In Midwood, Brooklyn, there’s a luxury kosher grocery store called Pomegranate serving the modern Orthodox and Hasidic communities. It looks like a really nice Whole Foods. There’s a wide selection of kosher cheeses from Italy and France, wasabi herring, gluten-free ritual foods and nicely toned wood flooring.
The snack section is impressive. There’s a long aisle bursting with little bags of chips and pretzels, suitable for putting into school lunchboxes. That’s important because Orthodox Jews spend a lot of time packing school lunches.
Nationwide, only 21 percent of non-Orthodox Jews between the ages of 18 and 29 are married. But an astounding 71 percent of Orthodox Jews are married at that age. And they are having four and five kids per couple. In the New York City area, for example, the Orthodox make up 32 percent of Jews overall. But the Orthodox make up 61 percent of Jewish children. Because the Orthodox are so fertile, in a few years, they will be the dominant group in New York Jewry.
Another really impressive thing about the store is not found in one section but is pervasive throughout. That’s the specialty products designed around this or that aspect of Jewish law. There are the dairy-free cheese puffs in case you want to have some cheese puffs with a meat dish. There are the precut disposable tablecloths so you don’t have to use scissors on the Sabbath. There are the specially designed sponges, which don’t retain water, so you don’t have to do the work of squeezing out water on Shabbat.
Pomegranate looks like any island of upscale consumerism, but deep down it is based on a countercultural understanding of how life should work.
Those of us in secular America live in a culture that takes the supremacy of individual autonomy as a given. Life is a journey. You choose your own path. You can live in the city or the suburbs, be a Wiccan or a biker.
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 laws are gradually internalized through a system of lifelong study, argument and practice. The external laws may seem, at first, like an imposition, but then they become welcome and finally seem like a person’s natural way of being.
Meir Soloveichik, my tour guide during this trip through Brooklyn, borrows a musical metaphor from the Catholic theologian George Weigel. At first, piano practice seems like drudgery, like self-limitation, but mastering the technique gives you the freedom to play well and create new songs. Life is less a journey than it is mastering a discipline or craft.
Much of the delight in life comes from arguing about the law and different interpretations of God’s command. Soloveichik laughingly describes his debates over which blessing to say over Crispix cereal, which is part corn but also part rice. Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth who is on a tour through New York, notes that Jews are constitutional lawyers: “The Torah is an anthology of argument with a shared vocabulary of common restraint.”
But there are still obligations that precede choice. For example, a young person in mainstream America can choose to marry or not. In Orthodox society, young adults have an obligation to marry and perpetuate the covenant, and it is a source of deep sadness when they cannot.
“Marriage is about love, but it is not first and foremost about love,” Soloveichik says. “First and foremost, marriage is about continuity and transmission.”
The modern Orthodox are rooted in that deeper sense of collective purpose. They are like the grocery store Pomegranate, superficially a comfortable part of mainstream American culture but built upon a moral code that is deeply countercultural.
This sort of life involves a fascinating series of judgment calls about what aspects of secularism can safely be included in a covenantal life. For example, Soloveichik’s wife, Layaliza, was admitted into Harvard, but she went to a religious college, Yeshiva, instead. Then she went to a secular professional school, Yale Law, and now works as an assistant U.S. attorney.
All of us navigate certain tensions, between community and mobility, autonomy and moral order. Mainstream Americans have gravitated toward one set of solutions. The families stuffing their groceries into their Honda Odyssey minivans in the Pomegranate parking lot represent a challenging counterculture. Mostly, I notice how incredibly self-confident they are. Once dismissed as relics, they now feel that they are the future.