American Idols

I already have a title: “Ferry Tales.” Now all I need is the time to write the book in my head about the interesting things I’ve witnessed over the years on my daily commute aboard the Staten Island Ferry.

Not long ago on the boat, for instance, I was trying to concentrate on a page of Talmud. The din of nearby conversations doesn’t disturb me; the voices commingle and provide a sort of white noise actually conducive to withdrawing into a difficult text. But when someone enamored of the right to free speech and animated by a cause undertakes to pace the aisles and loudly share his convictions, well, it’s a little harder to focus.

Usually he is of a religious bent, orating about heaven and elsewhere. (One memorable fellow brandishing a New Testament was fond of referring to one of the ferry’s termini as “Satan Island”).

Not, though, this guy.

“The war in Iraq is about OIL!” he announced. Over and over. Louder and louder.

“Get our troops out NOW!” and “Bush is EVIL” came the next refrains, similarly repeated and amplified.

Of late, I realized, fewer of the maritime evangelists had been thumping bibles, and more of them proclaiming political and environmental beliefs, like opposition to the war, the President or Global Warming.

What struck me, though, was the similarity in tone of voice and body language. Whether the prophet was speaking in the name of the Lord or of George Soros, only the words were different. The eyes, the gait, the tone of voice, the air of certitude, were all indistinguishable.

Which observation led me to wonder if perhaps social or political causes have come, for some, to replace religion. Or, to muse further: Have they become religions themselves?

I was apparently not the first to think the thought. MIT Meteorology Professor Richard Lindzen has labeled environmentalism a religion (not intending a compliment), as its devotees are convinced “that they are in possession of a higher truth” and are intolerant of “heretics, or ‘climate change deniers,’ to use green parlance.” Author Michael Crichton has asserted much the same, even paralleling environmentalist credos with Biblical accounts of the Garden of Eden, the fall of man and an eventual Day of Judgment. “Environmentalism,” he told the Commonwealth Club in 2003, “seems to be the religion of choice for urban atheists.”

I don’t know if anyone has made the case for a religion-parallel among those passionately opposed to the war in Iraq or those who label President Bush the scourge of humanity. But the fervor of some of the sentiment out there – like that of the politics-preacher on the ferry – would seem to lend the contention support.

None of which, of course, is in any way to implicate reasonable environmental concerns or political positions. By political “faiths” I mean the all-consuming elevation of a concern or position to the status of Ultimate Truth. It’s the difference between enjoying an occasional glass of wine and alcoholism.

The morphing of social or political beliefs into quasi-religions was noted in the mid-1930s by a renowned, sainted Orthodox Jewish scholar (who, although he was in America shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, refused to abandon his students and returned to his yeshiva in Poland, where he and they perished at Nazi hands). Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman warned that “isms” – he mentioned, among others, socialism, communism and various forms of nationalism – are modern-day “idolatries.” Although the primal urge to pay homage to wood and stone no longer exists in our world, a residue of idol-worship persists – in the form of such “isms.” Were he alive today, Rabbi Wasserman might well add “liberalism,” “conservatism,” “feminism,” “environmentalism” or “pacifism” to the roster.

Some say that contemporary “isms,” unlike earlier ones, are innocuous. But one is given pause by things like a paper recently published by a British environmental group, Optimum Population Trust, which promotes the prevention of babies, positing that “the most effective personal climate-change strategy is limiting the number of children one has.” Or by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which claims to have sunk ten whaling ships and whose leader has called human beings the “AIDS of the Earth.” He explained further that “curing a body of cancer requires radical and invasive therapy, and, therefore, curing the biosphere of the human virus will also require a radical and invasive approach.” One can’t help but wonder just what he has in mind.

The 18th century Jewish scholar and mystic Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato famously explained that human beings seek pleasure, even beyond our biological needs, because we are created for pleasure – not the ephemeral and elusive sort so many mistakenly pursue, but the ultimate, eternal one attainable only through closeness to the Divine.

Perhaps, similarly, what impels people to embrace idolatry, whether of the ancient sort or the modern, is the recognition, deep in their souls, that there is in fact something worthy of devotion.

What is ironic is that, in the eyes of Judaism, the first step out of any environmental or geopolitical morass is recognizing just what that Something really is.

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12 Responses

  1. Gershon Josephs says:

    I’m not sure what the point of this post is. You say:

    “Perhaps, similarly, what impels people to embrace idolatry, whether of the ancient sort or the modern, is the recognition, deep in their souls, that there is in fact something worthy of devotion.”

    You seem to be saying that the fact that people pursue political or social agendas in a quasi-religious fashion is perhaps proof that human beings have higher goals than just immediate, physical gratification. I doubt anyone disagrees with that. The question, of course, is just what should those higher goals be. You mention ‘isms’. Well, to anyone outside of Orthodoxy, Orthodox Juda-ism is one more ‘ism’.

    “What is ironic is that, in the eyes of Judaism, the first step out of any environmental or geopolitical morass is recognizing just what that Something really is.”

    This isn’t ironic at all. Our own ‘ism’ says that God is the foundation of everything. Other ‘isms’ say that ‘man’ is the foundation, or the ‘markets’, or the ‘environment’, or whatever. Unless one can prove to everybody elses satisfaction that their own “ism” is the right one (and of course that has not happened) we will continue to debate ‘isms’ from now until Moshiach comes.

  2. Noam says:

    I certainly agree that for the Orthodox Jew, halacha and Judaism is of fundamental importance, while any ‘-ism’ is of neccessity secondary importance. However, here we get into the issue of definitions. Take women’s issues for example. From my point of view, halacha supports and approves of a number of things that women do today. However, others, who oppose these issues, will claim that I am favoring feminism over halacha, which is patently not the case. There is a claim to be made that some favor ascetism over halacha. This also applies to less emotionally charged issues such as debates over the halachic position on environmentalism(the RCA has issued a recent statement), the halachic view of war and pacifism, and many if not all of the -isms mentioned in the article. What is halacha to one person, is an -ism to another. Certainly there are those -isms that are beyond the pale of halacha by any traditional definition.

  3. YM says:

    I thought the point was straightfoward: Rabbi Shafran compared these modern day “crusades” or “movements” or “isms”, to avodah zorah. We tend to think that avodah zarah doesn’t exist anymore, but it is all around.

  4. Baruch horowitz says:

    “Perhaps, similarly, what impels people to embrace idolatry, whether of the ancient sort or the modern, is the recognition, deep in their souls, that there is in fact something worthy of devotion.”

    The question goes back ultimately to defining what a person is, which Rabbi Shafran wrote about in connection with morality. Secular humanists and atheists who are ethical and normal people(as opposed to the extremist among the animal rights and conservation groups) also recognize a certain “something” which is special about mankind, but some of them see that “something” as an illusion of electrons, which serve a pragmatic purpose by giving a sense of fulfillment to a person(whatever the word means), through making the world a better place through the various “isms”. Religious people, however, see secular idealism, or “isms”, as originating from the longing of the soul.

    I thought of a similar idea regarding the universal need for “tradition”, which at first glance, would seem to be only a religious concept. It seems odd that in the modern world, which places emphasis on newness and modernity, universities have traditions which connect them to the Middle Ages, such as academic dress with formal regulations about the type of gap and gown, or that society values aspects of the Roman or Greek eras, such as the revived Olympic tradition, the study of Greek mythology, etc.

    While it is true that some of this phenomenon is because of the need to trace and build upon prior knowledge, I think it also shows that even those without any religion, have a human need to be connected to an accomplishment of the past, even if from the secular aspects being focused on, such a past is less advanced than the present. Religious people can see this as a displacement of the need to be connected to a past with a meaningful and transcendent value(although secularists wouldn’t see it like that).

  5. David N. Friedman says:

    Rabbi Shafran is correct in his analysis and I would quickly agree that today’s “isms” are anything but innocuous. Therefore, this particular thread brings up the need to make careful distinctions, as Noam has said, what is halacha to one person is an “ism” for another.

    It is curious that Orthodoxy has no trouble making precise distinctions and drawing “battle lines” over so many matters that divide traditional Judaism from the heterodox movements. Readers of this blog can rather quickly come to the conclusion that the divide between Orthodoxy and secular and Reform/Conservative Jews is serious and clear.

    On the other hand, hot button moral questions bring far less common purpose from the Orthodox world and I surely wonder why? If we enthusiastically contradict the Reform movement for being wrong about fealty to religious observance— while lacking a strong voice towards Islamic jihadists, environmentalist radicals, Darwinists, feminists, abortionists, socialists etc.–how can we recapture a claim as moral leaders and the conscience of the world?

    I looked at the RCA website and I am bit troubled. While it is surely true that our tradition places emphasis on stewardship of the environment and care for animals, there is inadequate emphasis placed upon a cost benefit analysis or a balance of interests. The result is that the worst kind of “green” pressure group can easily usurp Jewish law and give a misleading claim of moral correctness. The meaning and sanctity of Shabbos is lost when one day of leaving the earth to rest is elevated purely in terms of enviro-correctness. When men are made equivalent to animals, care for animals is compromised and the special standing of mankind is lost. Despite the fact that fruit-bearing trees are to be protected during a time of war according to our tradition, trees do not have the kind of high standing in Jewish law that is promoted by Jewish environmentalists. Despite the claims made by David Saperstein in front of a Congressional committee, CAFE standards are not be gleaned in a straight-forward manner from the writings of our prophets.

    There is no ambiguity in much of the current battle lines. The ultimate point of the Greens is that humanity is a curse. The bottom line position of those who oppose the war against the jihadists is that no war can be justified. The basic premise of the Darwinists is that there is no designing God responsible for the creation. The point made most consistently by the feminists is that there is no difference between men and women. The socialists make it clear that there is a basic unfairness between those who excel and those who do not. The atheists state dogmatically that the greatest poison in our midst is the Bible.

    If we cannot get together as Jews and clearly support our bottom-line moral values, morality in general will be systematically downgraded and redefined so that the competing moral framework will displace traditional morality before our eyes.

  6. One Christian's perspective says:

    Good observations Rabbi Shafran and a needed wake-up call !
    We were created by G-d to worship him and no other. Additionally, not separate from worship must be faith. Faith simply means putting your trust in G-d in all things. G-d is sovereign but do we act like he is when we rant about the war in Iraq and the President and the issue of global warming; it does sound like another religion. One where man is the object of adoration and praise – where it is all about us. Have we forgotten that G-d raises up leaders and brings them down according to his purpose and plan ? Have we forgotten that he created the elements and he makes the wind and sea move at his direction ? Have we considered that if every person could live perfectly all the time and conserve energy and not pollute that several very large volcanos erupting can obliterate all gain. Do we want to test G-d with our arrogance ? Not that it is bad to be conservative but it is bad to think we have the power to change the planet. Have we forgotten that human history will not end until G-d says so. Isn’t idolatry chosing the second best instead of the first best – which is G-d ?

  7. Ori Pomerantz says:

    One Christian, I think you are taking a good position too far. We need to have faith in G-d who will ultimately decide if our efforts will succeed or not. However, we do need to put in the effort (I think the Jewish term is Hishtadlut). When we don’t do that, G-d does allow awful things to happen.

  8. Rabbi Avi Shafran says:

    Gershon Josephs is certainly correct that some (in the semantic style of some radical Palestinians who claim that since they are Semites, those who oppose their aspirations are anti-Semites) might say that Judaism is but another ism. But, of course, I was not making a case for Orthodoxy per se, rather for recognizing that there is a G-d. In truth, I wasn’t “making a case” at all, in the sense of a compelling argument, but rather making an observation. A religious reader might find it a worthy one; but a devotee of a non-G-d-centered faith would, indeed, not be impressed.

    As to Noam’s raising of the idea of halacha’s ostensible support of (to take his example and words) “a number of things that women do today,” I certainly have no problem with any practice that in fact enjoys the imprimatur of a halachic authority (even if it is not my own – providing the authority is a recognized and respected scholar). But I would add a note of caution: If halacha is regarded as subservient to (again to take Noam’s example) feminist (or environmental, or political, etc.) sensibilities then I would consider the venture deeply misguided. Only one ideal can be in “first place.” And if that ideal is not serving Hashem (even when the service asked of us does not sit well), then we are indeed echoing the quasi-avodah zarah that I referenced in my essay.

    Thank you YM for your reality check, and Baruch Horowitz for your perceptive musing. Ditto to David N. Friedman; I agree wholeheartedly that the Orthodox world needs to address large societal issues. That sentiment is tempered somewhat by my belief that our observance and Torah-study themselves are the most potent society-changing agents we have. But we are not absolved from promoting Jewish ideals. That is a large part, I think of what Cross-Currents aspires to do.

    “One Christian’s perspective” ‘s words could just as well be those of a Rosh Yeshiva or Maggid’s (Yeshiva dean or Jewish preacher). Perfectly Jewish in every way. Thank you for your wisdom and eloquence.

  9. Noam says:

    Rabbi Shafran and I agree that halacha cannot be subservient to any -isms. My guess is we may disagree on the definition of “a recognized and respected scholar” :-).

  10. Reb Yid says:

    Yes, ultimately it’s all about the “isms”–on both sides of the coin.

    There are those in recent decades who increasingly believe in separatism and sectarianism as a way of life (or as an end in itself, rather than simply a means to an end), and choose to utilize chumrot in the context of their view of halacha or Judaism to advance those ends.

  11. Ori Pomerantz says:

    One Christian, I think I need to clarify what I said. Of course ultimately G-d rules the world and decides what will happen. However, G-d, like a good parent, lets us humans try to do things and fail in the course of nature.

    G-d let Bar Kochva rebel against Rome’s rule, and bring destruction to the Jews who survived the great rebellion against the Romans. G-d let Chamberlin encourage Hitler by appeasing him. If we do the wrong things, G-d lets us fail.

  12. One Christian's perspective says:

    “One Christian’s perspective” ‘s words could just as well be those of a Rosh Yeshiva or Maggid’s (Yeshiva dean or Jewish preacher). Perfectly Jewish in every way. Thank you for your wisdom and eloquence.

    Comment by Rabbi Avi Shafran — June 11, 2007 @ 12:22 pm

    Please, I cannot take credit for these words; G-d gets the glory since he gave them to the writers of the Psalms and Proverbs.
    Proverbs 3:5-6 “Trust in the L-RD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding but acknowledge Him in all your ways and He will make your path straight” is my road map. I believe it is yours as well.

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