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.


Anonymous said...

as usual, you exaggerate the degree of importance of daas torah to charedi ideology, and simplify the idea doing away with numerous more realistic versions of it.

In fact, you do on this blog exactly what you accuse the charedim of doing - you turn it into a black and white ideology, when it's a loose sociological/ideological classification with much more room for variation than you claim.

From someone who does nothing but caricaturize ojudaism generally, and charedism specifically, this post is incredible.

The Hedyot said...

I admit that there is a lot of room for variation in the concept of DT. But not in the popular chareidi view of things. You might have a more moderate, reasonable view of the issue, and identify yourself as chareidi, but the chareidi view is still pretty dogmatic. I recommend you read any of the letters that have been released in response to the Slifkin affair (from the chareidi perspective: e.g. Orlofsky, R' Moshe Shternbuch) to see how flexible they are in this issue.

Anonymous said...

uh huh, they represent a fraction of charedi figures, esp in E"Y, but they do not represent all charedim and many in charedi enclaves completely reject them. a lot of others nod their heads, but ignore them. thats part of the deal - there are public pronouncements that are not taken that seriously (this time they are serious, because theyve hurt a specific person). you are taking a lot of rhetoric way too literally

Anonymous said...

You should read two books by Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks -
Arguments for the Sake of Heaven
One People?

In both these books he details many patterns in todays Jewish world especially these issues that you have highlighted in your post.

On a personal note, these issues have been obvious to the rest of the Jewish world, and the fact that the UO world has resisted so much is, to my mind, a large factor in the negative feelings and perception that the non-UO world has towards the UO world

The Rabbi's Kid said...


Good job on destroying the foundations of the modern invention of Daas Torah, a House of cards utilized purely to keep their constituency in check. Yes, we must have Emunat Chachamim, but there are many Chachamim, with many acceptable yet conflicting approaches, like the Yud Beis Shevatim and Shivim Panim to Torah. Until there is a Sanhedrin there is no monopoly on Halachah and even more so on Hashkafah.


The Hedyot said...

To anyone who feels that this is all an exaggeration, I have one question: Why does the Moetzes, which is arguably THE representative body across the spectrum of chareidi Judaism, feel it necessary to always have the gedolim be in total agreement on the issues? Why at the Washington Rally in 2002 couldn’t some gedolim have OPENLY supported it while others openly opposed it? Instead we had to get all these convoluted teirutzim reconciling one view with another? Why when the Reinman/Hirsch debacle arose, couldn’t the gedolim who initially supported the project continue to do so? Why did they have to retract their view when others opposed it? Simply put, if you think I’m exaggerating, please explain to me, why can’t there ever be OPEN disagreement amongst the gedolim?

Anonymous said...

because they are aiming for political power. the aguda is a political organization. it's not a source of PSAK.

Anonymous said...

"Why does the Moetzes, which is arguably THE representative body across the spectrum of chareidi Judaism, feel it necessary to always have the gedolim be in total agreement on the issues?"

do you realize how stupid this is? The moetzes is NOT in agreement on all issues, for example they have chassidiche representatives and card carrying misnagdim on the moetzes. they dont aim to promote a single vision of judaism, they aim to unify on matters - mostly political matters - that they agree on.

this comment alone shows how out of touch you are

you're far more black and white than the moetzes is.

The Hedyot said...

It would really help if all of you Anonymous commenters could distinguish yourselves somehow. Just make up a name if you don't want to use your own.

The moetzes is NOT in agreement on all issues..

Of course not on all issues. I never claimed that. I'm talking about the major issues. And I know that even on many of those bigger issues they aren't actually in agreement, but for some reason they try very hard to pretend that they are. Why?

ronasheton said...

That was a great post, but I have to disagree with this:

"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). "

In my opinion this reflects the tendency to romanticize the past. Firstly, the "hamon am" really didn't have access to all the opinions on all these issues. After the Maimonidean controversy was effectively settled by history's judgement of the Rambam as a giant of Jewish thought and law, most people really had no idea what his views actually were - for centuries. To this day people are completely shocked when they find out many of his views. You can make the case that Torah scholars tolerated diverse views, being that they were aware of them. But they certainly did not promote them, which is why Maimonidean rationalism did not win the day and why R. Na Na Nahman Me'Uman would attack the Rambam's views. Since the masses didn't have any idea what the Rambam believed anyway, it made no difference. But now that the Nosson Slifkin's of the world are telling the masses -- oy, that's a problem. Same applies for R. Hirsch, who was viewed in the East as a great gadol -- for the West. When his views began to be reproduced in Eastern Europe, then that was "maskilish".

In short sum, so long as the hamon am are not being seduced by un-orthodox (i.e. incorrect) doctrine no one cared. But boy do they care when those views are sold for popular consumption.

Anonymous said...

because they are a political organization. ever go to a political convention? do people put their differences up front?

the point is that the aguda is political and everyone in the charedi society understands that is so.

ronashton:the MASSES were the ones who resisted the rambam after the initial disputes. for ex, they were teh ones who kept on praying to angel intermediaries and the like. chassidus was a popular movement, catering to the masses, not an elite movement.

Anonymous said...

"But they certainly did not promote them, which is why Maimonidean rationalism did not win the day "

they couldn't have effectively promoted them, the masses were rejecting them.

moreover, the rambam himself didn't expect the masses to buy into his ideas, many of which he thought were for elites.

Anonymous said...

"Same applies for R. Hirsch, who was viewed in the East as a great gadol -- for the West. When his views began to be reproduced in Eastern Europe, then that was "maskilish"."

this is also incorrect. they paid lip service to rabbi hirsch for political/existential reasons - they thought he was saving german jewry. In that sense, they always said he was a gadol. But they didn't approve of his views at all.
When the hamon am became acquainted with his views, they publicized their pov on R Hirsch, which they might have preferred to keep silent. But this wasn't a matter of "so long as the elites know, it's ok, but it's not for the hamon am."
It was a matter of so long as this is only being taught to people who will otherwise become irreligious, that's ok...
they were consistent with their views on rav hirsch - they never agreed with him, and never pretended to agree except to the fact that his approach might be necessary for the west.

The Hedyot said...

...they are a political's not a source of PSAK...

Can you explain this to me please? I honestly don't follow what you mean by that. As far as I know, at any Moetzes convention or Agudah convention, the discussions are all about policies, perspectives, and activities of the frum world. Whenever people refer to the "Gedolim say..." they are referring to the halachic and hashkafic positions of those individuals, not any political agendas. When they say the gedolim must be listened to, they mean it absolutely, like a psak, just like if their rabbi had said something wasn't kosher.

For example, when the Moetzes (or representatives of it) expressed disapproval of Reinman joining the book tour with Hirsch, it might have had political motivations (vis-a-vis Reform), but they dress those statements up as Da'as Torah, as if it's a halachic issue they are responding to. And when people spoke about the issue, they were unequivocal: "The Gedolim have said it is assur!"

I understand that Agudah has a lot of political clout, and uses that to try to further its agenda. Is that what you mean by political? If so, I don't see what it has to do with the rabbonim who people look toward for positions on all sorts of halachic and hashkafic issues.

I don't think I'm understanding your statement. Please explain further.

Anonymous said...

I know it's cloaked in halacha whenever possible (and in this case there was a minor halachic issue). But it's understood to be political advice cloaked in halacha, and advice is not halacha. So for ex when the g'dolim advise not going to rallies for some cause, that's well-understood to be political advice.

When they say dont go to rallies for Russian Jewry, they say it's ossur, and the REASON it's ossur is that it's going to make the Soviets take an even harder line. This is a judgement based on political evaluation - it amounts to a political finding of fact or judgement followed by a "p'sak" (that in this case appears to have been wrong). But everyone who thinks that doing X will make matters worse for soviet jewry, agrees that then it's pikuach nefesh and one can't do X = the only question is if doing X will improve or worsen the situation.

Ditto on dozens of other things. The p'sak is pro forma; it follows naturally at the point that one reaches a judgement of fact. Where people disagree is on the fact, so in effect everyone views the aguda as holding forth on politics.

separately, most "p'sak" on hashkafa is advice for how to organize a community and what trends to encourage or discourage, not actual p'sak on what it purports to be. All of this is well understood by the charedi public.

The Hedyot said...

Interesting pshat. But your last words of, "All of this is well understood by the charedi public" are not true in my experience. Maybe the people you interact with understand it that way, but everyone who I know who identifies themselves as chareidi takes these things very seriously. Admittedly, they might not follow everything so strictly, but they view that as their own failing, and are very critical of anyone who suggests that the directives are not meant to be taken as seriously as any other psak.

Anonymous said...

I blogged this very point over a month ago. Actually, a month before that, but the older post got deleted in a fit of Teshuvah !

Anonymous said...

But you said it better. Its true that the 'smarter' chareidim realize this, as one commentator pointed out Unfortunately there are a lot of 'dumb' charedim out there (w.r.t. to this issue). And the Kanoim are definitely not in the smarter camp. Or maybe they are, and thats davkah why they work so hard to keep the illusion going, to keep the power.

Anonymous said...

I think the problem starts with the concept of truth. We all believe that Torah is true, and that Judaism is true. But then we go the wrong way. We start to say that everything connected to Torah and Judaism must also be true and we define that "everything" as "what the rabbis tell us". And if you question the rabbis, then you question Torah.

But, we are all only human. None of us grasp Truth, we can only strive to get approximate it. Only G-d knows truth. So we have to accept that any 'truths' are only approximations and therefore can be questioned.
How does this relate to your blog? THe black/white issue starts coz we think there is truth. If we have truth, then by definition anything that questions, disagrees or raises questions in a critical manner must be false.
Once you realise there is no truth, then everything is shades of grey.
And maybe then we can start getting closer to truth, as opposed to being handicapped by old "non-truths".

Anonymous said...

"But your last words of, "All of this is well understood by the charedi public" are not true in my experience. Maybe the people you interact with understand it that way, but everyone who I know who identifies themselves as chareidi takes these things very seriously."

Maybe you have narrow experience, or maybe what I wrote originally is true, and it's you engaging in black and white thinking about what you hear and misinterpreting what you see around you.

"And the Kanoim are definitely not in the smarter camp. Or maybe they are, and thats davkah why they work so hard to keep the illusion going, to keep the power."
Some and some, as I'm sure you know.

The Hedyot said...

Maybe you have narrow experience, or maybe what I wrote originally is true...

It's just as likely that you're the one with the narrow experience. I spent many years in the chareidi community, interacted with individuals from different locales (Brooklyn, Monsey, Lakewood, Midwest, England, Canada, Israel), so I don't think my experiences should be viewed as any less representative of the overall chareidi community than yours or anyone elses.

...or maybe what I wrote originally is true...

Or maybe what I wrote originally is true and you just don't like what it says about a community that you value.'s you engaging in black and white thinking about what you hear...

I won't deny this possibility. I have unfortunately adopted many of the more negative traits of my former world. Looking at things in B&W is one of them. As I've said in my posts (see "A Proper Chinuch"), a lot of things about how I was raised are still in me. And I'm constantly trying to undo them. But just because I have the flaw doesn't mean it's not also present in the wider chareidi society.

Anonymous said...

I didn't say the flaw isn't present at all. I say that you don't *understand* charedi society too well and misinterpret the goings on.

I despise charedi society, and I really doubt that my objections have much to do with the fact that you are critical.

bluke said...

I posted about this The delegitimization of opposing views recently. What has happened in the past century is the complete intolerance of other views.

Mark said...

Just a question. In the last dor, when R' Moshe, R' Yackov, etc..
who we all acknowledge were true Gedolim in every sense of the word,
did the moetzes of agudah speak with one voice? At least in public?
I believe so but I may be wrong.

Just a thought.