Faced with an implacably hostile environment, some of those strongly committed to Judaism choose isolation. As one keen observer described it, “[T]he complete segregation of the ben Torah from the masses as such and from the masses as such and his retreat into a unique, almost hermit-like fellowship, closed his mind to the true challenge of halacha as a dynamic force and practical discipline. The tragic results are now discernible in every sector of Jewish life. The talmid hacham has attained a complete withdrawal from the people into a sectarian society with all its idiosyncrasies and eccentricities.”
The need for the faithful to signal loyalty to ever-narrower splinter groups has led to increasing emphasis on precisely those aspects of tradition that are obscure and unnatural, while the lack of opportunity for constructive sacrifice has given rise to socially costly signaling. Likewise, the need for the faithful to affirm an articulated narrative has become much greater, just as the specificity of the narrative has become more pronounced. Affirming the belief in the genius of the sages, the powers of the righteous, and the inevitable downfall of the wicked has become a litmus test of loyalty. Increasing monasticism and obscurantism have led to increasing defection. Each of these reactions has been triggered and exacerbated by the others and together they have constituted a vicious cycle, driving the community further and further away from a good equilibrium.
Moshe Koppel, “Judaism as a First Language,” Azure No. 46 (Autumn 2011), 89.