Writing in the aftermath of the scarifying 2016 election, Villanova University law professor Chaim Saiman suggested that in this moment of intense political polarization, American Modern Orthodoxy might be uniquely positioned to model engagement with American politics as an exercise in values and not scorched-earth partisan warfare. Perhaps, he argued, Orthodox Jews, living educationally and economically elite lives in blue areas while holding traditional values of religion, community, and family, might exercise a vital role in the national conversation at that moment, bridging two apparently distant sides. Orthodox Jews, whose faith commitments, values, and lives don’t neatly align with the contemporary partisan divisions in American political life, could model values-based, thoughtful, non-venomous engagement as American citizens.1Chaim Saiman, “Our Current Political Station: Might This Be Modern Orthodoxy’s Moment?”, The Lehrhaus, January 19, 2017 http://www.thelehrhaus.com/timely-thoughts/2017/1/18/our-current-political-station-might-this-be-modern- orthodoxys-moment
Almost four years after the publication of that essay, we have seen few signs of American Modern Orthodoxy serving as a model for the rest of the country or as a bridge spanning disparate groups of Americans. Perhaps Saiman’s hopeful analysis got the situation exactly backwards. Maybe American Modern Orthodoxy’s unique place on the American landscape means that, rather than uniquely able to link different groups of Americans, Modern Orthodox Jews are uniquely pulled away from investing in and engaging with our American citizenship. As upper-middle class, or upper-class, highly-educated Americans, we are part of broad patterns contributing to a decline of civic engagement in the country at large. And as a distinctive minority religious community, we are part of distinctive patterns that, in other ways, turn us inward, away from fully investing in our Americanness. Both the ways we are like the broader American community and the ways we are unlike it pull us away from citizenship and towards, at best, self-focused transactionalism. The first step to arresting that movement, which is both an American and an American Jewish imperative, is to understand it and the forces that contribute to it.
Under the aegis of Machon Siach, SAR High School has had a faculty cohort supporting thinking and research about how and why Modern Orthodox Jews engage as citizens.2At the same time, at a curricular level, SAR has partnered with a remarkable new organization, Civic Spirit, which brings civics education into religious schools, to develop a new elective course, The Values of Citizenship, for twelfth graders. This paper represents an attempt to distill and share some of that work.
It’s important to start by defining our terms. What it means to be a citizen and to act as a citizen are contested questions that merit deep study and thought. Historians have considered what citizenship meant in the early days of the Republic—how it was defined in contrast both to being a subject (of the British crown)3E.g. Denver Brunsman, “Subjects vs. Citizens: Impressment and Identity in the Anglo-American Atlantic,” Journal of the Early Republic (30:4, 2010) and to being a slave (a condition with which all of the founding fathers had firsthand acquaintance, many as the owners of human beings.)4E.g. Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (W.W. Norton, 1975) Others have written about citizenship’s evolution over time, particularly with the post-Civil War constitutional amendments that expanded citizenship to include African-Americans.5Eric Foner, The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution. (W.W. Norton, 2019) For this paper’s purposes, I focus less on the legal parameters of the term and more on citizenship as a disposition in relation to society: to see oneself not as acted upon by a government, in more or less salutary ways, but as having an ownership stake in society, both capable of and responsible for improving it, and with a sense of kinship towards fellow citizens.
By many measures, civic participation has been on the decline in recent decades, from decreasing party affiliation to disappearing civics education in schools. Trust in institutions of government, the media, and higher education has declined markedly, sometimes precipitously. No, the state of civic life in the United States isn’t worse than it’s ever been — the Civil War killed some three quarters of a million Americans — but it isn’t good. The shared grounding of values and commitments that Americans hold, upon which they stand as they disagree about politics and policy, is harder to locate. Even agreement on questions of scientific fact is hard to achieve.And us? The Modern Orthodox community exists in a fascinating liminal space, perfectly suited to embody the tensions and challenges of our time. Deeply religious, living and working in contemporary America, the Modern Orthodox community has accepted many of American society’s prevailing values while occupying a non-egalitarian religious world. It is wracked by constant economic anxiety despite earning very high incomes.6The Pew Survey of 2013 found that Modern Orthodox Jews had a higher percentage of families earning above $150,000 a year than any other denominational subgroup of Jewish Americans. Pew Research Center, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans: Findings from a Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews” 2013, p. 43. 3 We strive and struggle to send our children to elite educational institutions, while worrying about the values and attitudes they might absorb while there.
Our haredi brethren, with an ideology that rejects engagement with a compromised world and holding a perspective shaped by medieval and early-modern European feelings about non-Jews, connect largely transactionally with the American project, for reasons that are self-evident and sensible. Many of our more liberal Jewish brethren vote their values and worldviews, as so memorably caricatured by Milton Himmelfarb seventy years ago.7Himmelfarb famously said that Jews “earn like Episcopalians, but vote like Puerto Ricans.” This aphorism is so firmly associated with Himmelfarb that it made it into his New York Times obituary. Joseph Berger, “Milton Himmelfarb, Wry Essayist, 87, Dies,” The New York Times, January 15, 2006. (American Jews remain collectively the second-most-reliably-Democratic American voting bloc, after only African-Americans. It is hard for my students, living as they do in the Modern Orthodox world, to believe that, but it remains true all the same.) As Modern Orthodox Jews, we profess to believe in engaging with the broader world. That we find ourselves disengaged from citizenship speaks both to the ways we are exactly like, and the ways we stand apart from, our counterparts in American society.
Instead of engaging as stakeholders responsible for the American enterprise, Modern Orthodox Jews often engage with government, both local and national, on a transactional basis. Our community focuses on what we need from government and what we can do to secure it, whether that is greater support for Israel (material or political) or new mechanisms for funding our schools to alleviate the burden on tuition-paying parents. We engage in politics less in an attempt to ensure human flourishing, and more using a citizenship-as-soda-machine model: I put in my quarters, and I expect to get my can. If it doesn’t arrive as expected, I thump the side of the machine.
Advocating for one’s own interests is, of course, a time-honored American tradition and the right of every American demographic group. American Jews need not be more high-minded than other American groups in seeking to advance our own needs. Sometimes, in fact, advocating for those needs takes the form of arguing for a relationship between government and religious communities that may benefit others, too.8I thank Professor Michael Avi Helfand for raising these two points in our frequent conversations about these issues. And yet, as a deeply invested American citizen, and as a teacher of American history, government, and citizenship, I am pained that so much of our communal conversation about Jews’ Americanness seems stuck on what we need and how to secure it: Will the Democrats or the Republicans be better for Israel? Whose economic policies will benefit our community and its members? If a robust communal discourse is taking place about how to promote general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, I have not been privy to it. A first step to addressing this problem, then, is understanding it. What are some of the developments and patterns that have contributed to the disinvestment of Modern Orthodox Jews as American citizens?
How Did We Get Here?
1. Meritocracy And Its Discontents
The 2016 election cycle forced a national focus on those Americans for whom the last forty years have meant stagnating wages, disappearing jobs, and cultural dislocation. For years before that, scholars who studied economic inequality pointed out how unevenly distributed the gains of those decades were, and how the profits were accruing to a narrow slice of the American populace while the broad swaths were suffering.
Even as the economy has grown significantly over the past half-century, the benefits of that growth have increasingly been concentrated in a college-educated elite clustered around urban cores. Well-paying blue collar jobs have become scarcer and, facing loss of economic opportunity and the hollowing-out of community, “deaths of despair”— deaths from substance use and suicide — among working-class white Americans have become more commonplace.9Anne Case and Angus Deaton, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism. (Princeton University Press: 2020)
This growing inequality parallels a sorting that has become a defining feature of our social life. Instead of having Americans’ access to opportunity determined by birth, the years after World War II saw a shift to allocating society’s rewards based on some understanding of merit. Harvard University’s president James Bryant Conant reorganized the college’s admissions policies away from relationships, connections and prep schools and towards some putatively objective measure of merit; the academy has thus led a re-sorting of American society.10Nicholas Lemann, The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: 2000) Without completely supplanting the pre-World War II WASP aristocracy, this meritocracy created a great deal of opportunity for new groups, including American Jews, to move into the educational and professional elite. This elite rested on very different claims of legitimacy and right. No longer were people granted admission to Harvard solely on the basis of who their fathers were; instead, they (or at least some of them) had earned their admission.
As the United States confronted Communism, with its enforced levelling of all people, this sense of “earning a place” was a moral claim.
But in establishing a meritocracy to give talented students of whatever background (or, at least, whatever white background) equal access, Conant and his generation did something else, as well: they gave admitted students a claim of merit, of right, which freed them even from the old WASP noblesse oblige that sent sons of that class into the State Department or the CIA. “I am here because I earned it, and you have not—why would I owe anything to you? Buckle down, work as hard as I do, and you, too will one day have the prestigious degree and all that comes with it.” As women were accepted into these elite circles, college became a place not only to get an education but to meet a potential spouse. A two-college educated couple (let alone a two-Harvard couple) is statistically not only likely to be considerably wealthier. It is likelier to be a stable and lasting marriage, and to perpetuate its advantage not only in economic but in cultural ways. But those cultural ways — good schools, hard work, tutors, the right co-curriculars — look a lot like merit. And that sense of having earned those spoils invites contempt, not empathy, for those who haven’t and isolates the high achievers from working-class, blue-collar, non-college-educated Americans.11Conservative thinkers have focused thoughtful critique on this aspect of meritocracy. See Yuval Levin, A Time To Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream. (Basic Books: 2020), and Ross Douthat, “The Case Against Meritocracy,” The New York Times, December 8, 2018.
Chris Hayes, in his era-defining work Twilight of the Elites,12Chris Hayes, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy. (Crown: 2012) outlines this phenomenon with surgical precision. He describes an elite that is increasingly culturally alienated from the rest of the country and increasingly convinced that it has earned its place there by dint of its talent and hard work, and thus owes no apologies—and no obligation to “pay it forward.”
This elite of supposed merit merges with the leftovers of the old elite of birth and heritage. But in order to join this meritocracy, new members acculturate to its values and norms. Think of three recent presidents, a son of a Bonesman, a son of a poor white mother and an absentee alcoholic father in rural Arkansas, and a son of a white mother and an absentee black African father raised in Indonesia and Hawaii, all inducted into the same values of social inclusion, free trade, and budget-balancing bipartisanship.
Nonetheless, as Hayes notes, this meritocracy has failed large groups of Americans. They do not have access to the excellent schools, the curricular and co-curricular offerings, the resources and opportunities to manufacture merit. A criminal justice system that is “punitive at the bottom, forgiving at the top” means not merely that they are punished for misdeeds but that they are punished in ways that those at the top are not for identical misdeeds. As wealth accumulates at the top of the income distribution, precarity prevails at the bottom. The 2016 primaries and presidential election shined a spotlight on many facets of American society, but an angry revolt of the “back-row kids” was certainly one of them.13Chris Arnade published a widely-read Medium post about the “back-row” kids, which ultimately led to the publication of his book, Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America. (Sentinel: 2019)
Where do Orthodox Jews enter this story? As a community, we have achieved great success. We have “made it” into the meritocracy, by dint of our own hard work and the opportunities afforded by a country that, in the mid-twentieth century, was increasingly ready to accept us into its elite. We did it despite many of our parents and grandparents having arrived here as penniless immigrants, if not devastated survivors. The American dream worked for us. And we have deep investment in the idea of meritocracy because it reflects our own American experience, honors our ancestors, and credits us for our
successes. But seeing our success as solely the product of our own work can leave us less empathetic towards those who, for whatever reasons, have not achieved the same success. The power of our family stories can make it hard to hear that others’ experiences of America differ profoundly from our own. Perhaps counterintuitively, the success that we have achieved and the ways that we have achieved it can leave us feeling less, rather than more, responsible towards those Americans who are not similarly successful. Having benefited from the best that meritocracy has to offer, our community is also contending with some of its less salutary effects.
2. Relative Prosperity, The Tuition Crisis, and Choking on $500,000 A Year
Left-bloggers and left political twitter have made something of a cottage industry of mocking the supposedly liberal New York Times for its out-of-touch economic elitism. This is particularly manifest in the Styles section—whether it is previewing a selection of new spring watches whose prices range into the high four figures (remember: the median household income in the United States is about $60,000/year), or, pre-pandemic, writing yet another story about the difficulty of snagging a reservation at the newest, hottest, $300-a-meal restaurant. But of all the stories that invite this mockery, the genre that brings down the invective faster than any other is the hoary “Can’t Get By on Half-A-Million Dollars A Year.”14Nor is the Times alone in this. I have examples of this genre that have run in The Wall Street Journal, CNBC, and on Financial Samurai.
In these stories (which the Times runs every few years), we read a profile of a family or families struggling to live in New York City on an income which, it hardly needs saying, puts them in the top 1% of all American families. The rent, the car payment, private school tuition for two kids, the two annual family vacations—by the time it all adds up, the anguished subjects of the Times profiles are just barely scraping by.15E.g. Allen Salkin, “You Try to Live on 500K in This Town,” The New York Times, February 6, 2009 16 Daniel Markovits talks about this, and many of the other costs the meritocracy imposes precisely on those who have “made it,” in his book The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite. (Penguin, 2020)
Left-bloggers may mock, but to many Modern Orthodox Jews, an article like this comes with a shock of recognition. That presentation of success and struggle is us: the wealth, the achievement, and, certainly, the sense of choking. If we are mostly not paying for Manhattan apartments, and if yeshiva tuitions run somewhat below that of the most elite private schools, we make up for it with larger families, the expenses of an Orthodox life, and the cost of a Pesach program or summer camp.
This intertwining of the religious and the sociological is so profound and complete that it is nearly impossible to tell where one leaves off and the next begins. We view yeshiva tuition as an imperative if we are to transmit the corpus of knowledge, the body of practice, and the culture that define Orthodox Judaism. But what, exactly, those schools look like, and what, exactly, those schools cost, is the product of choices that we have made, shaped as much by the place in society that we occupy (or hope to occupy) as by religious imperative. A school that teaches Talmud and has daily prayers is a sine qua non of Jewish religious education; a school that prepares students for entry into the Ivy League is not. But the latter factor may be just as important as the former to professional-class parents seeking a school that will enable their children to replicate their parents’ success. 1 6
What we term a “tuition crisis” might be more precisely described as an “alignment of expectations with willingness and ability to pay” crisis. And if that is far less attention-grabbing, it is more honest about where we are as a community.
Certainly, one force driving the transactionalism of the Modern Orthodox community’s engagement as citizens is the sense that this enterprise is financially and otherwise unsustainable, and that only with government assistance of one sort or another (vouchers, support for parochial schools, tax deductions for yeshiva tuitions) can this ship be kept afloat. To the extent that such an approach has us focused on our own material interests, it may divert from thinking about, and working towards, broader notions of the common good (ones that might bestow fewer benefits on a group of Americans already very well-off in relative terms.) The anxieties of our contemporary Modern Orthodox lives — about our own economic wellbeing and securing the same or better for our children — may so occupy us that they leave us few resources to devote to the common weal. Let heavier work be laid upon the men, Pharaoh said, and they won’t have any time to listen to Moses’ talk of redemption.16Shemot 5:9 Concerned with the paradoxical precarity of our lives at the top of the pyramid, and eager to get any help possible to maintain our communal lifestyle, we may be too stressed, too stretched, or too self-focused to attend to thoughts of bettering the society in which we live.17There is a burgeoning literature about meritocracy and its discontents, which shows just how much this is not a specifically Modern Orthodox problem. A sampling includes William Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (Free Press: 2015), Walter Kirn, Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever (Anchor, 2010), Richard Reeves, Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That is a Problem, and What to Do About It (Brookings Institution Press: 2017), to say nothing of many magazine articles about stressed and anxious upper-middle-class high-school kids. The recent publication dates of all of these works, along with the Hayes and Markovits books cited above, suggest a growing realization that things are not working even for the supposed winners in the extant system, let alone the rest of society.
3. Davening Together; Bowling Alone (or: The Brotherhood of Jewish Postal Workers)
My father’s two brothers passed away in the space of a little more than a year. Twice in that short period of time, I found myself in the enormous expanse of the neighboring Beth Moses and Wellwood cemeteries on Long Island, walking to my uncles’ and then my grandparents’ graves. And I found myself marveling at the way that, inscribed on the steles that delineate the sections, we see the decline of belonging and membership in broader Jewish communal life. Section after section are set aside for the members of fraternal organizations that no longer exist: The Brotherhood of Jewish Postal Workers. The Knights of Pythias. Assorted landsmanschaften.
Robert Putnam’s argument in Bowling Alone18Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. ( Simon and Schuster, 2000) has become so commonplace that an allusion to the title suffices to introduce his point into the argument. Putnam traces the decline of voluntary associations in the United States, as Americans replaced time spent with others in fraternal organizations or bowling leagues with hours in our cars, commuting alone. An American society once characterized by membership in voluntary associations, labor unions, churches, fraternal organizations, and affinity groups is now marked by atomization and isolation. (Putnam wrote his book before the advent of the smartphone and social media; I can only imagine how much worse he would find things today.) Sociologists see this lack of common experience and identity as both a burden to the lives of individuals, in decreased happiness and wellbeing, and a cost to society, in decreased social capital and the benefits that it confers.
The Orthodox community is interesting, even distinctive, in this context. The prohibition against driving on Shabbat still has us living in physical proximity to one another, often coming to dominate certain neighborhoods.19I am sure many have raised this point; I first heard it made this way by Rabbi Tully Harcsztark. Unlike evangelical Christians, who may have traded in community churches for megachurches with concomitant loss of community support infrastructure, Orthodox Jews still daven in shuls at a neighborhood scale.20Rod Dreher specifically addresses this point in his work The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. (Sentinel, 2017) In this significant regard, we have bucked the trend of American life. We live in close-knit and supportive communities, and we benefit vastly from the social capital that they provide.
One wonders, however, whether this encompassing community serves to fill any need for connection and thus to enable and reinforce its members’ withdrawal from broader American life. If we do not feel isolated and alone, and if we feel community and connection through our lives as religious Jews, perhaps we have no need to seek it in the broader communities in which we live or in American society as a whole. Indeed, the very laws of Shabbat that reinforce our Jewish community, also serve to further isolate us. In the large suburban Orthodox Jewish communities that surround New York, Orthodox Jews drive up property values in homes in their communities within walking distances of shuls. (Real estate ads regularly list as a feature of a house “walk to worship.” That isn’t likely to mean a local church or mosque.) To other buyers, paying such a premium to live within walking distance of shul makes no sense. And so Orthodox Jews in some of these communities live in enclaves, surrounded by and in contact increasingly only with one another.
Beyond some general pieties about diversity and difference, this siloing can have concrete effects on how we engage with broader society. In her work Good Neighbors,21Nancy Rosenblum, Good Neighbors: The Democracy of Everyday Life in America. (Princeton University Press, 2016) philosopher Nancy Rosenblum argues that living among neighbors, interacting with others in negotiating the minor differences of daily life, is the proving ground for the virtues of citizenship that then define our relations with society more broadly. The haredi world knows that it lacks those interactions, nor does it value them. In the Modern Orthodox world, we profess to seek out such encounters. But as our children move through their lives surrounded by other Jews–from school and summer camp to singles apartment and then suburban community–they may never seek to translate their ability to form and maintain community out into broader American life. The richness of our communal life, which marks us as distinct from so many contemporary Americans, may obviate the need for other associations, further attenuating the bonds of citizenship.
4. Do We, In Fact, Daven Together?
But our communal shared sense of purpose–our chesed organizations and mikvaot, our shuls and schools–may, in fact, obscure an underlying atomization in our own communities as well. Compared to the American Jewish population a century ago, Modern Orthodoxy today is more concentrated in fewer communities. Where Jews were once distributed across small and mid-size cities throughout the United States, we now cluster in a few large population centers. Instead of a small town with a single shul, we now live in urban and suburban communities where we can choose the shul that best meets our desires with respect to congregants, rabbi, and kiddush offerings. In many of the large Orthodox communities of the New York metropolitan area, the politically “conservative” shul and the “liberal” shul are universally recognized and easily identifiable.22I thank Romi Harcsztark for suggesting this point. (And one parent told me that, even within a given shul, the main minyan and the hashkama minyan may have distinct, identifiable politics.)
The Modern Orthodox Jewish community is doubtless one of close connections and mutual support. But are our vaunted communities and their institutions, even as they bind and unite us, disguising a political sorting? Are we praying with those who are ideologically or politically aligned, leaving us, even within our own small religious community, to cultivate the ability to engage only with those who think like we do? To say that we live in Modern Orthodox communities and interact with other Modern Orthodox Jews may significantly overstate the breadth of our exposure and experience. Even within those communities, we seem to live increasingly sorted lives in epistemic bubbles, limiting our contacts and conversations to those who think as we do. And in doing so, we, like many other Americans, become less capable of understanding or speaking to those who differ from us. If we are not cultivating the ability to discern shared values that underlie diverging politics, even with those with whom we share the most, we will be ill-prepared, indeed, to discern those across the collective of Americans from whom we differ far more deeply, about many more things.
5. E Pluribus Unum
The topic of race and the American Modern Orthodox community is hardly one that can be dispatched in a few paragraphs. Indeed, I hope to address that separately, and at length, in another paper. But the increasing diversity of America–the transitioning of the United States to a majority-minority country over the next several decades–makes it harder for us to see each other as collectively responsible for one another. Social science researchers have found that increasing racial diversity leads to decreased support for social welfare spending. People are more willing to be taxed and to see government spend for the wellbeing of people who are more like them.23Alberto Alesina, Edward Glaeser, and Bruce Sacerdote, “Why Doesn’t the U.S. Have a European-Style Welfare State?”, Harvard Institute of Economic Research Discussion Paper 1933, November 200 https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/glaeser/files/why_doesnt_the_u.s._have_a_european-style_welfare_state .pdf Holger Stichnoth and Karine Van der Straeten, “Ethnic Diversity, Public Spending, and Individual Support for the Welfare State: A Review of the Empirical Literature,” Journal of Economic Surveys, November 2011 https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/47159874.pdf
The last time the United States absorbed a mass migration of immigrants, the backlash was strong and long-lasting. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, millions of southern and eastern Europeans, including many European Jews, immigrated to the United States. Americans of Anglo-Saxon stock bemoaned the swamping of their country by these undesirables who might soon be out-reproducing them. (Theodore Roosevelt warned of “race suicide” and encouraged white women [that is, women of northern and western European background] to have more children.) The response, ultimately, was the very restrictive Immigration Act of 1924, which decreased the number of people allowed into the United States, and shifted quotas in favor of northern and western Europeans. (These quotas remained in place throughout the Holocaust, as the United States abandoned European Jews to their doom.) For forty years, the United States significantly restricted immigration, while many of these southern and eastern European immigrants, including Jews, came to be seen as white.24Eric Goldstein, The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity. (Princeton University Press: 2006) Ironically, now, many of the descendants of those southern and eastern Europeans are adjusting to the reality of a country that doesn’t look like them.
Where Jews fit into the American racial schema is fraught and complex. We have to be able to hold two ideas at the same time: Jews are a minority who faced and still face discrimination, and Jews of European background appear white in an America where that made, and can still make, a great deal of difference. (After World War II, my Polish-Jewish immigrant grandfather was white enough to access the benefits of the GI Bill, even as Black GIs whose families had been in this country for generations were kept from enjoying them.) Some scholars have described Jews as conditionally white, or revocably white. (Jews’ whiteness, in other words, is granted for good behavior and can be rescinded.) But however we qualify the terms, the overwhelming majority of American Jews are visibly white. And the challenges for white Americans to maintain an ethic of citizenship in a diversifying America apply to those Jews, as well.
6. An Army of One; A Minyan of One
The focus on an individual rather than a collective experience is a hallmark of our 21st century lives. We customize our technology for both its appearance and what it offers us; smart technology customizes it further still, feeding us what it thinks we’ll like. We choose religious experiences that are personally meaningful and eschew those that seem to offer nothing but the dead hand of ritual. American politics has been shaken by younger voters for whom voting may be a self-defining or self-affirming choice, like the choice to purchase a conscious brand. Joining a party, or voting a party line, seems so mindless. We are self-fashioning all the time, curating a personal brand for public view.
And the older generation is meeting young people where they are. This generational accommodation found striking expression in the United States Army’s turning to a slogan — “An Army of One” — that emphasized the individual rather than the collective in an institution that is profoundly collective and that allows much more leeway for squelching individual expression than does American society generally. (Soldiers in the Armed Forces lose some of their constitutional rights.) Rather than emphasize the great causes in which a soldier would participate, or the meaning that can come from becoming part of an encompassing whole, the US Army chose to sell potential recruits on the chance to be “An Army Of One.”
As educators, we are subject to, participants in, and contributors to this broader social development. We do not tell students to submerge themselves in a collective experience that they do not find meaningful in anticipation of finding meaning simply in being part of something larger than themselves. Instead, we seek to make our classes meaningful, customized, individual. (The term of art is “differentiated.”) We do the same for religious experiences, helping students find modes of religious observance that are personally meaningful to them. Koren recently released a customizable siddur, with room for teenagers to write down their own thoughts and reflections. (I hasten to add that the siddur is excellent and of great value to my students. It is a reflection, however, of a particular tenor of our times.)
Everything about this hyper-individuation militates against a sense of citizenship: a sense of belonging to a collective polity, of engaging to improve things even as one objects to various parts of that polity’s actions or choices, of working as a small part of a larger enterprise, making compromises and concessions towards a larger goal. Instead, one’s civic participation, like so much else, is an exercise in self-fashioning, even self-branding, and decisions about how to participate, with whom, and towards what ends may consider less the ultimate good that can be achieved than how one will appear for having done so.
7. Deconstructing the Narrative; Reconstructing the Narrative
Since the 1960s, historians have done an excellent job revising the master narrative of American history, the one that places at its center white Protestant men and their accomplishments and both asserts and assumes a shared national sense of mission and purpose. It hardly needs to be said that this corrective was much needed and long overdue; that an American story that venerated men who bought, sold, whipped, and exploited Black bodies without ever reckoning with the inhabitants of those bodies, at the time and as the effects of slavery and racism ramified through the generations, was a ripe target for revision. An American story that emphasized human rights and liberty, without ever reckoning with the country’s long history of backing brutal rulers who crushed their own people, so long as it served broader societal aims, demanded a critical eye. And an American story that ignored the extent to which rich and poor have lived and continue to live different lives–subject to different laws, with different levels of political efficacy, even with different health outcomes–needed to be thoroughly rethought. All of that is a positive development. It makes the story Americans tell about themselves richer, deeper, and more honest.
And yet, and yet. In dismantling the national narrative; in challenging the national claims to virtue and right that might once have served as a unifying or mobilizing force, the country is left with–what, exactly? How does one impress upon students the importance of citizenship, the value of participation, the gift of voting, without framing overarching values or a compelling national narrative in which they can seem themselves a part? Has a much-needed historical reexamination deconstructed an American story without offering any workable alternative?
In a real sense, this is a question about the preference for honesty over a usable past and, indeed, whether honesty precludes a usable past. Can Americans tell a story that acknowledges all of the ugliness, that does not elide and ignore, but nevertheless offers a compelling narrative of citizenship to teach and practice? As this society confronts the question of who belongs, literally, on a pedestal, as it contends with renaming buildings and reframing history, underlying all is the question of whether there can be a unifying, inspiring, inclusive, honest national story.
As Modern Orthodox Jews living in the United States, we live with a split consciousness: we travel on the passport and vote in the elections of the United States, but we are deeply concerned with the safety and wellbeing of a small country 6000 miles away. And that small country can seem to need us more, if only because of the sense that hundreds of millions of others will concern themselves with the wellbeing of the United States, but only a small number of Americans will make Israel policy a priority.
This sense of who needs us more is also evident in the reality that a yeshiva high school graduate who serves in a military is far more likely to serve in the IDF than in the US Armed Forces. (In SAR High School, every year, we have many more students enlist in Tzahal than have served in the US military over the entire history of the school.) And while that may be in part attributable to the greater ease of being an observant Jew in the IDF, and in part to the social chasm between the student population of SAR High School and the people who generally serve in the US military, there is also a strong sense that Israel needs us more than the United States does.
But more fundamentally, the Modern Orthodox community’s Zionism means that our engagement as American citizens is always partial, qualified. To be too invested in the United States and its well being, it seems, is to be insufficiently committed to medinat Yisrael and the ideal of aliyah. And although, driven by material, familial, and other realities, our community is not making aliyah en masse, perhaps we are still holding back, holding out on the United States of America. Perhaps we are, to reframe Robert Frost, possessing what we are unwilling to be possessed by; possessed by what we are unwilling to possess.25Cf. Robert Frost, “The Gift Outright,” Virginia Quarterly Review, Spring 1942. Even as most of the American Orthodox community is not ready to assume the difficulties and dislocations that come with aliyah, perhaps its presence in our minds as an ideal and an aspiration keeps us from fully investing in the country in which we continue to choose to make our lives.
Where Do We Go From Here?
There is value in diagnosing or understanding a problem. Not every analysis has to end with a tidy three-point plan. And some of these issues will need sustained attention across the American body politic, not just within our community. The questions about what our national narrative will be, whom we will honor, and how we will find honest inspiration in a complex history is not our community’s, alone, to solve. The racial disparities and economic inequality in American society are the product of policy choices over decades and generations, and reversing them will be no small undertaking. But if pressed to offer suggestions for how we can now, even in the short term, (re)commit to an ethic of citizenship as Modern Orthodox Jewish Americans, I would propose the following tiered approach as a starting point:
a. The quickest and lowest-investment way to engage as citizens is to consciously work to change how we think and talk about politics in our own community. First, we can allow ourselves to speak about politics as the work to shape a better society and support human flourishing rather than rolling our eyes at such notions as hopelessly naive and unsophisticated. We can actively work to foster a conversation that admits to the issues’ complexities; that seeks to understand the values behind positions with which we disagree; and that approaches politics more as a complex series of trade-offs and less as blood sport. None of these steps will obliterate deeply-held differences and clashing convictions, nor are they meant to. But if we can speak differently about politics, we can think differently about this undertaking and engage in it as invested citizens, not mere partisans.
b. Let’s all acknowledge that Torah values do not overlap neatly with the platform or positions of either major American political party. Once we do so, we can acknowledge that each of us, engaging with politics as committed Jews, makes choices about which values to prioritize in making the binary choice of vote allocation. But we can dispense with the denunciations of others’ political choices as contrary to the Torah. “How could a Jew vote for Party or Candidate X?!” By making different attributions of relative value to the competing priorities that can’t all be honored with a single vote, that’s how.
c. Once we are attending to the values that underlie policy choices, and the tradeoffs inherent in those choices, we can stop talking about American politics as a fandom demanding absolute and unchanging fealty. We can acknowledge the thinkers we learn from whose politics we don’t share (and if there aren’t any, find some). Acknowledge wrongdoing or error by people whose politics we do share. Describe how our views have changed over time. It may be a mark of stalwart character to root for a sports team for one’s entire life, come what may. It is less admirable to maintain one’s view about every question of politics or government for the entirety of one’s adulthood.
d. Let’s also attend thoughtfully to the reality that we get to cast more than a single vote. Perhaps your attribution of relative value has you voting a certain way at the national level. Fair enough. Are there candidates for state or local office, with a different set of issues in play, where you can honor other values that are subordinated to overpowering priorities at the national level? If we think about the American project as enabling human flourishing, rather than as demonstrating unshakeable loyalty to a particular team, we may be able to honor different priorities as we vote for different offices or in different elections.
These first four suggestions ask of us that we change how we think and speak about our engagement in politics and as citizens. The next two demand something more:
e. We as a community need to open ourselves up to understanding more about other Americans, their experiences, and their needs. Our stories of our families and our community are deeply, powerfully, true, but they are not the only true stories. To the extent that we lack understanding of other Americans’ stories and histories, we will be unable to help shape an American society that advances the wellbeing of all of its members. To start creating such understanding, we may need programming at the school, shul, or communal level, as well as a commitment to be open to hearing and sharing American stories that differ from ours. And while we may be titillated by the exoticism of Appalachia or rural farm communities, there are communities of color a short distance from our homes and schools whose lives and experiences we can and should work far harder to understand.
f. And yes, this recommitment to citizenship may mean voting against our own immediate economic interests in the service of greater values. Such a broader vision is, after all, a time-honored American Jewish political tradition.
The American Jewish community has experienced success–material, educational, communal, institutional–unparalleled in the history of the Diaspora. The American Orthodox Jewish community has experienced all of that, in a country that increasingly accommodates our distinctive observances even at the highest levels of government, business, and the professions. Hakarat hatov (gratitude) alone would demand that we invest as citizens in securing the freedoms and opportunities that so benefited us, and ensuring that they are available to others.
But hakarat hatov alone is hardly sufficient here. More than just grateful to the United States for its beneficence (though I am surely that), I feel the weight of Jewish history on my shoulders. My ancestors–our ancestors–lived in countries in which generally the best they could hope for was an authoritarian with a gentle hand, or benign neglect–and too often they did not get that. I have been gifted with the opportunity to be not just acted upon but an actor, not just a subject of but a part-owner and shaper of the American experiment. That gift confers a responsibility, an obligation. And, as an American Orthodox Jewish community–despite all of the forces that pull us away from it; without for a moment flagging in our commitment to medinat Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael–we need to discharge that obligation faithfully. We need to consider what conditions will help all Americans flourish and then work to foster them. We will have different understandings of how to do this. Our politics will lead us down different paths, and our commitments to the Jewish people and medinat Yisrael m ay have us assigning different priorities to contending values. But in the varied forms it takes, our renewed engagement as American citizens will honor both of the legacies that we carry, as Americans and as Jews.
- 1Chaim Saiman, “Our Current Political Station: Might This Be Modern Orthodoxy’s Moment?”, The Lehrhaus, January 19, 2017 http://www.thelehrhaus.com/timely-thoughts/2017/1/18/our-current-political-station-might-this-be-modern- orthodoxys-moment
- 2At the same time, at a curricular level, SAR has partnered with a remarkable new organization, Civic Spirit, which brings civics education into religious schools, to develop a new elective course, The Values of Citizenship, for twelfth graders.
- 3E.g. Denver Brunsman, “Subjects vs. Citizens: Impressment and Identity in the Anglo-American Atlantic,” Journal of the Early Republic (30:4, 2010)
- 4E.g. Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (W.W. Norton, 1975)
- 5Eric Foner, The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution. (W.W. Norton, 2019)
- 6The Pew Survey of 2013 found that Modern Orthodox Jews had a higher percentage of families earning above $150,000 a year than any other denominational subgroup of Jewish Americans. Pew Research Center, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans: Findings from a Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews” 2013, p. 43. 3
- 7Himmelfarb famously said that Jews “earn like Episcopalians, but vote like Puerto Ricans.” This aphorism is so firmly associated with Himmelfarb that it made it into his New York Times obituary. Joseph Berger, “Milton Himmelfarb, Wry Essayist, 87, Dies,” The New York Times, January 15, 2006.
- 8I thank Professor Michael Avi Helfand for raising these two points in our frequent conversations about these issues.
- 9Anne Case and Angus Deaton, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism. (Princeton University Press: 2020)
- 10Nicholas Lemann, The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: 2000)
- 11Conservative thinkers have focused thoughtful critique on this aspect of meritocracy. See Yuval Levin, A Time To Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream. (Basic Books: 2020), and Ross Douthat, “The Case Against Meritocracy,” The New York Times, December 8, 2018.
- 12Chris Hayes, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy. (Crown: 2012)
- 13Chris Arnade published a widely-read Medium post about the “back-row” kids, which ultimately led to the publication of his book, Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America. (Sentinel: 2019)
- 14Nor is the Times alone in this. I have examples of this genre that have run in The Wall Street Journal, CNBC, and on Financial Samurai.
- 15E.g. Allen Salkin, “You Try to Live on 500K in This Town,” The New York Times, February 6, 2009 16 Daniel Markovits talks about this, and many of the other costs the meritocracy imposes precisely on those who have “made it,” in his book The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite. (Penguin, 2020)
- 16Shemot 5:9
- 17There is a burgeoning literature about meritocracy and its discontents, which shows just how much this is not a specifically Modern Orthodox problem. A sampling includes William Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (Free Press: 2015), Walter Kirn, Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever (Anchor, 2010), Richard Reeves, Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That is a Problem, and What to Do About It (Brookings Institution Press: 2017), to say nothing of many magazine articles about stressed and anxious upper-middle-class high-school kids. The recent publication dates of all of these works, along with the Hayes and Markovits books cited above, suggest a growing realization that things are not working even for the supposed winners in the extant system, let alone the rest of society.
- 18Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. ( Simon and Schuster, 2000)
- 19I am sure many have raised this point; I first heard it made this way by Rabbi Tully Harcsztark.
- 20Rod Dreher specifically addresses this point in his work The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. (Sentinel, 2017)
- 21Nancy Rosenblum, Good Neighbors: The Democracy of Everyday Life in America. (Princeton University Press, 2016)
- 22I thank Romi Harcsztark for suggesting this point.
- 23Alberto Alesina, Edward Glaeser, and Bruce Sacerdote, “Why Doesn’t the U.S. Have a European-Style Welfare State?”, Harvard Institute of Economic Research Discussion Paper 1933, November 200 https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/glaeser/files/why_doesnt_the_u.s._have_a_european-style_welfare_state .pdf Holger Stichnoth and Karine Van der Straeten, “Ethnic Diversity, Public Spending, and Individual Support for the Welfare State: A Review of the Empirical Literature,” Journal of Economic Surveys, November 2011 https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/47159874.pdf
- 24Eric Goldstein, The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity. (Princeton University Press: 2006)
- 25Cf. Robert Frost, “The Gift Outright,” Virginia Quarterly Review, Spring 1942.