Sunday, December 14, 2008

Yossi Klein Halevi and Matthew Wagner have both written lately about the remarkable relationship between Chabad/Lubavitch and secular Israelis. Unlike other ultra-Orthodox sects, which all coldly reject both the state of Israel and secular Israelis as betrayers of Jewish law and observance, Chabad considers itself a kind of internal missionary organization, winning over secular Jews to piety through good works and generosity.

Unfortunately, Chabad's missionary service is rooted in essentially the same messianism as Christian missionaries': they believe that winning Jews back to observance hastens the coming of the Messiah. Ultimately, that motive can't sustain a generic service ethic, because it inevitably draws the missionaries towards more susceptible recruitment targets, such as the poor and the distressed. (Christian missionaries, for example, certainly follow this pattern.)

It's possible, though, that Chabad (or perhaps an offshoot, or a rival sect) could gradually evolve its beliefs in a way capable of sustaining its passion for serving fellow Jews in general. All it would require is a subtle shift away from believing in the need to convert all Jews to its brand of piety, and towards believing in its members' need to maintain its own brand of piety--including its practice of helping all Jews--as an end in itself.

I believe that such a shift would be of enormous benefit to the Jewish people. For the truth is that the fanatically observant, the fanatically secular, and the broad spectrum in between are all parts of a far stronger whole than any single one of those groups would be on its own. Other religions have discovered this, and typically maintain a pious class--priests, monks, monastics, and so on--that is respected for its dedication and service to its correligionists, but understood to coexist with a more worldly majority, rather than rejecting it.

Already, ultra-Orthodox Jews in general act as a kind of priestly class among Jews, devoting themselves entirely to study and piety at the cost of living on charity, and typically in poverty. They also perform a number of purely religious services to the community, such as recovering bodies for ritual burial (most famously after terrorist attacks). Unfortunately, rather than consider themselves a kind of spiritual elite serving a larger Jewish nation, they tend to view other Jews as apostates doomed to drift away from Judaism towards paganism of one kind or another. And of course, they denounce the state of Israel as a secular travesty.

That's strange, because the Jewish religion itself provides an admirable model for a "spiritual elite", rejecting both militant proselytizing and cultish insularity in favor of the role of duty-bound "light unto the nations". If only the ultra-Orthodox were to embrace that role themselves, they could become as valuable a resource for the Jewish people as the Jewish people have proven, time and again, to be for the entire world.


sean said...

Hmm. Not very Weberian. Jews and Protestants have been a lot more successful than Catholics and Buddhists. To embrace the Catholic model of a priestly and monastic class and an apathetic but admiring laity, one would have to rate the avoidance of internal conflict between those of greater and less piety as having a high intrinsic value, higher than prosperity and power. Possibly internal religious tension is the source of Jewish and Protestant success.

Dan Simon said...

Well, if you believe Weber and your goal is to maximize everyone's economic success, then obviously the solution is just for everyone--Jews included--to convert to Protestantism. (Obviously, I don't endorse that solution, but then I don't necessarily endorse Weber's analysis, either.)

I was starting from a different initial goal: the health and success of the Jewish people as a whole. And by every natural measure I can think of--growth in adherents, ability to retain adherents, enthusiasm of the average adherent, especially among affluent, modernized Westerners, and a few more--Protestantism and Catholicism come out way ahead of Buddhism, which in turn comes out way ahead of Judaism. I assume that this ranking demonstrates primarily the benefits to a religion of (1) aggressive proselytizing and (2) minimizing onerous ritual requirements.

Judaism could adapt to these conditions, I suppose, but I don't know that there'd be much left of it afterwards. Absent such a fundamental transformation, the models of reasonably successful religions such as Catholicism and Buddhism may have some lessons to offer a similarly demanding, ritual-rich religion like Judaism.

sean said...

Hmm, well, I don't have any thoughts on the spiritual health of the Jews, only their material success. Anyway, for those who are interested, there is an interesting article by Richard Neuhaus in the latest First Things, in which he refers to Grace Davie's work on vicarious religion, which is basically our topic here. I had actually read Davie some years ago but forgotten her discussion. This sort of thing is kind of antithetical to Calvinism, especially the third point thereof, but those who don't share my fundamental orientation may find it more appealing.