Lessons from a New History of Orthodox and Reform Judaism

Both Orthodox and Reform Judaism emerged in 19th-century Germany, after the ghetto walls had been torn down, and as governments gradually removed restrictions on Jewish life, while Jews themselves began speaking German and adopting elements of German culture. In Defenders of the Faith: Studies in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Orthodoxy and Reform, Judith Bleich examines the religious ferment of the time, and its continuation into the 20th century. Gil Student writes in his review:

In a surprising insight, . . . Bleich points out that Orthodoxy and Reform were not polar opposites. . . . As Jews’ secular lives became modernized and cultured, their religious and personal lives could not lag behind. For some, this meant changing Judaism to match the times, making religious services fit contemporary tastes and discarding beliefs and practices that conflict with conventional wisdom. This attitude, which in retrospect seems inevitable, scandalized traditionalist scholars and laymen who struggled to retain the old standards. Rather than capitulate, traditionalists chose to fight back against the secularization and Christianization of Jewish beliefs and practices.

Today, when we face enormous societal pressure to adopt secular and progressive values, we would do well to learn the lessons of the great scholars and leaders who sustained Orthodoxy . . . in the modern era. For this, Bleich’s work is essential.

In a magnificent feat of scholarship, Bleich provides a comprehensive and deeply insightful study of the halakhic approach of Rabbi Yeḥiel Yaakov Weinberg, a Lithuanian-trained talmudic genius who mastered university academic methods and bridged the two worlds of traditional and modern Judaism in Berlin.

In particular, Bleich notes Weinberg’s devotion to tradition and to the social unity of the Torah world. He explicitly rejected lenient rulings that would split the observant world. And rather than take his cues from secular ethics, “in the halakhah and the aggadah [the nonlegal portions of the Talmud], Weinberg sees a comprehensive self-contained system of ethics.” Weinberg understood the secular views and ethics of his time, and responded by clinging to the Torah and its traditions.

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Read more at Torah Musings

More about: German Jewry, Judaism, Orthodoxy, Reform Judaism

 

Iran, America, and the Future of Democracy in the Middle East

Nov. 23 2022

Sixty-two days after the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the Islamic Republic’s police, the regime has failed to quash the protest movement. But it is impossible to know if the tide will turn, and what the outcome of the government’s collapse might be. Reuel Marc Gerecht considers the very real possibility that a democratic Iran will emerge, and considers the aftershocks that might follow. (Free registration required.)

American political and intellectual elites remain uneasy with democracy promotion everywhere primarily because it has failed so far in the Middle East, the epicenter of our attention the last twenty years. (Iraq’s democracy isn’t dead, but it didn’t meet American expectations.) Might our dictatorial exception for Middle Eastern Muslims change if Iran were to set in motion insurrections elsewhere in the Islamic world, in much the same way that America’s response to 9/11 probably helped to produce the rebellions against dictatorship that started in Tunisia in 2010? The failure of the so-called Arab Spring to establish one functioning democracy, the retreat of secular democracy in Turkey, and the implosion of large parts of the Arab world have left many wondering whether Middle Eastern Muslims can sustain representative government.

In 1979 the Islamic revolution shook the Middle East, putting religious militancy into overdrive and tempting Saddam Hussein to unleash his bloodiest war. The collapse of Iran’s theocracy might be similarly seismic. Washington’s dictatorial preference could fade as the contradictions between Arab tyranny and Persian democracy grow.

Washington isn’t yet invested in democracy in Iran. Yet, as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has often noted, American hostility toward the Islamic Republic has been damaging. If the theocracy falls, Iranians will surely give America credit—vastly more credit that they will give to the European political class, who have been trying to make nice, and make money, with the clerical regime since the early 1990s—for this lasting enmity. We may well get more credit than we deserve. Both Democrats and Republicans who have dismissed the possibilities of democratic revolutions among the Muslim peoples of the Middle East will still, surely, claim it eagerly.

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Read more at Dispatch

More about: Arab democracy, Democracy, Iran, Middle East, U.S. Foreign policy