The Adass and the Amish: Community and Autonomy

The Weekend Australian Magazine (Oct 1-2) featured a cover-story by Kate Legge on the conservative Adass Jews in Melbourne, a distinctive, largely self-contained Jewish community. Inevitably, the Amish were mentioned as a point of comparison, another distinctive religious community not wanting to embrace all of the technologies and assumptions of the 21st century – or even the 20th. For the Adass, adhering to strict dietary laws is paramount. The Sabbath is closely observed. Men do not touch women, even to shake their hand. They do not forbid contact with the outside world, but they live largely within their community.

Reading about the Adass brought out conflicting feelings in me, two ideologies which sometimes overlap and sometimes clash. One is a belief in the need for deep community; the other is a belief in the need for an authentic life.

It was in my teen years that I articulated a personal vision that pitted myself against the suburban world around me; I called it ‘calibanism’ then, after Miranda’s term in John Fowles’ The Collector (who in turn had got it from the character in Shakespeare’s The Tempest); it is similar to ‘boganism’. I was arrogant, ignorant and lonely then. I thought that the only authentic response to lowbrow culture and consumerism was an individualistic elitism. As my politics and faith became more left wing, I came to see the bogans or calibans of this world as at least partly victims of a system. I embraced the (not exclusively) Anabaptist conception of the church as a counter-cultural community. But even in my twenties, I was ambivalent about conforming to the norms and rules of a community.

I think our society has become so sadly fragmented and individualistic, losing much of the community involvement which gave our ancestors a sense of belonging and meaning. And yet I always place myself on the fringe of any system or community – too ready, perhaps, to see its compromises and faults, too unwilling to compromise on my own complicated code.

2 thoughts on “The Adass and the Amish: Community and Autonomy

  1. Hi Nathan,

    Thanks for this. The relation of the human person to community and the need to be authentic within a community is very complex as you understand. I do not know what the solution is, but one reason I am no longer a member of any church is the bad churched experiences I have had.

    In some churches, if you think too differently, you are on the way out.
    There is little tolerance for theological diversity in many evangelical (and dare I say some liberal churches), I long for genuine freedom and diversity around a genuine commitment to follow Jesus message of God’s reign of shalom.

    We cannot be the “church” in isolation, but too many churches place too many restrictions on people. Everything is hokey dorey until you verbally express something outside the accepted boundaries of the particular church tradition. Then sanctions are applied even if some sector of the broader church accepts the particular point of view.

    We are meant to belong to the church as the community of God’s people but some groups apply too tight a boundary and you are left excluded if you are honest with your views, or you just go underground and remain, feeling oppressed and inauthentic.


    John Arthur

  2. Thanks John. I feel for you in your situation; it’s hard to find a church which can handle people with subversive theological convictions! Mt Hawthorn Community Church is one of the few I’ve discovered.

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