Sunday, January 16, 2005

The Rise of Fundamentalism

Everyone’s chiming in on the Slifkin book banning controversy (link, link, link, link, link, link, link, link), so in the paragraphs below I offer my own armchair analysis. For me, this incident highlights 2 issues, and I’ve made reference to them in the past:
  1. the increasing influence of the extremist elements in the frum world
  2. trusting rabbis
Maybe in some long ago era (20-30 years ago?) being frum was something that people were able to enjoy, to be able to be a part of while still being a normal, everyday Joe. I’ve heard fascinating tales of exotic and mysterious places where people who were fine respectable frum yidden weren’t ashamed of the fact that they didn’t eat cholov yisrael, owned TV’s, had mixed seating affairs, weren’t pressured to learn 24/7, read newspapers, went mixed swimming, weren’t bothered by women who didn’t cover their hair, earned University degrees, had singles events, worked for a living, didn’t worry about the shiur of their matza, gave their relatives hugs and kisses, and had all sorts of corrupt behavior that today would be considered terribly sordid.

However, in today’s day and age, thanks to the increase in our levels of torah observance and the tremendous proliferation of all the wonderful yirei shamayim, ba’alei madreiga, and gedolei torah that have filled our ranks, being frum is something else entirely. Normal, it isn’t. Enjoyable, it doesn’t even pretend to be. What we have today is something only vaguely recognizable to what existed barely a generation ago. True, the world has changed, and certain measures may be justified, but the degree to which frum society has become such an unpleasant, repressive, intolerant and narrow-minded culture can not be based on external factors alone.

When I was going through yeshiva, I often pointed out to some of the more moderate rabbeim I dealt with how proponents of extremist views make Judaism so unpleasant for people like me. They often were sympathetic to my frustrations, and encouraged me to try to find my own niche where these views weren’t present and I wouldn’t have to put up with inanities such as those. Yet, they wouldn’t ever take a stand (even privately) against promoters of the stringent views. They always maintained that these figures were ehrliche yidden, following their gedolim, who themselves were following their established mesorah, and were not to be viewed as unacceptable. The farthest I ever heard any rabbi go was to criticize their methods, but the goal of these factions (supposedly that of protecting the Torah, and increasing observance of mitzvos) was always unassailable. "They’re derech is not the way we do things", they’d say, "but it’s a derech that is based in Torah."

While recent incidents like the Slifkin controversy truly turn my stomach when I see how these fanatics are becoming increasingly more powerful and influential, I have to admit that I enjoy seeing how those same rabbis who were always too hesitant to criticize these figures, are now finding themselves on the receiving end of the extremism. The uncomfortable position that they find themselves in is truly amusing.

On the one hand, they’ve been trying to pass themselves off as moderate, as sophisticated, as being in touch with the modern Jew, understanding of the subtle conflicts that an educated person deals with, and offering a Judaism that caters to these sensibilities. On the other hand, they desperately need to maintain their "frum credentials", and if they come across too agreeable to modernishkeit they will suffer the wrath of the frumkeit watchdogs. So at the same time that they’re pandering to the modern sensibility, they’re also professing absolute loyalty to da’as torah, halacha, mesorah, and of course, the gedolim.

No one’s surprised that when push comes to shove, they will always faithfully take the side of the gedolim. But what’s so humorous about this situation is seeing these supposedly "with-it" rabbis now being forced to take positions that they themselves are truly uncomfortable with. The fence they once were able to straddle no longer exists. At this point, the extremism has so permeated the mainstream approach to frumkeit, and is supposedly being promoted by the current crop of roshei yeshiva and gedolim that if they really believe they’re own shpiel about submission to da’as torah being paramount, then they necessarily must adopt these views too. So, while 15-20 years ago, they didn’t see such a problem with keeping quiet about certain trends developing in frum society, now those trends have snowballed into outright lunacy, and these rabbis are being forced to reap what they’ve sown.
  • For example, back then they might not have had a problem with those who were discouraging interaction between the sexes, but now those same ideologues are pushing for the need for separate busses, even separate streets in certain locations, forbidding healthy and normal socialization and in general promoting a social norm that is frighteningly similar to those found in repressive Muslim societies.

  • Whereas in prior years, they would have silently ignored certain vocal elements in the frum world as some of their views were harshly criticized, confident that their opinions were still accepted in the mainstream, now the mainstream has rejected their approach as heretical.

  • Whereas before they extolled the trend to encourage more and more torah study, emphasizing it’s primacy over "secular" studies, now they find themselves dealing with a community that is wholly unprepared to face the challenges of the modern era, incapable of supporting themselves, utterly ignorant of established scientific facts, and lacking in the most basic of critical thinking skills.

  • Whereas in an earlier generation they were complimentary of the trend towards increasing levels of torah observance, now they find themselves dealing with a community that is obsessed with obscure rituals and stringencies to a degree that is unprecedented in Jewish history; a community that is so focused on the letter of the law that the concept of "the spirit of the law" is absolutely foreign to them.

  • Whereas before they might have quietly gone along with the trend to avoid "non-torah" sources of information such as secular newspapers, nowadays the recommended resource for news and information comes from organs that are merely mouthpieces for their leaders own agendas and who’s only objective is to present their community in a positive light, liberally dispensing with such journalistic notions as fairness, objectivity, truth, and avoiding slander and libel.

  • Whereas before they might have sided with groups who were strongly critical of Zionist institutions, now they find those same groups supporting murderers of Jews.

  • Whereas before they might have been understanding of the community’s tendency to distrust "the goyim", nowadays they have to deal with rabbinic figures who expound racist views.

  • Whereas before they preferred the idea of taking care of problems in the community privately without involving the authorities, now they find that this policy has left them with no effective means of combating criminals and deviants who have used this system to gain positions of great influence, all the while using their positions to exploit and harm innocent people. Self-appointed vigilantes who openly commit criminal acts and ruin innocent people’s lives, reputations, and livelihoods have free reign.
Probably all these examples of fanaticism have existed in elements of the frum community at one time or another. But in the past, they were always fringe elements, never fully accepted and never allowed to have too much influence in mainstream Jewish society. However, in our golden age of frumkeit, these zealots have been given a foothold and been allowed to influence our society so that their views have permeated our schools, our communities, our institutions, our social norms, and our lives. Most importantly, by not speaking out against these extremist elements, the leaders - the gedolim - are giving tacit approval to these developments. Some of the gedolim just remain quiet, silently going along with the flow, but others are more outspoken, openly and fully endorsing the new reality that is taking hold. They are supportive of these groups, and are elated that their influence is no longer limited to their sectarian enclaves. Their influence has now extended beyond their confined ghettos to what was once considered ordinary yeshiva society (now probably identified as chareidi) and even further outward to many areas of modern orthodox society.

These people have ruined Judaism enough already. Our leaders have proven themselves to be untrustworthy and incompetent to combat this blight. I hope and pray that this incident will be the wake up call that the frum world needs to realize how badly their society has degenerated. Maybe when the stench is too strong to ignore they will finally do something about it. And maybe then, when we see them caring about matters of truth and justice more than they do about frumkeit images and superficialities, those of us who left it out of disgust and frustration may be willing to give it a second chance.

(Eh, who am I kidding?!)

Update: Check out this great spoof.

Second Update: Chakira chimes in with a worthwhile analysis. At the end, he mentions that he wrote about this a year ago and was written off as being too paranoid about people on the fringe of the frum community. This illustrates exactly the point I was making above. These people used to be on the fringe, and now they have become mainstream.


yoinoson schreiber said...

Great post.


Isaac said...

Here, perhaps this will make you feel better -

Elu V'Elu said...

I agree with you 100%.... I do not think that we will ever see moderation creep back in. There is too much invested (or wasted)in the Chareidi infrastructure for any real changes from within.

back row said...

There are other factors to consider. In days past, orthodoxy was generally confined to large cities. Much of the past generation that called themselves orthodox weren't formally educated, and had no hashkafa. But many of these people sent their kids to yeshivas, and the kids became the religious beacons of the family. And as the kids moved to the right, so did the family. Goodbye knitted lid, hello black hat. Goobye TV, hello daf yomi. What else should we add to the mix? How about BTs and converts. Growing up, I knew one convert, and if somebody said, 'Baal Teshuva,' you said, 'Gesuntheit.' Today, it seems that every third person is a BT or convert, which is wonderful. In terms of left-right and religious extremity, this segement is more likely to lean to the right, and perhaps seek out extreme religious positions. I mean, if you voluntarily chose to give up shrimp & lobster, cover your hair/head, (perhaps) alienate yourself from family & friends, to enter orthodox society, realizing that you are years behind others in the community, in terms or knowledge & practice, what would you do? You'd probably choose stringency over leniency, and associate with those more on the right. Add in the kollels, and the chabadniks, and the aish guys, and the ffb who has been watching TV, and going to movies & concerts, etc. starts to get squeezed. When it comes to religion, a moderate in a right-moving society, appears to move to the left with each passing chumra and dollop of false piety.

Here's an example: One shabbos, after shul, I overheard a mother tell her kid that he couldn't play at another kid's house because the other family wasn't cholov yisroel. Personally, I thought the mother handled it like a blooming idiot. What happened to telling your kid not to eat dairy at the other house. Or talking to the other mother - We're CY, and if you happen to serve the kids dairy, please give my kid CY. Let the kids play. But no. We're CY, and we're holier than you. God forbid my child should play in an OU dairy house. So, in this case, what was the grand result of the chumra that's intended to elevate us and bring us closer to the Almighty? Two frum families, whose mothers can't work out a simple bump in the road, and two crying kids who don't know what's going on, except that they can't play with each other. Kol yisroel aravin...sure, tell me about it.

Ben said...

Yo, Hedyot. Speak truth to power!(Yoy, ishtenem, you can lose your mind...)

Anonymous said...

Excellent post! You are very thoughtful

Chef Z said...

Thank you for this intriguing, intelligent, and insightful post. And power to everyone who chooses to believe rather than being forced to.

rebelmo said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
SholomBare said...

Your post sums it up. I am not particularly religious though I attend a MO shul shabbos morning mostly for the kiddush, stopped friday night and shabbos mincha a while ago. Kids are married and frummer than God. Lubavitcher kids won't consume Golden Flow in our home.But I don't feel the squeeze at all. You can live your life as you please and I will continue to live comfortably and I do now. THE REAL SQUEEZE IS ON THE FAUX FRUM FAMILIES WHO CONCERNED ABOUT THE "SHIDDUCH SITUATION" we make our own choices. Did you knoww that Mormon have their version of tzitzes?

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Amen to an amazingly accurate blog post. From my selfish perspective, I look forward with glee to a new massive wave of migration to the Conservative movement. It could use some serious right-wing religious influence, and a wave of liberal frummies could provide that nicely. Perhaps we'll even do away with the first aliah for bat kohen as a compromise (this one makes me cringe).

I'd also like to see the UTJ (break-offs from Conservative movement after they blew out the JTS talmudists and ordained women as rabbis) start actively recruiting from the horrified orthodox folks that are finally waking up to the fact that their movement has been redefined from under their feet. It's time for Traditional to mean something truly different from Orthodoxy. The UTJ ( has a really nice charter that, IMHO, strikes a good balance between traditional faith/practice and rational, pragmatic change over time as new information becomes available. Gee, eating fish with meat doesn't hurt me, I guess it's OK. How's that for an idea?

The Hedyot said...

Before anyone gets confused by the above post (I did at first) the UTJ mentioned is not the UTJ of United Torah Judaism (the official chareidi political party in Israel). It's the Union for Traditional Judaism.

ADDeRabbi said...

Related phenomenon:
When R' Elya Svei busted out the whuppin' sticks on Rabbi Lamm at the No-goodah convention 8 odd years ago, there was no public reaction despite much private disagreement, because, hey, Daas Torah is Daas Torah.

Then, 2 years later, when he started taking potshots at Chaim Berlin, look who's no longer on the Mo'etzes. Apparently, Daas Torah can be revoked.

There's a quote somewhere about the dude who didn't speak up when Hitler went after the Jews, Gypsies, Catholics, Communists, or whatever.

CynicalJew said...

Ultra-orthodox jewry is a sick perverted world-no self-respecting human would allow their lives and their childrens lives to be dictated by a bunch of power-hungry old pedophilic Rabbis.

aad said...

To: Cynical Jew

Im an Ultra-Orthodox Jew, and my uncle is a rabbi. Is he a pedophile, and am I pedophile. There is enough anti-semitism on the web. Thank You