Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Is Orthodox Culture Low- Brow?

Once one gets past Orthodoxy and its environs, it is not always useful to think in terms of degrees of observance and commitment to Torah. Such a perception is essentially Orthocentric and is not the only informative tool for understanding American Jewish life. There are endless categories…some Jews are tall, some short, some thin, some fat, but these are not useful distinctions. One idea that carries some punch is to divide all Jews by degrees of culture. Following the old distinction of Dwight Macdonald that everyone is high-brow, low-brow, or middle-brow, we can use a binary cut. Let’s say every Jew has a commitment either to high culture (high brow) or popular culture (low brow). This distinction cuts across denominational lines since there are more than enough people on each side of the divide all across the Jewish spectrum.

We need three more premises and we might have a small result. The first is that high-brow culture is more valuable than popular culture. It is better to read Shakespeare than People magazine. It is better to listen to Mahler than Kanye West and so on.

The second is that one cannot be high-brow without a serious and life long commitment to high culture. A young person who goes to college and takes a survey course in the history of philosophy, where Monday it’s Aristotle, Tuesday it’s Aquinas, and by Friday we’re up to Descartes, is receiving a pop culture version of a high-brow subject. Reading “Wittgenstein for Dummies” is dumb and not a serious study of the philosopher. So, to be a maven in some area of high culture takes lots of time…years of reading, looking, thinking, and studying. If you take a child to a museum, even if it’s done once every year, it’s very nice but the kid is far from being knowledgeable in art. If you want to understand art, you have to start looking and reading when you’re young and never stop. Similar comments apply to music and all the rest.

My third premise is that Orthodox Jews spend half the year serving God and living the Orthodox life. I’ll count the exact number of days tomorrow. Assuming this is true and assuming people have to make a living, raise families, etc., etc., there isn’t a lot of time left over to cultivate high culture. Some Orthodox people do, most don’t. Liberal Jews have an extra half a year and have internalized, in a big way, the importance of culture and the arts in a good life. The expression is “culture vultures.” Liberal vultures have more time and more energy to run after culture than Orthodox vultures and would-be vultures. In addition, the Orthodox Rabbinate either condemns non-religious culture and the arts, is lukewarm, or ambivalent, each rabbi, according to his degree of alienation from secular life. I’ve already had the opportunity to discuss the Torah, Torah, Torah ideology of the Orthodox Rabbinate.

Adding it all up, I think it’s fair to say that apples for apples, liberal Jews, as a group, are much more involved in high culture than Orthodox Jews, both historically over the last two hundred years and even today. Certainly in the future this will be true because of the charedization of Orthodox life.

The flipside of this phenomenon is that Torah study itself is a high culture of the first order. In fact, there is no other literary tradition in the world quite like it in terms of antiquity, development, ingenuity, depth, and much else. We all know, however, that not every Orthodox Jew is seriously involved in the study of Torah. For each person who devotes his life to the holy books, there are many who pay lip service but do little. This latter group, I want to suggest, generally consume popular culture…movies, television, magazines, blogs and so forth, or nothing at all…work, money, and family. The Orthodox lifestyle prevents most from having the energy, time, or interest to pursue high cultural pursuits. There aren’t many artists, serious musicians, poets, and literati in Orthodoxy. Nor are there many chassidim of literature, philosophy, social science, humanities, and the arts.

Offsetting the generally low brow tastes of most of Orthodoxy, it must be said that Orthodoxy as a whole is a high culture, where culture is now being used in the very broad sense of total way of life. The way of eating, dressing, conducting oneself in private and public are all governed by traditions that have the net effect of elevating the entire community into a more formal,refined and noble life. All this can be true and consistent with an Orthodox public that is uninterested in the arts, humanities and even science.

Orthodox Jews are quick to say that liberal Jews miss out on the beauty of Jewish life, the community, the holidays, and the wonders of Torah. They are more reluctant to acknowledge that they are missing anything of value in the secular world, but they are.


At 11:11 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I understand your comment about orthodox jews having less time for cultural pursuits though i disagree from a different perspective. Torah is an integrated subject. it is not only composed of the holy so to say texts but really is how to apply it to every day life including cultural issues. Everything is Torah including what we read, watch think etc...

If we would accept that we would be a Segula mikol Ha'amim - unfortunately many of our leaders today have lost that vision.

At 12:29 PM, Anonymous eye-brow said...

EvanstonJew. I have been reading this blog for some time now and appreciate your intelligent perspective. Could you enlighten us somewhat regarding your background (i.e. yeshiva/schooling) to give us an idea of what societal factors shaped your thinking?

At 12:44 PM, Anonymous dzerzh said...

The phrase "...elevating the community into a more formal, refined and noble life" may be other than preposterous if by "more" you mean more than these same individuals would otherwise have.

If you mean "more" in any other sense, and especially if "formal" implies anything to you beyond "structured", you might find yourself hard-pressed for empirical evidence by a more general audience than you're presumably addressing.

Hence my paradoxical problem: whereas I applaud your rejection of cultural relativism in stating FACTS like, e.g., Mahler's 5th is BETTER than Snoop Doggy Dogg (aliva sholom), I find that rejection abhorrent in calling a group that so many of us find disproportionally populated by grober gonovim refined or noble.

I feel like the unwanted interloper I am, but I must tell you that I love your Blog! I don't even miss the Sentinel any more.....

At 2:28 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

David Guttman…you lost me. Again. I can understand how Torah can govern various cultural activities…this activity, yes, that one no. I accept the idea of Torah bimeluah, so that potentially mathematics, philosophy can be construed as part of Torah. But how is everything we read, watch, think…also Torah. Every silly T.V. show, football games. Please explain.

eye-brow… my blog is to be read as secular.I am college educated and have some understanding of Orthodoxy, though it is limited by my distance from Orthodox centers and my age. I see my blog as an exercise in how to join secular, liberal and Orthodox perspectives in a nonsectarian way. My lack of sensitivity to Modern Orthodoxy was discussed and acknowledged in earlier posts. My personal history would only confuse everything.

dzerzh…the European aristocracy was refined, noble, supportive of high culture, formal ( after you, no after you) AND frequently immoral, dissolute and decadent. I didn’t claim the current world of Orthodoxy consists of only moral people or that religion prevents stealing and corruption. I do believe Orthodoxy has a positive moral influence on a large majority of its constituency. The failures are notable and well known. IMHO the failures stem mostly from a lack of civic virtue, and the duties we have to our fellow citizens. Much thanks for your compliment

At 4:04 PM, Anonymous eye-brow said...


Thanks for the reply. I am curious to know if you were brought up as orthodox/cons/ref/other. Also I'd like to know if you attended yeshiva. I respect your privacy if you choose not to answer.

On another point, could you adjust the date/timestamp to reflect Chicago time? Go to Settings, Formatting and choose a nice option from Date Header Format.

At 4:06 PM, Anonymous eye-brow said...

Correction: I mean Timestamp Format. You can also adjust Time Zone.

At 4:56 PM, Blogger Baalabus said...

EJ: I do believe Orthodoxy has a positive moral influence on a large majority of its constituency. The failures are notable and well known. IMHO the failures stem mostly from a lack of civic virtue, and the duties we have to our fellow citizens.

I think you've correctly characterized the failure here: a lack of civic virtue. The question is what is about contemporary O. that inhibits such.

I continue to claim that a major contributing factor, at least in Haredi circles, is that the locus of all moral decisions is seen to rest with the Rabbonim, or more accurately, with the Yeshiva heads. How can we expect Joe Balaabus to excercise civic virtue, and protest a Kolko, a Monderowitz, much less their Rabbinic abettors, in the face of the totalitarian Daas Torah power-hold?

Civic virtue can only exist in a society that encourages, or at least allows, its members to have a sense of independent morality about them. If they are instructed that deference to third parties is a prerequiste to being a good Jew and achieving the afterlife (see Dessler) then you can kiss civic virtue goodbye.

As an evidently well-educated man, you surely know that historically bad things tend to happen when power and influence are concentrated in the hands of a select few, especially when those select few are not accountable to the very people whom they "lead".

At 7:37 PM, Anonymous shaya g said...


As a Chicago Orthodox Jew, I do not spend anywhere near the amount of time learning torah that I could. I watch tv, see movies, read all types of secular books, listen to music, etc. I don't get this post of yours. What you consider high-brow, who says? Your version of high brow culture is yours. To a torah Jew, that is their high brow and Degat is low brow. In fact, Culture in general is extremely subjective, and changes radically. Art, music, literature, all subjective. Ignoring the Torah aspect, what makes one say the Simpsons is Low-Brow and some painter with a warped sex drive High-Brow? I find those types of distinctions insulting. That some group decided that what they like is better than what I like?! Just remember, most painters/artists weren't considered high-brow till long after their death.
If you like that culture, great. I like what you would call low culture, good for me. I don't get your post though, as it would seem to insult Torah oriented Jews because they don't study what you call high culture.
I hope I come across as puzzled rather than angry - I am just puzzled. I find your blog very enlightening and enjoy the posts.

At 11:09 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

Shaya g… How can I prove conclusively high culture is better than low culture? I can’t. It is still true liberal Jews have a greater appreciation and knowledge of high culture than the Orthodox. How do I know Shakespeare is high culture and the Simpsons is low culture? I know. Secular high culture is determined by what the culture mavens say is secular high culture, and they say and have said from the start Shakespeare is one of the greatest authors. Your voice unfortunately doesn’t count because even if you are properly credentialed it would be batel beshishim , drowned out by the overwhelming majority who disagree. A high brow is involved in the production and consumption of high culture.

Each person has some intuition of his shoresh neshama, and given your interests and life plan it might be better for you to watch the Simpsons.

At 10:38 AM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

baalabus…So many issues, so little space. Civic virtue is a term which is applied to cases where people cheat the government and their fellow citizens. A guy who steals money directly from me is not lacking in civic virtue, he’s a ganiv. A sexual predator is a pervert and a criminal. Most charedi wrongdoing is in areas involving their fellow citizens who are faceless, for example, taxes, welfare, etc. Here I would say the rabbis are not condoning or abetting such behavior, and everybody knows it’s wrong. I believe it exists because of a habit leftover from Europe, where we were a captive internal colony for over a thousand years. We had only obligations and no rights, frequently paying triple taxes. Not so in America or in Israel, where the system is essentially fair. Over time there’s reason to hope the civic virtues will be more universally internalized.

I agree with you it’s important for people to develop a sense of autonomy and taking responsibility for their own decisions. We disagree as to whether charedi gedolim are to be characterized as totalitarian and whether their hegemony in hashkafa prevents a religious Jew from making responsible and moral decisions. After all, there are no shortage of charedi businessmen making decisions on their own daily.

At 11:18 AM, Blogger Baalabus said...

Evanston Jew: We disagree as to whether charedi gedolim are to be characterized as totalitarian and whether their hegemony in hashkafa prevents a religious Jew from making responsible and moral decisions.

Unlike what you've said, I think the root of our disagreement is over emprical fact. You think that autonomy really does exist, while I disagree: autonomy on moral issues is shunned, and people are led to believe that if the Gadol blesses it then they are freed from their conscience.

Pardon my repeating this - and I do so out of deep respect for your abilities and out of a desire to correct you not cricize you - but I think you are out of touch with reality. The following statement of yours ought to convince anyone who's actually been a member of the Haredi velt that you are simply misinformed: Here I would say the rabbis are not condoning or abetting such behavior.

At 11:56 AM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

baalabus...Yes, if I am seriously mistaken on the empirical facts, I would change my attitudes.

I do have a criticism of some of the leadership. I have heard more than one gadol say that one ought to obey some law because not to do so would be a chilul hashem(c.h.), a desecration of God's name. I believe c.h. is not the best reason and leads to some untoward consequences, namely, if it's very unlikely, one might draw the incorrect inference that it's permitted. Our duty to obey the law stems from our sense of fair play and of our duties as a citizen in a just society.


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