Michael's Midterm

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Posted on 11 Apr 2013 23:00

Conflict: The 7th Categorie

Michael Safdieh
April 11, 2013


"Perhaps one of most debated topics among scholars is the subject of discourse communities. He should have added a seventh characteristic; a discourse community must possess conflict amongst its members. First and foremost, much of my knowledge on the topic is based on the fact that I was born into the community. This subject is almost infinitely dense; therefore I have chosen to discuss only three examples of conflict: views on secular culture, how the Torah (Jewish Bible) is learned, and the view of working vs. learning. Good and bad can be derived from both the rightists and the leftists. Accordingly, something so great is likely to be vastly complicated, and thus will result in many interpretations."


Perhaps one of most debated topics among scholars is the subject of discourse communities. With such a vague term, many definitions have been given, and many works have been written on the matter by academics such as Ann M. Johns, Elizabeth Wardle, Sean Branick, and James Paul Gee. Among all the masters in the field, however, John Swales seems to have defined the term discourse community in the most organized, concrete fashion.
In his work “The Concept of Discourse Community”, Swales listed six criteria in order for a community to be defined as a discourse community. The following are his criteria:
1. A discourse community has a broadly agreed set of common public goals.
2. A discourse community has mechanisms of intercommunication among its members.
3. A discourse community uses its participatory mechanisms primarily to provide information and feedback.
4. A discourse community utilizes and hence possesses one or more genres in the communicative furtherance of its aims.
5. In addition to owning genres, a discourse community has acquired some specific lexis, or a form of colloquial speech.
6. A discourse community has a threshold level of members with a suitable degree of relevant content and discoursal expertise. In other words, its members range from being experts to novices (Swales, 471-473).

Swales then goes on by giving an example of a discourse community: the Hong Kong Study Circle (or HKSC), which is a community whose purpose is “to foster interest in and knowledge of the stamps of Hong Kong (the various printings, etc.) and of their uses (postal rates, cancellations, etc.).” He also notes that there are 320 current members (at least at the time Swales wrote this piece) (473). Gathering the facts of Swales claims, it would seem that he intended a discourse community to be a very specific, and rather small community. Although it is not the purpose of this paper, I will display how a very large-scale community can fit into Swales conditions of a discourse community.
The community I speak of is my very own Jewish Sephardic Community located primarily in Brooklyn, New York. The community fits well into Swales’ six characteristics as shown below:
1. My community most definitely has a broad (and sometimes broad is even too specific a term to use) set of goals. Some universal goals include: serving (praying to) God, following Halakhah (Jewish law), living a life of morals in the modern world, and educating the youth.
2. Our “mechanisms” of communication vary widely. They can range from law books, forums, e-mails, personal communication, articles, newsletters, and such. Basically, since the community is so large and that we all live, for the most part, in close proximity to one another, almost every form of communication is used.
3. The participatory forms of interaction, when referring to the goals of the community, do always provide feedback and information. One way this can be observed is through the many books of She’elot U’Teshuvot (literally meaning “questions and answers”) written by the many rabbis of the community. These books provide actual questions raised by individuals pertaining to Jewish law and morals, and the rabbi’s intricate response and bottom-line of how to take action.
4. The genres that we use, such as the above-mentioned question and answer system, are definitely used to further the aims of our community. Just take the Q&A example; the essential purpose of these questions is to further understand what to do in specific situations in order to effectively fulfill the ambitions of the community.
5. Our community, as I’m sure you already picked up on, most certainly has acquired some specific lexis. In conversation, Hebrew words are thrown around as if they were English. Hebrew is an essential piece to the larger scope of communication in almost any Jewish community.
6. Lastly, our community contains different “levels of membership”, and each category of people feed off of each other. The “experts” can be referencing the scholars, spiritual leaders, organization heads and much more. There are many different types of “experts”, as there are so many different and relevant aspects to the community. An individual can be the chairman of a charity organization while at the same time not posses sufficient knowledge to answer a question about the Jewish law. Thus, this individual is an expert and a layperson all at once.

From all of the above statements, my community can be considered to be extremely broad when it comes to discourse communities, yet it still can be defined as one. In essence, the Sephardic Jewish Community of Brooklyn serves as a mother discourse community to many smaller discourse communities within it.
The goal of this paper is not to prove that my community is a discourse community (which I have just done anyways), rather it is to present a problem that my community faces every day. Swales missed a central point when he defined discourse communities. He should have added a seventh characteristic; a discourse community must possess conflict amongst its members. The conflict concerning my community is one that is present in almost every society; the right wing versus the left wing.


For this project, I used several methods of research. First and foremost, much of my knowledge on the topic is based on the fact that I was born into the community. Therefore, a lot of the information I give cannot be sourced, because it is just second nature to me. Additionally, I looked into a few books and articles that represent the right and left wing positions on certain topics. Furthermore, I included some things that I heard from certain people within my community, and have tried to the best of my ability to reference it as a source, but was not always successful. Finally, I have combined my results and discussion sections, as they complement each other, and must be written together in order to produce the best results.

Results and Discussion

This rightwing versus leftwing conflict happens to be specific to the realms of Jewish Orthodoxy, which is generally wholly viewed as right wing altogether. My research shows that this generalization is not true, yet the main goal of my studies remains to present the two conflicting sides.
The right wing is referred to as “black-hat”, as many of them wear black hats, suits, and white shirts. Black hat is a commonly used term in many Jewish communities, however my community coined the term “white-hat”. This, obviously, is the nickname for the leftwing group. They don’t actually wear white hats; it is just a mere term.
Most people think that right wing is associated with being more religious and vise versa. This is not true. Religiosity and the right/ left wing stance on it are two totally different things. A scale from 1 to 10 must not be only used for measuring how right or left someone is (1 being leftmost, and 10 being rightmost), but also for how religious someone is. There are 10s and 1s in piety on both ends of the rightwing-leftwing spectrum. It all comes down to a philosophy; how do we think of Judaism, and what are its values.
This subject is almost infinitely dense; therefore I have chosen to discuss only three examples of conflict: views on secular culture, how the Torah (Jewish Bible) is learned, and the view of working vs. learning.

Examples of Conflicting Views

1. Secular Culture

Some of the most extreme rightist outlooks can be found in the book Keeping Holy. The general aim of the book, as its title suggests, is to teach the individual how to remain “holy”. This includes abstaining from seeing incorrect images (meaning nakedness and such) and from thinking of “impure” thoughts. In one section, the book discusses how one is to abstain from idolatry and is not even allowed to look at idols (which is part of Jewish Law). The book then goes further by relating this to television, by stating “Knowing all this, what can we say about the abomination called television, on which can be seen every abomination in the world?” (42). In other words, television presents many foul images such as nudity, bloodshed, and opposing values to Judaism. It then continues by saying that one who watches television regularly will fully lose his faith and fear of Heaven (in other words fear of God) (42, 43).
Indeed, the black-hat position on television is that it is prohibited to watch under any circumstance. Some of the yeshivot (Jewish schools) in the community require that the homes of their students do not even contain a TV. Once again, this is an extreme viewpoint, as some right-wingers do have TVs in their homes.
Expanding the TV argument into a broader picture, one will see that, generally, the black-hats prefer to shield themselves off from secular culture. They believe that only the Torah contains truth and substance, and that everything else is a distraction and a temptation. Furthermore, they feel that one can become “lost” or fall off the Jewish path if they open their minds to secular knowledge. It is for this reason that they created a sub-society, in which closed themselves off (figuratively, but sometimes even literally) from the secular world. I can give an example from a conversation I had with my driving instructor. He told me that one of his students, a religious rightist sixteen year-old girl from Brooklyn, thought that she was in the Bronx while, in reality, she was in Coney Island (personal communication). The right-wingers believe that sheltering will ultimately result in their children remaining faithful to the religion. For the most part, they do succeed at this, yet this statement by itself warrants its own discussion, however, this is not the place.

The leftwing stance on secular knowledge is that a Jew should embrace it and allow it to enhance their view on Judaism. In the Bible, Man is told by God to fill the earth with offspring and to conquer it (Genesis 1:28). Twentieth century Jewish philosopher and religious leader, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (also considered by many to be the father of Jewish Modern Orthodoxy) interprets this as a command from God to humankind to explore the world and to strive to understand it (Soloveitchik, 7-19).

2. How the Torah is to be Learned/ Interpreted

This is a topic of debate among Jews all around the world, and, of course, also exists in the Sephardic Jewish Community of Brooklyn. The more rightwing view is to take the Bible literally (word for word). This leads some black-hats to believe that God created the world in six days (as stated in the first chapter of Genesis), and that the world itself is only over 5000 years old.

According to the more leftist views, the Bible is not always there to teach us history, but rather a much more significant message. Most white-hats believe that God created the world and humanity through evolution. Rabbi Moshe Shamah, rabbi of Sephardic Congregation, holds that “The Torah is a sophisticated work that was designed to be understood at more than the surface level” (Shamah, xix).

3. Working vs. Learning

This may be the most sensitive topic among the community. In some rightwing sects of Orthodox Judaism, there is a practice that men, after attending Jewish yeshiva high school, go on to study in a “house of study” (or in Hebrew, beth midrash) all day every day. They don’t get a job for a living; rather they get paid to learn from donations. The men study mainly Jewish law in order to become a certified rabbi, and then supposedly give back to their community by teaching others. The reason why I use the word “supposedly” is because in many instances the men just end up continuing to learn for the rest of their days instead of teaching in someway.
This trend, of course, found its place into my community. The white-hats vehemently reject this way of life and argue that, while it is essential that a Jew learn as much Torah (in this case I mean Torah to mean anything in the realm of Jewish studies) as he can (and they mean this with the utmost sincerity), a person must work in order to support his family. There are, indeed, exceptions; such as if it is observed that there is an exceptional youth with great wisdom and knowledge, he will be supported to learn all day as he will likely develop into a great leader of the community. An organization that may be considered as an exception is the Sephardic Rabbinical College (or SRC). As you’ve probably guessed from its title, it is an organization where students, after high school, learn for several years to become rabbis of the community, and are paid to do so. What makes it stand out is that the students have a contractual agreement to “give back” to the community after they attain their rabbinical license for at least seven years.


As I have mentioned earlier, this conflict runs way too deep to be able to discuss it fully in this report. Literally thousands upon thousands of pages could be written on the subject. That being said, it is very difficult for an outsider to make judgments about either side of the conflict. This problem must be dealt with the utmost care in order to even attempt to mend it.
Good and bad can be derived from both the rightists and the leftists. For example, the black-hats may have a strong background in Judaic studies through their sheltered society, but it may be that very same sheltered way of life that turns some of its own away from the religion. For the white-hats, their way of open acceptance to the secular world may actually cause some of their own to forget their Jewish roots and “fall out” of the religion (which is exactly why the black-hats fear secular knowledge).
The reason why this problem is so important to the community is because the religion is extremely significant to us. It is what guides us. It is what we were brought up with. It is what we believe to be the ultimate way of life. Accordingly, something so great is likely to be vastly complicated, and thus will result in many interpretations. This, I believe is the source of the conflict.
All in all, the central idea of this report was to present a taste of the conflict of this discourse community, and thus demonstrating how a true discourse community should most definitely contain conflict for it to be categorized as one.


Keeping Holy. (n.d.).

Personal communication. March 29, 2013.

Shamah, M. (2011). Recalling the covenant: A contemporary commentary on the five books of the Torah. Jersey City, NJ: KTAV Pub. House.

Soloveitchik, J. D. (2012). The Lonely Man of Faith. New Milford, CT: Maggid Books.

Swales, John. "The Concept of Discourse Community"

[Tanakh] = JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh : The traditional Hebrew text and the new JPS translation—second edition. (1999). Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.

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