Sunday, August 27, 2006

More And More Orthodox

A topic that people in and around Orthodoxy keep on talking about is why Orthodoxy became so much more extreme and religious. The euphemism is how did it turn so black? Everyone of a certain age remembers when it was perfectly fine to wear panama straw hats even on Shabbus. Today, in many Jewish neighborhoods, it’s a big no-no. One can multiply examples by the dozen. Why did this happen? There are lots of ideas and I’ve already suggested one story in my blog of 8/01/06. It might just be that there are multiple explanations, each being part of a larger story. So there’s no contradiction in giving five- six explanations.

A theory I am partial to is the inflation theory of frumkeit (religiosity). The theory is presented in an article in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, I guess, somewhere between 1993 and 1998. I am too lazy to go find the article. As I remember the theory, it goes like this: It starts with the concept of signaling which began in anthropology and was applied to economics by George Akerlof. Akerlof won the Nobel Prize in 2001 for his contributions to the understanding of markets with asymmetric information. Here’s an example of signaling. Suppose you go to a job interview and the guy wants to know if you’re qualified. You answer by saying “I have a B.A. from Harvard, an M.B.A. from Wharton and I worked for three years for Mr. Famous Rich.’’ The interviewer goes on to the next set of questions. He doesn’t give you a little exam to see if you are really qualified. He figures if you’re okay by Harvard, Wharton etc., you’re qualified. You didn’t say you are qualified, you didn’t prove it, you signaled your qualification. Another kid comes in equally knowledgeable and says he went to Northern Illinois University. The questioning first begins as to what he knows. When everyone goes to college there is no signaling value in having gone to a third tier school.

The inflation theory has a basic premise that a major function of the extremist overlay of a religious group serves a signaling function. It is a way of showing others that one is really frum. It is show and tell time , without the tell. Why would people do this? Orthodoxy offers major social benefits to its members. If somebody falls and loses their ability to earn a living, others reach out and help. If there’s a crisis in a family because of health reasons, or other special circumstances, a person is not alone. There are in many communities dozens of gemachs, organizations dedicated to specific charitable deeds. There is a bridal gown gemach, where people donate gowns that we used at previous weddings for the benefit of young women who can not afford to buy a new gown. There are multiple small business loans gemachs, where people can borrow money at no interest to tide them over a difficult economic time, and so on. There are in some towns and cities telephone books of gemachs.

Because of this social welfare net, Orthodoxy faces a free-rider problem. There might be people who would like the benefits without the obligations. They enjoy the social networks, the feelings of warmth and community, and the implicit assurance of help during difficult times. The problem is they would like to naash a little bit…perhaps eat food that isn’t so kosher or observe the Sabbath in a more lax way, or do some things that are totally verboten. How’s a community to guard itself from such free-riders. The answer is to demand a person stand up and show that one is committed to the way of life. For example, it is demanded of people that they wear a hat or yarmulke in public. Wearing a hat in public might not be the most serious thing from a halachic point of view; but as a means of signaling membership in the community by willing to undertake something that is at times embarrassing it is of great importance. It raises the cost of membership thereby filtering out potential free riders. Only those who are really frum would be willing to pay the price of membership.

Over time, for a reason that is not perfectly clear, inflation has taken a toll in the signaling process, so the problem of free-riding has emerged one more time. Inflation has caused the original signals to be ineffective. Shirkers of their responsibilities have already picked up the trick of, let’s say, wearing a yarmulke. In a world where everyone is offering the same exact basic signal, we need to take it up a level say to black hats or showing one’s tzitith. If one is interested in signaling membership in some sub-group, additional signs are required…beard, peyot, long frock coats. We all know that a trained observer can pretty much figure out which sub-group an Orthodox Jew comes by looking at the outfit.

Inflation keeps on marching, outfits are not enough, so we now need new differentiating signals. Do you have a television or a VCR (secular culture)? Do you send your children to learn in Israel? In a kolel? Do you eat regular lettuce (bugs)? Do you drink ordinary water (tiny, tiny bugs)? Do you wear sheitlach from India (hair from idolaters)? Do you have two sets of appliances (one for milk and one for meat)? Do you have a separate kitchen for Passover? As we get deeper and deeper into Orthodoxy, more signals are required and as time goes on these signals weaken in their effectiveness and that requires even more differentiating features. Do you have 6 children? Do you have 9 children? Over time it becomes more and more difficult to show that one is really frum.

I think this theory is sort of cute and can be applied in all sorts of ways. Signaling is a powerful concept which has many applications; for example to Palestinian-Israeli relations. The weakest premise is the assumption there are so many pay-offs in being Orthodox there is a free-rider problem. If there are free-riders, they are not necessarily at the bottom end of the economic spectrum. Rich people are not trying to freeload off a gemach. On the other hand, the theory can be propped up by considering more and more subgroups. There might be a signaling process to show that one is Yeshivish (slouching the hat) or Heimish (dropping a reasonable amount of Yiddish words) or Chassidish, where the benefit is the status value of membership in these subgroups.

Using the idea that stringencies, (chumras) are signals to establish one’s frumkeit credentials, we can see the similarities with other such instances of signaling. One might being by thinking of Orthodox signaling as similar to the signaling of gangs. Large gangs need ways of identifying members. One gang might rollup the left pant leg while the rival gang rolls up the right. One gang might wear red as their primary color while another gang might wear black. Jerseys with identifying numbers and letters, baseball caps slouched to the left, baseball caps slouched to the right, secret and special greetings, some drive Bonnevilles, some drive Explorers…there is no end to it. There too inflation is rampant. As we say, it’s not easy to be (seh’iz shver tzu sein ) a gang banger.


At 5:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your theory is from the following

The Churching of America, 1776-1990: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy (1993) Roger Finke and Rodney Stark

At 6:55 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

Is it? I am familiar with the authors and have read their 'Acts of Faith'. I distinctly remember seeing it in the QJE by I think an Israeli author. Since I have never read the book you refer to, is it possible they quote the article? You have roused my curiosity and I will purchase the book you mention.Thanks!

At 8:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You don’t have to but the book. They originally created the thesis and then there was ten years of articles and reviews from the various fields. You probably saw an economic review or economic development of the thesis.
Their book is one of the books that created the backlash against the “Fundamentalist project” which still assumed that the future was going to be secular and fundamentalist religions must be a regression. They argued that fundamentalist religion makes sense because it provides many services and at the same time need to provide a way to limit the services by making requirements for being in the community.
Christian Smith has a nice literature review in his book “American Evangelicalism” (1998). Smith thinks the Stark- Finke is only one of the 4-5 elements at play.


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