The Narrow Orthodoxies of Jewish Cosmopolitanism

June 26, 2017 | Moshe Koppel
About the author: Moshe Koppel is a member of the department of computer science at Bar-Ilan University and chairman of the Kohelet Policy Forum in Jerusalem. His book, Judaism Straight Up: Why Real Religion Endures, has just been released by Maggid Books.

Investigating the contrast between Jewish universalism and Jewish particularism, Moshe Koppel takes as archetypes “Heidi,” a liberal graduate student he met at Princeton University, and the members of the small ḥasidic synagogue (shtibl) that his grandfather attended. Koppel writes:

I was twenty-three, out of yeshiva for the first time; Heidi . . . had taken it upon herself to educate me about the special duties of the Jewish people to humanity. “The lesson of the Holocaust,” [she told me], “is that we Jews must never put our parochial interests ahead of others’ interests. We should know better than anyone what happens when that lesson isn’t learned.” I had never encountered [this] orthodoxy before.

My own thoughts about Jewish obligation were not quite so pious as those of my interlocutor. My first lessons in the matter were learned in the Gerer shtibl where my grandfather davened. The members of this shul were Polish Holocaust survivors. . . . They were worldly, cynical, [and] fiercely independent, but chose to remain loyal to the ways of their fathers. Some were [fully committed] Gerer Ḥasidim for whom [Judaism] could never be the same after the war, but many—maybe most—could better be thought of as ex-Ḥasidim who wouldn’t think of jumping ship after what had happened to their families. . . .

The Gerer shtibl gang were intense; they were angry; they could be funny in a biting sort of way; they were devoted. But one thing they had no patience for was high-minded pieties. They despised pompousness and self-righteousness. Their devotion to Yiddishkayt [Jewishness] as a way of life and to the Jews as a people was as natural and instinctive as drawing breath. . . .

My main argument [is] not that the cosmopolitan critique of the Judaism [of that shtibl] misrepresents Judaism itself (though it does). Rather, this critique is rooted in a number of cultural blind spots, including a blinkered understanding of the scope of morality, of the preferability of social norms to laws, and of the extent to which certain beliefs are unavoidable. In short, [one worldview is] narrow and orthodox and the other is worldly and realistic. [But] most people are confused about which is which.

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