On Monday, Rod Dreher neatly summarized the argument for Orthodox Judaism. Although it was supposed to wither and die in freedom’s-just-another-word-for-nothing-left-to-lose America, Orthodox Judaism has undergone a resurgence in the past half century. In 1952, just twenty-three percent of young Jews born into Orthodoxy planned to stay, but by the turn of the century, more than a third of all American Jews under the age of thirty-five identified themselves as Orthodox.
The Orthodox are still a minority. For the majority of American Jews, according to the sociologist Steven M. Cohen, Judaism does not supply the “final answer,” and consequently it does not prompt “irrevocable commitments” from them. Instead, most American Jews make their religious decisions “week by week, year by year,” choosing for themselves “which rituals they will observe and how they will observe them.” Thus their only authority is the “sovereign self.”
Perhaps a better term would be the three-year-old self. Jews who pick and choose for themselves among the commandments, who refuse to handle money or watch TV on the sabbath, although they will drive themselves to synagogue and return home to cook a hot meal, remind me of my three-year-old son. When I tell him to do something, he often says, “I don’t wanna.” For him, that is a knockdown argument against obedience. The American smorgasbord Jew is pretty much the same. Asked to keep kosher or observe the laws of marital separation, he replies, “I don’t wanna.” He has no stronger reason.
Jewishness is not a personal choice, no matter how many parttime Jewish wannabes are offended by my saying so. Jewishness has an objective quality. It is a set of obligations or halakhot (ways, laws) that are determined, not by me, but by others. I may choose whether to keep kosher or to observe the laws of marital separation, but I cannot choose what is kosher or when marital separation occurs. Indeed, it is precisely this orientation away from the self and toward other people—toward the other of others, who is God—that gives Judaism its power to alter the course of real lives.
Something of the sort happened to me—and in just these terms. For years, I led a carefree life of mix-and-match Judaism. No pork, thank you, but I’ll have some of the crab salad. Shul on Saturday mornings; the nationally televised game of the week on Saturday afternoons. A personal calamity turned me back toward God, but I continued to design my own Judaism. Whatever suited me, I followed; whatever clashed with my temperament or taste, I didn’t.
Several years earlier I had become, without warning, what no single Jewish male must ever become, not, at least, if he wants any chance with Jewish girls. I had become pro-life. I can remember the exact moment at which my metamorphosis took place. Long persuaded of the pro-choice argument that a woman has a right to her own body—that a women is free to abort her fetus on the same logic by which she is free to cut her nails—I nevertheless recoiled when a Catholic friend asked why then I objected to infanticide.
At some point, I earnestly believed, a woman’s tissue becomes an autonomous human being. The former may be discarded, like a fingernail; the latter must be preserved from harm, because it is a child. But when exactly is the point at which a fingernail becomes a child? If the transformation occurs at birth, then what of the fetus in the womb just minutes before birth? Well, obviously, a “viable” fetus is a child, even before the moment of birth.
The point had to be pushed back—say, to the end of the second trimester. At the end of six months, then, a fingernail becomes a child. And on the twenty-ninth day of the fifth month? Did I really wish to hold that the miracle of humanity occurs overnight? If only to see what would follow, I answered yes. However, if the fetus is a fingernail five months and twenty-nine days after conception, but a child the next day, what about five months, twenty-nine days, and twenty-three hours after conception? Does the miracle occur in a single hour? What about five months, twenty-nine days, twenty-three hours, and fifty-nine minutes? It is acceptable to abort the fetus right then, but not in another minute?
In The Function of Criticism at the Present Time, Matthew Arnold praises what he calls
And several years later, when I could no longer explain to myself why I was prepared to obey God on this, but not on that, I was irresistibly carried to Orthodoxy. God is either obeyed in all things, or he is not obeyed at all. The imperious demands of a three-year-old are indulged instead.