Modern orthodoxy as a glue between the ultra-orthodox and the liberal: the Jewish example

The following is from a conversation between a few friends:

Ultra orthodox, orthodox, liberls

The ultra-orthodox are a faction apart, and many of them are non-expansive in either a philosophical or marital sense. Their view of the tradition is purely as a training routine, and propagation as purely biological. Their psychological drive comes from a set of inward-looking concepts that I will come to later.

The orthodox Jews, however are actually quite proselytizing. They share their creed and its parts with outsiders, and are also very open about marrying out – provided the other partner converts or is willing to raise the children within the community. They are generally better educated, and can navigate various Jewish and non-Jewish social milieu with ease. E.g., my bro-in-law insisted that the girl he married – from a very “liberal” family, would raise the children as orthodox Jews, they would be bilingual in Hebrew, and would have strong links with Israel while remaining solidly American. One of his brothers married an Iranian Muslim lady, who had to convert – not just in name but also receive training and study to qualify for various sacraments, which she apparently did quite gladly.

The “liberal” Jews have a loose connection with their tradition – mostly through secondary sources, since living in a Christo-Islamic country one is still surrounded by second-hand cultural rudiments piggy-backing on Judaism. If at all spiritual, they tend to identify themselves as wishy-washy universalists rather than having any particular sadhana and associated samskaras (not that I think that is necessarily wrong – but its definitely no good for propagation for the future generations).

To take an extreme example – The Jews left in Iran itself – the Isfahani Jewish community was once the largest Jewish community outside Israel – are now mostly uber-liberal. The orthodoxy there has mostly migrated to Israel, and have contributed with many notables there, including former President Moshe Katsav, former CoS of IDF Dan Halutz, etc. Now the Jews remaining behind in Iran itself are hardly distinguishable from the Muslims, they do their best to blend-in, and play down their Jewish idetity as much as possible – and its not just because of past and potentially continuing persecution, but because a section of them wanted to “westernize” – a phenomenon that one finds across communities in Iran. This “westoxification” (gharbzadegi) – a term used extensively by even pre-revolution Iranian sociologists and invented by Jalal Al-e-Ahmad – has had a profound and mostly “deracinating” effect on Iranians, causing a lot of confusion and inner conflict, which I have been able to observe at close quarters. So, many of these remaining Iranian Jews are practically indistinguishable – one girl I met was even excited about the prospect of a ‘sigheh’ (temporary marriage permit) to date one of her Muslim classmates. When she spoke of her identity, it was predominantly as “Irani”, not Jewish. This is a bit like many socialite Jews in pre-war Germany, who just wanted to blend in.

Origins of the split: the assimilation threat

While we talk of “orthodox” or “ultra orthodox” Jews vs liberal Jews. I feel that they have always had such a split in the past when faced with assimilation in foreign lands.

Quiet a few Jews seem to have become pagans under Roman rule (see: and they lost quiet a few in wars with Romans but in part they seem to have made up for these losses through high birth rates. This is noted by multiple ancient historians both pagan and Jewish.

The glue

Now the 2nd category – orthodox Jews – are the dynamic glue that tries to hold things together. They regularly reach out to and include the “liberal” types, often by marriage (before they marry a gentile!). They also “protect” the ultra-orthodoxy, while also circumscribing their restrictive and narrow-minded influence. They are the ones I have seen who acculturate loose-ended people with tenuous ties to their ancestral tradition. They also convert non-Jews. These, and also mercantile networks ,are spaces for propagation.

The 2nd category of “orthodox Jews” are fundamentally liberal, with a healthy respect and understanding of tradition. Like breathing, they know how to regulate the contracting and expanding cycle of ideas and thought, one to expand and grow, and the other to consolidate and maintain structure. Whereas the “liberal” don’t pay attention to the physical consolidation, and the ultra-orthodox lose the plot spiritually and in terms of humanity, ultimately creating a breed of autistic clones who cannot empath with humanity in general.

Proselytization by the orthodox vs Exclusion by the ultra-orthodox
The split between the ultra-orthodox and the orthodox/liberal Jews has philosophical angles apart from social. Those philosophical angles pertain to caste/jaati, and are very pertinent to Hindus. Look up the dsagreement between supporters of Rabbi Halevi and Maimonides to get an idea of how the ultra-orthodox ultimately refused conversions into Judaism based on their new ideas of “adhikaara”. Note that while Jews may have converted to paganism in foreign lands, they also converted many pagans to Judaism at other times. E.g., Khazars. The dynamics of missionary mentality and group-consciousness is something to look at.

I had mentioned Rabbi Halevi. You rightly pointed out that Jews have invited (or even forcibly converted) people since David’s times within Palestine, and then others such as Khazars, etc. Many convert families quickly rose to the higher echelons of the priesthood, and many elevated clans fell away and became “lost”. This is all documented. However, when the Jews lost a homeland and fell on very hard times, persecuted and generally humiliated…some of their priests and lawgivers evolved different laws and ideologies. A well-known example is that when paternity became an impractical determinant of Jewish ethnicity (due to widespread rape by Romans), then maternity was substituted. However, later, after all this, certain “spiritual” concepts were also evolved – mostly to fill a spiritual lack of self-esteem amid all this humiliation and sense of loss. People like Rabbi Halevi evolved a concept of spiritual adhikara stemming from pure bloodlines. By this standard, the only way to be able to attain the fullest fruit of the Jewish scriptures, viz. prophecy, one had to have authentic Jewish bloodlines (whatever that meant by that time). According to this thinking, converting to Judaism was impossible – although later they admitted that converts could reach some lower levels of liberation, but not the most mature fruit of the process offered by Judaism. Of course, Maimonides and other famous philosophers rejected that stream of thought, saying that while acculturation was certainly a critical ingredient, there was no hard-and-fast genetic qualification to revelation.

Nevertheless, the sense of exclusive, “chosen race” (genetically), and sense of ***inward-looking mission and purpose*** (in the absence or impossibility of an outward-looking mission) that Halevi’s stream of thought gave this persecuted minority with an inferiority complex was powerful, and it was most widely accepted within the diaspora community for centuries now.


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