The well known spate of book bannings within the Orthodox community-for example, Rabbi Natan Slifkin's work on Torah and science, and Rav Natan Kamenetsky's lengthy The Making of a Gadol --have been accompanied by a great deal of heated rhetoric, in official organs of Orthodoxy as well as blogs and private discussions. Spirited defenses of the authors as well as heated denunciations have created endless debates about whether certain contemporary rabbinic figures deserve to be called gedolim; whether they are wise in the ways of modernity; and whether it is permissible to criticize the Sages of the Talmud in any way.
Through much of this I have found myself, in a certain fundamental sense, utterly perplexed. Why go out of your way to pick on such a seemingly harmless member of your own constituency as Natan Slifkin? Yes, I understand the ostensible logic. But though there are elements in the books that take issue with some of Chazal's understandings of science, it still did not add up for me. Was all of this so consequential as to merit banning, to pick a fight as it were, to inflame the passions of a whole community? One can argue that the firestorm was unexpected, that the gedolim were led astray by zealots, and all of the rest of the popular wisdom that has circulated. But perhaps none of this is accidental and, in fact, people like Natan Slifkin are a gift for those who oppose him.
Kai T. Erikson, one of the leading sociologists in America for many years, was a Professor of that discipline at Yale University. In his 1966 classic, Wayward Puritans , Erikson argues that so-called "deviant" behavior, far from being a mode that society fears and would like to see disappear, is actually central to the social cohesion of any given community. Deviance provides a point of contrast that allows a community to try to reiterate what it is and what it is not, and refashion its boundaries. In this thesis, Erikson was preceded by Emile Durkheim, who in the late nineteenth century wrote that the deviant act "creates a sense of mutuality among the people of a community by supplying the focus for group feeling. Like a war, like a flood, or some other emergency, deviance makes people more alert to the interests they share in common and draws attention to those values which constitute the collective conscience of the community. Unless the rhythm of group life is punctuated by occasional moments of deviant behaviour, presumably, social organization would be impossible." In other words, communities desperately require deviance for self-identification.
Drawing off of this idea, Erikson argues that "deviant" modes of behavior are a valuable resource for the maintenance of a coherent social order. When one considers Erikson's words against the backdrop of R. Slifkin and his detractors, they resonate strongly: "Deviance refers to conduct which the people of a group consider so dangerous or embarrassing or irritating that they bring special sanctions to bear against the persons who exhibit it. Deviance is not a property inherent in any particular kind of behavior; it is a property conferred upon that behavior by the people who come in direct or indirect contact with it. The only way an observer can tell whether or not a given style of behavior is deviant, then, is to learn something about the standards of the audience which responds to it."
Erikson expands his analysis by indicating that when the time comes for the people of a community to "do something" about the alleged deviance, the process is complex, if only because the perpetrator is likely engaged in non-deviant behavior most of the time (in R. Slifkin's case, this would be just about all of the time as he is a person committed to halakha and Torah observance). Thus a process of sifting out" begins. A small group of "deviant' details, scattered among a "vast array of entirely acceptable conduct", are brought to the fore and highlighted as proof of the aberrations in this person's way of life or thought. Perceiving such an endeavor as illogical or fanatical misses the point entirely; for Erikson, the communal activity of rooting out deviance is that which maintains crucial boundaries, in the sense "that its members tend to confine themselves to a particular radius of activity and to regard any conduct which drifts outside that radius as somehow inappropriate or immoral."
And how do people learn about the boundaries of their community? Precisely by "participating in the confrontations which occur when persons who venture out to the edges of the group are met by policing agents whose special business it is to guard the cultural integrity of the community." Such boundaries are never a fixed property; they are constantly shifting as communities define and redefine themselves in relation to an outside world which also always redefining itself.
Hence R. Slifkin does not , in the deepest sense, constitute a threat to the haredi community; on the contrary he represents an all important marker for what a segment of that community view as the communal limits. Were R. Slifkin never to have written his books, someone else would have to have been sought out to replace him as the catalyst for this limit setting. All of the sources that R. Slifkin has brought to defend himself--previous authorities such as Rambam or Rav Hirsch--simply cloud the issue and must be explained away or rationalized by his opponents. They are not the point. Indeed, were R. Slifkin to have brought virtually dozens of more support texts, they would be meaningless.
The poignancy of all this goes beyond R. Slifkin's personal ordeal, about which I will not go into here. It speaks to the grave difficulties of finding a balance in modern life between religious fidelity and autonomous thought. Some of the more secular students that I teach cannot understand what they see as the haredi rejection of the modern world, or at least their corner of modernity (tv, movies, feminism). But the haredi view is plausible, given how toxic parts of modernity have been for Jewish commitments. If the onslaught of secular modernity can be likened to a bit of a flood, swamping Jewry with enticements towards halakhic compromise or outright surrender, then isn't the most rational response to build an ark, so to speak, shut out the waters of acculturation, and wait it out? Isn't the attempt to be a Modern Orthodox Jew a little like trying to swim outside the ark, and won't it leave all but those totally committed to Torah at risk of drowning?
Or is this metaphor in need of alteration? Given that it is extremely unlikely that modernity can be shut out, that no ark, so to speak, can withstand it, then is the key to learn how to swim with the current and therefore have the skills to live in the world, both economically and intellectually? In this metaphor, is it the haredi world which requires swimming lessons? In The Heretical Imperative , Peter Berger argues convincingly that modernity involves a shift from fate to choice, from a life almost predestined by the narrowness of options, due to limited technology and mobility, and a deeply ingrained code of cultural and religious mores, to a life where almost anything is available and any lifestyle is there for the taking.
To put it another way, modernity pluralizes in a way that makes it impossible not to choose. The premodern person lived in a world of fate. Instead of a wide array of technological gadgets and gizmos, he had a limited array of helper tools. From the availability of contraception, to the trade you plied, to the village where you spent your years - chances were you would do what your ancestors had done. You would pray to their God and carry out their traditions, not simply because you believed in them, though doubtless most did, but because there was not really any choice. You would live where they lived and be buried among them. This was the reality presented to you - there was no other; it constituted what the sociologist Alfred Schutz has called the "life taken for granted": life is like this, it is silly to even contemplate another way.
To tell someone from the fourteenth century that he could get into a big box with wings and be halfway across the world by the end of the day would be as absurd as to tell them that halakha wasn't really binding or that scores of non-Jewish women would love to marry Jewish men, or that there would be gay synagogues or that you could drive to shul on Shabbat. Or that the same person, say, whose father was Jewish and whose mother was not, would be defined as a Jew by some Jews and emphatically not by others. Such plurality wouldn't simply have been frowned upon or spurned in days gone by. Such plurality was a non-sequitur, a non-entity.
Since the Enlightenment, all traditional religions have had to undergo a complex series of negotiations with secular modernity, and various strategies have been attempted in parts of the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds. On one end of the spectrum you have a kind of resigned surrender, where the message of God given commandments and the obligation to follow an ancient moral code has been trashed in the name of cultural accommodation. This is another way of saying that secularism has stormed the gates, the battle is basically lost, and we must now sue for the best terms possible (reduced anti-Semitism, maybe marry Jewish).
On the other end lies the ever defiant resisters of the zeitgeist, for whom the problem lies in simply thickening the walls of the fortress in order to keep out the invader at all costs and repel the effects of pluralist contamination. The middle ground exemplifies what Berger calls the process of "cognitive bargaining," in which certain purist notions of faith are relinquished but other ideas urgently maintained. Here the believer's internal compass would perhaps balk at the thought that the Bible is unerringly true and the miracles in it are literal, but stubbornly cling to the theory that the Torah reflects some kind of divine input. Such an allowance of uncertainty, while intellectually honest, is of course fraught with peril, as people who hold this view will readily admit. In Berger's words, "one needs a very long spoon to dine with the devil of doubt; without it, one is liable to end up as dessert. Jewish education is still catching up to the consequences of what all of this entails. Until we come face to face with the starkness of what a universe of choice means, we will not be able to fully attack the key question: can the eternal Law be reconciled with the massive shift in contemporary morals, interests and belief systems?
I have friends in the haredi community who sometimes betray a note of triumphalism in their dismissal of Modern Orthodoxy. I like to tease them by saying, if Modern Orthodox people were not around, then who would you have to demonize? Although I am being tongue in cheek, from Kai Erikson's point of view this is frivolity with a hard edge of truth. For communities desperately need their enemies, as the cautionary tale of R. Slifkin so poignantly suggests.