Moshe Koppel is an author with a mission. In Judaism Straight Up, he attempts to alleviate the discomfort of religious Jews who are simultaneously engaged in their religious and cosmopolitan, secular cultures. For Koppel, the problem runs much deeper than the need to maintain this delicate balance. Rather, Koppel seeks to demonstrate the superiority of Jewish tradition from a moral perspective in order to challenge the basic, and what he sees as inherently dangerous, denigration of traditional values by the dominant Western narrative.
On a general level, Koppel argues that because contemporary Western society has become infiltrated with an overwhelming progressive bias, it is no match for traditional Judaism. More specifically, he rests much of his argument on the assertion that for communities to flourish, they must appreciate equally the following three moral foundations: fairness, loyalty and restraint. Such is the case with traditional Jewish communities, in contrast to progressive, cosmopolitan Western societies that are exclusively devoted to fairness at the expense of loyalty and restraint.
If you are an Orthodox Jew, you will relish this book. Political conservatives of any background will also feel right at home. But if you identify more as a liberal, and especially a Jewish liberal, please do not stop reading just yet. Koppel’s analysis still provides a valuable lesson for those who disagree with his worldview. Although I cannot say whether Koppel will persuade political liberals about what he sees as the folly of their ways, his beautifully crafted book provides sharp insight and clarity into a fundamental issue relevant to all forms of Judaism. By demonstrating why thick social norms are so critical for a community’s continuity, he amply (though unintentionally) makes the case for how Judaism across the observance spectrum can survive and thrive.
Koppel cleverly invokes numerous intriguing characters to make his points. The starring roles are Shimen, a cranky Polish Gerrer Hassid who settled in New York after surviving the Holocaust and losing his entire family during the war, and Heidi, a graduate student at Princeton whom Koppel encountered in the 1980s. Later in the book we are introduced to her only child, Amber, a college student who plays an important supporting role by allowing Koppel to illustrate what happens down the road when liberals who prize fairness above all else reproduce. Specifically, their offspring become radical progressives who seek to destroy society as we know it.
Koppel’s invocation of these entertaining personalities facilitates reliance on some complex material to bolster his arguments, including sometimes rather dense discussions of game theory and political philosophy. Toward the end of the book, he introduces even more supporting characters in a quest to demonstrate the weaknesses of Jewish practice across the board, both in the United States and historically, in Israel. These weaknesses extend to the Orthodox. Only at the end of the book do we get a sense of optimism with his observations about what he perceives as an emerging, organic type of traditional Judaism that is more fluid than its counterpart in the Diaspora, but still characterized by the much-needed bottom-up norms of halachic observance that he sees as stifled in the United States. He sees this “less boxy” and more fluid form of traditional observance as the potential basis for a brighter Jewish future, one that legitimately can be characterized as Shimen 2.0.
Undoubtedly, Koppel will draw many readers from educated, modern and centrist Orthodox communities, both in the Diaspora and Israel, and their reactions are unlikely to be monolithic. Based on the recent data from Nishma Research showing that Modern Orthodox Jews in the United States are less likely to vote Republican than other Orthodox Jews, it is almost certain there will be many religious Jews who will be turned off by what they perceive to be a rather black and white treatment of the ills of politically liberal positions. But what about those Jews who are neither politically conservative nor particularly religious? Some may still elect to read Judaism Straight Up, knowing they will find much there to critique.
From my perspective, the most compelling feature of Koppel’s book is his discussion of why social norms matter. Koppel sees social norms as the backbone of viable societies because they provide the basis for “a sense of unity, belonging, and common purpose,” which are tied to all three of the moral foundations he identifies earlier on. His discussion of social norms will remind some readers of Rabbi Haym Soloveitchik’s 1994 groundbreaking article, “Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy,” published in Tradition Magazine. Koppel, like Soloveitchik, believe that the transmission of Judaism is best accomplished through a mimetic tradition rather than through intellectual enterprise. Although Soloveitchik was speaking to Orthodox communities, his message, like Koppel’s, has significant relevance for religiously liberal Jews.
Koppel, who lives in Israel and teaches at Bar-Ilan University, is not an expert on liberally religious Jews, particularly those who live in the United States. As a result, he probably does not fully appreciate that for many such Jews, their Judaism is still deeply meaningful. Koppel is not alone here. Perhaps outside of individuals engaged in kiruv (outreach), many traditional Jews do not fully appreciate the depth of attachment liberally religious Jews feel for Judaism. Too often they seem to write them off as clones of Heidi or Amber. Among Orthodox Jews, there is a strong belief that religiously liberal Judaism, particularly in the United States, is on borrowed time.
But those of us who are intimately familiar with religiously liberal Jewish communities, and who are involved in educating these communities, know full well these Jews have feelings for their religion that are strongly positive, even if sometimes complex and fluid. We also know that Jews who live outside the system of halacha (Jewish law) are, and can continue to be, attracted to a substantial religious-cultural practice steeped in Jewish tradition. And although many traditional Jews I know tend to doubt whether such a practice is transmissible, I have every reason to be as optimistic about this as Koppel is about Shimen 2.0 in Israel.
My optimism is based on the reality that liberally religious Jews who thoughtfully craft a mimetic Jewish practice that works for their families can, and do, provide a sufficiently rich grounding to serve as the basis for a transmissible religious tradition. For example, children who are exposed to a joyful, and consistently practiced, home Shabbat experience will internalize this practice as normative, and want to keep it as part of their spiritual identity. For most religiously liberal Jews, complete compliance with the strictures of halacha is not important, and they will likely not be persuaded that it should be. Rather, the focus should be consistent exposure to as much Jewish tradition as possible through the creation and practice of rich cultural-religious norms. I have seen this process work successfully, but we need even more conversations emphasizing this perspective.
Koppel’s lesson for all Jews is that the existence of social norms is the glue that binds all Jews together, even if these norms may differ across the Jewish communities.■
The writer is the Raymond P. Niro Professor at DePaul University College of Law. She is the author of ‘Remix Judaism: Preserving Tradition in a Diverse World’ (Roman & Littlefield, 2020); ‘The Myth of the Cultural Jew’ (Oxford University Press, 2015) and ‘The Soul of Creativity’ (Stanford University Press, 2010).
Judaism Straight Up
Maggid Books, 2020
195 pages; $24.95