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Shorter Ben Greenberg: Because it’s the antidote to Moralistic Therapeutic Deism among Jews. From the longer essay by Greenberg, who is the Orthodox rabbi at Harvard:
What changed in the half century since 1952? If anything, the America of today is even more pluralistic than the America of the 1950s. The majority of Americans of Jewish descent have embraced cultural diversity and tolerance with more passion than has the population at large. The Orthodox have never been at greater variance with the Jewish majority. The sociologist Steven M. Cohen of Hebrew Union College notes that, for most American Jews, religion offers “no final answer” and “no irrevocable commitments.” They “decide week by week, year by year, which rituals they will observe and how they will observe them.” Their “principal authority,” Cohen continues, is the “sovereign self,” and even those who observe some part of their religion express “discomfort with the idea of commandment, all the more so with the notion of particular commandments issued by God to Jews alone,” what Jewish tradition defines as the “Torah covenant at Sinai.”
In contrast, writes Samuel Heilman of the City University of New York, Orthodox Jews
are highly affiliated to all things Jewish. For them, Judaism is not primarily a personal matter. On the contrary, it is a series of mandates: requirements whose origins are considered to be part of a venerated tradition that sets definite criteria for how each person must act and live, regardless of personal wishes and inclinations. This is a life with people who are rooted in obligations to what some of them have come to call “Torah-true Judaism,” a Judaism linked inextricably to a way of life determined by the Halacha [Jewish law].
Orthodox Judaism was supposed to founder on rugged American individualism, but quite the opposite has happened: A Judaism assembled at a buffet of individual preferences has small interest for young adults seeking direction and meaning in their lives. Young Jews are likely either to abandon their religion altogether or to take it seriously. That is why there is a migration to Orthodoxy by young Jews raised in liberal or secular households.
For those Christian readers interested in my ideas about the Benedict Option, I think we have a lot to learn from the Modern Orthodox Jews (N.B., Rabbi Greenberg here is talking about the Modern Orthodox, as distinct from the separationist hasidic Orthodox). That is, the Modern Orthodox — at least the ones I know — seem to be succeeding in being “in this world, but not of it.” They’re managing to maintain a strong traditional religious identity without retreating from the world into Orthodox Jewish ghettos.
Anybody have any sociology-of-religion points to make on this question?