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Judaism Straight Up:
Why Real Religion Endures

by moshe koppel
maggid books, 218 pages, $24.95

Seventy years ago, the European émigré Chaim Grade (pronounced “GRAH-deh”) published a short story that would secure his place in the pantheon of great Yiddish writers of the twentieth century. “Mayn krig mit hersh rasseyner,” usually rendered in English as “My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner” but just as easily translated as “My War with Hersh Rasseyner” (as in the German Blitzkrieg, or “lightning war”), depicts a decades-long rivalry between the eponymous Hersh, a traditional Jewish scholar looking to unmask the false pieties of the secular West before and after the Holocaust, and Chaim, Grade’s proxy and the ambivalent stand-in for cultural ­accommodation in an increasingly godless world.

A new book by Moshe Koppel, an Israeli computer scientist and conservative think-tank founder, restages the Hersh-Chaim argument. Shimen, a Holocaust survivor living on the Upper West Side, is the faithful practitioner. Heidi, a composite of Koppel’s Princeton colleagues, is the accommodationist. Ironically, in this version tradition’s triumph occurs in social-scientific and evolutionary terms. Orthodoxy is celebrated because it works—it perpetuates itself, creating a morally balanced and broad life for its adherents. Cultures devoid of tradition, by contrast, atrophy and die. Think a hypothetical, C. S. ­Lewis–inspired Mere Judaism without rabbinic reasoning, theological demonstration, or standard apologetics. ­Koppel defends tradition with the very modern tools of social psychology, behavioral economics, and analytic philosophy. These perspectives are utterly alien to the book’s ­tradition-minded hero, ­Shimen. They sit uneasily with the outlook Koppel seeks to defend. And yet Koppel’s book is an important and powerful brief for ­orthodoxy, Jewish and otherwise.

Other recent books on the worldly advantages enjoyed by traditional religious communities tend to treat their religious subjects sympathetically, if somewhat sterilely. Even Eric Kaufmann’s 2010 Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?: Demography and Politics in the Twenty-First Century, the finest of these books, lacks the vividness and specificity that would come from firsthand knowledge of his subject. Koppel, by contrast, ­offers a rich portraiture of orthodox Jewish life with all the concreteness and detail that only an authentic member of the community can ­provide.

In perhaps the most innovative section of the book, Koppel asks, “How Do We Decide What Is Right and What Is Wrong?”—or more pointedly, how do Jews ­actually resolve questions of ritual and morality? This issue of religious authority is compounded in the modern West, where members of the community of faith lack the fortifying features of government legislation and enforcement characteristic of more traditional societies. And Judaism, unlike the Roman Catholic Church, for example, does not have a formal, hierarchical structure to settle large and small disputes. What emerges from ­Koppel’s discussion of the mechanics of religious authority and decision-­making is nothing less than a rich and original phenomenology of Torah development and transmission, with a level of ­sophistication rarely equaled in ­either academic or traditionalist circles.

In unpacking the religious worldview of the book’s protagonist, Shimen, Koppel makes clear that much more hinges on the mimetic nature of Jewish faith than on epistemic comprehensiveness or philosophical justification:

Shimen has no interest in justifying his stringencies or leniencies, or in convincing others to accept them. He’s completely comfortable in his own skin. He has no interest in sugarcoating Judaism to make it more palatable to those of refined taste. In fact, since for him Judaism is defined by tradition, the very idea of “fixing” it is inherently incoherent to him.

Koppel realizes that this somewhat naive definition of tradition (so far) leaves open the question of who fixes the tradition, and how.

With the question of tradition’s consistency and reliability still an issue, Shimen’s rival Heidi opts for a policy of expertise and, ultimately, the administered justice of a ­managerial state. Since halakha, Jewish law, “lacks a mechanism to overcome old traditions,” Heidi concludes, “it must inevitably become stale and ­outdated.” And in the absence of a unified authority, halakha is in danger of losing its integrity and coherence. Finally, halakha’s reliance on communal norms and folk practices opens it up to charges of systemic bias and false intuitions. It is in response to these charges against traditional halakha levelled by Heidi—to say nothing of her more progressive and radical kin, Amber—that Koppel makes his most powerful contribution to contemporary Jewish apologetics.

For Koppel, the key analogue to a healthy, organic legal tradition is a living, developing language. To deepen this claim, Koppel draws on Alasdair MacIntyre’s discussion of “First Languages” and “Second First-Languages” in Whose Justice? Which Rationality?. For Shimen, traditional halakha is analogous to a living language because both are practiced intuitively, and both are communal phenomena. “But,” ­Koppel wonders,

for the typical American yeshiva student of Heidi’s generation [that is, one or two generations after Shimen]—call him Yitzy—the analogy between language and halakha is perplexing. Yitzy learned halakha from books, he practices it by navigating an obstacle course of seemingly ­arbitrary rules, and he is irritated by the propensity of his parents’ community to get so many things wrong.

Koppel’s resolution is an elegant one: For Shimen, halakha is a First Language, for Yitzy, halakha is only a Second Language. And halakha, in its most authentic and natural form, is meant to be spoken as a First ­Language, not a Second Language.

Thanks to Koppel’s own enculturation in Jewish learning and practice, his ability to speak the language of halakha as a native, he can adduce numerous examples from traditional Jewish legal and narrative sources to support his argument that the blend of bottom-up and top-down ­developments in Jewish law is well-suited to keep it supple and stable over the generations, fueling purpose and creativity. Heidi’s reliance on ­expertise and social engineering fails on both counts. Her essentially ­Rawlsian worldview

gets to march under the banners of liberty and public welfare but constitutes thin gruel to build a life around. In the end, a culture built on resentment of others’ moral traditions can arouse, but it can’t fulfill.

A pillar of Koppel’s argument is the priority of actions over beliefs, of concrete forms of life over grand narratives. Of course, he acknowledges the interdependence of these things, but as a matter of principle and practiced experience, he privileges behaviors as the decisive factor in religious decision-making. Preempting a possible objection to his nearly behavioristic account of the ­viability of traditionalism over cosmopolitanism, Koppel wonders whether he should be talking about Shimen’s and Heidi’s respective beliefs, not their lifestyles:

After all, aren’t the disagreements between Shimen and Heidi about how to live merely second-order differences that follow inevitably from their irreconcilable beliefs about nature, history, and ­theology?

Koppel insists that this conclusion gets things exactly backwards, because “virtues and traditions are primary and beliefs are derivative.” To illustrate, he offers a more-than-plausible account of our protagonist’s formative etiology:

Young Shimen didn’t contemplate nature and history and conclude, like our Father Abraham, that there must be a “ruler of the castle” [here Koppel alludes to a famous rabbinic midrash about the philosophical precociousness of the patriarch Abraham and his discovery of God]. He was raised to honor particular virtues and traditions long before he had the most rudimentary ability to contemplate the stuff of belief. And among the traditions that he honors is the affirmation of certain claims about the world.

Koppel acknowledges that Shimen was raised at home and heder (the primary school version of Yeshiva) to believe certain things. The most foundational of these include God’s revelation of the Torah to the Jewish people at Sinai, a system of reward and punishment expressing God’s ubiquitous, if not always transparent, justice, and the promise of a redeemed world at the end of history. But for Koppel, these affirmations coalesce into the single belief that ­Judaism is a “directed process linking the Jewish past with the Jewish future.” The rest, Koppel says, is commentary.

Now, it’s fine for a philosophical mathematician like Koppel to abstract the multifariousness of Jewish practice and belief into one pithy formula, but the learned game theorist is making a bolder, perhaps more controversial claim. Stated baldly, it’s this: The real subject matter of Jewish belief is Jewish practice. Koppel elaborates by saying that

the principles of Jewish belief . . . are about the unfolding of Jewish tradition and the destiny of the people committed to that tradition, so that Jewish belief is empty without some prior definition of Jewish practice.

And Jewish practice (like the beliefs that encode that practice) is a self-regulating, self-reinforcing system, which does not stand or fall on the evidentiary record or on the veracity of the historical events on which the faith is founded.

Make no mistake: Koppel is not denying the historicity of Sinai or Genesis; he is saying that “for those who experience Jewish life as instinctively as Shimen, assent to codified Jewish belief might frame and intensify the experience, but is not the basis for the experience.” Just as ­Shimen’s memories of his angelic (maybe they were, maybe they weren’t?) martyred children are not made more meaningful or real by historical or scientific corroboration, so, too, his religious beliefs don’t need the kind of verification that simply doesn’t belong—or work, really—in this kind of intimate, existential, and ­foundational space.

Knowingly or not, Koppel’s arguments here draw from a long line of anti-historicist thinkers including ­Kierkegaard, Barth, and Rosenzweig, and more directly from the contemporary philosopher of religion Howard K. Wettstein, whom he cites. But his application of these themes to Judaism, with its emphasis on the practiced forms of theology over more abstract, “Hellenized” or hyper-rationalized varieties, makes for an especially ­convincing case.

Koppel concludes his book with a bleak question: Where have all the Shimens gone? The real ­Shimen (on whom the character is based) was an older acquaintance of Koppel’s who lived on the Upper West Side and left no surviving children—both a biological tragedy and an emblem of the end of an entire way of life. Are there still Jews who speak the language of halakha as a First Language? Is Shimen’s way of life—the traditional Jewish way of life—any more viable today than Heidi’s cosmopolitanism or Amber’s progressivism?

Though he feels the force of this question, Koppel remains confident of two things. First, with tolerance and reason crowding out the broader palette of moral categories, the equilibrium so central to durable civilizations will never be realized in our late modern culture of Heidis and Ambers. Second, it is in the orthodox communities of Israel, rather than America, that Koppel sees a promising, if not uncomplicated, future. Israel surely has its challenges, including the fact that there aren’t too many Shimens around there now, either. But over the long term, Israel is more likely to produce “a cadre of people like ­Shimen who are guided by a clear-eyed and internalized trust in [Judaism’s] viability.” Koppel’s pessimism about the prospects for orthodox Judaism in America is sad but realistic. For Israel, the reality of Judaism as a majority culture holds the key to its promise of reviving a vital Judaism, a Yiddishkeit in its fullness and authenticity, a Yiddishkeit Shimen would recognize.

Koppel has written a suggestive, smart, and philosophically compelling primer for modern men and women who are more impressed by adaptive social practices and functionalism than by pristine theological commitments or the phenomenology of worship. Of course, Jews throughout history generally didn’t think in neo-Darwinian or utilitarian terms when justifying their faith. But ­neither did they doubt that the truth of their distinctive beliefs comported with a way of life that was good and durable. ­Koppel’s focus on the everyday ­expression of orthodox faith—­sidestepping the usual theological staples of God, the soul, and ­redemption—shouldn’t obscure the power of his ambitious arguments for our contemporary age. Koppel’s Krieg, unlike Grade’s earlier and more ambivalent tale, is a real rout. 

Mark Gottlieb is senior director of the Tikvah Fund and a trustee of the Hildebrand Project.