Jewish history gives today's Christians an alternative to cultural secession.
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. - Psalm 137:1
In his 1981 classic After Virtue, Notre Dame philosophy professor Alasdair MacIntyre offers a provocative diagnosis of the modern condition. Rejecting the assumption that secular modernity is the culmination of centuries of improvement, MacIntyre contends that we live amidst the ruins of Western civilization.
There can be no restoration of the past. Even so, MacIntyre urges readers to take their bearings from a previous experience of loss by pursuing “local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us.” As he puts it in a famous sentence, “We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.”
Benedict is considered the founder of the monasteries from which Christian Europe would eventually emerge. MacIntyre does not claim to be a successor to Benedict. But his suggestion that civilization can be preserved only by dropping out of modern life has become influential among conservatives with traditional religious commitments.
Rod Dreher has summarized the “Benedict Option” as “communal withdrawal from the mainstream, for the sake of sheltering one’s faith and family from corrosive modernity and cultivating a more traditional way of life.” And small but vibrant communities around the country are already putting the Benedict Option into practice. Without being rigorously separatist, these communities do aim to be separate. Some merely avoid morally subversive cultural influences, while others seek physical distance from mainstream society in rural isolation.
But a neo-Benedictine way of life involves risks. Communal withdrawal can construct a barrier against the worst facets of modern life—the intertwined commodification of personal relationships, loss of meaningful work to bureaucratic management, and pornographic popular culture—yet it can also lead to isolation from the stimulating opposition that all traditions need to avoid stagnation.
American religious history offers a clear example of this danger. Between World War I and the 1970s, conservative Protestants pursued strategies of withdrawal that impoverished their intellectual and cultural lives in ways that have they have only recently begun to remedy. In MacIntyre’s telling, the Benedict Option is a detour that leads back into the center of history as civilization eventually re-emerges from its refuges. But it can just easily become a dead end.
The Benedict Option is not the only means of spiritual and cultural survival, however. As a Catholic, MacIntyre searches for models in the history of Western Christendom. The Hebrew Bible and Jewish history suggest a different strategy, according to which exiles plant roots within and work for the improvement of the society in which they live, even if they never fully join it.
This strategy lacks the historical drama attached to the Benedict Option. It promises no triumphant restoration of virtue, in which values preserved like treasures can be restored to their original public role. But the Jews know a lot about balancing alienation from the mainstream with participation in the broader society. Perhaps they can offer inspiration not only to Christians in the ruins of Christendom but also to a secular society that draws strength from the participation of religiously committed people and communities. Call it the Jeremiah Option.
On March 16, 597 BC, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar sacked Jerusalem after a long siege. In addition to the riches of the city and Temple, he claimed as spoils of war thousands of Judeans, including the king and court. Many of the captive Judeans were settled on tributaries of the Euphrates, which inspired the words of Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.”
The Judeans had reason to weep. In addition to the shame of defeat, few had direct experience of foreign cultures. The language and customs of their captors were alien and in some ways—particularly the practice of idolatry—abhorrent. More importantly, the captives could no longer practice their own religion. Banned by ritual law from making sacrifices outside the Promised Land, the exiles were unable to engage in public worship.
Under these circumstances, two ways of dealing with Babylonian society presented themselves. First, the exiles could accommodate themselves to the norms of the victors. They could learn Aramaic and adopt local manners. But this would mean the loss of their national and religious identities. In becoming honorary Babylonians, they would forfeit their status as God’s chosen people. On the other hand, the captives could resist. Taken from their homes by force, they might use force to get back again. Proposals for resistance behind enemy lines were seriously considered. In fact, several Judean leaders seem to have been executed for subversive plotting.
But any military campaign was doomed to failure. The empire was too strong to overthrow or escape. So how should its prisoners conduct themselves? How should they live in a society that they could not fully join without giving up their fundamental commitments?
The question was important enough to attract the attention of God himself. Speaking through the prophet Jeremiah, who remained back in Jerusalem, the Lord commanded the captives to steer a course between extremes of assimilation and violent resistance. In his famous letter to the leaders of the Judean community, Jeremiah reports God’s orders as follows:
What is God saying? In the first place, he insists that the captives unpack their bags and get comfortable. True, God goes on to promise to redeem the captives in 70 years. But this can be interpreted to mean that none of the exiles then living would ever see their homes again. After all, the span that the Bible allots to a human life is threescore years and 10.
So the captives are to await redemption in God’s time rather than seeking to achieve it by human means. But this does not mean that that they are to keep their distance from Babylonian society until the promised day arrives. On the contrary, God commands them to “seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the Lord for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace.”
“Peace” could be read as the absence of conflict. But this doesn’t fully express God’s directive. In the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition more broadly, peace refers to flourishing and right order. What God is saying is that the exiles cannot prosper unless their neighbors do as well. For the time they are together, they must enjoy the blessings of peace in common.
By what means are these blessings to be secured? The reference to prayer suggests that God wants the Judeans to promote peace by spiritual means. But that is not all. God also enjoins the Judeans to promote the common good by means of ordinary life. His very first instruction is to build houses. In other words, the Judeans are to conduct themselves like long-term residents—if also resident aliens.
Reinforcing the point that captivity is for the long haul, God reminds the captives that the dwellings they are to build are not for themselves alone. Instead, they must shelter generations of children and grandchildren, multiplying the community. God’s plan is for expansion and growth, not marginal existence.
The emphasis on securing peace through ordinary life does not absolve the exiles of their responsibility to remain holy. But theirs is to be a holiness based on upright life rather than the independence of a homogeneous community. Reassuring those who feared that they could not continue their relationship with God in exile, God explains, “ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart.” The Babylonian captivity is thus the origin of Judaism as a law-based religion that can be practiced anywhere, rather than a sacrificial cult focused on the sacred temple.
The piety that God encourages, therefore, can be practiced by ordinary people living ordinary lives under difficult circumstances. God enjoins the captives not only to live in Babylon, but also to live in partnership with Babylon. Without assimilating, they are to lay down roots, multiply, and contribute to the good of the greater society.
The Babylonian captives addressed by Jeremiah bear comparison to the traditionalist dissenters in MacIntyre’s stylized history. Both groups are minorities. Both are prisoners of empires that are unwilling or unable to support their moral and religious commitments. Yet both know that violence is an unacceptable means to achieve their communal goals. It would not work—and more importantly, it offends God.
Where Jeremiah counsels engagement without assimilation, Benedict represents the possibility of withdrawal. The former goal is to be achieved by the pursuit of ordinary life: the establishment of homes, the foundation of families, all amid the wider culture. The latter is to be achieved by the establishment of special communities governed by a heightened standard of holiness.
Although it can be interpreted as a prophecy of doom, the Jeremiah Option is fundamentally optimistic. It suggests that the captives can and should lead fulfilling lives even in exile. The Benedict Option is more pessimistic. It suggests that mainstream society is basically intolerable, and that those who yearn for decent lives should have as little to do with it as possible. MacIntyre is careful to point out that the new St. Benedict would have to be very different from the original and might not demand rigorous separation. Even so, his outlook remains bleak.
MacIntyre’s pessimism conceals what can almost be called an element of imperialism—at least when considered in historical perspective. Embedded in his hope for a new monasticism is the dream of a restoration of tradition. The monks of the dark ages had no way of knowing that they would lay the foundation of a new Europe. But MacIntyre is well aware of the role that they played in the construction of a fresh European civilization—and subtly encourages readers to hope for a repetition.
Jeremiah’s message to the captives is not devoid of grandiose hopes: the prophet assures them that they or their progeny will ultimately be redeemed. But this does not require the spiritual or cultural conversion of the Babylonians.
The comparison between the options represented by Jeremiah and by Benedict has some interest as an exercise in theologico-political theorizing. But it is much more important as a way of getting at a central problem for members of traditional religious and moral communities today. How should they conduct themselves in a society that seems increasingly hostile to their values and practices? Can they in good conscience seek the peace of a corrupt and corrupting society?
In the 2013 Erasmus Lecture sponsored by First Things, Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom’s United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, took up this question with specific reference to Jeremiah. Rejecting Jeremiah’s reputation as a prophet of doom, Sacks argued that Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles fundamentally expresses a message of hope. Despite their uncomfortable situation, the captives are not to resist or separate themselves from Babylonian society. Rather, they are to pursue the fulfillments of ordinary life, practice holiness, and work and pray for the prosperity of the society in which God placed them.
As Sacks pointed out, this pattern has governed much of Jewish history in the diaspora. Between the destruction of the second Temple in AD 70 and the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948, nearly all Jews have found themselves in a condition comparable to that of the Babylonian captives. A small and often despised minority, they have nevertheless taken to heart God’s insistence that their peace depend on the peace of their captors.
This is not a solution to all problems of communal survival, however. The appeal of assimilation has been considerable. Descendants of the captives often took Babylonian names and adopted Aramaic. In modern times, many Jews have not only modified religious practice but rejected Jewish identity altogether. Recent surveys show that Jewishness in America is seriously endangered by indifference and intermarriage. So advocates of more rigorous separation have a point.
Nevertheless, there may be lessons in Jeremiah and Jewish history for Christians and others concerned about their place in modern society. These can be sketched by three ideas.
First, internal exiles should resist the temptation to categorically reject the mainstream. That does not mean avoiding criticism. But it must be criticism in the spirit of common peace rather than condemnation. Jeremiah is famous as the etymological root of the jeremiad. Yet his most scathing criticisms are directed against his own people who have failed in their special calling of righteousness, not the “mainstream” culture.
Second, Jeremiah offers a lesson about the organization of space. Even though they were settled as self-governing towns outside Babylon itself, God encourages the captives to conduct themselves as residents of that city, which implies physical integration. There need be no flight to the hinterlands.
Finally, Jewish tradition provides a counterpoint to the dream of restoring sacred authority. At least in the diaspora, Jews have demanded the right to live as Jews—but not the imposition of Jewish law or practices on others. MacIntyre evokes historical memories of Christendom that are deeply provocative to many good people, including Jews. The Jeremiah option, on the other hand, represents a commitment to pluralism: the only serious possibility in a secular age like ours.
I offer these arguments against communal withdrawal from a somewhat idiosyncratic motive. An heir to the Jewish diaspora, I am a relatively comfortable inhabitant of secular modernity. By what right do I counsel people whose first loyalty is to God?
The answer is: self-interest. While not a member of traditional religious community myself, I am convinced that the rest of society is immeasurably enriched by the presence of such communities in political, cultural, and intellectual life. So while I do fear that practices of separation will be bad for those communities themselves—as the fundamentalist experience of the last century indicates—I am certain that they will be bad for the rest of us. If demanding, traditional forms of religion disappear from mainstream culture, that culture may actually become the caricature of a destitute age on which MacIntyre builds his analysis.
At the same time, it would be cynical to offer a merely instrumental argument for the continued engagement of religious communities with secular society. Although not very observant myself, I found Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles helpful in thinking through this problem. God reminds the captives that they will find peace only in the peace of the Babylonians, that they are to promote the good of the rest of society as well as their own. The Jeremiah Option gives me reason to hope that Jews, Christians, and the rest of us can find peace together.
Samuel Goldman’s work has appeared in The New Criterion, The Wall Street Journal, and Maximumrocknroll.