The Yiddish proverb that “What Christians do, Jews do” is not just about Jews who adopt the trappings of the dominant Christian culture. It applies equally to social and cultural trends. An article in the March 2011 issue of First Things magazine brings this into sharp focus.
In “Evangelicals Divided,” Gerald McDermott describes the fissure developing in the Evangelical community as its left wing grows increasingly radical. McDermott describes three ways in which this group deviates from mainstream Evangelicals: 1) by emphasizing religious experience over belief (orthopraxy over orthodoxy), 2) questioning the inspired status of the Bible and 3) lacking authority. McDermott further describes key figures as 4) respecting but not slavishly adhering to tradition, 5) challenging key theological doctrines and 6) rejecting moral teachings like strictures against homosexual acts.
A timely example appeared over the past few weeks with the controversy over Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Bell, an Evangelical pastor, preaches a universalist message in a very provocative way. This heresy has been denounced loudly by many mainstream Evangelical leaders, yet Bell is representative of a growing presence within Christianity called the Emerging Church.
Substitute some theological language and add in some halakhic terminology, and this article is about Orthodox Judaism. As Dr. Alan Brill has been saying for a long time on his blog (link), the corresponding trends among Evangelical Christianity and Orthodox Judaism is remarkable. The left wing of Orthodoxy has been provocatively pushing the line on similar issues: 1,2 & 5) questioning fundamental beliefs and emphasizing Orthopraxy over Orthodoxy, 3) rejecting rabbinic authority, both those of central rabbinic figures and often all rabbis by emphasizing personal autonomy, 4) deviating from traditional attitudes such as customs (e.g. kitniyos), and 6) questioning if not rejecting moral teachings about politically sensitive issues like homosexuality. Obviously, when we discuss trends about other Judaism or Christianity we must paint with a wide brush that is often imprecise about individuals.
I’m not sure what to take away from this. Does it mean that a split within Orthodoxy is a sociological inevitability? Should we dismiss the left push as born of a cultural trend rather than a religious impulse? Or should we embrace the left’s agenda as the unavoidable future? Or, perhaps, we should try to minimize the impact of this trend by reining in the excesses on both extremes. My suspicion is that this last suggestion is only possible if we are willing to cut off the foot in order to save the leg, something for which few have the stomach even after it becomes the only possible choice.