Monday, February 28, 2005


Last night, I attended a symposium on religious fundamentalism at Cardozo. Since I was in the neighborhood, I took in some "old haunts," and that was about the only worthwhile part of the day.

Let's be honest here- academics discussing current events can be worse than boring (which it nearly always is)- it can be startlingly irrelevant. People who dwell in ivory towers, whether of academe or elsewhere, are remarkably bad at illuminating real life issues. Here's a hint and a half: If, in a discussion on fundamentalism, someone brings up the bugaboo of "Gush Emunim," something that doesn't really exist, you know you're dealing with someone who reads lots of dated books.

Add to that the fact that these academics can be so smug and self-confident in their beliefs- and, oddly, so assured that they alone hold the answers to all the world's problems, and you almost come away with the sense that the real fundamentalists are sitting before you. There's also the patronizing and the anti-Bush sermonizing that I stepped out for, but I'll stop there.

Most sickening moment? One of the (many) introducers, who shall go unnamed (leaving people unnamed was quite the fashion at this fest) actually tried out the "We all believe in one God, so why the bloodshed?" line. (Actually, the exact quote was more like "Why the bloodshed? Why the bloody [as an intensitive, not an adjective] violence?") I felt distinctly embarrassed that one supposedly so educated could say something so stupid and trite. I expected him to bust out, Rodney King-style, with "Can't we all get along?"

Anyway. As something of a fundamentalist myself, I felt more bored than offended. Well, that and upset I wasted time I could have used for ironing my shirts. Instead of staying for the questions (usually the worst part of these things), I grabbed a few cookies (no big spread) and went to Forbidden Planet, where the clerks (no pun intended) were carrying on a much more interesting conversation, to me at least, about the relative qualities of talking Jay and Silent Bob dolls. (The latter says nothing, of course; the former won't stop.) Hilarious.

Oddly, I had a bit of a run-in with fundamentalism myself on my way to the event. Yep, Meah Shearim (and Boro Park) style broadsides have come to Kew Gardens Hills, Hashem Yiracheim. Rav Elyashiv, in his glory, wishes us to know that Metzitza B'Peh (squick) is a fine and safe practice that must not be altered by any means. Leaving alone the fact that it isn't usually practiced in the US (or even in Israel), except by the Chassidim and those influenced by their obscurantism, and leaving alone the chutzpah of he, or his followers, presuming to tell us what to do, was the funny point that first, the poster had to assure us that they had medical advice that this was true- and, in an added line, that a mohel with a sore should not do this. Of course, all three clauses contradict each other. If there's no medical danger, there's no need to fear sores. If medical advice is needed, then it is possible that the procedure should be changed, etc. etc. I shouldn't expect this to be consistent, but it'd be funny if it wasn't so infuriating and just plain scary. (Slifkin's taken down his controversy page. Hmmm.)

Meanwhile, over at Cross-Currents, they're running into the monkeywrench in the numbers question: Homo Flatbushensis, or "cool dudes," or "frum and 'with it,'" or whatever Jdate or Frumster feel like calling them, or what-have-you. We all know the type- I know some personally, and there was a pack of them on a plane with me once. (Remember that full-page ad in the NY Times a while back?) People who live completely modern lives, often much less observant of actual halakha than even the Orthodox left, yet would be shocked to find themselves described as "Modern Orthodox." That messes up lots of numbers and assumptions, I'd think. Of course, HBFIs are the opposite phenomenon, or, perhaps, a somewhat parallel one.

Not to sound like I'm defending Edah and the like. Ever since Saul Berman rather ostentatiously and patronizingly referred to God as "She" in a Commentary symposium, I've been a bit wary of them. I'm reminded of O'Sullivan's Law: Any organization not conservative will become liberal over time (and even many conservative ones will). How much more so an organization devoted to being liberal, in some senses. My point is this: The OU, RCA, YU, etc. do not start out to be Modern Orthodox, but merely synagogue bodies, rabbinical organizations, seminaries, etc. Once you start out to be specifically modern, you've already put yourself on the fringe- and, ironically, conceded the point that modern may not be mainstream. Of course, an organization devoted to modernity is one thing, but a seminary seems wrong. Get your basics, let the other ideas follow.

Whew. That's some rant. Have a good week, all.

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