Thursday, March 17, 2005

Growing Up Chareidi Really is Different

It's not uncommon for me to get comments (both online and off) saying that the issues I write or talk about are not as unique as I'm portraying them to be. Sometimes it seems that I'm asserting that a certain problem is exclusive to the chareidi world. Other times I may appear to be pointing at the yeshivish/chareidi influence in my life as the cause of various difficulties I experience. People often take issue with such portrayals, and tell me that there's usually a more general and universal cause for the problem, and the issue itself is something that people from all walks of life deal with.

(Ironically, it's often the same people who love to crow about how unique and distinctive their society is that when hearing my concerns, turn around and tell me that the problems that I see in their society are actually common to everyone and not connected at all to their lifestyle. I see. So only the flattering and complimentary qualities are unique to your society, but the unsavory ones are prevalent everywhere else? Riiiiight.)

I agree that it isn't all applicable only to the scenarios that I focus on. To some degree, much of what I write about could apply to people from all sorts of backgrounds, not just the one I came from. Part of the reason that it comes across that way is that it's my preferred style of writing. I could write in more general terms, speaking about "people" and "societies" (and at times I do), but I prefer to adopt a more personal tone, and therefore I speak specifically about my own formative experiences and influences. Although meant to draw focus, it's not intended to claim exclusivity.

That being said, there's still some important distinctions between those from non-Orthodox societies who have similar difficulties and those who come from a strict Orthodox culture. One notable difference being that no other society in western culture, even a religious one, has as many rules, regulations, and beliefs as chareidism does (to the best of my knowledge). Besides the well known mass of torah obligations, there's also a heap of rabbinic requirements. On top of that, and usually the most intrusive, are all the many rules and requirements that affect the normal everyday quality of our lives. I'm not sure if these are actual halacha, takanos, gedarim, minhag, chumra, communal practice, or just OCD gone awry, but they're the ones that can really drive you mad. For example:
  • how to get dressed
  • how to take a shower
  • how to put on one's shoes
  • how to cut one's fingernails
  • how to wash our hands
  • how to lay in bed when going to sleep
  • how late one may sleep
  • how one may decorate their home
  • whether Food A can be eaten before Food B
  • whether Book A can be placed on top of Book B
This is just what I could think of off the top of my head. Feel free to contribute your own examples in the comments. What other society makes such incessant demands on their laypeople? (Note: I'm not saying that every minhag and chumra has the severity of a Torah obligation, and admittedly, not every person takes every issue so seriously. But they are all part of the lifestyle, and all are expected to be lived up to to some degree or another.)

Another unique characteristic to chareidism is the severity with which they view every single halachic obligation, from the most trivial to the most fundamental. I've heard of non-Orthodox societies (and families) with lots of rules and regulations, but do members of those groups actually believe that infractions of the regulations condemn one to severe penalties in the afterlife? In chareidism, minor offenses are as severe as capital ones. In fact, it's a well known principle among religious minded people that one shouldn't even think of bigger or smaller rules, and every one of them should be considered as if it's the most important.

The point I'm trying to make is twofold: Firstly, while every society has laws and rules dictating aspects of life, none of them have as many as does Orthodoxy, and especially chareidism. Secondly, even for those people who do have very regimented upbringings, violations of these policies are not the mortal and unpardonable atrocities that chareidim view the breaking of halacha as.

This all-encompassing and very intense existence means that someone raised in such a home or society feels very different about their values, priorities, and norms than does a typical non-Orthodox person raised with their own set of principles.

For example, I've never heard of anyone who thought they were going to hell for not eating a proper diet, not making their bed, or sleeping until noon. On the other hand, I have met many people who believed they were going to suffer some time in hell for not making a bracha, not putting on tefillin, or coming late to davening. There's a qualitative difference in how some people stress the importance of saying please, thank you, and your welcome, while others stress saying baruch hashem, bli neder, and bli ayin hara. I think it's perfectly normal for children to be taught not to use other people's things without their permission. It's a bit different when you're taught that doing so causes you to lose the merit of all the good that you've ever done in your life. Not to gossip sounds like a great educational lesson. Adding that doing so is one of the worst sins a person can commit is just not the same thing. I see no problem with a person feeling guilty for having fantasies about someone other than their spouse. I think it's unhealthy when they view it as if they've actually committed adultery. Educating about taking responsibility for one's actions seems like good parenting. Including exhortations of fire and brimstone makes for a very different kind of lesson. I'm all for a child being brought up with certain concepts of right and wrong. It's a bit different when those concepts provide absolutely no flexibility or room for the person to adjust them somewhat. Guidelines for all sorts of areas of life are perfectly reasonable. Immutable demands that can never be violated are a different story.

It's true, we all have issues to deal with. But growing up chareidi just can't be compared with anything else that's out there.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

There are some similarities with the Amish; they also tend to credit violations of minhag with afterlife penalties. Many Amish groups are ready to shun violaters.

Moving outward from "western culture", strict Islamic sects have related worldviews. Shariah is clearly derived from halacha. While
Islamic kashrut is simpler than the Jewish variety, Wahhabis have stricter views on tznius, music, appearance, and personal hygiene. And they'll punish you for violations in this world as well as the next!

Anonymous said...

But Wahhabis are clearly considered by the vast majority of Islamic scholars as a derivative (non-traditional) sect. More like the Neturei Karta -- but with billions of dollars and control of the Islamic holy sites.

Anonymous said...

"Shariah is clearly derived from halacha"

Possibly -- but there are differences in that decisions made by each of the 4 schools of Islamic jurisprudence are considered equally valid by the other three.

& said...

But Wahhabis are clearly considered by the vast majority of Islamic scholars as a derivative (non-traditional) sect.

Who defines what's traditional? I know plenty of devout people who find the idea of (and especially emphasis on) hell to be a totally newfangled addition to Judaism, and incompatible with its historical worldview. And they've got a tolerable amount of evidence on their side.

Frummer????? said...

Many of the things you mention are written in the shulchan orruch.

You left out the one which truly has the most "unwritten" rules.

How to have or not to have sex.

Anonymous said...

"I see no problem with a person feeling guilty for having fantasies about someone other than their spouse. I think it's unhealthy when they view it as if they've actually committed adultery. "

Good b/c people do understand that it's not as though they literally committed adultery (or ought to understand that) eg theres hardly a death penalty for that.

"I'm all for a child being brought up with certain concepts of right and wrong. It's a bit different when those concepts provide absolutely no flexibility or room for the person to adjust them somewhat."

I think you are right that no other system is as comprehensive or intrusive as OJ.
But I think you overstate your case - elementary education provides flexibility. unless you were given no decent understanding of the halachic process, everyone understands the distinctions (or ought to!). And since the primary obligation is to learn, they learn the distinctions (or ought to!).

On the good side, OJ is the only system with emphasis on an educated laity and that has been its salvation.

peleg said...

I also am dismayed by all this "attention to detail" that some are so obsessed with. I think that Hashem looks down, see all of the hoops we put up for ourselves to jump through, shakes his head, and says, "What are you guys doing? I never asked or expected anything like that from you. Isn't what I directly asked you to do hard enough? What are you trying to prove?" So, I just don't try to jump through all the hoops and try to do what is truly meaningful and sensible.

Lyss said...

peleg, I have often thought along the same lines