Community and Morality

March 8, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

David Brooks today (here) reports on his guided tour of orthodox Jewish Brooklyn, including a stop at Pomegranate, a glatt kosher version of Whole Foods – “kosher cheeses from Italy and France. . . gluten-free ritual foods.”

OK, you have to be impressed by a gluten-free matzo.  But it’s the aura of community that has Brooks totally snowed.
For the people who shop at Pomegranate, the collective covenant with God is the primary reality and obedience to the laws is the primary obligation. They go shopping like the rest of us, but their shopping is minutely governed by an external moral order.

The laws, in this view, make for a decent society. They give structure to everyday life. They infuse everyday acts with spiritual significance. They build community. They regulate desires. They moderate religious zeal, making religion an everyday practical reality.                

The other side of this ethos is that the “external moral order” Brooks speaks of is fiercely group based.  What is right is what’s good for this insular group and especially for its high priests.  In Jonathan Haidt’s terms, Loyalty and Authority trump Harm.  When it’s one of Us harming one of Them, it’s an easy call; the harm is meaningless to us.  But the same morality applies even when the victims are our own. When priests commit seriously harmful crimes against parishioners, loyalist morality moves the Church, whether headed by Benedict or Beckett, to protect the priests.

Brooks’s tour did not include a stop to chat with Nechemaya Weberman.  He’s in prison, serving 103 years for sexually abusing a young girl, starting when she was twelve.  She had been sent to him for counseling and therapy. The community reaction in this case followed the usual pattern: from the officials, “We can handle this more effectively within our own quasi-legal system”; and in the Orthodox street, an omertà-like reaction against any group member who does anything that might help  the secular prosecution in enforcing the laws of the state.  Typically, that means ostracism, but the penalty for breaking the code and taking the victim’s side can get nastier.*

Strong and cohesive communities have virtues that even secularists like Brooks (and I) envy.  But in protecting their “moral order,” when the chips are down and in-group loyalty becomes paramount, they often show an uglier side.

* Weberman was a member of a particularly intense sect, the Satmar Hasidim, as was the man in the linked incident who threw caustic chemicals on the face of a rabbi who had been speaking out on behalf of victims of child sexual abuse.  Satmar Hasidim attitudes may differ in degree if not in kind from those of the shoppers at Pomegranate.

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