6/07/2010

Ironic Orthodoxy

As is customary at the end of the end of the gap year, one of the seminaries where my wife teaches recently held a banquet at which individual students pay tribute to each teacher. My wife is always curious about these tributes as she likes to see whether the students really "get her."

This year, the student who spoke at the banquet recounted how she enetred the year as a skeptic, fairly well convinced that her critique of the halakha's attitude toward women would prevent her from adopting an Orthodox lifestyle. She described that my wife's "Women in Halakha" class changed that perception since she saw that it was possible to life with the questions and critiques. Another teacher later told my wife that she thought it was a misrepresentation - the student made it seem that my wife is somehow uncomfortable with Orthodoxy but has made an uneasy truce with it. The truth? Well, my wife and I are on the edge - or perhaps not so much on the edge - of what I've begun to call Ironic Orthodoxy.

The Ironic Orthodox generation is the generation that comes after the Great Post-1967 Orthodox Awakening. The Ironic Orthodox are largely day-school and yeshiva educated. With their grandparents they share a certain comfort in their own Orthodox skin; to them, Orthodoxy is familiar, natural, and organizes their lives. With their parents they share a familiarity with the world of Jewish learning and are even able to access that learning to a large degree.

The Ironic Orthodox generation does not buy into the apologetics: not about the status of women, not about the integrity of the transmission of the Oral Law, not about the "timelessness" of obviously time-bound religious laws, customs, and ideas, etc. This generation is hard to inspire; its demeanor is skeptical and ironic, somewhat aloof and dispassionate. Their irony is not a dramatic irony - like Statler and Waldorf observing the and criticizing the show yet remaining very much a part of it - but a jocular or sarcastic attitude or perhaps even a post-irony that simultaneously adheres to and mocks traditional religious structures. Yet it's not a bitter or angry mocking. It seems to be more of a taking-for-granted of life's absurdities and of the failure of ideology to explain or animate the full gamut of practice. It does not necessarily advocate or seek change.
The acclaimed Israeli TV show "Srugim" is an example of Ironic Orthodoxy - from the camera lens's perspective, even if it does not necessarily describe any character in particular. The lens captures both the familiarity and the absurdity of contemporary Orthodox living. In an odd way, despite the fact that, as Shai points out, the only "normal" character in the show is hiloni, its portrait of contemporary Orthodox life is far from unsympathetic. Blogs, especially those that combine deep literacy, adherence, and irreverence - are examples as well.
Another, lesser known example might be the new Orthodox reality show "In Over Our Heads." It's too early to tell where this is going to go, but it seems to take Ironic Orthodoxy as a starting point. Its second episode is most poignant in this regard: a woman who had never really practiced taharat ha-mishpacha learns about the laws and also gets a dose of ideology to boot. The ideology is ridiculed throughout, as are some of the practices - particularly harchakot - yet when it comes time for the actual dunking to take place, it turns out to be much more meaningful than the woman had anticipated.

I do not have an explanation or justification for this, though I tend to regard it as a generally positive phenomenon. When it devolves into anger and bitterness, it can get ugly. Moreover, I'm skeptical of attempts - Yoav Sorek and Elchanan Shilo come to mind - of attempts to turn this post-ideological phenomenon into a new ideology. I have some additional thoughts along these lines, but wish to restrict myself to observations at this point.
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