After reading an essay by Emma Green in The Atlantic, I resolved to read The Benedict Option, a brand-new book by Rod Dreher published just a few weeks ago. (Readers may be familiar with his 2015 book, How Dante Can Save Your Life, which was very movingly written in the wake of his sister’s untimely death—and which I liked very much—or with his essays for The American Conservative, where he is currently a senior editor and weekly blogger.) Since it’s a book unlikely to land on the night tables of most of the people who read my weekly letters, but more importantly because it inspired me to think about our Jewish world in a new way, I thought I’d use this opportunity to bring the book and its author to your attention and to explain why I found his work so relevant and so personally challenging.
The book is a flawed work in many ways, and not only in terms of the author’s apparent inability to believe that “regular” people (i.e., citizens who are specifically not members of some vast conspiracy devoted to the furtherance of its own secret agenda) could simply believe in marriage equality and in the unambiguous right of gay people to be treated fairly, decently, and equitably in the marketplace and the workplace. That, along with his remarkably harsh view that in vitro fertilization should be outlawed as a version of mass murder no less heinous than abortion itself (the author’s other major bugaboo), would be more than enough to make most of us outside his world want to distance ourselves from the man and from his judgmental, harshly unforgiving worldview. But that would be a mistake, because he has something remarkable to say anyway…and it is something I think we should all feel challenged to consider honestly in terms of our own precarious place in the world.
The basic principle behind The Benedict Option is that the war between traditional Christians and their secularist enemies for America’s future is over and that, because (in the author’s opinion) the good guys lost, American Christians who believe in the principles that underlie their faith—and in the pursuit of a society rooted in its values and its time-honored sense of virtue—should abandon the fantasy that they can influence American social policy at all, and least of all merely by voting for Republican candidates. The author’s estimation of President Trump in this regard is particularly insulting, but what he has to say about the rest of the President’s party is only slightly less disparaging…and the bottom line in both cases is in any event the same: the author believes that the nation has turned decisively and irrevocably away from its Christian roots, the people have abandoned the only kind of Christianity worth preserving (which is, of course, the author’s own), the liberal churches have sold their birthright for a mess of tasteless (in both senses of the word) porridge that can neither sustain nor even really nourish them, and the secular/humanist/pro-LGBT (these are all used as roughly synonymous terms) forces that exist, as far as the author is concerned, in a permanent state of war with the spiritual heritage of “real” Christianity have won the day and will not relinquish their victory easily or, to speak realistically, ever.
It’s a harsh appraisal of our world. And it follows unsurprisingly that the author idolizes the monastic life—and particularly the version of that life connected with the sixth century CE saint, Benedict of Nursia, revered by Christians as the patron saint of Europe and famous both as the founder of a dozen communities for monks in Italy and also as the author of the Rule of Saint Benedict, a work in 73 short chapters about how to live a rich Christian life in retreat from the secular world. Dreher does not, however, think that the real solution to the modern Christian’s problems lies in retreat into secluded monasteries and convents—or at least not for those not personally called to the cloistral life—but rather in a different kind of withdrawal, one that entails a permanent retreat, if not from the entire public square, then at least from those parts of it that make it impossible for the faithful to remain true to their ideals while in it. He takes this idea quite far—strongly recommending that Christians withdraw their children from public schools, that Christians undertake to the greatest extent possible solely to patronize each other’s businesses, that efforts to influence those outside the Church be abandoned while congregations instead work on strengthening their devotion to their own heritage without the risk of pernicious outside influence, that parents severely limit their children’s exposure to television and particularly to the internet, and that, at least ideally, Christians withdraw from the urban nightmare that prevails in America’s godless cities and retreat to smaller towns in out of the way places—just like the author’s home town in rural Louisiana—where the world will just leave them alone and in peace. That, in a nutshell, is the Benedict Option.
From a Jewish point of view, there’s a lot to say. Here and there throughout the book, the author nods to the success of certain communities within the larger world of Jewish Orthodoxy in achieving that kind of separation from the world. And, indeed, we all know of communities in Williamsburg and Crown Heights that function roughly according to Dreher’s plan by avoiding public schools, living in closed communities, doing business solely or at least mostly with each other, denying their children contact with the world via television or the internet, etc. What Rod Dreher would actually make of such communities if he were actually to have to live in one of them for a few months is not hard to imagine. And also amusing is the author’s apparent belief that the specific lifestyle he so admires is how all Orthodox Jews live, not the lifestyle of a mostly marginalized subset within the larger Orthodox community. But those are just details, and the larger, more important challenge laid down at the feet of Jewish readers by The Benedict Option has do with us and our future, not with the author and his or his community’s.
I am not particularly interested in asking how specifically Jewish Americans fit into the author’s plan for the future, although that would surely be an interesting question to hear him attempt to answer without sounding regretful that we even exist in his—our—country. On the other hand, the chances that American Christians are going to embrace the author’s proposal, let alone embrace it holus-bolus and retreat from the world in order to have the time thoughtfully to re-acquaint themselves with the works of the earliest Church fathers are nil. Individuals might well be inspired by reading the works of John Chrysostom, the fourth-century bishop of Constantinople…but we simply do not live in the kind of idea- or principle-driven world in which the author’s idea could conceivably—in my own opinion, at any rate—gain serious traction.
But what does interest me is the kernel of Dreher’s idea: that, instead of endlessly beating their heads against walls they cannot possibly break down, spiritual communities would do better to focus inward and devote themselves to the cultivation of their own gardens. In some ways, we have led the way in doing just that: although I’d be hard pressed to find a way to describe the inclusion of Christmas on the list of federal holidays as anything other than an egregious offense against the separation of church and state, most of us have long since stopped caring or worrying about it. The same could be said of the off-putting presence of Christmas trees in federal post offices and in countless other governmental venues, but we certainly haven’t followed through with the other part of the equation, the part that calls upon us not solely to ignore that which we cannot alter, but also to turn within and work at fostering the kind of Jewish community that would thrive within its own boundaries precisely because it would derive its energy from its own inner life and not by campaigning endlessly for the approval of others.
Like Rod Dreher and the people for whom he’s written his book, we too are not called to the cloistral life. And, indeed, the idea of securing a Jewish future by retreating into closed communities in out-of-the-way hamlets (like Kiryas Yoel, for example, except seriously more remote) would interest almost none of us. But what does appeal to me is seeking the Jewish future not by endlessly campaigning for the approval of the world, but by strengthening the community from within.
In other words, the Jewish version of the Benedict option would have us giving up the endless moaning and groaning about our numbers—and, even more to the point, our ability to manipulate those numbers to get the world’s attention—and instead turning our attention to the propagation of a kind of Jewishness that was once basic and ordinary…and which has, in our day, become—to say the very least—rare. Most of my readers will never have heard of John Chrysostom (just for the record, one of the originators of literary anti-Semitism)…but neither will they have heard of Bahya ibn Pakuda or Joseph Albo, just to name two of our greatest and most profound authors and thinkers almost completely forgotten by “regular” Jewish people outside the world of academe.
The most basic skills of Jewish life—being able to participate easily in Jewish worship, for example, or having enough Hebrew to read and understand basic classical texts…or even to follow along in a Ḥumash when the Torah is read aloud in synagogue—skills that were once the bread-and-butter abilities of any educated Jewish soul have become the province of the especially trained. Nor is this a problem merely of the masses: we have acknowledged leaders in our communities who have more or less no familiarity with the classic works of Jewish literature, no visible allegiance to Jewish ritual, no knowledge of Hebrew…and who don’t seem to feel even slightly burdened by their own ignorance. More to the point, perhaps, we have undercut out own ability to be in awe of our own culture heroes by tolerating a Jewish world in which those heroes are not only not revered in Jewish circles but are almost entirely unknown, their very names familiar to almost none.
If Dreher is right about his world, could he also be right about ours? Could the future of Jewish life in America end up having solely to do with our ability to create a kind of Jewish cultural milieu so rich with meaning, so suggestive of spiritual possibility, and so endlessly alluring both intellectually and emotionally that by ignoring our numbers we paradoxically end up increasing them? Dreher laments the degree to which the most foundational classic works of Christian theology and spirituality are largely ignored even by people who self-define as enthusiastic Christians. The same could surely be said of the Jewish community, but what I took from Dreher’s book is the thought—the siren, endlessly alluring thought—that it doesn’t have to be that way…and that the way forward could well be the way backward, the way out could well be the way in, and the way to grow could surely be, at least in the long run, not to care particularly if we grow at all. Now that would be an innovative approach to the endless questions we never tire of asking about our future but that none of us seems able cogently and convincingly to answer!