Kingdom of Priests

Kingdom of Priests

Provincial Orthodoxy — A Formula for Healing Judaism’s Divisions?

posted by David Klinghoffer

An interesting article in New York’s Jewish Week covers the phenomenon of Reform and Conservative temples merging. Outside New York City, here in the provinces, the ideological differences between the two liberal Jewish denominations don’t matter much to people. This reminds me of a concept I’ve been thinking about for several years — a previously unheralded branch (or sub-branch) of Judaism that could heal many of the breaches in Jewish religious life. I call it Provincial Orthodoxy.

Most Jews who know anything about Orthodox Judaism associate it with major population centers like New York, Baltimore, Miami, etc. The truth is that almost all the negative stereotypes linked with traditional Judaism stem from such places. Yet there exists a whole alternative universe of Orthodox Judaism in traditional communities in other places, provincial localities like Seattle where I live, but others as well: San Diego, Portland, Sacramento, Atlanta, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and other relatively small American cities. The Orthodoxy in such places is quite different from what you find in New Jersey, Long Island, and so on. It is thriving and dynamic, accepting and diverse, enthusiastic for tradition in surprising ways, and largely undocumented. It’s also a lot more attractive, at least to me.
Notably, it consists of a very heavy representation of converts and baalei teshuva, Jewish returnees from secularism, rather than FFBs, the frum (religious) from birth. The synagogue that my family belongs to is representative of the phenomenon. Very few members are what you might think of as “typical” Orthodox practitioners who grew up that way. Lots and lots of the congregants come out of seemingly unlikely Gentile backgrounds. There is very wide variation in levels of observance. The rabbi is Chabad, but the synagogue isn’t. With Provincial Orthodox Judaism, that diversity is the norm. As with the blurring or blending of Reform and Conservative our here in the provinces, the factions and sub-factions that comprise Orthodoxy in New York and places like that just don’t matter so much. They appear to us almost, well, provincial.

A major source of tension in the wider American Jewish community has to do, of course, with the issue of tolerance. Reform, Conservative, and other Jews rightly feel that many traditionally Orthodox Jews might as well come from another planet. The self-conception and social background on the Orthodox side is far away from the Jewish American norm. But in the parallel universe of Provincial Orthodoxy (PO), the sociological profile is similar to what it is in the rest of the Jewish community, the mix of backgrounds including many who were not born Jewish and many who are not fully observant. As a consequence, PO Judaism presents a fascinating model of how Jews who adhere to tradition can get along with those who have gravitated to more liberal models. The hostility and lack of understanding that liberal Jews associate with Orthodoxy isn’t to be found here.
What’s interesting is that this appears to be the way Judaism was historically for centuries before our time. In Medieval Europe, Jews lived in tiny communities among Gentiles — very different from modern New York, Long Island, New Jersey, etc. — where they were compelled by their environment to adopt an attitude of worldliness, tolerance, and easy interaction with the non-Jewish world. Yet they maintained, broadly speaking, their observance of ancient Jewish law.

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posted June 15, 2009 at 3:26 pm

“What’s interesting is that this appears to be the way Judaism was historically for centuries before our time. In Medieval Europe, Jews lived in tiny communities among Gentiles — very different from modern New York, Long Island, New Jersey, etc. — where they were compelled by their environment to adopt an attitude of worldliness, tolerance, and easy interaction with the non-Jewish world. Yet they maintained, broadly speaking, their observance of ancient Jewish law.”
other than the fact that indeed many jews lived in small communities (“tiny” is an exaggeration), this is pure fiction
there rarely was wordliness, just about never any tolerance, and easy interaction was impossible … until the forces of emancipation and enlightenment came into play, and even that skipped over many smaller communities

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Your Name

posted June 15, 2009 at 3:32 pm

How does this differ from Modern Orthodoxy?
I can’t imagine Conservative schuls

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posted June 15, 2009 at 3:49 pm

I can’t imagine Conservative schuls affiliated with JTS joining a Reform congregation, or any Reform congregation I’ve ever seen joining a Conservative congregation. The Conservative movement does have leaders, and those leaders aspire to their own interpretation of halakha, of which there are only a few differences from the majority of Orthodoxy. What you’re describing sounds to me like schuls who have decided that they no longer want to be in a halachic movement, and have essentially joined Reform. There had been a debate of whether Conservativism was a halachic movement, or not, but the JTS and USCJ still maintain that it is, and aspire to have observant congregants.

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posted June 16, 2009 at 9:54 am

A few of the points brought up in the article could also apply to other religions. My parish is bi-ritual, with some Latin Masses and some modern vernacular Masses. Almost all the parish priests are able to celebrate both services and do so when the need arises. The parish comes together at certain times of the year, like the days before Easter, and celebrate the holydays together in the post-Vatican II modern way (cacaphony of English, Latin, and Spanish, if you can imagine.)
The presence of different ritual groups in one parish has benefitted everyone. The modern rites have had a positive influence on the ancient ones, as “the Latin people” tend to be quite tolerant and far from the stereotype of bigoted hyper-traditional Catholicism. The preaching is also tolerant and cognizant of the needs of both groups. I know that the issue of sharing congregations in Judaism is quite a different set of issues, but people of different sensibilities within one faith have successfully shared the same worship space.

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posted June 16, 2009 at 10:21 am

“but people of different sensibilities within one faith have successfully shared the same worship space.”
Oh heck, I’ve seen Orthodox congregations share church space. The ark was wheeled in and crucifexes removed. But joining a Conservative and a Reform congregation would require that one or the other give up the precepts of their movement. It would require that the former Conservative congregation give up the idea that halacha is binding. There would have to be changes in the services.

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posted June 16, 2009 at 2:39 pm

Four things please:
First, your generalization about most Orthodox Jews in places like New York versus the smaller Orthodox populations elsewhere goes way too far. Having lived in both types of places, as well as places where there was no orthodox community, I think you are being unfair to the majority of such Jews who live lives of holiness and high level chesed. In addition, in my life, I’ve experienced far more negativity towards the Orthodox than the other way around. This is not to say there aren’t important and good aspects in what you are saying. Rather, these important good aspects need not be coupled with negativity towards New York Orthodox Jews and Orthodox Jews in relationship to others. Let’s highlight your important and good points in a more truthful and positive way!
Second, your pluralism is fine as long as all Jews accept Torah based Judaism. We should NOT be seeking to change Torah to come down to our shortcomings and limitations. In other words, while each of us are on different levels on different matters in the faith, this does not mean we should change the values and standards of the faith. I think this should be clearly stated. By the way, to other readers, I certainly am not a perfect Jew, so don’t bother throwing false criticisms at what I’m saying. I’m just asking that we not make Judaism into our shortcomings and limitations. Otherwise, history shows what happens. In essence, Judaism is a religion of love through the holy commandments and values of the Torah and that commonality must be the basis of any healthy pluralism.
Third, I do agree that we need to have more news on and support of the Orthodox Jews who live in the places you mention as well as in all the places where Orthodox Jews are seeking to flourish!
Last, but not least, it’s really not complicated. What we need is continued and greater emphasis on Ahavas Yisroel within the framework of Torah based values and standards. Love to all my fellow Orthodox affiliated Jews in all places!
Thank you for your time and consideration.

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posted June 16, 2009 at 2:55 pm

While sending my love to all my fellow Orthodox affiliated Jews because of the nature of this article on Orthodox Jews, I also want to express my love to all truly good people of the world–both Jew and Gentile. Truly, good people give each other strength!

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Al Eastman

posted June 16, 2009 at 3:14 pm

praesta, what you described is not analogous to the post. You have described one Christian Church, Roman Catholic, which conducts worship in diverse languages, but follows the same doctrine. What would be a truer Christian analogy, in my opinion, might be a co-mingling of Roman Catholics, Methodists and Southern Baptists.

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Your Name

posted June 17, 2009 at 5:36 pm

This is a wonderful dream, but I don’t see how it would work in the real world in my community. We have one Reform temple, one Conservative shul, and the twain would never be able to meet due to one overwhelming difference: the Conservative shul will not allow women on the bimah, and women take a large role in the life of the Reform temple. This intractable difference is a deal-breaker.

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Uriel Levi

posted June 19, 2009 at 10:19 am

Your premise that Provincial Orthodoxy is superior to New York Orthodoxy is quite accurate. Just ask the the shadchanim(Matchmakers) in New York – how many of the refined,”Ehrlich” families only ask for an”out of town” shidduch.
As a community New York and similar large communities are impersonal and distant. On an individual basis, however, since there are more people, one would find a larger quantity of righteous and holy people in the larger communities. Jews, especially Frum Jews take for granted the thousands of other Jews similar to them in ideology and religious practice. Familiarity leads to contempt( which is also why Orthodox Jews talk in shul). In “out of town” communities there is a special bond between one yarmulke wearer and another.
I am an FFB from Oak Park,Michigan – who has lived in Brooklyn for over 20 years, and I can say definitively – Jews are friendlier and warmer west of New Jersey. Hoping all are differences- both geographical and cultural- are made insignificant with the coming of Mashiach – speedily in our days.

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