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Reviewed by:
  • Sliding to the Right: The Contest for the Future of American Jewish Orthodoxy
  • Jeffrey S. Gurock
Sliding to the Right: The Contest for the Future of American Jewish Orthodoxy, by Samuel C. Heilman. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. 363 pp. $24.95.

In the contemporary battle for the hearts and minds of American Orthodox Jews, the sectarian religious values of those who stridently resist this country's culture have triumphed over those who make strategic accommodations, within the rubrics of halacha (Orthodox rendering of Jewish law), to facilitate [End Page 205] living harmoniously within a free and open society. So argues Samuel C. Heilman, in his new book, Sliding to the Right: The Contest for the Future of American Jewish Orthodoxy. The triumphalists are armed with a sense of cultural superiority that stems from living among but not with Gentiles for centuries in Eastern Europe. And they possess a mission, as "surviving witnesses" to the destruction of great Torah centers, to rebuild the Orthodoxy that they knew—albeit with greater punctiliousness than ever before. Moreover, they are privileged to live in a cultural-pluralistic nation that permits them to live as they please, and, I will add, they benefit from a mature, indigenous Orthodox community infrastructure upon which they have built. Accordingly, these "contra-acculturative enclavist Haredim"—to use the sociological jargon for which Heilman has a penchant—the sons and daughters of the devout who came here after the Holocaust have become aggressive advocates and even "agents provocateurs" ( p. 111) for what they deem as the only acceptable form of Orthodoxy (read: Jewish life). Arrayed against them, says Heilman, is a flaccid, modern Orthodoxy whose leaders, intimidated by their opponents' self-confidence, are becoming increasingly bereft of a constituency as even their own progeny emulate anti-modern ways of life. In Heilman's view, these "acculturative contrapunctualists"—as he again borrows an esoteric phrase from the social scientists' thesaurus—really have no one other than themselves to blame. As they went off to pursue the American dream as observant and high-priced lawyers, doctors, business people, and accountants or as rarified-status academics, they abandoned the crucial battlefield of Jewish education, the molding of the next generation within their own communities, largely to those who are "ready to redefine Orthodoxy in the modern world as uncompromisingly parochial" (p. 111). Moreover, with their high birth rate, born primarily out of their strict adherence to halachic proscriptions against contraception, the most parochial augur not only to soon outnumber those they have presently defeated, but, if one is to believe their propaganda, by the end of the twenty-first century to be the only substantial, sustained Jewish group in highly-assimilationist America.

To strengthen his argument further about this unequal encounter, Heilman does not make much of creative, modernist efforts to demonstrate that changing social and cultural values have a place within a contemporary halachic life-style. Though movements like Orthodox feminism are not counterattacks against "haredization," they do suggest that the best revenge against those who sometimes verbally assault them and their supporters is living well with fidelity to both the demands and possibilities of the faith. Not incidentally, Heilman also discounts the persistence of those non-observant cohorts that at one point in American Orthodoxy's twentieth century history predominated. Because [End Page 206] of his primarily New York-centric orientation, he is oblivious to the continuing saga of Jews who do not observe the Sabbath rigorously or keep kosher carefully, but who identify with Orthodoxy, be they ensconced in Charleston, South Carolina, Omaha, Nebraska, Des Moines, Iowa and so many other smaller cities nationwide. To some extent, they are that movement's graying, soft underbelly whose days—actuarially speaking—are simply numbered. But a younger set also can be found not only in the smaller communities, but also on college campuses all over the United States. These Jews' experience should have been included in Heilman's study of contest within observant Orthodoxy because in recent years, both Haredi—most notably Chabad (Lubavitch) Hasidim—and the most energetic of modern groups have been battling it out on the hustings for the souls of these Jews as well...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-5165
Print ISSN
0882-8539
Pages
pp. 205-207
Launched on MUSE
2007-08-13
Open Access
No
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