Today was mostly dull, except for a time-consuming bit that made me realise my family history may be even murkier than I thought. That story also involves the awful way mental illness was treated by society in the not-too-distant past (things now are often also bad, but we tend to be somewhat more wary of institutionalising people for decades and just forgetting about them). I don’t really want to go into that story at this juncture, though. Otherwise it involved sitting in a car for about three hours in total, which is something I don’t like much at the moment, and losing work because of misunderstanding what I was cancelling. I am pretty tired now and didn’t do a lot of the things I wanted to do. What I did do was Skype E, which was good.
My non-Jewish readers will have been spared the many, many, many articles on Jewish social media and websites this week talking about My Unorthodox Life. I haven’t seen the programme. E told me that it was like The Kardashians, but with formerly-religious-but-now-very-not-religious Jews. I’m only vaguely aware of who the Kardashians are, but I have no real desire to find out more. I didn’t really intend to write about this, not least because writing about what you hate is a surefire way to tell people to watch/read it (Ayatollah Khomeni boosted The Satanic Verses‘ sales more than the publisher’s PR department did) and mostly because the discussion is really repetitive and tedious. However, this article is somewhat wider-ranging than most, looking beyond specific TV programmes or specific laws and attitudes to compare individualist-secular Western society with communitarian-religious Orthodox society, which is something I’ve often touched on here.
The author’s conclusion is similar to the one I have come to after years of feeling on the fringes of both societies: the strengths of each society are also its weaknesses. Orthodox society has a massive social support network that left-wing political parties can only dream of, but it functions by ensuring members signal their acceptance of the society’s values through a degree of social conformity that the secular West would never accept (Moshe Koppel (Judaism Straight Up) writes about this too). Conversely, the secular West offers more individual choice than any society in human history, but a society of extreme individuals is likely to be dysfunctional and uncaring. Without external communal bonds, many people feel little kinship with the needy and at best delegate their care to the impersonal state, and too many people find themselves socially isolated, free to do whatever they want, but without anyone to do it with or with any way of finding bonds of commonality with whoever they might happen to meet.
I feel a bit like a free-rider on both societies (Koppel talks about that too), not really conforming to either ideal, but trying to find the best of both worlds. I am quite individualistic, or at least idiosyncratic (high-functioning autistic people often are), but also I keep halakhah (Jewish law) and I desperately want to find an Orthodox Jewish community that will accept me for who I am, and which I can accept in return. If not a free rider, then I’m trying to find a Lagrange Point where I can be free to do (a lot of) what I want and still be (reasonably) accepted. That’s a bit of a simplification, as I do want to keep Jewish law, I just struggle to keep the social mores, as well as sometimes following minority opinions, particularly doctrinally.
It’s not really an abstract issue, but a practical one that appears time and time again as I navigate things like Yom Ha’atzma’ut observance, dating, or creationism vs. evolution. Above all, I want the intellectual freedom to write books dealing with Jewish subjects without feeling obliged to “prove” the “correctness” of Orthodoxy, and to be able to deal with difficult, shocking subjects, like pornography addiction in the frum (religious Jewish) community in my most recent writing idea. Although, forget my rabbi, I’m worried enough about my parents finding out about that one.
I guess the parallel for me isn’t My Unorthodox Life, but Chaim Potok’s novel My Name is Asher Lev, about a young Hasidic boy who is driven to be a serious artist in the Western tradition, including painting nudes and crucifixion scenes, and gets rejected by his community as a result (the sequel novel The Gift of Asher Lev sees him somewhat re-accepted into his community).