All Points

The Limits of Limits

An inside view of Orthodox Judaism

By William Deresiewicz | May 5, 2013


In a recent column, David Brooks extolled the virtues of life in the Orthodox world. Communities are strong; existence is ordered; everyday acts are infused with a higher significance; the burdens of modern individualism are lifted in favor of commitment to collective purpose. It all sounds really great, especially the part about the upscale kosher grocery store.

As a refugee from modern Orthodoxy, I have almost too much to say about this, and certainly too much to feel. I won’t pretend to be objective. But I do have a slight advantage over Brooks and other secular Jews who idealize Orthodoxy from a safe distance. (The sentimental celebration of traditional life on the part of those who’d never touch it in a hundred years is not confined to Jews, of course.) I actually know what existence is like within those paragons of harmony.

Brooks quotes a prominent rabbi to the effect that following the thousands of regulations that govern daily life within Orthodoxy is akin to learning the piano. At first it seems like drudgery, “but mastering the technique gives you the freedom to play well and create new songs.” I wish that Brooks had pushed a little on the metaphor, because I’ve no idea what those “new songs” are supposed to be. The point of learning the rules, in Orthodoxy, is not to adapt or improvise upon them, the way it is in art. It is to follow them exactly and unstintingly. You don’t “create new songs”; you sing the same ones over and over and over. And they aren’t songs.

Brooks remarks that the laws of Orthodoxy “moderate religious zeal” by “making religion an everyday practical reality.” The statement is astonishingly thoughtless. Never mind the zeal that’s on continuous display, to disastrous effect, in Israel. The Orthodox are no less immune to competitive virtue than other religious (or nonreligious) groups. The laws are the objects of the zeal, which means they have a tendency to grow increasingly strict. As it has responded to the threat of secular modernity, Orthodox Judaism, like other traditional religions, has drifted inexorably rightward. And as in those traditions, the ones who bear the greatest brunt are women. Men compete to heap restrictions on their wives and daughters.

But the greatest limitations are those on the mind. Jews are constitutional lawyers, says another rabbi Brooks refers to, endlessly litigating the divine commandments. Lawyers, yes, but not philosophers. Debate revolves around the minutia of practice; broader questions of meaning and purpose—the ones that naturally arise when people think about the world—are out of bounds. Orthodox Judaism, by and large, is a spiritually undernourished place (one reason, it’s been said, that Jews have been so drawn to Buddhism). I didn’t even understand what spirituality is until many years after I had left that world and discovered my own form in the arts. “Warmth” is not spirituality. Lighting candles is not spirituality. If you ask an Orthodox Jew what the meaning of Passover is, chances are they won’t say freedom, certainly not freedom understood as a general human concept. They’ll say the meaning is that God took us out of Egypt. The meaning is we don’t eat bread. Orthodox Jews, in my experience, tend to have incisive minds but stunted personalities. What’s finally off limits, in the tradition, are major portions of the self.

Gazing at the families at the grocery store, Brooks tells us, “I notice how incredibly self-confident they are. Once dismissed as relics, they now feel that they are the future.” Why? Because although only a third of New York Jews are Orthodox, over 60 percent of Jewish children are. Soon the Orthodox will predominate. But fertility is not an argument, and smugness is not self-confidence. I have no doubt that Orthodoxy is a source of great joy and comfort for many of its adherents. But modernity happened for good reasons. The kinds of restrictions that Brooks professes so much admiration for (but would scarcely tolerate a single Sabbath of) are exactly what we sought to leave behind. Let’s not kid ourselves about them.

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