Decadent Religion in the Digital Age (Shulem Deen)


Happy to have gotten around to All Who Go Do Not Return, Shulem Deen’s memoir about leaving the Skever Hasidic community for the great big world. The importance of this memoir has many aspects, starting with the obvious human interest of the story itself. All under the radar, though, the memoir is concept driven. Insights about religious devotion, doubt, skepticism, and full blown heresy are shown as heavily mediated through digital technologies. The form of truth is raised as bound up and unbound in intense Jewish community. The author’s own remarks about Talmud and technology are keen, as are the observation of dynamics relating to social integration and isolation, poverty and ultra-conservative religion. Against the grain of much contemporary Jewish philosophy the tale actually speaks to the limits of law and “authority” as a bases upon which to conceptualize and to build Jewish culture and religion.

For a philosopher there’s what to dig out here. I’m thinking of one remarkable moment towards the end of the memoir in which Deen describes an attempt at exploring an experimental form of New Age religion. The passage is remarkable for the sudden realization that religion –neither the religion of the Skever sect or the religion of alternative spiritual community– is working for him. As he returns back to Brooklyn on the G train, he tags explicitly the failure of “concepts,” “ideas,” “metaphor,” and sentiments.” All this right before a brief description of a non-orthodox Shabbat on the Upper West Side where he finds himself “unexpectedly moved.” That’s been the problem described throughout the memoir as a whole. The collapse and the attempt to re-group a system with emotional, cognitive, and aesthetic component features (pp.298-300).

Media plays a major part in the story and the collapse it plots out. In academic Religious Studies, more and more attention goes these days to media studies. It turns out that piety is also mediated. In the sequence of mediated transgressions, first it’s the radio, then it’s the automobile, library books, newspapers, television, computers, and blogs. The ebb and flow of “strange thoughts,” i.e. in classical Hasidic thought meaning thoughts about sex, are not unlike media flows (pp.pp.141, 119). One could say that the computer “makes sense” in a world defined by Talmud –the beauty and symmetry of numbers and concepts, overlaid linguistic assemblages, “nested levels of abstraction build on reusable modules,” human thought as a process broken down into simple elemental parts, “endless possibilities [distilled from] one essential binary. In comparison to computer programming, it is Talmud and “the very idea of faith” that turn out to be “suspiciously human” and “arbitrary” (pp.147-8).

As for the question of “truth,” it comes up towards the end of the memoir. On the one hand, a young fellow skeptic confides to Deen his realization that there is “no truth to the things we’re taught.” It’s pretty clear.  For thousands of years, “the rabbis have been making shit up!” That’s pretty much Deen’s point of view against the “monotonous grind of bowing, swaying and mumbling and chanting” (pp.222-24). On the other hand, as a non-orthodox and broadly sympathetic reader, I wonder how it is not the case that the warm and private family scene described by the author, seen precisely at the very moment that it’s about to break apart, that it’s “this” is not a kind of truth that the author has forced himself, that a fundamental openness to the world outside has forced him to betray (228). Indeed, the claim that contemporary Hasidism is unmystical and just heavy handed (p.118) is belied by the exceptional tenderness and charm evidenced in Deen’s own retelling, especially of the social togetherness around the rabbi’s “tisch” (pp.30-4) or the tears that close the last page of the memoir (p.300).

Ultimately what’s heavy is not just the shut-in insularity of a conservative community. Not unrelated, it’s as much the heavy and crushing pall of material poverty that hangs over the whole memoir and, by extension, over the entrenched form of Jewishness and “law” upon which the book reflects. At an important moment in the text, Deen takes a swipe at writers like Buber, Heschel, and Wiesel who wrote romantically about the life world of Hasidic Judaism. Understandably, his view of the tradition is more jaundiced. In a previous generation, the Yiddish novelist Mendele Mokher Seform satirically traced passages through the social and cultural networks of the Yiddish milieu in Eastern Europe prior to its violent collapse. In Mendele’s stories, that world was marked by poverty, not piety. Today, what stands out as ridiculous is not so much the people who live in these communities; they make their way in the world as best as they can. Rather, what stands out as strange is material unseriousness of philosophers and social critics who do not actually live in these communities but who extol nevertheless what turn out to be decadent virtues, i.e. the normative virtues of traditional community as it begins to decay under severe forms of emotional and financial strain and stress.

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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