Response to the Hillel Problem

Is it just Jeff or does The Crimson’s logo look a lot like The Economist’s?

On October 11, 2012, The Harvard Crimson carried an anti-Orthodox polemic entitled The Hillel Problem. The article, written by Daniel Solomon (’16), generated over ninety comments in the two days after its publication. With some noteworthy exceptions, the comments tended to take sides. I have taken sides as well, and not with Daniel, but I have tried to acknowledge the places where Daniel got it right.

First off, though I didn’t attend Harvard, I did attend its Hillel multiple times in recent years, and I can say with some certainty that I never saw a student in a three-piece suit.

It’s certainly true that Orthodox Jews, especially in colleges with smaller Jewish communities (like Harvard), often become the face of their respective Hillels. But that’s simply because they’re more committed, not because there are more of them. It is widely known that Orthodoxy has been far from the most populous of the major Jewish denominations for some time, with or without recent demographic spikes.

It’s not clear to me that, despite this, the Conservative and Reform movements are marginalized in the U.S., though they certainly are in Israel, where the Orthodox rabbinate enjoys a near monopoly on religious and political power.

From left, Woody Allen and Larry David.

Mr. Solomon’s gloss of secular Jewish culture is reductive, as is so often the case. People like Woody Allen, the Coen brothers, Philip Roth and Larry David do engage with Jewish culture even if their engagement is fundamentally areligious.

Solomon is right to think that the distinction between a Jewish American and an American Jew is definitive, and that the Orthodox are emphatically in the latter camp. But Conservative and Reform Jews are also Zionist, even if they’re not apologists for Jonathan Pollard.

It’s also true that the Orthodox tend to cling to medieval norms more than their reform-minded counterparts. But the Modern Orthodox, the people who may indeed wear suits (though not three-piece ones) to a Harvard Hillel are, at least in theory, committed to resolving the tension between tradition and modernity. Solomon’s reference to mesirah is a cheap shot, and certainly not an accurate accounting of mainstream Orthodoxy’s most pressing concerns.

Admittedly, Mr. Solomon’s indictment of Orthodox narcissism seems accurate. And the New York Times story about East Ramapo’s school district jibes with my own impressions of a pervasive Jew-vs.-goy mentality among Orthodox community leaders.

Sarah Hurwitz is widely considered Orthodoxy’s 1st female rabbi.

It’s patently absurd however to claim that there is no fundamental difference between “the…Williamsburg crowd and the ‘Modern Orthodox.’” There are foundational ideologies for both the Modern Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox movement (solidified, mind you, during roughly the same period as Mr. Solomon’s precious Pittsburgh Platform). Each evinces a substantive difference in philosophical orientation. In the former, modernity is something that can supplement, though never supplant, Jewish wisdom. In the latter, modernity is simply a heretical force to be resisted.

That said, there is indeed nothing modern about separating men and women during services, or excluding women from various other roles in synagogue.

As for the erosion of Reform Judaism and the radicalization of certain strains within Orthodoxy, yes that has certainly worsened over time. Is the revolutionary spark gone though? I don’t think so. The independent minyan movement (with an egalitarian ethos to boot) is now creeping into the suburbs. In 2009 a rabbinical school (Yeshivat Chovevei Torah) ordained Orthodox Judaism’s first female rabbi.

All over the world religious Jews are still clinging to anachronisms, and no that won’t help get more secular Jews into Hillel, but neither will cheap, sloppily argued polemics.

– D. Schwartz


5 thoughts on “Response to the Hillel Problem

  1. Pingback: Intrafaith Engagement « WhatIBelieveIn

  2. Pingback: [Alumni Guest Post] Interfaith Engagement | These and Those

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