Orthodoxy Is Under His Microscope


If you keep close tabs on the Orthodox in America, you probably know Samuel Heilman’s name.

He’s been keeping tabs himself on the subject for years, having written numerous articles and two books about Judiasm’s most rigidly observant stream.

“It seems to endlessly reinvent itself in ways that I find sociologically interesting and culturally curious,” says Heilman, who chairs the Jewish studies department at the Graduate Center of the City University and is a distinguished professor of sociology at Queens College. “I’ve spent pretty much my entire career studying [Orthodoxy], but I’ve lived in this community all of my life.”

Perhaps best known for his 1993 authoritative study of the fervently Orthodox, “Defenders of the Faith” — which made him an often quoted source on the travails of haredim — Heilman has written a host of other books on topics ranging from Jerusalem to death and bereavement and synagogue life.

His latest work is “Sliding To The Right: The Contest For the Future of American Jewish Orthodoxy,” published by the University of California Press. In it, he argues that the centrist, or modern elements of Orthodoxy are losing ground to a hard core that resists unnecessary engagement with the outside world.

While Heilman employs survey data and other sociology tools, he also studies less conventional barometers, like the meaning of posters in fervently Orthodox neighborhoods on one extreme and the Modern Orthodox parody Web site bangitout.com on the other.

A graduate of both public schools and the Maimonides School in Brookline, Mass., founded by the late Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Heilman says he’s on the front lines of the struggle he describes.

“There are people within the Orthodox community these days, some of which I described in the book, who might no longer consider me Orthodox because I accept many of the elements of the modern world that have been increasingly denied or turned away by Orthodoxy.” That includes “everything from the importance of a university education to the growth of concern and interest in the world beyond the Orthodox one and the growing importance of women.”

Can an insider offer an objective study of issues that affect his own community? “This is not something that being completely objective about is necessarily the best way of analyzing. No one understands contests better than those who are engaged in it.”

Which side is he on?“I’m trying not to be on any side,” he says. “But I do understand the emotional consequences of both sides. They are both engaged in a battle that will protect and save Jewish tradition and practice into the next generation. The haredi side argues that the best way of doing that is by keeping the world beyond the Orthodox one at bay and creating higher and higher obstacles to engagement in it, whereas what I call contrapuntalist or Modern Orthodox see strength in being able to coexist with broader cultures and values.”

The struggle within Orthodoxy, Heilman says, is similar to the general polarization in America today, in which people are increasingly liberal or conservative, with the center fading fast.

“The problem with being in the center is that you get hit by traffic going in both directions,” he says.

Heilman, 60, was born in post-war Germany — both his parents were rescued by Oskar Schindler — and grew up in Brookline. He graduated Brandeis University, earned his doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania and now lives in Westchester with his wife Ellin, a psychologist. They have raised four sons: Adam, Yoni, Uri and Avi, the latter two now living in Israel.

Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, a founder of the Modern Orthodox rabbinical school Chovivei Torah, says he essentially agrees with Heilman’s views, but notes his own impression that modern and haredi elements “have both learned a lot from each other, particularly when it comes to the views of higher education and Zionism.”

Heilman admits a certain trepidation about the subject matter and how it will be received. “It’s a subject that really exercises people,” he says. “People on both sides want to know if they are winning the battle and look to me as a referee, which is something I’m trying to avoid.“The numbers seem to show on one hand that haredim seem to be in the minority, but there is a growth in confidence. Also, the lines [of affiliation] have increasingly grown blurry.”

While confident he’s written enough on Orthodoxy for this to be his final chapter on the subject, he hints at another possible installment. “People have told me that many of my conclusions are also true about life in Israel,” he says.