May 30, 2007: WESTWOOD: Dr.
Heilman spoke to about 100 people (average age 50) at UCLA Wednesday
night about the state of American Jewry (not so good).
After reading Steven Weiss's
description of the man, I expected an ogre. Instead, I encountered
someone handsome and charming.
Dr. David Myers gives a halting introduction. Then Dr. Heilman, wearing
a bow tie, takes over. He's a gifted orator. I found myself hanging on
his every word even though most of what he had to say was familiar.
Unfortunately, Dr. Heilman doesn't speak much about his new book on American
Orthodoxy -- Sliding to the Right.
A socially-maladjusted young man sits next to me with two plates heaped
with rugala and fruit. He eats noisily and breathes heavily. I'm afraid
to look to see if he's touching himself during Heilman's good bits. He
opens packets and zippers noisily and bounces in and out of my row to
refill his tea cup.
Dr. Heilman: "I have no doubts about the futureof Satmar Hasidim
but I'm not sure about the future of Conservative Jewry... The Modern
Orthodox community is in trouble."
"Only 10% of the [American] Orthodox did not grow up Orthodox."
"The people who brought us 'outreach" also brought us 'moshiach
now.' If they were more successful with their outreach, they wouldn't
need moshiach now."
"If most American Jews realized that Hanukkah celebrates fundamentalists
who wouldn't accept the assimilationists among them..."
"I'd like to know more about Pico-Robertson."
"The haredim are a distinctly modern phenomenon, a kind of counter-culture..."
"The liberal agenda hasn't always been good for the Jewish agenda
[e.g. school vouchers]."
A geezer in the audience points out that many Jews in 1936 supported
Al Landon against Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the bloke wondered why
Jews became liberal.
Michael Lewyn writes
The basic purpose of this book is to explain the growth of hareidi
Orthodoxy (that is, Orthodox Judaism that tends to be not particularly
interested in Americanization, and more interested in religious stringency)
as opposed to modern Orthodoxy (which tends to combine strict adherence
to traditional religious practices with Americanization). The two forms
of Orthodoxy are not separate denominations, but merely divergent tendencies
within the Orthodox movement- more analogous to vague categories such
as "conservative" and "moderate" than to membership
organizations such as "Democrats" and "Republicans."
Both tendencies flow out of the same tradition, and a person or synagogue
can be "hareidi" in certain respects and "modern"
Heilman suggests that hareidi forms of Orthodoxy have grown and that
modern Orthodoxy has become more strict. (This conclusion is based on
more conjecture than data; however, it is not clear to me that there
is any easy way of proving the point). Why? Heilman lists the following
1. As American culture has become more permissive on sexual matters,
the American mainstream has become less attractive to Orthodox Jews
(who oppose premarital sex and homosexuality).
2. As modern Orthodox Jews have become more educated and materially
succesful, fewer modern Orthodox Jews have become interested in less
renumerative fields such as Jewish education and the rabbinate. As a
result, modern Orthodox children are often educated by teachers and
rabbis from hareidi backgrounds.
3. Hareidim tend to have more children than modern Orthodox Jews; as
in other religions, demography favors traditionalism.
As other reviewers pointed out, this book focuses heavily on metropolitan
New York where hareidi Jews tend to live. I would love to read a book
showing how these tendencies play out in communities too small to support
hareidi-oriented synagogues and neighborhoods - but to be fair, that's
not really the book Heilman set out to write.
A reader in New Jersey posts on Amazon:
I found this book disappointing. In its defense, its basic thesis of
the movement of Jewish American Orthodoxy towards the `right' (more
closed and intensely religious) is interesting, and I am sure accurate,
and Heilman's analysis of its evolution is insightful and well-researched.
However, I was extremely bothered by the lack of any attempt to portray
Hareidi society through the prism of its own value system, or in fact
any attempt to understand their values at all. Heilman accepts his own
world view as absolute and obvious to the reader, and in this context
denigrates a society with an entirely different set of goals and aspirations.
Examples of this include his assumption of the primacy of feminism and
the worth of secular culture. Hareidi society has its own worldview
which, although too complex to elaborate on here, has valid and very
real reasons for its hierarchy of values, reasons which Heilman completely
disparages or ignores. (For an example of a book that is not written
by a religious author, yet is able to appreciate Hareidim from their
own perspective try "Real Jews" by Noah Efron). In general,
I found his view of religion as a mere sociological construct (i.e.
a defensive reaction to the Holocaust) to be grossly insensitive to
the Hareidi intense religious belief founded on thousands of years of
The latter half of the book I found a pathetic attempt to draw conclusions
from insignificant pieces of information. For example the juxtaposition
of poster A condemning something to a poster advertising B implies that
poster A is condemning B as well. Or two posters (put out by the same
company) advertising two different types of music indicates that the
community is embattled over the appropriateness of one type of music.
In conclusion, although I eagerly awaited this book and found a fraction
of it interesting and intelligent, my overall impression is negative
due to the authors biased approach and manipulative use of insignificant