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


Tamara said...

What's ironic about this is that some of the great figures of the Torah (e.g. Moses, David) were flawed human beings (as we all are) and rose to greatness in spite of their shortcomings.

The fact that someone can achieve great things in spite of faults makes them, and their accomplishments, infinitely more interesting than if they were one-dimensional, seemingly perfect people.

BrooklynWolf said...

Ah, but the standard answer that you get to that, tamara is that they weren't flawed, despite what the pesukim themselves state...

The Wolf

Anonymous said...

"learning tanach"

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.

Anonymous said...

A good example is the reaction to the Pope's death. As I write this I am watching CNN (11:30PM Thursday) - it is extraordinary how much the Pope's relationship to Jews and Judaism is being seen as a major part of his story - perhaps even THE major part of his story. There is no doubt that this Pope revolutionized the Papacy's (and therefore the Church's) attitude of two millenia to the Jews. Was he perfect? no, of course not. But many of the comments to my postings on bloghead take the B&W approach - one mistake? "Possul". It is a wilful refusal to see anything other than B&W - mainly B. How can we ever function as a people, as a system, as a faith with such obtuse attitudes? Much of the comment is also ignorant ("If he'd apologised for antisemitism etc" -- which of course is exactly what he did!). Depressing.

Anonymous said...


Maybe your posters' sensibilities are just different than yours. Ashkenazic piety is not an abstraction to the RW.

Anyone steeped in Rabbinic writing and liturgy is going to be less excited about making up with Catholics than the average person.

"is being seen as a major part of his story - perhaps even THE major part of his story."

It's also the part of the story that most appeals to the liberal, post-denominational (mostly Jewish) media. The media has little love for the pope. The media has to celebrate the Pope's fidelity to values that they don't share, and it's been a long week for them. This is one thing they can get behind.
It is also in the media's interests to declare an end to antisemitism, and to emphasize the Pope's opposition to antisemitism, given his support for Palestinians.

Isaac said...

Charedim aren't outright opposed to learning Tanach. But at least among the males, it's not really enocuraged. For guys, it's all about gemara, gemara, gemara. And perhaps Hedyot has a point in why the charedi/yeshiva world has barely emphasized guys learning Tanach. Most yeshiva guys haven't opened a nach since 8th grade (when they can barely think for themselves, let alone think at all).

Among the girls, learning Tanach is more common. Perhaps this has to do with the charedi understanding of the differences between the sexes. Different story for a different time.

The Hedyot said...

See my follow-up post where I expand on what Isaac says. Although his point about girls doing it actually throws some doubt on my theory. In any case, whether they are for learning tanach or not was not the point of this post. It was just one of the examples of something that you'll sometimes hear people argue against doing in the chareidi world.

Obviously, you're free to comment in whatever way suits you, but I'd so much prefer if the follow-up thread of the post was focused on the main point I was trying to make.

blueenclave said...

This is very late, but I am surprised that most yeshiva guys do not open a nach. Part of the greatness of Chazal IMHO is that they could find creative prooftexts from nach.