Wednesday, April 27, 2005

That Inner Wicked Son

When one grows up in a very regimented society, it's not unexpected to have very clear examples of the right way to live one's life constantly pointed out. Conversely, it's also not uncommon to have many examples of the absolute wrong way to conduct oneself also highlighted. In both subtle and straightforward ways, one can often hear the messages conveyed of "how a ben-torah is supposed to behave", or how one shouldn't do X because "that's how shkotzim act", etc. Most of the time I'm sure these messages have their intended effect of influencing individuals to conform to the prescribed image. Yet there are also times when, even as one professes loyalty to the stated dogma, one can't help sense a flicker of uncertainty regarding these portrayals, because deep down, one feels some sort of connection to the questionable activity. And not just in the sense of a weakness or base attraction, but an authentic and genuinely sincere affinity.

For me, one of the most acute examples of this experience has got to be the point in the pesach seder when we read about "The Wicked Son." The haggada describes one of the four sons as not being very interested in all the rituals, and openly questioning why he must be involved in them. For this appalling crime he is branded wicked. Growing up, what was I supposed to tell myself as I read this section? While I might not have consciously admitted it to myself, I knew very well that I totally identified with this characteristic of the wicked son. Despite my being a dedicated and properly behaved frum kid who for the most part took all of his religious duties quite seriously, in some deeply hidden part of my heart that I dared not explore, I knew that I would much rather be without all these burdensome practices. Of course I wouldn't have ever contemplated doing so, but if I had ever allowed myself to express myself as this son did, I'm sure it would have been a highly cathartic experience for me.

But this kind of behavior is wicked! It's wrong! It's bad! And how do we deal with such defiance? We knock his teeth out. True, it might seem excessive, but this is the Torah way of dealing with such people. And in case he doesn't get the message from his divinely ordained thrashing, afterwards we unambiguously let him know how we feel about his kind: "If you had been at Egypt you woudn't have merited being redeemed." i.e. "We don't even want you."

With traditions like these ingrained into our religious experiences, how can people wonder what makes some of us feel less than positive towards religious Judaism?

(PS - Another example of an "official" portrayal that always made me uncomfortable was the text in the Hadran: "We work, and they work... We run and they run...".)

Thursday, April 21, 2005

How to enjoy a holiday?

Pesach is here, and everyone is wishing each other their distinctive holiday greeting: Gut Yuntiff! Pesach Kasher v'Sameach! Happy Pesach! Chag Sameach!

My particular phrasing usually depends on who I'm saying it to, but whichever greeting I use, I know that really I'm not going to be particularly sincere with my words. It's not that it depresses me at all. I just don't really enjoy Pesach. Actually, I don't really enjoy most chagim. This does actually bother me a bit. I would like to be cheerful and festive, and excited about it all, but I know that my natural impulse is not to feel that way. Additionally, when I try to think about the issue and consider why I should be happy about it all, I just get even more turned off to the whole enterprise.

Why do I not enjoy it? A variety of reasons.

Most people's positive feelings about the holidays probably stem from the pleasant experiences they enjoyed with their families growing up. Unfortunately, I can't draw on any very favorable memories in this regard. Due to certain unusual circumstances, my family was forced to travel away from home every Pesach and Sukkos, usually to a relative, and while the hosts were very nice and there was nothing especially horrible about the time spent there, I couldn't really enjoy it too much. It's not easy for a kid to be a guest by someone. You just can't be yourself. You're always being told by your parents to stop doing all the things that come naturally to you that you'd be allowed to do in your own home. Whether it's run around the house, leave your stuff around, or just behave less than perfectly at the table, your parents are on top of you to behave properly, to make them proud, blah, blah. You can't escape to the sanctuary of your own room. You don't have your familiar friends to play with. You have to eat things you don't like. You can't get upset about things because it will only make your parents look bad and then they'll be upset at you. Every kid probably suffers through this at some time or another. But I had to go through it practically every yom tov, for the entire duration of the chag. Like I said, there was nothing terrible or horrific about it all, but it definitely didn't engender within me positive feelings towards these days.

Putting all that aside (or maybe it's actually interwoven with the above), I really didn't enjoy all the extra religious annoyances that the chag brought with it. What kid wants to have to spend an extra hour or so in shul? I sure didn't. I couldn't stand having to sit and listen to even more than the usual divrei torah prattle. Even worse, I loathed being forced to say my own divrei torah, (which was compulsory at the seder - everyone has to say something), and I especially hated having to do the whole ma nishtana performance in front of loads of people (I was very shy, and by the end of it all would often end up in tears, something everyone else found terribly amusing, which obviously only compounded my pain). Of course, as with all frum families, there was also the pressure-filled weeks leading up the chag when I and my siblings were conscripted into cleaning duty and had our lives made miserable by having Pesach be used as an excuse to do all sorts of ridiculous and unnecessary tasks. (One year we had to go through all the books in the house, page by page, sweeping them out.)

As I got older and I was expected to take my frumkeit more seriously, more and more religious hassles came into the picture on the chagim: Making sure to eat the proper shiurim of matza and wine (I hate wine). Chol Hamoed became a time when I was expected to spend a good part of the day learning instead of taking fun trips. (And of course, when one was allowed to go on a trip, make sure to dress "yontiffdik"! Have you ever gone roller skating in a suit!?) One year my brother insisted that I couldn't go to sleep after the seder. He had some source that one was required to learn about Pesach until he fell asleep in the middle of the learning. Sukkos brought its own unique aggravations. From the stupidity of endless arba minim hunting, to having to be squeezed into a way-too-small sukka, to not being allowed to have a simple snack or drink without having to first go somewhere else, to being forced to sleep in a public sukka, there was more than enough aggravation with that holiday to tick me off too.

Put it all together and it just doesn't add up to much "good times". Yes, there were fun and enjoyable experiences throughout it all, but the overall sentiment was one of dislike.

So, like I said, my natural impulse at this time is not one of joyful excitement.

But I figure that even if I don't have a natural affinity to the chag, I can at least appreciate it on an intellectual level. Examining the religious themes that are emphasized on the chag might let me gain some enjoyment from these days.

Unfortunately, that doesn't work for me either. Partly because I'm sick of the same old formulaic divrei torah that everyone churns out every year (which hardly ever stand up to any serious intellectual scrutiny). Partly because I'm just not so interested in religious stuff anyway. And partly because as a result of my wonderful yeshiva influence, most of the religious themes of the day were somehow transmogrified into a message of "its all about learning Torah." In any case, it's a very rare person who can say that their excitement about the chag really stems from an appreciation of what the holiday is supposed to be celebrating.

As a last resort, I try to look at it from a non-religious perspective. How do irreligious Jews or even non-Jews approach their holidays? From what I know (and admittedly, I haven't gotten too close of a look at these situations) for such people the holiday is mainly about family. Family reunions, family trips, family dinners, etc. Sounds like a nice approach, except that it can't work for me. You see, being that my family is all chareidi, their style of celebrating yom tov is as I described above: extra davening, lots of divrei torah, singing zemiros, discussing how what everyone is doing is all wrong, and other very ritualistic activities. Not an experience that I can enjoy very much. Also, being the ex-chareidi I am, I have to walk on eggshells a lot around my family, always being super careful not to say anything which they would be offended by. (Last chag, I totally screwed things up when I blurted out at one point, "I don't care if I hear kiddush or not!"). I hate being somewhere that I can't just be myself. And not being able to be myself around my family just bothers me even more.

So what am I going to be doing this chag? I'm going to be trying hard to create the most positive holiday experience I can. Which is actually quite difficult, as so many of the traditional holiday experiences and activities have been almost irreparably ruined for me. I'm going to be spending the seder with a family that I really enjoy being with. I'm sure I'll have a great time. I always have a blast when I go to them. But besides my general feeling of enjoying their company, I'm going to try to consciously associate any good times I experience over the next few days with the holiday itself. Maybe, after doing this enough, I'll actually be able to say with genuine sincerity, Chag Kasher v'Sameach.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

My Choice

After writing so much about how my former society is all about seeing things in black and white, many have accused me of being the most black and white of them all. Yes, my dear readers, I am guilty of that. I admit it. Sadly it's one of the most deeply ingrained effects of my upbringing. It's one that I struggle with daily to overcome. Allow me to share with you some history that may shed some light on just how profoundly entrenched this trait is within me.

At the end of my 12th grade year, I was a very confused kid. I had no idea what I was going to do with myself. I was sick of yeshiva. I was very clearly not a learner, despite having spent most of the last 5-6 years in front of a gemara. I wasn't a bad kid or a troublemaker in any way. Nor was I stupid. In fact, I was top of the class in many of the non-Torah subjects. But I just couldn't get myself to develop an interest in learning Torah. Not gemara. Not chumash. Not halacha. None of it. And after the many years of lying to myself how much learning Torah meant to me, I had finally broken down and admitted the simple truth: I couldn't stand it.

But this admission was simply a statement of my own personal situation. It didn't cause me to have any fundamental crisis of faith. I didn't stop believing in the ideals and rightness of the yeshivish/chareidi view of life. I remained a staunch believer that a person's life should be devoted to learning Torah. I knew very well that I could still be a frum yid even if I didn't "stay in learning", but I also strongly believed that any life that wasn't devoted to learning would be a cheap sellout that I would always feel guilty about. After all, the last 5 years of my life I had very faithfully absorbed that one absolute truism they had unceasingly drilled into us: Life is all about learning Torah. Through all the innumerable and varied ways they had of telling it to us - "All God cares about is Torah." "God created the world for one purpose only: Torah." "Torah is what sustains the world." "Reward in olam haba is Torah study." "One of the worst sins one can commit is bittul torah." - the message came across loud and clear. And I knew very well that I could never live with myself if I didn't devote my life to learning Torah.

But what was I to do? Until recently I had convinced myself that despite my being very poor at it, I was truly devoted to that very pursuit. But now that I had admitted the truth to myself, I knew that I could never really be happy doing that.

So I figured I had two choices. The first course of action I gave myself was that I somehow had to retry becoming a learner. I figured that since all my years in yeshiva, with all my myriad chavrusas, rabbeim, tutors, helpers, etc. didn't succeed in lighting my fire, I had to go back to the beginning and somehow restart the process. I wanted to go back to alef bais and work my way from there. I didn't have any concrete idea how I was going to achieve this but it was the only viable option that I thought had a chance of turning me into that learner I so desperately wanted to be.

The other choice I gave myself was the polar opposite. I reasoned that since my life wasn't going to be worth much anyway if I wasn't a learner, then why bother being frum at all? I mean, I knew that the few mitzvos I'd have in my life if I stayed frum were better than none at all, but if it was a matter of having 5% of my olam haba vs. having none at all, I just didn't see it being worth the trouble. And that's exactly how I saw the value of my religious life if I wasn't going to be a learner: worth so little, there was no point investing in at all. I also knew that I couldn't face my family (or any frum person) if I was going to abandon it all, so I figured I'd run away to some remote locale where no one knew me and somehow I'd work it all out once I got there. (I know, incredibly brilliant planning.)

(One of the funnier things about this thought process that was going through my head at the time was that, throughout all this soul searching, I still believed in everything my chareidi upbringing had told me, and one of those beliefs was the absolute wrongness of going to college. So even though I considered not being religious, I never once considered college as an option!)

So what happened in the end? Well, I didn't have any strategy on how to achieve my going back to the basics plan, and before I could muster up the guts to leave it all behind, a relative stepped in and convinced me to try out Israel. Initially I resisted, insisting that I was done with yeshiva and had no interest in suffering through any more time in a beis medrash, but eventually, after much persistence on his part, I caved. The rest, as they say, is history. (I buckled down, got serious, shteiged for 10 years in the Mir, married my chavrusa's sister, moved to Bnei Brak, and am now about to complete the last section of my 3 volume series on Hilchos Shnayim Mikrah v'Echad Targum. Oh, wait a second...that doesn't sound right...)

I trust you can find the faint traces of black & white thinking in this story without me spelling it out for you.

What should surprise anyone about this tale is not the extreme position I believed in. Believing that a life not devoted to learning torah is not much of a life at all is not at all an uncommon view in the chareidi world. Yes, I know, no one actually says in so many words that there's no point in being frum if one isn't going to be learning, but it's the clearly intended message that is relayed in every mussar shmooze, gadol story, and dvar torah. The only unusual part of my story is that I was seemingly very close to actually acting on those beliefs in that manner. You see, when they teach this concept to you, they don't actually expect you to act on it in that way. What they want you to do instead is just take the message seriously enough that you never, ever give up on the learning. And if you do ever decide you've had enough of learning, you're not supposed to actually give up being frum (as being frum is also obviously a truism of chareidi life), but instead you're supposed to be eaten up with guilt about that decision for the rest of your life. And what follows from that is that you're supposed to constantly attempt to assuage that guilt by a) learning every spare moment you can, and b) financially supporting those who weren't as spineless as you were and who are still learning in kollel 24/7.

In my case, I was considering taking the unusual step of actually leaving it all behind because I wasn't willing to live with the shame. It amazes me just how thoroughly they screwed me up. I was willing to throw away everything in my life - my family, my friends, my religion, my society - all in one fell swoop. Why? Because if I wasn't a learner, the stigma of such an unspeakable crime was just too much to bear. I was ready to leave it all behind, yet...I still believed in it all as absolutely true! Does it get any more twisted than this?!

This all might sound sad, but let me tell you the real tragedy. There are thousands of people suffering with this ridiculously absurd stigma every day of their lives. They try to alleviate it by following the prescriptions I described above (learning "every spare moment" and supporting learners), but I can't imagine that it ever really drowns out the incessant voices (both in their head and in their batei medrashim) reminding them how pathetic they are for not being fully devoted to learning. And worst of all is the hundreds of kids being taught these ideals every hour of every day in every chareidi yeshiva out there. When is anyone going to wake up about the damage being done and do something about it all?!

Thursday, April 14, 2005

The B&W Principle In Action

Have you noticed that there's been quite a bit of discussion about sexual issues on the frum blogs lately? Bas Torah, Shomer Negiah Girl, BP Yingerman, the pre-marital sex forum at Ohel Nechama, Mayim Rabim, etc.

I personally have no problem with it, but I can understand that many people would consider such open and frank discussion of sexual issues to be inappropriate. Especially when the discussion explores some particular sexual topics that are not as "educationally redeeming" as others may be. But overall I think it's not a big deal and since people evidently don't have an outlet for discussing it in private, this is at least better than nothing.

One particular blogger, who bills himself as a "chassidisher yingerman from Boro Park", tends to focus quite a bit on these topics. Recently, he started off a post with a fairly sensible question worth exploring and in his answer ended up sharing with us all something that can only be described as incredibly titillating erotic literature. Now, I'm all for the right of any person to say what he wants on his own blog, but I can't help but wonder, what the hell is going on here?!

It just doesn't make any sense to me that a normal person with a healthy relationship with his wife will share intimate details of their life together with the whole world! Especially a frum person! Judging from his past posts, he doesn't consider himself a secretly rebellious frummie that's just dying to get out there and do "kol davur assur". He unambiguously states that he's crazy in love with his wife. So what can account for this incredibly inappropriate gesture of his?

My guess? The Black & White Principle.

I don't know this guy personally, so I can't really be sure if this is what's going on with him, but over the years I've seen similar sort of behavior in many other people. Shtreimel wrote about a related incident some time ago.

You see, in the frum world, people generally don't talk about sex at all. If the topic is ever raised, it's either 1) in the context of a halachic issue, 2) in a counseling or therapy situation, or 3) between husband and wife behind very closed doors.

Such frank topics as preferable positions, toys, masturbation, oral, birth control, sex education, etc. are never talked about with the casualness that one sees in the non-frum world where countless magazines have sex advice, people often ask their close friends for advice in these areas, and TV shows joke about the topics (Seinfeld: "The Contest", "Shrinkage", "Spongeworthy").

So when a person who comes from a world that has no talk of sex whatsoever discovers people who are openly discussing all aspects of the subject, he doesn't understand that just because people are talking about sex does not mean that anything goes. That there is such a thing as appropriate sex talk and inappropriate sex talk. To him, it's simply a matter of everything that was forbidden before is now permitted! So he just lets loose with every bawdy idea and image he has bottled up inside himself. This is why it's not at all uncommon to see a person who, as soon as he discovers an individual who is open about discussing sex, will start making really crude and vulgar jokes. Or asking all sorts of intrusive and insensitive questions. Or as in the example of the above blogger, will freely segue from an informative inquiry about how to prepare oneself on mikvah night to the explicit details of his wife's orgasms.

After all, when you live in a black and white world, it's all or nothing.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

They Taught Me Well

A number of years ago in Israel there was a bit of a turf war going on between the Supreme Court and the Rabbanut. It blew up into a really big issue and as is typical in Israel, there was a big demonstration planned to show support for the chareidi position. Naturally, all the "Gedolim" were encouraging everyone to turn out to show their support, protest, etc. I didn't particularly disagree with their position (actually, I didn't really have an informed opinion on the issue at all. Like most of these sort of things, I just went along with the popular consensus on stuff like this.), but I did feel a certain empathy for a small opposition group that had set up an "anti-the issue" camp not far from the main demonstrators. I mentioned to a friend that I was thinking of showing up to their protest also and somehow it got back to my rebbe who felt he had to speak to me about it. So, he starts telling me how wrong it would be for me to go to this opposition group, it would be a chillul Hashem, etc. and I innocently tell him that I really don't understand the issue very well and don't see why I should have to go along with what everyone else is doing. (Ok, it wasn't so innocent. I pretty much knew how he'd react.) And he answers me, in the strongest possible terms, "Because the gedolim say you should go! Whether you understand it or not!"

And right then, I think I had a sort of epiphany. Looking back, it seems kind of strange, because I had heard the chant of "Because the gedolim say so" hundreds of times prior, and never before did I react like I felt just then. But when he said it to me that instant, all of a sudden I had a feeling of how wrong such an attitude was. To demand from me such an unswerving allegiance to an objective that I knew nothing about, all because someone else had deemed it important? I mean, I understand that they want me to value what they value. But if I don't, then I'm supposed to just act as if I do, even when I don't?!

But of course. That was exactly what I was supposed to do. Because "The Gedolim" speak the truth and know what's right, and any person with good sense will do what's right even if they don't necessarily understand why it is so.

I ended up not visiting the small opposition group and dutifully attending the massive chareidi protest like my rebbe had told me to do. I didn't enjoy it very much. I actually felt uncomfortable being there because I realized that I didn't really identify with the cause. But at least I knew that I was doing the right thing. Because the gedolim were for it. And they always know what's right. Even if I didn't understand why. Even if I thought otherwise. I knew and understood without a doubt that I could never be right when the gedolim were saying that I was wrong.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Kindred Spirits

I read DovBear's blog pretty regularly. I'm actually not that interested in all the political issues he writes about, nor the pope-obsessed posts he inundated us with last week, but the other stuff he focuses on is more up my alley. Also, I need to be on the lookout in case he finds something stupid that I wrote and broadcasts to the whole world what a blathering idiot I am. I should only be so lucky. Anyway, I've always wondered why he devotes do much ink to showing how Republicans are a bunch of inconsistent hypocrites. He points out every instance he can where they misrepresent the truth, abuse their power, lie to their constituents, and of course how they tell everyone that it's the other side that is committing all these evils. Then I realized something: The way he feels about Republicans is the way I feel about chareidim!

What fuels both our fires is pretty much the same thing. It's the disgust with self-righteous despots who are successfully getting the masses to go along with them; autocrats who cover up their own blatant improprieties, who manipulate the truth, who put on a façade of selflessness and devotion to the public good, all in order to further their own political agenda. It's the frustration with people who refuse to look the facts in the eye and call a spade a spade; the apologists who continuously downplay the damage that is being done to our society by these imbeciles. It's the frequent inequities we see these groups perpetrate as they point out their opponents failings. And most of all, it's the fear of what sort of society we'll find ourselves living in if these fanatics are successful in instituting the changes they are agitating for.

We really seem to be very much alike. Except for the fact that I don't usually agree with his politics.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Opposed to Learning Tanach?

I was composing a reply to one of the commenters and when I noticed it had grown to a page long, I felt it qualified as a full-fledged post. Not that this issue really matters much to me, but I figure I might as well put it on the main page instead of in a comment. I admit that it's more of a theory based on cursory anecdotal evidence and personal observation than anything very solid or substantial, but I still think it's correct.

I had written that one of the things I've heard chareidim argue against doing was learning tanach. Anonymous replied:
"charedim are not opposed to learning tanach.
again, i really wonder about you, because even when I agree with your point, the sociological detail is all wrong."
Ok, so let me elaborate. They're not opposed to it in the sense of it being assur (like the other issues I delineated). But they're not at all comfortable with yeshiva bochurim doing it. In fact, one year I set up a chavrusa with a friend to learn tanach, and whenever I met any chareidi acquaintance (I was still pretty much in that world back then), and they would inevitably ask me, "So what are you learning now?", and I answered "Tanach", the response was almost always the same: They would at first chuckle politely, then say to me, "Seriously. What are you really learning?" When I would insist that that's what I was currently studying, they'd respond with a disapproving tone, "But that's not real learning!" Some would even give me the classic rejoinder, "You should ask your rebbe about that."

Putting that aside, what I really meant in my comment was that they're not at all big fans of learning tanach in any serious way that doesn't gloss over all the less than pleasant accounts throughout it. Most chareidi people's view of the figures in tanach are like their idealized view of their favorite tzadik: Sits and learns all day, davens a long shemone esrei, does lots of hidden chesed that no one finds out about, and never speaks loshon hara. And I'm not even talking about the prominent figures. That's how they think all of Jewish society was back then. Wonderfully, magically, super-frum. It's the "The Midrash Says" and Olomeinu version that never developed further. The parts where the neviim are critical of the populace are portrayed as them yelling at the bums and reshaim (i.e. MO, Reform, Zionists) who are ruining it for the rest of the authentically frum world (i.e. chareidim, gedolim).

Of course once you open up a tanach and find out what it actually says, it's a bit difficult to maintain that fantasy for very long. Which is why they are not for learning it seriously or without a sufficiently indoctrinated person to guide you in looking at it the way they want it to be viewed. Of course, it's hard to spin stories like Pilegesh B'givah in any way that makes the "Yidden" come out looking frum by anyone's definition, which is why bottom line, they are pretty much against learning it at all.

I admit that it's hard to point to anything concrete that supports this conclusively, but it's a sentiment that I'm sure many people can confirm. And the simple fact is that everyone knows, and chareidim even admit it, most yeshiva guys coming out of the chareidi schools are abysmally ignorant of tanach. Ever have that experience where a chareidi person will hear a modern Israeli name and react with a "What kind of name is that? Is it even Jewish?" and informing them that yes, it's Jewish and it's actually a name of one of the Neviim?

I always get funny looks when I tell them that.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

More B&W

As I said previously, I've noticed that a lot of problems that are plaguing the chareidi world lately are due in part to the tendency to look at things in stark black and white terms. I think I'm going to call this The Black & White Principle. (Very creative, I know.)

Related to the recent Slifkin controversy we can see a few more applications of the B&W principle. Most prominent is the issue of how to view the words of rabbis, of chazal, of the gemara, etc. As one of the commenters on the previous post explained, it starts with the belief that the Torah is true and that Judaism is true. From there, people start expanding the arena of Torah to include everything that any Rabbinic figure from Moshe to their 10th grade rebbe ever said. So if it's all Torah, and Torah is all true, then all these ideas that now fall under the rubric of Torah must also necessarily be true, and anyone who says otherwise about any seemingly minor part of it is speaking against the whole torah! Kofer bakol!

The degree to which this "everything about Judaism is right and true" concept expands can be quite daunting. (Something similar to that giant blob from the old sci-fi/horror flick.) It's what causes people to feel that criticizing any aspect of Jewish life is a terrible violation. It's also the root of why people feel it's imperative to believe that their leaders and heroes are flawless. Have you ever tried saying anything critical about a prominent or revered religious figure? You're immediately slapped with an "I'm moche!" protest, despite your insistence that you still think the person is wonderful, a tzaddik, a talmid chacham, and worthy of all our respect. Because obviously, if he's a tzaddik then he can't have anything about him that justifies criticism! And conversely, if anything negative were to be found about him, how could they possibly continue to view the person as a tzaddik? If he has such a flaw, then he can't possibly be so great. All or nothing. Similarly, no portrayals of any historic religious figures are allowed unless they are absolutely, unequivocally, shining beacons of immaculate moral integrity. No wonder they are so against learning tanach.

Another application of the B&W principle in the Slifkin affair is in the responses some of the Rabbis are giving in their defense of those who supported the ban. For example, one rabbi (and as anyone who has been in yeshiva knows, this is quite a common technique) argues that since science has made mistakes, or is not as absolute as some would like to believe, we should never trust what science has to say! It's all or nothing! Such thinking is evident in all sorts of other areas too. One often hears certain "scholars" point out flaws in ideas (or people, institutions, etc.) they are opposed to and then conclude that the entire enterprise should be rejected based on the fact that there are flaws present. I've heard this reasoning applied to so many ideas: Modern Orthodoxy, learning tanach, Zionism, TV, Yom Ha'atzmaut, wearing striped shirts, non-chareidi style dating, going to college, going to the army, pretty much almost every conceivable issue that a typical chareidi would be opposed to. Needless to say, such irrefutable logic is never applied against their own institutions or principles. Related to the previous point, according to the B&W principle one can't ever consider that there are any valid flaws in one's own system, because doing so would repudiate the belief that it's ALL proper and true! If any justifiable criticisms of the underlying system (the chareidi lifestyle) were conclusively demonstrated, so many people would have a total and utter crisis of faith. And that's probably why we've been witness lately to some of the extreme ideas and tactics coming from certain circles. It's because they're desperate to cover-up the many inconsistencies in the chareidi system that have been coming to light in the recent months before they have one of the worst defections in their entire history.

"The Seal of God is Truth" - Yuma 69B

Monday, April 04, 2005

Black & White

One of the characteristic tendencies of a product of the chareidi world is that he/she tends to view the world in absolutist black and white terms. Of course, it's not only chareidim who do this. In fact, last week Dilbert (the real Dilbert, not Dr. Dilbert) pointed out that he deals with such people too. On an old post of mine, I quoted a commenter who said to me:
"What puzzles and saddens me is that even "burn outs" from the "frum" world continue to view religiousness as black or white. The view seems to be that you're either in for a penny, in for a pound - or not, and nothing in between."
I'm sure what I'm about to say is obvious, but I want to spell it out anyway: Using the term "black and white" doesn't fully express how fundamental this is. It's not just about seeing an issue in stark contrasts and not appreciating subtlety or nuance. It's about all sorts of extremes. The idea that it's All or Nothing. That there's only ONE right answer. That it's Us vs. Them. Tradition vs. Modernity. You're either with us or against us. Complexity vs. Simplicity. Religious vs. Secular.

Over the past few months, I've been noticing more and more how deeply rooted and widespread this bias is in chareidi thought and hashkafa. In fact, I think it can account for a whole host of problematic views and practices that are slowly eating away at that world.

Let's start with one of the most common and basic precepts of the chareidi world, one which I think is a product of this mistaken view: The concept of Da'as Torah. Now I know that there's various explanations of what exactly da'as torah is, and who has it, and when it applies, etc. but I think it can be summed up pretty simply: da'as torah means that what a Gadol says is right. However you want to spin it, whether it's through his encyclopedic Torah knowledge, or the fact that his very essence is saturated with Torah, or through some mystical divine assistance, or whatever it is, the idea is that whatever conclusion the gadol comes to, that determination is the right one. What he says is right. It's proper. It's the Torah view. It's truth itself! (There's various other areas of the B&W predisposition here: The fact that the Gadol is ALWAYS right. The fact that he is right about EVERY subject he speaks about. Maybe I'll focus on that later.)

And of course, the concept doesn't just apply to an individual Gadol. It also extends to the wider arena of "The Gedolim." (Actually, I think it has even more force there.) Whatever power an individual Gadol might have when presenting his opinions, when "The Gedolim" have a position on an issue, it reflects a power so great, supposedly even God Himself can't contend with it! (e.g. The Tanur Shel Achnai story.)

This is fundamental to chareidi ideology as it was taught to me. And a Torah True Jew believes these things with all his heart.

There is another principle that follows from the above. It isn't usually stated explicitly, but it is part of the general da'as torah view. The idea is that since the Gadol (or Gedolim) have hit upon THE right answer (not A right answer, but THE right answer), then anyone who has da'as torah would necessarily have to agree with them, or come to the same conclusion as they did. After all, if a group of Fields Medal recipients were given a math problem, we wouldn't accept different solutions from them all. There's only one right answer to a math problem, no matter how complex it is. Similarly, no matter how complex the issues of life, or halacha, or hashkafa are, if a Gadol figures out the right response to that challenge, and we accept that his answer is the truth (as we must), then undoubtedly, the other Gedolim must agree with him!

And here's where the system breaks down. Because there's an eensy-weensy, tiny, little, nagging problem. It isn't usually taken notice of, but sometimes, like with the recent Slifkin affair, one can't help but notice it: If what the Gedolim say is the truth, and the Gedolim are always in agreement with each other about that da'as torah inspired truth, then how could a Gadol ever disagree with another Gadol? Usually, this minor point isn't paid too much attention to because most of time, any disagreements that there are, are usually in areas of practical halacha and for some reason (I'm not sure why this is) people have accepted the fact that different rabbonim are allowed to disagree in those areas. Anyway, "Gedolim" don't generally deal with petty issues of day-to-day halacha. Their time is too valuable for that. Their opinions are reserved for more vital issues; fundamental issues. When a Gadol's opinion is presented on a matter, you can be sure it's one of momentous significance. (And if it isn't, well, the fact that the Gadol is addressing it, should make you reevaluate it's importance.)

But occasionally, we do see that Gedolim disagree on big issues! How can this be?! If a Gadol's thinking always reflects the truth, then how can there ever be any disagreement amongst the Gedolim? There aren't multiple truths! The Gedolim must agree, at the very least on the fundamental issues. This is absolutely crucial. So how is it conceivable that there are ever disputes on fundamental issues among gedolim, both between our present day gedolim and between gedolim of different generations?! HOW CAN THIS BE?!

Being faced with the paradox of two Gedolim holding opposing views is unthinkable to the da'as torah believing Jew. The very awareness of such a reality would cripple him beyond repair. Because of this incredibly dangerous threat to their belief system, the chareidi world goes to great lengths to put forward a picture of unequivocal and unanimous agreement amongst the Gedolim on all major issues. In fact, this is why they even use the term "The Gedolim". To convey the impression that it's a universal and absolute consensus.

Most often all that's necessary for them to keep people from realizing that there are a variety of legitimate views on an issue is by using their patented two-pronged approach: First, they persistently claim that what "The Gedolim say" or what "Da'as Torah says...", is the only valid approach. At the same time they will be equally insistent that anyone who holds anything other than that view has got to be either (1) a major apikorus (2) goes to YU (3) is a scientist (4) doesn't even wear a black hat (5) is Modern Orthodox (6) Is a Zionist or (7) is a ba'al taiva. But occasionally that just isn't enough to sustain the deception. Like when certain things get published, and they are faced with the irrefutable evidence that in fact the Gedolim DID NOT SAY what they are telling everyone they supposedly did. In those cases, they have to resort to other tactics. They start banning books. Forbidding people to find out about the differing views. They rewrite history. They force people to retract their views. They ruin the reputation of the writers, thereby undermining the credibility of the accounts. Previously admired and respected figures are deemed unacceptable. And other such delightful activities demonstrating their devotion to Torah ideals.

All of this is a direct result of the absolutist, black and white worldview that they persist in maintaining. They will do whatever it takes to keep people from realizing the truth. After all, if people were to know that the Gedolim don't all agree on fundamental issues, they'd have to admit that there isn't ONE right answer, which means that there isn't only ONE right way to do things, which in all likelihood would then cause them to blow a fuse and break down into a fit of uncontrollable and incoherent apikorsus. (Don't laugh, this happened to me once).

On occasion, one might encounter some people who will admit that there is at times disagreement among the Gedolim, yet still somehow insist that it's imperative to stick with the da'as torah approach. They'll usually explain it with some idea that everyone has to go by their particular rabbi's da'as torah, and that sometimes there can be different da'as torah's, etc. But it undeniably weakens the strength of the da'as torah position, and therefore they try to blow past the issue and ignore that it exists.

With all the recent hubbub of the Slifkin issue catching the public's eye, this topic has gotten many people's attention lately. Without getting into the Science vs. Torah issue, one simple question that has bothered many people about the debacle is: How come everyone is making such a big deal about these issues now, if we've had varied opinions on the subject for hundreds of years already? Similarly, why is everyone condemning R' Slifkin if he had support for his views from many contemporary rabbonim? Why can't these individuals be allowed to believe what they do without being written out of the fold? Isn't there an acceptable range of opinions?

The answer is very simple: In the not-too-distant past, religious society was able to countenance a multiplicity of views on many subjects (definitely complex ones like this topic). There was no concept of "the Da'as Torah view on the issue". Rabbi X had his opinion, and Gadol Y had his view, and School Z taught this view and no one really felt that each one had a monopoly on the truth. They were doing the best they could to figure out the answers, and they sometimes came to different conclusions. So what!?

But nowadays, there can only be one right answer on these issues. And that right answer has clearly been determined by, guess who? Yes, that's right..."The Gedolim".

"But wait," an innocent person inquires, "Haven't many gedolim over the ages subscribed to many of these same views? The Rambam? The Ba'alei Tosfos? The Tiferes Yisrael? R' Hirsch? R' Dessler? R' Kaplan?"

"NO! Absolutely not! No such thing!" the protector of truth proclaims. "All the Gedolim agree that this is the proper approach! Any sources indicating otherwise are either misunderstood, not authentic, or mistaken."

"But what about the current Rabbis - some even considered Gedolim - who have subscribed to the other view? What about the Rabbis who supported R' Slifkin?"

"Sadly, they were mistaken. They didn't understand the issue properly. In fact, they admit this and have since retracted their views. Everyone now agrees that the Gedolim are right on this issue."

This is how the chareidi world is. There can be only one right way. No room for a range of acceptable opinions. No possibility that different great Rabbis might come to different conclusions. It's all black and white. All Gedolim endorse our way. No Gedolim agree with the other views. Our way, in it's entirety, is the only right way. Anything but total and unyielding allegiance to our view of Judaism is absolutely unacceptable.

Fortunately (for Jewish society, although not for poor Rabbi Slifkin, who has my deepest sympathies), the Slifkin affair has exposed the utter absurdity of this stance. It's drawn attention to the inconsistent and illogical approach that these people insist must be followed. It's revealed the desperate and deceitful tactics that proponents of that ideology must resort to in order to maintain their façade. It's finally revealed the utter foolishness of subscribing to the absolutist concept of da'as torah. Unfortunately, as a result of it all, many people are feeling confused, angry, and betrayed. They're wondering just how solid those seemingly unassailable underpinnings of their beliefs really are. Many are bravely taking a closer look. Many who are doing so are shocked by what they're finding. But as difficult as that may be, it's a good thing. Because now they can finally rid themselves of those illusory support structures that they previously relied on, and work to attain genuinely truthful and consistent convictions.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Are best intentions enough?

"We did what we believed was right."

That's the response I always hear when people are asked to explain some of the appalling choices they made when raising their children. "We did what we thought was best." Presuming they are sincere about this claim and not just using it to excuse laziness and negligence, is it valid? How can anything more be expected of a person than to do what they think is right?

How can a parent be blamed if they truly believed that beating a child was good for the kid?
How can a group be blamed if they teach their children that certain innocent behaviors are evil? Or that certain horrible actions are proper?
How can anyone be faulted for teaching their children to follow what they believe is the one and only right way to live their lives?
How can I blame a society that is doing what they think is right?

I'm not sure really. It sounds reasonable. But there's something about that line of thought that just doesn't ring true to me.

After all, if acting on your convictions are all that matter, then how can anyone ever be held responsible for any unacceptable behavior? How could we blame white supremacists, Nazis, fanatical cult members, Muslim suicide bombers, or any individuals guilty of horrible misdeeds if their actions were a result of the erroneous beliefs that they hold to be true?

But again, how can more be expected of a person than to do what they believe is right and true? Can anyone help me out with this? I know the reasoning is flawed, but I can't quite figure out why. Why isn't the claim of "We did what we believed was right" enough?