Yoel Finkelman's Strictly Kosher Reading: Popular Literature and the Condition of Contemporary Orthodoxy (Academic Studies Press, 2011) is, to say the least, well off my usual beaten path: contemporary Haredi literature (which here comprises self-help and other manuals, pop theology, fiction, biography, and the like) in both Israel and the USA is not exactly my primary area of expertise. Strictly speaking, this study veers more toward the sociological than the literary, with little in the way of close reading. For those of us who primarily study Christian fiction, Finkelman's approach most closely resembles Callum Brown's in The Death of Christian Britain: both emphasize the importance of narrative in everyday life, and analyze popular texts (fictional and non- ) in order to discover how groups shape communal identities through storytelling. Although Finkelman's particular topic is probably foreign to many readers of his blog, his points are still worth looking at for those of us who study religion & literature. I'll highlight a few.
1) Strategies for negotiating boundaries, and the permeability of same. Finkelman repeatedly points out that Haredi literature, despite its apparent rejection of all non-Haredi culture, is actually permeated with a number of very modern concepts--"coalescence," a term he borrows from Sylvia Barack Fishman--which it often authorizes with more traditional rhetoric and authors. For example, contemporary beliefs about nutrition can be undergirded with references to Maimonides and kabbala (45-48), and equally contemporary arguments about child-rearing (especially the dangers of physical punishment and the need for affection between parents and children) can be justified by careful interpretations of apparently contradictory verses from the Torah (74-77). Innovation can thus be folded back into tradition. At the same time, as Finkelman reminds us, "[a]t the end of the day, market forces may be more important in the Haredi book market than ideology, whether to publishers, authors, or readers" (97). (As we have seen very recently, attempts to quash heterodox or heretical texts may have the opposite of the desired effect, especially thanks to the internet.) Most of the book is devoted to how Haredi authors import and transform apparently secular genres or theories, whether fictional or scientific, and then justify the practice (sometimes by refusing to acknowledge what's going on, sometimes through careful framing).
2) Gender and appropriation. The book advances an interesting argument: Haredi women are not only more likely to advance internal self-critique, but also to utilize arguments drawn from secular sources, given that they "for the most part do not receive the same degree of education as men in the most sacred and authoritative texts of tradition" and are much more likely to "have received a less restricted secular education" than their male counterparts (79). Thus, a woman writing about problems with the Haredi education system unapologetically deploys her "expertise in special education" (84) in a way that a male author rarely does. Although at one level this is a very culturally-specific difference, it also raises interesting questions about secular dynamics in women's religious writing from other traditions, whether non-Haredi Judaism or Roman Catholicism.
3) In-group vs. out-group texts, or not. As one might expect, texts produced for outreach rather than for the home community's consumption often have different trajectories, contents, and so forth. But as Finkelman observes, "much of the outreach-oriented literature is in fact read, and meant to be read, by insiders as well" (39). Trying to identify how an audience might respond to a given text is tricky for precisely this reason: it's not at all clear, for example, that Jewish conversion novels have a Jewish audience in mind, while Jewish and Catholic novelists like Grace Aguilar, Lady Georgiana Fullerton, and Julia Kavanagh had a wide-ranging ecumenical readership. (What would it mean to "get" one's understanding of Catholicism from Lady Georgiana?) Here, though, is where the question of media distribution networks arises--a nineteenth-century Catholic novel aimed primarily at a Catholic audience and sold almost entirely at Catholic bookstores would not have the internet to enhance its mobility, whereas the combination of online bookstores and search engines now makes it difficult to keep in-group literature "in" (sometimes to everyone's chagrin).
4) The practice of in-group criticism. Finkelman highlights two different trends in Haredi self-criticism: "one that reinforces the beliefs of the community" and "a more subversive, dangerous comparison, one in which a Haredi spokesman cautiously and implicitly accepts various aspects of the secular critique of Haredi Judaism" (163). The former insists that all failures indict not the community's values, but rather its refusal to practice same; the latter suggests that the community's self-construction obscures important flaws visible only to those outside of it. Thus, one critic of internet use warns that many blogs are dangerous because "they lack the filters and limits on criticism that Torah considers central" (166), whereas the prominent commentator Yonoson (Jonathan) Rosenblum extensively quotes from a secular author's perspective in order to authorize his own agenda, and thus "translates the outsider critique into the language of insiders" (172). Although Finkelman doesn't discuss the issue at any length, the problems posed by #3 above have considerable resonance for in-group critique: what happens if the out-group reads it? This is much less of a problem if one is writing in Yiddish or Hebrew, obviously, but it remains an issue; one thinks, for example, of the minefields involved when moving from Catholic anti-clericalism to anti-Catholic anti-clericalism, or from Jewish critiques of materialistic Jews to the anti-Semitic version of same. (The reception history of Amy Levy is one of the most [in]famous cases in point--how are we supposed to read her contempt for Jewish bourgeois self-satisfaction?)