Sukkot. In many ways, modern Orthodoxy is an elite for the economically well-to-do. One consequence is that some who feel they cannot afford that lifestyle leave and either affiliate with ultra-Orthodoxy or leave Orthodoxy altogether. In addition, for a while, the high cost of Orthodox Jewish living also served as an incentive to “making aliya”, moving to Israel, where much of that costs is much lower but, where it turned out, the overall costs are frequently much higher.

In the book, you discuss various manifestations of Americanisation in Orthodox Jewish communities. Could you please discuss the ways in which this is evidenced?

A combination of cultural and structural factors which are part of the Americanisation, combined with the socio-economic changes mentioned earlier, sparked the growth and development of a massive kosher food industry. For example, American cultural and economic patterns made it increasingly acceptable and desirable if not necessary for both spouses in a family to work outside the home.  This, in turn, precipitated an increasing need for ready-made foods and, for observant Jews, these had to be kosher. This then sparked technological developments in the food-processing industry that dramatically increased the range and availability of kosher foods, and this, in turn, removed the stigma attached to them.  In fact, most of those who buy kosher foods today are not Orthodox or even Jewish. The annual trade show, Kosherfest, was recently attended by more than 6,000 international trade buyers, including top buyers for supermarket chains, restaurants, caterers, hotels, hospitals, and universities, as well as authors and others who sought to learn the latest developments from all over the world.

An even stronger manifestation of the impact of the Americanisation of Orthodoxy is in language patterns. During the period of peak Jewish immigration to the United States from Eastern Europe, many Orthodox rabbis urged the immigrants to retain Yiddish as their lingua franca and especially as their language of religious discourse.  Today, English is not only the lingua franca of American Orthodox Jews, it is also the primary language in oral religious discourse and plays a major role in the published texts as well. In addition to English translations of the Siddur, prayer book, and Tanakh, the Bible, which have long been deemed acceptable but primarily for the uneducated, there are now available and widely used translations of the Talmud and a host of classic biblical commentaries and Halakhic codes.

Other manifestations of the Americanisation of Orthodoxy can be seen in recreational and leisure-time activities, the very notions of which were once alien to Orthodoxy. Sports, in particular, were anathema, as they were viewed as the ideals of the heathen Greek culture. It is now it is commonplace to find American ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students intimately involved as ardent fans and even participating in betting pools as well as engaging in athletics, although not yet professionally. Similarly with respect to physical fitness, the focus on which was once considered “not Jewish”. Today there is an increasing focus and increasing numbers of gyms designed for and widely used by ultra-Orthodox as well as modern Orthodox men and women, separately of course.

In the area of music, there is today what might be called a parallel structure to the American pop culture music industry, with a broad new genre of American ultra-Orthodox music being created, much of which closely resembles popular music more generally but with a Jewish twist. This is most pronounced in the hasidic branch of American ultra-Orthodoxy, from which a variety of new types of Orthodox music have developed, initially with Shlomo Carlebach’s hasidic hippie to ‘neo-hasidic’, ‘hasidic pop’ and others.

In the area of literature, ultra-Orthodox Jews have developed a genre of literature which had been alien to conservative traditional Orthodoxy, namely, fiction. They have also adopted modern methods of inspirational self-help.  Conventions and ultra-Orthodox publications are replete with ‘cutting-edge’ psychological, educational, and medical topics. The producers and the consumers of these materials are not isolated and do not retreat from the larger society and culture; they are very much engaged in them. They have learned to operate within the culture and to use it for their own ends.

I think I’ve indicated enough manifestations to make my point but, just to top it off, let men refer you to the cover-page colour image of the American flag on the US edition of the ultra-Orthodox newspaper Hamodia, published on Independence Day 2012, with the heading in bold large letters, taken from the US national anthem, ‘o’er the land of the free’.

Do the halakhic developments and women’s greater participation in ritual practices and other areas of communal life reflect changing cultural attitudes and the modernisation of Orthodoxy?

That’s an interesting question. My own response is in the affirmative, but I think that many of the ultra-Orthodox would reply that their attitudes have not changed. They remain opposed to change unless it has clear benefits of orthodoxy and poses no halakhic problems. So, for example, ultra-Orthodox women receive much broader Jewish learning than was permitted in the past – this was legitimized as being necessary under contemporary conditions – but they still are not permitted to engage in Talmud study. Many modern Orthodox women, by contrast, receive higher Jewish learning on a par with and sometimes exceeding that of their male counterparts.

Likewise, the secular educational status of modern Orthodox women is much higher than that of women in the larger society and essentially on par with that of their male Jewish counterparts. They also have high occupational status and occupy increasing leadership roles with society at large and within the Jewish community.  With respect to their participation in the ritual services, there are major differences between the modern Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox as well as among different sectors of modern Orthodoxy.

Within ultra-Orthodoxy, at the same times that women are much more active in the public arena, there have been increasing efforts to keep the lines between men and women separate. For example, many of their publications will not show pictures of women.  Also, there are increasing attempts to prevent social contact between men and women, for example by instituting gender-separate seating at all ultra-Orthodox gatherings, even if no religious ritual service is involved

Bottom line, cultural changes are taking place but they are definitely limited.  Attitudes toward the modernisation are changing even more slowly because most Orthodox do not define the changes as part of a broad process of modernisation and they certainly do not subscribe to the norms and values that are attributed to modernisation in the larger society. This is not surprising as Orthodoxy is inherently conservative.

How do you think that Social Change and Halakhic Evolution in American Orthodoxy will pave the way for further research into the sociology of religion?

There are probably many ways in which the book may spark further research.  My personal hopes are that it will spark much more research into the area of religion and modernity, and especially religion and post-modernity. At first glance, it would appear that Orthodoxy and post-modernism are totally incompatible. However, in the conclusion to Social Change and Halakhic Evolution in American Orthodoxy, I point to research showing the inroads that post-modernism has made into Orthodoxy and that there are those who continue to identify as Orthodox while not pigeon-holing themselves into a particular version of Orthodoxy. Among the questions, I would hope to be explored is that of what happens over time and especially inter-generationally, not only in Jewish Orthodoxy but in others as well.

In my book, I analyse changes in what is deemed to be proper religious thought, beliefs. I look forward to more study of this within Orthodox Judaism and within other religions. A major question for me is how do orthodoxies reconcile traditional beliefs which appear to have been dispelled by scientific advances.  Another interesting question, at least for me, is whether religious doubt necessarily leads to defection from Orthodoxy in terms of norms, values, and identification. I would also like to see comparative studies of Orthodoxy in various countries.  I am presently working on a paper dealing with differences between American and Israeli ultra-Orthodoxy – in Israel the term used in haredi—and the question of whether those differences will decline and even disappear over time.

As I said, there are many issues raised or suggested in the book which call for further research, and I hope that the book will, in fact, spark some of that research.

Chaim I. Waxman is chair of the Behavior Sciences Department of Hadassah Academic College in Jerusalem and Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Jewish Studies, Rutgers University.

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