Tuesday, July 24, 2007

I was planning to write some reflections on Jews in America but that disingenuous article by Noah Feldman has set me off in another direction. (I'll get back to American Jews another time.)

American liberalism is a wonderful thing but it often has a certain dumbing down effect. For instance, the quality of apikorsim has dropped through the floor. That's why one of the things I really wanted to do in New York was go to chulent. Unfortunately, my flight from Chicago into New York was canceled and I couldn't make it. (Although, while enjoying the hospitality of my good friend, Milei D'Alma, in Chicago, I found next to each other on the bookshelf, "Off the Derech" by Margolies and "On the Road" by Kerouac, which almost made up for missing chulent.)

My friend, Abie, with whom I was planning to go, tells the following story that sums the matter up for me.

A novice apikorus (NA) went off to spend a shabbes with the famous apikorus of Lodz (FAL). He arrives Friday afternoon and FAL tells NA he can follow him around and see how it's done. So NA watches as FAL goes to the mikveh, goes to shul, comes home and says all the mumbles, does kiddush hayom and betzias hapas kehilchasam, and is makpid bekala kebichamurah the whole shabbes. Finally, after seudas Dovid, the following conversation ensues:
NA: What was that all about?
FAL: Why, what were you expecting?
NA: Well, you're supposed to be an apikorus. I was expecting you to at least be mechalel shabbes and eat neveilos and treifos.
FAL: Why should I do that?
NA: What do you mean why?! Lehach'is!
FAL: Lehach'is who?

Mediocre apikorsim just trade in the set of norms they grew up with for somebody else's norms. The same courageous rebel who eats treif because he no longer believes he was divinely commanded not to do so, wouldn't think of eating dog meat because it is taboo in the dominant culture. This isn't courageous, it's craven.

Many years ago, I saw an interview with a Belzer chassid who had decided to leave the path but who had not yet done so. The interviewer asks him how he sees himself a year hence. He says, "Completely frei, though I haven't had a chance yet to learn the rules about when one goes to the beach and when one goes to the movies."

If you're going to replace your birth religion with liberalism as a secular religion, at least have enough self-awareness to appreciate that boasting about the superiority of your new path in life is a boring cliche.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Agreed, although, similarly, the quality of Orthodox people has also fallen through the floor (to borrow your expression). Let's face it, mediocre people are just that, i.e. mediocre people (regardless of whether they are apikorsim, frum Yiddin, Hassidic, Litvish, Modern Orthodox, non-Observant, unaffiliated, Hindu, Bahai, Muslim or [name your favorite anthropological group]. That being said, Feldman's article had all of the intellectual merit of an insecure child's belly-aching whiner session (actually, my own kids can whine better than Feldman). By the way, when you were in Chicago, did you get a chance to go to Wrigley Field (admittedly, the quaintest ballpark in the majors -- and I'm not a Cubs fan)?

7:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

He may eat dog meat when visiting the mechutanim in Seoul.

12:52 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

Of course, I went to Wrigley. Gevaldig.

Actually, the shver is a gastrointerologist in New Jersey. But your point is well taken.

1:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am looking forward to your writing about your observations of American Jewry. We made aliyah 21 years ago, and I am what you might call a "self-hating" American. Although most of our close friends are native English-speakers, I feel uncomfortable around Americans when then are a group or when they dominate an organization, neighborhood and the such. There are a couple of American shuls in the town where we live and I can't stand to daven in either of them. I also cringe when I hear a person with a heavy American accent speak Hebrew on the radio because the American accent is one of the most unpleasant (up there with Russian and French and unlike Spanish which is the most agreeable to my ear) because I fear I sound like that even though my kids assure me that I don't.

I come from a traditionalist "Conservative" background in California so when I became mitzvah observant I wasn't in very large communities of religious Jews in the US, but I wasn't particularly impressed. American Jews have bought this view that your identity as a human being is what your profession is and the American Jews here in Israel seem to continue that. Religious Israelis, even successful ones and highly educated ones are much less like that and I feel more comfortable around that type.

7:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your jokes about mediocre apikorsim, and the phenomenon does exist, but I think you're wrong in applying it Noah Feldman. I knew Noah from his Maimonides days, and he didn't "take on" the liberal rules like the Belzer chasid learning when to go to the movies. He grew up in an American liberal atmosphere, but also went to yeshiva, and at some point decided for whatever reason to opt for the liberal side of his identity. But it is part of his identity.

10:51 AM  
Blogger Ben said...


Of course, I know that the Belzer anecdote does not apply to Feldman. The only connection is that Feldman seems to be quite frum about his liberal principles. I just liked the story.

11:44 AM  
Blogger mnuez said...

Agreed of course - though you ARE choosing the worst of the apikorsim as representative samples of the rest of them (us?) and are thus guilty of propping up a strawman to bolster your argument.

I had never heard that joke, by the way. It is most excellent.


P.S. Your posts are always appreciated.

P.P.S. I just saw Dr. Strangelove and it's quite good.

10:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You have such a poor understanding of liberalism, I am surprised you can spell the word correctly.

7:12 AM  

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