Reading Nora L. Rubel’s Doubting the Devout: The Ultra-Orthodox in the American Jewish Imagination (Columbia, $24.50) is a bit like listening in on a therapy session. On the couch is the American Jewish community, and we are discussing our concerns about our more religious brethren.
Rubel’s book examines a change in American Jewish literature over the past twenty-five years that mirrors a shift in American Jewish culture during the same period. By looking at the work of contemporary novelists such as Pearl Abraham, Allegra Goodman, Dara Horn, Tova Mirvis, Naomi Ragen, and Anne Roiphe, and examples from film (A Price Above Rubies, A Stranger Among Us) and television (Law & Order), Rubel highlights the rightward trend in Jewish Orthodoxy and the dissatisfactions many American Jews express toward it.
Fictional portraits of Orthodox Jews were once nostalgic and complimentary, from Abraham Cahan to Chaim Potok. In the past 25 years, however, Jewish writers have been more censorious when it comes to their depictions of the Orthodox. Rubel writes convincingly that the change has to do with “differing views on how to reconcile Judaism with the general culture” that have resulted in a growing cultural polarization among American Jews. Since the mid-1980s, when the Conservative movement began ordaining women as rabbis (as had already been done in the Reform and Reconstructionist movements), Orthodoxy’s isolation from mainstream American Jewish culture — especially regarding women’s role in public religious life — has increasingly become a thorn in the side of mainstream American Jews. In Tova Mirvis’s The Outside World, modern Orthodox parents look on with trepidation and a sense of helplessness as their son becomes enveloped in ultra- Orthodoxy: “They had seen their friends’ children pass through this stage of fervent religiosity. They had heard stories about children who came home form Israel and carted off all the dishes in the house to be dunked in the local mikvah. If they could, these children would kidnap their parents and dunk them too.”
In her chapter “Muggers in Black Coats,” on friction between parent and child, Rubel quotes from a 2008 Forward “bintel brief ” letter in which a father laments the marriage of his “brilliant college graduate with a law degree” daughter to a Chabadnik: “It’s obvious that if she marries this parasite, she will become a second-class citizen and a baby factory and I’ll never have any contact with my children.” It’s as if the rules have suddenly changed. This father, like so many of the parents in Rubel’s fictional examples, believed he was doing right by his child in providing access to both the riches of American secular culture and a proud, American Jewish identity. To the parent it appears that the child is turning her back on both of the two worlds (secular American and mainstream Jewish) that her parents have presented to her and opting for door number three: ultra-orthodoxy.
Less convincing is Rubel’s contention that liberal Jews see the ultra-Orthodox as threatening to Jewish claims of Americanness. This would have seemed true in the immediate postwar era when American acceptance of Judaism was in its early stages. Thankfully, Jews’ American identity is more secure and America more accepting of religious and cultural difference.
Central to this culture war between the ultra-Orthodox and mainstream American Jewish culture is what Rubel describes as authority over the definition of Jewish identity. Who decides what is authentic and legitimate Judaism and whether this should be compatible with modernity or a replication of traditional Judaism is at the crux of American Jewish contention over ultra-Orthodoxy. Women’s voices have been particularly prominent among critics of traditional Judaism for the obvious reason of ultra- Orthodoxy’s exclusivist attitude toward them. One wishes for more male authors among Rubel’s sampling if only to know that men have been as disquieted about issues of gender and Judaism.
Rubel does a beautiful job showing that Jewish anxiety around defection to the ultra-Orthodox is multi-layered: parents are not only worried about what their children are giving up by choosing a haredi life, but about how that choice functions as an indictment of the parents’ Judaism. “You have such strong opinions about everything. But now I am right,” a grown-up daughter who has chosen ultra- Orthodoxy writes to her mother in Anne Roiphe’s novel, Lovingkindness. Seeing what her own Judaism has yielded in her child, the mother is left wondering who, indeed, is right.
The bedrock lesson of this book is one that might come from a therapist: doubting the devout isn’t really the problem; it’s the doubt we end up feeling about ourselves — and our own brands of Judaism — that needs more attention. Even if you’ve read none of the books Rubel discusses, hers is a worthwhile reflection on a major cultural divide in contemporary American Judaism.
Rachel Gordan, who recently completed her Ph.D. at Harvard in American religious history, is now a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern.