Judaism Straight Up: Why Real Religion Endures

By Moshe Koppel
Maggid Books
Jerusalem, 2020
218 pages

Here is a book that will give you two for the price of one. Dr. Moshe Koppel’s Judaism Straight Up: Why Real Religion Endures sets out almost from the get-go in two different directions. By the time you’ve turned the last page, he brings it all together. Along the way, you’ll find a delicious mélange of acid wit, social commentary and serious academic research. Most importantly, you’ll feel proud of traditional Judaism in a way you never considered before. It is also fun to read.

The two directions are given by the book’s title and subtitle: Why Real Religion Endures. Inexplicably, they reverse the supposed intent of the author, which grew out of an encounter in a Princeton dining hall with a non-Orthodox graduate student called “Heidi” who challenged the parochialism of Koppel’s Orthodox lifestyle. At that moment, Koppel was a recent PhD in mathematics. Heidi persisted with a succession of critiques of what she saw as his Jewish tribalism, one that she maintained was unthinkable after the Holocaust. Koppel sets out to prove her assumptions about where society needs to go not only wrong, but necessarily doomed to failure. “I will argue . . . that Heidi’s critique is rooted in her failure to fully grasp the nature and scope of morality, tradition, and belief necessary for any society to flourish.” Hence, the subtitle of the book. Along the way, he will just happen—for purposes of illustration only, of course (no, I don’t really believe that either!)—to mount a vigorous and enthusiastic defense of Orthodox Judaism as a convenient example of why traditional societies cohere and persist. Hence, the two books—both fascinating—in one.

Koppel’s approach to marketing Torah is refreshingly novel. We’ve seen a variety of approaches to Torah advocacy in recent decades. They’ve all tried to show the uniqueness of traditional Judaism. They have variously offered the best shot at happiness (Aish HaTorah’s 48 Ways); “proofs” of its validity (the Bible Codes; the Discovery Seminar); restored confidence in it by deflecting challenges to its beliefs (the works of authors like Rabbi Leib Kelemen, Shmuli Phillips and the Ani Maamin Foundation); and built cases for its wisdom (Miriam Kosman) and attractiveness (Rabbi Mordechai Becher).

All of these might be termed inside-out. They start with something within Torah Judaism and project it outward. Koppel goes the reverse route. He begins with some research and modeling of stable societies. He shows which can survive and which cannot. He then moves inward, arguing that traditional Judaism—despite, and perhaps because of, the accusations most often flung at it—is redolent with the “best practices” that predict continuity.

Koppel is a name commodity in the field of computer science, particularly in the development by his team of methods of computational analysis that can reliably discern authorship of texts. (His group’s application of those tools to Biblical texts was covered by press around the globe. When asked whether his team—most of whom were Torah observant—were not reluctant to ask questions about the authorship of Scripture, he replied that no amount of research could ever shake his belief in the Divinity of Torah.) He is also the founder of Kohelet, Israel’s leading conservative-libertarian think tank. He had an outsize role (over the course of many years) in producing Israel’s Basic Law, declaring itself the nation-state of the Jewish people. His approach to defending Torah—and universalizing that defense—is understandably academic.

The work of anthropologist Richard Shweder and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt form the backbone of Koppel’s argument. Shweder teased out three categories of moral principles from hundreds of respondents that he believed are common to all human societies: fairness, loyalty and restraint. Haidt demonstrated that “traditional” communities tend to value all three equally, while “progressive” ones attach much importance to fairness, and very little to loyalty and restraint. Koppel then argues that “social norms” allow cooperation within traditional communities by signaling to its members that they can expect to find those values in other members. Communities devoted to fairness alone, he says, cannot be stable. Moreover, they don’t achieve even the single goal of fairness.

They don’t—and they can’t. Halachic Judaism, however, achieves all three. The rest of the book proceeds to build a case for both of these conclusions. Its central conceit is the difference between Heidi’s world, and that of Shimen, a close friend of Koppel’s grandfather, a Holocaust survivor who davened with the other alter Gerrers in the Gerrer shtiebel in Manhattan. Koppel admits that this group’s judgments turned into his own instinctive reactions. Their Yiddishkeit was unique in its lack of affectation, their utter devotion to it, and the ease with which they lived it in a manner as natural as breathing itself.

Koppel probes the whys and wherefores of his two main characters. His treatment of them lies somewhere between psychological snapshots and caricatures. With his characteristic irreverent wit and incisiveness, he follows each into the next generations. These other characters are mostly fictional, but his portraits of them are so believable and so familiar, that we know them well. In creating them, he shows the trajectories taken by both Orthodoxy (the splitting into opposing camps, one favoring increased isolationism, the other a measured accommodation, with both American and Israeli varieties of these approaches) and secular Judaism.

No society can function for long without leveraging the lessons of a specific developed tradition.

Koppel’s treatment can be brutal—especially to the Heidi line. “Heidi’s crowd is not held together by kinship or ethnicity, by a shared history, or by a rich system of social norms. It is held together to a large extent by the disdain with which it regards the norms that it rejects . . . Her world is short on tight-knit communities that generate social capital, commitment to having children, and willingness to make sacrifices to defend against threats to its security. One might therefore imagine . . . that the main threat to this world is that it would slowly peter out. But in fact, it might be eaten by its own children.” This is how he introduces us to Heidi’s daughter, Amber. While Heidi was fiercely devoted to fairness and a live-and-let-live attitude toward others, Amber looks for strict enforcement of a list of her own moral preferences that form a kind of primitive religion without God. (“If keeping kosher is a way of life, keeping Amber’s diet is a crusade.”) Heidi, who had no room for Orthodoxy because she found it parochial and non-egalitarian, found her own version of Judaism in tikkun olam. Amber, on the other hand, has no use for Judaism at all, other than occasionally beginning some letter condemning Israel with the words, “As a Jew.”

The caricatures are not simply exercises in self-congratulation. They will be useful to many in coming to terms with a phenomenon that has only recently attracted much attention: the emergence of the “un-Jew” as yet another force harmful to Jewish interests. We are used to a variety of guises of Jews who turned on other Jews, consciously or otherwise. We had our apostate Jews who pursued their coreligionists with a vengeance—people like Pablo Christiani (who debated Ramban in the Disputation at Barcelona), Nicholas Donin (of the Disputation of Paris that resulted in the burning of all copies of the Talmud in France), Johannes Pfefferkorn (who led a campaign against the Talmud that threatened all of Catholic Europe) and Jacob Brafman (whose words about an international Jewish conspiracy provided the basis for The Protocols of the Elders of Zion). Throughout history, we’ve seen the emergence of groups splintering off from the mainstream, like the Sadducees, the Karaites, more modern heterodox movements, Jewish Bundists, Communists and the Noam Chomsky and Tony Judt types. All of them viewed themselves as authentic expressions of Judaism as they saw it. When some of them labored against traditional Jews, they largely did so, in their minds, to advance the cause of Judaism, and in the name of Judaism.

Not so the un-Jews, the growing number of Ambers. They aren’t reacting against any form of Judaism. They are completely indifferent to it. They have no knowledge of it, have no memories of involved grandparents and they retain no traditional practices. Their values are not ones they have latched on to from the basket of ideas that are part of the Jewish experience. Rather, they are entirely taken from the current ideological surround. Koppel’s treatment of Amber will help you understand the nature of the Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow types so harmful to Jewish interests. You will comprehend why they will keep growing, until they exhaust themselves and disappear from Jewish life and Jewish memory.

Perfection belongs only to HaKadosh Baruch Hu, so it is no surprise that an enthusiastic review will contain one demurral. Koppel contrasts Shimen’s understanding of halachic demands with a newer practice of mining texts for answers. This is very much in keeping with Professor Chaim Soloveitchik’s now-classic essay, “Rupture and Reconstruction,” that described the passing of a long age of determining halachah through a mimetic tradition—following the practices that one encountered in one’s home and community. Koppel is certainly correct in observing that formal halachic adjudication seldom strays far from common practice, and that common practice can only emerge within boundaries shaped by settled law.

How he describes the balance between them is a bit unsettling, I believe. It assigns too much power to the force of popular intuition, and not enough to the well-oiled machinery employed for centuries by decisors when faced with a plethora of positions. The Gemara and the Codes are full of rules about decision making; these rules jump out at the student of many, many centuries of responsa literature. They packed a punch—and served the halachic process quite well—before anyone ever uttered the words “mimetic tradition.”

It is, I think, a bit glib to say, as Koppel does, that “most codes would say to do what people do.” That often happens—but not because halachah follows lock-step with the will of the street. The Gemara is replete with examples of the rabbis enforcing what they believed to be the halachah against the common practice. Often, they would even go beyond the law, making stringencies normative where they detected too much leniency with particular laws. It is true that they did consider it a mitzvah to labor to defend popular practice by finding acceptable reasoning to support it. When they couldn’t, they put their collective foot down. The inner logic of halachah had the final say.

Likewise, it is not quite accurate to say that the Shimens of the world, when faced with questions for which there are not yet established practices, “tentatively act according to their intuitions while carefully watching what others do.” The long line of Shimens in history did not act on their intuitions alone, but used them to intelligently frame questions to their local rav—who responded with a well-reasoned answer based on halachic literature and protocols. Those answers, often very different in different locales, were ruled upon by writers of Codes like Mishneh Torah, the Tur, and the Shulchan Aruch. When the Shulchan Aruch rules according to one way of dealing with a situation “by noting that the practice is in accord with a particular one,” it is not abdicating the protocols of halachic decision-making in favor of the Voice of the People. Rather, it is simply observing that where two equally defensible positions exist, each with a strong foundation in the earlier literature, the halachic scale will tilt in the direction of the common practice. Behind that practice, there must be strong halachic evidence in the literature or the outcome would be different.

In the final pages of the book, Koppel revisits his conversation decades before with Heidi. He admits that he was taken aback, not understanding “where she was coming from.” Had he been more experienced and less sheltered, he might have answered the following:

No society can function for long without leveraging the lessons of a specific developed tradition. No society will do good for others without a moral system that first inculcates kindness to kin and clan. No society will produce decent human beings without arbitrary-seeming rules that restrain base animal instincts. No society will have the will to bear children, to invest love and energy in them, and to teach them good from bad, without believing that it has some mission on this earth that gives life meaning and purpose. I don’t doubt that your advocacy of universal love comes from a genuine longing to make the world a better place, but I’m equally convinced that high-sounding enlightened platitudes won’t get you any closer to that goal. You’ll only cut yourself off from your own people.

Words worthwhile remembering and using.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is a contributing editor of Jewish Action.

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This article was featured in the Summer 2022 issue of Jewish Action.
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