Consumption, Fertility, Orthodox Judaism (David Brooks)


Open-orthodox friends of mine at FB were all over the recent David Brooks paean at the NYT to orthodox fertility and constricted possibilities. After going through and telling his readers about the assembled glories at the snack section of a luxury kosher grocery store in Brooklyn, David Brooks is ready to have us do, what, jump into the Mitzvah Tank? In his view of things from the aisles, there a natural link between fertility, consumption, and the coherence of conservative religion, which he holds out over against the presumed blandishment of liberal society.

With the retirement of Pope Benedict and the backlash against ultra-orthodox Judaism, isn’t it time to reconsider the rise of conservative and ultra-conservative political religion as it begins to show signs of self-destruction?  Consider the attention in the press on the kinds of internal crises that afflict these communities; these relate to large super-sized families, high rates of poverty, and the terrible forms of moral and criminal vice that breed in insular communities. Regarding  Israel, perhaps Brooks missed the recent news coming out of the recent elections, where the liberal mainstream has proven itself to be less charmed by the formation of ultra-orthodox entitlement society.

Brooks reports back from the field, on tour in Brooklyn with Meir Soloveitchik, the non-official chief rabbi of the neoconservative Tikvah Fund, combining together to give people the wrong impressions about religion, modern life, and conservative religion at that cusp point just prior to it crack-up, both in Israel, and perhaps here too in the United State. Oh the wonders of “dairy-free cheese puffs in case you want to have some cheese puffs with a meat dish… precut disposable tablecloths so you don’t have to use scissors on the Sabbath…specially designed sponges, which don’t retain water, so you don’t have to do the work of squeezing out water on Shabbat?”

Here are some first impression last night from the incomparable Larry Yudelson, writing, skeptically, from the liberal-progressive fringe of the modern orthodox world:

When reading David Brooks, the challenge is to find the moment of precise, maximal wrongness. My initial guess would be that here, it is Meir Soloveitchik’s paen to Orthodox marriage norms. I’ve heard of a burgeoning divorce rate in the too-early-wed Orthodox 20 somethings. Have you? It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that David Brooks was wrong — and left his readers less informed and therefore stupider than if they had never read his piece at all.

So David Brooks praises Orthodox Judaism today. I can’t think of a better indicator that we are now at the moment of Peak Orthodoxy and that it’s all down hill from here. For some perspective on Brooks as an observer of human nature and a prognosticator of the future, here’s a report of what he was saying 10 years ago.

The bottom is this, perhaps, not whether the orthodox Judaism is a challenging counterculture to the norms of liberal autonomy, but whether orthodox Judaism is a challenged counterculture. I’ll never forget my last trip to Sefad, in Israel, and the piteous physical poverty of what was once a beautiful and spiritual place. I’m pretty sure that that’s not on Brook’s itinerary. It might be more probably the case that conservative forms of orthodox Judaism represent a bubble phenomenon highly dependent upon the secular world whose values it putatively challenges, but effectively mimics, and whose culture is made to look so ridiculous when presented in what an outlier thinks to be its best light.


About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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