Last night I watched a television documentary on the Amish people of Pennsylvania and Indiana. I was fascinated to mentally compare Amish life, values, and strategies for community preservation with traditional (some would say "Orthodox") and "liberal" Jewish counterparts.
As I understood it, the two most important Amish concerns are serving G-d and preserving their cohesive community. The Amish believe that life in this physical world is brief and transitory, but that their proper behavior here affects the prospects for their soul’s salvation in the eternal world to come. Traditional Jewish theology is very similar (although, as Christians, Amish believe in Jesus as an intermediary to accomplish salvation; Jews do not. And if you don’t think of “salvation” as a Jewish concept, check the Amidah, Havdalah, and many other prayers!).
Like traditional Jews, the Amish begin each day with prayer. Although there are comprehensive standards for most aspects of daily life – The “Ordnung” for the Amish, Halachah for Jews -- each community makes its own decisions about how its members will apply the Ordnung. Judaism has its variations of that, too: minhag and decisions by the local rabbi (many Orthodox communities), by the local congregation (Reconstructionist), a national body on standards (guiding Conservative rabbis and communities), or the individual (Reform).
The documentary also explained that seeming contradictions in Amish forbidden vs. permitted practices have a carefully considered practical basis. For example, the Amish make decisions about using technology based upon how it is expected to affect community health and continuity. Merely riding in a car is not prohibited, but owning a car is -- because car ownership makes one much more likely to travel away frequently, work and socialize outside the community, and even move away. Similarly, using a public telephone is not prohibited, but owning a private phone is; one who regularly uses a private phone for communication is less likely to make in-person visits, with all the commensurate negative social consequences of lessened contact.
Similarly, liberal Jews [and, historically, many non-Jews] sometimes point with distain and/or ridicule to the seeming minutae and contradictions of halachah. But these, too, reflect careful and principled distinctions by our wisest sages whose greatest concerns were serving G-d and preserving Jewish continuity!
The program presented many vignettes that prompted me to reflect. In one, a visiting sociologist related how she had frankly expressed to one of the Amish community leaders her concern about the Amish practice of limiting public school education to the eighth grade. Wasn't this severely handicapping Amish children from succeeding in the world? The leader responded by comparing his own son, who was then approaching his last year in school, with his neighbor's non-Amish son, who would continue on to high school and perhaps beyond. The leader predicted that his own son would remain in the community, whereas his neighbor's son would not. Years later, the sociologist noted, the leader had been proven right. His son had purchased a farm in the community and had sufficient education to manage the family business and accept his family and communal responsibilities. The neighbor's son had moved to South America to lay pipe. Since the Amish’s second highest priority was to preserve the community, limiting public school to eighth grade made sense, however shocking to modern sensibility.
Of course, it's impossible to get an accurate view of a community or of a people based upon a single, two-hour documentary. Moreover, there was much that most of us would find highly problematic if not extremely objectionable. For example, the all-pervasive (many would say "oppressive") community pressure to conform in almost every aspect of life; the acknowledged submissive role of women; the truncated education; the refusal to serve in the military; the glorification of manual labor; the shunning of anyone who decides to leave the Amish way of life (after having voluntarily and solemnly vowed, in their late teens, never to do so); and the conscious wariness and conspicuous rejection of larger society.
And yet, the Amish have managed, albeit not perfectly and facing many challenges, to largely preserve the distinctiveness of their communities, to incorporate their primary "service to G-d and others" philosophy into their daily lives, and to keep most of their children in touch with their religion, family, and community values. Can we Jews say the same?
Our tradition teaches: "Who is wise? He who learns from everyone." I haven’t done the research, but I suspect that Amish acculturation and intermarriage rates are far lower than ours. So, it would likely behoove us to carefully consider what we can learn from the Amish about how a distinctive minority culture can survive in the American, consumerist melting pot. Or, to put it another way, how we must ensure that we are and remain distinctive if we wish our culture to survive here.
The documentary filmed a (non-Amish) tour bus driver saying the following to his passengers:
"I'm often asked, ‘what is the difference between us and the Amish?’ How many of you have televisions in your homes? (Everyone on the bus raised his/her hand). ‘How many of you feel that your family would be better off without your television?’ (Almost everyone raised his/her hand). ‘Well, since you feel that way, how many of you will go home and get rid of your televisions?’ (No one raised his/her hand). ‘That's the difference between us and the Amish. If the Amish feel that something is bad for their families or their community, they will get rid of it.’"
It made me think. Are we (mostly liberal) American Jews willing to change anything about our lives even if we know in our hearts that our life-style is destructive to Jewish continuity?