By Jonathan Den Hartog
I hope readers of this blog will forgive a digression from standard fare for a bit of a personal essay, albeit one about American Religion.
This past week I had an amazing opportunity to visit a functioning yeshiva in Lakewood, New Jersey.
Now, I can cite some standard sources about American Jewish History, such as Jonathan Sarna's work. I teach Chaim Potok. I enjoyed Michael Chabon's imaginary Yiddish Policemen's Union. However, it's not a specialty of mine, and my normal ambit in Minnesota doesn't bring me into regular contact with Orthodox Judaism.
So, it was a great opportunity when my friend and colleague Chaim Saiman arranged for a group to visit the Beth Medrash Gavoha yeshiva in Lakewood, New Jersey. The yeshiva, founded in 1943, is large, approximately 6500 students, representing 25 states and 20 countries. What makes it even more fascinating is the way it has given rise to a surrounding community of practicing Orthodox, or, to many, Ultra-Orthodox (haredi).
The Yeshiva, I learned, descended from the Lithuanian branch of Orthodoxy, not the Hasidic. Now, Hasids are free to attend the Yeshiva, and they were present, visually standing out from other students. Still, it was the Lithuanian outlook that predominated.
In the Yeshiva, I was most impressed by the activity of the study halls. Our group was able to watch as study partners read and debated Talmud. The halls hummed with conversation, arguments, prayers, occasionally chants. Most students, our guide told us, were not admitted until they had done 3-4 years of post-high school Talmudic study elsewhere. They had thus been well-prepared for the rigors of the study going on, with days starting with prayer at 7 AM. The strict focus on study was encapsulated by a quote repeated from the yeshiva's founder: "An hour of study and a 1 minute break followed by another hour of study is not equal to two hours of study." Students will stay up to five or six years studying, before finding paths that allow them to continue Torah study while participating in the wider world.
For many of them, though, that meant staying in Lakewood. The area itself is distinctive. We drove along your standard thoroughfare, flanked by strip malls. All of a sudden, buildings and signs were written in Hebrew. Pedestrians were dressed all in black, many with wide-brimmed hats. There was a distinctive urban difference. From what I gathered, this community really is unique.
The city doubled in size between the 2000 and 2010 census. That growth arose primarily through the influx of Orthodox families who had a connection to the Yeshiva. It also was propelled through the very high birthrates of the community. Many of the Yeshiva students marry after arriving in Lakewood and quickly start families. As a result, Lakewood is one of the youngest municipalities in America. The private schools were full, and many strollers were evident on the streets. As an echo effect, many grandparents also move to Lakewood to be near grandchildren.
[More reflection and analysis after the jump...]
Leaders of the yeshiva described their very large institutional efforts as an attempt to create an oasis of Torah in the midst of the modern world. To apply Torah correctly in the modern world demanded rigorous study and careful reflection. Their vision of Tikkun Olam ("repairing the world") meant first protecting the practice of Torah from the worst elements of the Modern World. Then, they hoped to model to outsiders how the Law would properly be lived out.
What particularly fascinated me, though, was the delicate dance of relating to the modern world, a challenge which has confronted many religious subgroups in America. Interestingly, the rhetoric we heard was against "accommodation" to Modernity. And yet, to my mind, there were all kinds of interesting accommodations. All of the leaders had smart phones, and plenty of text messages were flying during our visit. Several recent New York Times articles came up in conversation. A large-screen monitor watched over a conference room we used. A few laptop computers were evident in the yeshiva libraries. A final indicator: these Orthodox do not have televisions in their homes, but, as one observer wryly noted, "many know what's on the t.v. they're not watching." So, it seemed to me that the question was not whether there was accommodation but which accommodations would be accepted. Thus the definition of this community occurred as they determined which aspects of modernity to accept, which to reject, and which to hold at arm's length. This same impulse was evident in last year's rally to protest the internet. In reality, many used the internet, but they did so with a wary eye.
Thus, as with any religious community, the challenge remains of sifting how (rather than whether) to engage the larger culture. And, the choices made hold the possibility of nurturing thick community.
That said, observers have also pointed out the costs to this religious practice (as debated on the blog Cross-Currents). There are financial costs. How does such full-time study get funded, and how do students support large families? What is the trajectory beyond studying Torah for years? The community does practice a great deal of inter-community charity (gemach), but it also makes extensive use of governmental services. In short, it's not clear that the model is financially sustainable.
Second, there seems to be a dramatic cost to the women of the community. There were no women studying in the yeshiva. Girls are separated from boys in pre-school, and the division remains throughout the school years. The content they receive in schools is different. Once married, they bear a heavy load of supporting the household financially, to allow their husbands to continue studying Torah. Equity plays no role here.
Finally, there may be costs to history. As in any community, public memory may trump actual history. Thus the ideal of Torah study that is idealized may not have been the universal feature of Eastern European Jewish life that the yeshiva holds it up to be. Solid history may help counter the invention of imagined traditions.
I'm happy to be corrected. As an outsider, though, the view was very interesting, and I have no doubt I'll bring insights from it back to my reading and teaching about the multiple trajectories of Judaism in America.
For the Comments section, then, perhaps I'll ask readers--what scholarship about Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Judaism have you found most helpful?