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 on Amazon.com:
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" in others.
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 possible causes:
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 tradition.
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 information.