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Tradition in a Rootless World, by Lynn Davidman: Summary and Response

Updated on October 31, 2012
3 stars for Tradition in a Rootless World

Why would women (or anyone) choose to commit to a famously strict religious lifestyle?

This is the question that Lynn Davidman tries to answer in her book "Tradition in a Rootless World." ...And as I'm sure you clever bunnies have noticed, her answer is in the title. Read my synopsis of her book and assessment of her argument below and see what you think. Is there maybe more to it?

The Author and Her Book

You know, her eyes just blow me away.
You know, her eyes just blow me away. | Source

Basic Premis and Argument: Spoiler Alert!

Lynn Davidman’s book examines the reasons women would convert to Orthodox Judaism, particularly in such an enlightened age. She looks specifically at two women: one who comes from a non-practicing Jewish family, Stephanie, who joins an Orthodox synagogue in Manhattan, and another woman, Beth, who is at a camp for women considering converting to Hasidic Judaism.

Stephanie had decided to go to a service to ‘try something new’ and invigorate her life; she was looking for something “intellectually as well as socially stimulating” (1). Orthodox Judaism? Sure. The other main case study, Beth, initially got back to her Jewish roots because her parents were concerned about her consorting with Christians, and decided to go to a Hasidic Jew camp because she “had nothing to lose” (was unemployed, etc). Both women seem to have similar reasons for sticking with it, and mention a sense of community and belonging. Stephanie, the woman who went to an Orthodox synagogue, often mentions, for instance, that “the sound of the chanting feels good and reminds her of visits…with her grandparents when she was a girl” (4) and the atmosphere in the synagogue is very welcoming and inclusive, while at the same time impressing upon her the sanctity and ‘chosen people’ aspect of Judaism. Stephanie had come originally looking for something “new,” but this need is much less of a whim than it originally appears to be. She mentions having “begun to feel uncomfortable with some of the contradictions in the hippie culture in which she had come of age” and was “wondering whether she’ll want to pass on to her children…any sense of the tradition and just what she will be able to convey” (7).

Like Stephanie, Beth came from a primarily non-practicing family and has fond memories of observing Shabbos with her grandparents etc, but did not feel particularly tied to the religion. And for Beth again, it’s “the closeness and security of the Lubavitch way of life [that she finds] very attractive" (19).

In the end, it’s clear that Orthodox Judaism speaks to those who are feeling isolated in the modern world, as Weber etc. prophesied and I think is pretty understandable, given all the disconnect and the accompanying sense of unease: by offering these women such strong a tradition and community, Orthodox Judaism gave them individual satisfaction and meaning in their lives.

Comfort and belonging are all well and good, but I’m a little concerned, however, about the larger implications of this, particularly if you’re familiar with the ‘conversation’ between the Grand Inquisitor and Christ (The Brothers Karamazov), in which the Grand Inquisitor argues that Christ betrayed the people by offering them freedom that they are ultimately unable to cope with. The crux of his argument being that humans want a rigid structure in which every decision has been dictated, thus freeing them from the burdens of sin and indecision inherent in freedom.

I don’t think that’s what Davidman is arguing for, but she has certainly given some validity to the position, which leads me to question, among other things, our form of government. Security, tradition, and a strong sense of community are all things that are offered in, say, 1984. But isn't religion more than that? I have a feeling that there must be some distinction between a historically rich religious tradition and, um, a famously dystopic, all-encompassing tyranny. Davidman explicitly states that the women she spoke to “were troubled by some of the characteristic dilemmas of modern life, such as feelings of isolation, rootlessness, and confusion about gender” (45), but the different approaches and levels of commitment they then applied to Judaism softens the dystopic image and makes religion look like a more viable option—thanks, of course, to the ‘free-market economy’ nature of the American religious sphere, catering to everyone’s individual needs.

What Do You Think?

What, in an age of ostensible Women's Lib, would women want from a very conservative religion? Have you, or do you know anyone, who has re/turned to religion later in life? What do you think prompted the need for change? Can one find the same kind of community and support outside of religion?


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