The Least Crazy Branch| January 31, 2023
Rav Noach Weinberg used to say, “In a crazy world, we [i.e., Torah Jews] are the least crazy”
av Noach Weinberg used to say, “In a crazy world, we [i.e., Torah Jews] are the least crazy.” The truth of that statement is brought home to me almost every time I read a newspaper or magazine detailing current social trends. And by examining a few gleanings from my recent reading, I’d like to offer some lessons in precisely how uncrazy we are.
One of the defining marks of totalitarian regimes is the belief that human beings are infinitely malleable, if just subjected to the proper education or reeducation, according to the educator’s superior reason.
The Torah rejects the premise of infinite malleability. Hashem created everything in the world with a particular nature, albeit capable of multiple expressions. I once commented to evolutionary psychologist Jonathan Haidt that he and I share something important in common: We both believe in human nature, we just disagree about its source.
But for contemporary progressives, even nature itself is not fixed. Professor types solemnly lecture us today that XX and XY chromosomes are not determinative, or at most represent two points on a continuum. There is no clear line of demarcation.
That is not how the Torah sees it. Man and woman were created different from one another — k’neged, as it were. But in that oppositeness, there is attraction as well, the possibility of cleaving, of becoming one. A very sharp nephew of mine recently commented on the superiority of the marriage preparation given young Torah couples. Those courses will almost invariably start by broadly delineating the differences between men and women, a subject beyond the pale in much of contemporary culture.
Alexandra DeSanctis makes an acute observation in “Why Big Business Loves Abortion,” in the October 3 National Review. Many corporations have announced that they will cover any costs incurred by female employees who travel out of state to obtain an abortion. But that solicitude should not be construed as any generalized concern for their female employees’ well-being or even job satisfaction. “Companies have pledged money for abortion without offering any comparable increases in maternity leave, child benefits, or assistance to couples seeking to complete an adoption,” DeSanctis notes.
Rather, the corporations’ support of abortion is in furtherance of their desire to create the ideal employee: one unencumbered by familial relationships and child-rearing responsibilities. Corporate heads lamented that the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision endangered “gender parity and equal opportunity in the workplace” and placed at risk “gains that women have made in the workplace and broader society.”
In other words, a woman’s worth is reflected almost exclusively by how well she imitates men. Men are the standard to which women are supposed to aspire. To be successful in the workplace, women must be just like men: “never pregnant, never home with children, always available.”
But the male standard did not originate in corporate boardrooms. It is, according to Abigail Favale, in The Genesis of Gender, a staple of second-wave feminist writers like Simone de Beauvoir and Shulamit Firestone. They cast femaleness and female biology as undesirable compared with the “unencumbered male” standard: “Too often, freedom for women is cast as freedom from femaleness. Female equality was redefined as sameness with men.”
When a parent leans into his or her infant’s crib, the latter often starts spasmodically drawing his knees to his chest, as if he is about to explode from love. When my firstborn used to do that, it often brought me to tears. And I would think of my women friends from college, all approaching 30 at that point and not one yet a mother, as far as I knew, and I would get angry at the thought of them having been sold a bill of goods that a career could replace children.
That brings me to another area where Torah Jews are definitely an outlier: family formation both as a value and a reality. It is very rare to speak to a chareidi young man or woman who does not aspire to marry and start a family by their early twenties (slightly older for men). For many in the broader society, marriage and parenting are not even on the radar screen at that age. The decade between 20 and 30, during which their parents married, started their families, and bought their first homes, is now viewed as a time for self-discovery, travel, etc. — not the assumption of adult responsibilities. Seventeen percent of that cohort still live at home with their parents.
In 1960, the average age for first marriage in America for men was 22 and for women 20. By 2021, those ages had risen to 28.6 for women and 30.4 for men. According to the US Census Bureau, 44 percent of women between 25 and 44 will be single in 2030. The movement of the ’60s that promised endless happiness through liberation from traditional strictures has left both men and women deeply wounded and suspicious of one another. Relationships between men and women are more fraught now than ever, and the formation of lasting bonds more difficult.
True, there is a shidduch crisis in the Torah world. One-fifth of young women in the 25–29 cohort have never been married, dropping to nine percent among those 30–34, with the numbers of never married men about the same, according to Dr. Naomi Rosenbach in last week’s Mishpacha. While those numbers are much lower than in the secular world, the tragedy of shidduch crisis is the almost universal desire on the part of those still single to marry.
The high priority given to establishing families in the Torah world is reflected in the vastly greater number of children. Birth rates are dropping all over the world, except in Africa, and depopulation rather than overpopulation is the challenge facing the developed world, in which only Israel has over-replacement-level birth rates.
Whenever a Torah Jew meets nonreligious old friends or family members, and the subject of grandchildren arises, they are almost sure to be dumbfounded by the number of one’s grandchildren, even when modest by the standards of the Torah world. Grandchildren in the dozens is beyond their comprehension.
Rapid depopulation could trigger a bitter generational struggle between a large number of retirees and a dwindling number of workers taxed to pay for the former’s retirement benefits. An aging country, with declining numbers of children, will be less stout in its own defense and quick to appease, as those in its older generation, without descendants, have no reason to worry about their future and every incentive to just buy time before they can shuffle off.
A future without children saps the vitality from a society, and deprives the world of its most valuable resource, human brainpower, the source of the innovations that are far more likely to solve such problems as global warming than the fanciful and unsupportable schemes put forward today.
The special joy of grandchildren lies in the assurance of continuity they provide. But that joy requires that we first have values that we wish to transmit to generations to come. The diminishing number of grandchildren reflects the absence of such values.
People now search for the meaning in work that they once found in religion, family, and community. But in most cases, work cannot provide what is missing, and trying to give it that meaning results only in the “effective altruism” of Sam Bankman-Fried and other hucksters.
A Swiss professor of ethics responding to a questionnaire about how he seeks to “do good” responds, “I’m a vegetarian, and also eat vegan whenever possible. I don’t travel by plane. I don’t own a car. I generally try to live a humble life [i.e., consuming little]....”
Noah C. Gould shrewdly observes that what jumps out from this list is “how little it has to do with interactions with other people.” All the professor’s good deeds fall into the category of bein adam l’Gaia (Mother Earth), not bein adam l’chaveiro. All his performative virtue-signaling will not better the life of a single person.
A more atomized, less community-oriented society will witness a precipitous decline in tzedakah and chesed. A National Review article this week proclaims in a bold headline: “Middle-Class Philanthropy Is Collapsing.” The number of American households donating to charity, any at all, declined from 66 percent to 50 percent between 2000 and 2018.
And much of that can be attributed to decreasing interpersonal trust, empathy, and compassion, according to the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. Religious education, which once instilled the value of charity, is in dramatic decline. Whereas 46 percent of American households contributed to religious causes in 2004, only 29 percent do so today.
How far does this seem from our world, where giving is nearly universal. By the time he arrives home from davening in the morning, the average religious Jewish male has already responded positively to several solicitors. I’m frequently amazed by the charitable giving revealed by politicians’ tax returns, especially those always expressing their sympathy for the poor and downtrodden. The annual giving of many such millionaires is frequently less than that of the average avreich living on a few thousand dollars a month.
In total dollar amounts, gvirim carry much of the burden in Torah society. But giving and volunteering are ubiquitous across income levels. Organizations like Daily Giving ($1 per day), Adopt-a-Kollel, the oversubscribed ranks of volunteers foster a democratic giving ethos.
The commentators explain that the light by which the Jews saw during the plague of darkness was drawn from the primordial light Hashem stored away for the tzaddikim in the future. Dark and light could coexist in the same physical space at once. And so too, crazy and not.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 947. Yonoson Rosenblum may be contacted directly at email@example.com)
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