Sunday, January 23, 2005

More on Trusting Gedolim

One of the common refrains of the Chareidi world, and one which is being repeatedly mentioned now due to the Slifkin controversy is "The gedolim have spoken, and the gedolim are to be trusted." I've written a bit about why I myself don't personally trust the gedolim. But I really need to ask these people who are calling for that trust, "Why do you trust the gedolim?"

In Stephen Covey's bestseller, "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People", the author writes about the concept of an "Emotional Bank Account" (pg 188). I'm going to paraphrase a bit:

We all know what a financial bank account is. We make deposits into it and build up a reserve from which we can make withdrawals when we need to. An Emotional Bank Account is a metaphor that describes the amount of trust that's been built up in a relationship.
If I make deposits into an Emotional Bank Account with you through courtesy, kindness, honesty, keeping my commitments to you, and other trust-building behaviors, I build up a reserve. Your trust toward me becomes higher, and I can call upon that trust many times if I need to. I can even make mistakes, and that trust level, that emotional reserve, will compensate for it. When the account balance is high, there is confidence in each other, reliance, and most obviously trust.
But if I have a habit of showing discourtesy, disrespect, overreacting, ignoring your concerns, becoming arbitrary, betraying your trust, threatening you, or playing little tin god in your life, eventually my Emotional Bank Account is overdrawn. The account is depleted. The trust level gets very low.
If a large reserve of trust is not sustained by continuous deposits, a relationship will eventually deteriorate. Previously high amounts of trust can not be relied on for new withdrawals. And if the trust isn't there now, does it make sense to act as if it is?
I understand that you trust the gedolim. I once did too. I too was told how truly great and wise they are. I believed it all. I trusted them. Just like you do. I was taught that everything they do is for our best. That nothing they do is for their own interests. That all their decisions are fair, honest, proper, kind, just, and most of all, according to the Torah. Comparing it to the analogy of the bank account, I had a tremendous reserve of trust for the gedolim.

On a rare occasion, I would notice something that didn't seem right to me. Sometimes I heard about an incident which didn't seem so fair or honest. But confident that the gedolim wouldn't ever do anything unfair or less than honest, I brushed it aside and kept my faith strong. To return to the metaphor, a small withdrawal of trust was made, but it was more than amply covered by my reserve.

However, I started learning of other things regarding our gedolim which continued to make larger and larger demands on my trust. Apparently, sometimes they do overlook things when it suits their purposes. It seems they don't have solutions for many of the problems in their society. Rumor has it that some of them made some really dumb mistakes over the years. Many bits and pieces of information passed my way that cast doubt on the towering greatness of these figures. As I encountered these challenges, for the most part they were met with strong skepticism. After all, I was taught well: "The gedolim are to be trusted, and it's not our place to question them." That huge reserve of trust was pushed forward and presented to cover all these slight depletions.

But the demands kept piling up. I found myself deducting from that trust more and more and instead of concrete deposits of trust, all I was given in exchange by those representatives of the gedolim were hollow promises of, "They're the gedolim. They'll pay you back. Just trust them. You'll see." And I continued to do so. I continued to give them my trust. Long after the account was empty, I still managed to scrounge around, sell off parts of my good sense to raise the capital, and again rely on what they told me. But eventually, I realized that I could keep up the sham no longer. I had nothing left to give them. Pretending to give them trust that I no longer had was just idiotic.

Ok, enough with the bank account metaphor. I think I got a bit carried away there. But I really need to ask you, all of you who continue to trust the gedolim, Why? Why do you continue to have confidence in them? It doesn't make any sense. You're not blind to all their indiscretions, are you? How can you disregard it all? How can you continuously respond to any insinuation against their integrity with an equanimous, "They are the gedolim. It's not our place to question them." You continue to ignore all the mounting evidence that your confidence is misplaced. Why?

You say you trust them, but this is not real trust. Real trust is earned. It needs to be maintained, nurtured, and cultivated. When a person is loyal to some ideal, even when there is no rational basis for it, I believe a more fitting term for that behavior is blind faith. Is that what is expected of a frum Jew? To have blind faith in these leaders? To check in one's own good sense at the front door, and just follow along because that's what "trusting the gedolim" means?

From what I am constantly hearing, I can only assume that you all believe that is so. That despite all evidence to the contrary, the gedolim must always continue to be trusted. They must not be challenged, questioned, or held accountable. And of course, they must never be defied. We must continue to place our confidence in their decisions, no matter how wrong they seem to us. Well, if this is what you believe, all I can say is, Enjoy your Judaism. I want no part in this mindless cult. If I'm wrong though, then please explain to me what the hell is going on. Because I just don't get it.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Meet Shimon (AKA your typical chareidi yeshiva guy)

As I mentioned below, the Slifkin controversy has generated a lot of debate on Hirhurim. In fact, there are so many people writing on it that the commenting system keeps breaking down! In the comment section of Gil's latest post, we are introduced to a new figure in the discussions: Shimon.

Shimon seems to be a really sincere and earnest fellow who is truly bothered by the scandalous things that are being said on these forums. He shares with us some of his strongly held views. Below is a sampling of Shimon's feelings about...


"As far as I know, all of the gedolim alive today, without exception, believe that it is kefirah to say that the world is more than 5765 years old."

"It doesn't matter what the scientists tell us about the age of the earth. We have to view science through the prism of Torah. The scientists always change their minds, and Torah is eternal."

About gedolim:

"Our gedolim understand the real inner workings of the universe better than any scientist."

"The gedolim in eretz yisroel are not polluted by science and the kiruv movement which has diluted pure Torah haskafot."

"I am aware that certain gedolim have said that chazal took their information from goyish sources. But they were wrong. And look who said this: men who also studied philosophy. Those who had a pure Toraha hashkafah, like the gedolim in France and Germany didn't say this."

About Rabbis:

"I know that some rabbis in the U.S. are similarly involved in the kefirah...since at least one of their dayanim has stated that the world is older than 5765 years. This means that his gittin are pasul."

"If your rebbe teaches something you should only follow it when he is alive, but if after he dies all the gedolim feel differently, you should now adopt the view of the gedolim and assume that your rebbe would have done otherwise."

"I am sorry the OU is not following the gedolim. If their mashgichim feel similarly, then it is no longer a reliable hashgachah..."

On Jews and Judaism:

"We have a terrible situation where according to the gedolim virtually all Modern Orthodox Jews and even some haredim are kofrim...This means that are all pasul edim and can't be given aliyos."

"Just because Artscroll looks frum doesn't make is so...frumkeit and observance has to be joined with adherence to daas Torah... Plenty of observant Jews are misguided because they don't listen to the gedolim."

About Kiruv:

"...All this is the fault of so called kiruv organizations and supposedly Orthodox scientists."

"...I know that many gedolim are less than happy about the kiruv movement for this reason, and that it has enabled non-Torah views to gain a foothold in yiddishkeit."

"'s possible that these gedolim said this only to bring people back to yiddishkeit but they didn't really believe it."

"...the kiruv movement which has diluted pure Torah haskafot."

And my favorite line, about yours truly:

"Hedyot -- you are an apikores so why don't you go back to where you came from."

He has many more such gems throughout the entire comment section. I heartily recommend that you go through it all to appreciate the depth of this guy's beliefs.

Many, if not most, of the posters seem to think that Shimon isn't a real person, just someone spouting mindless drivel to get everyone riled up. But his enthusiasm is very convincing. At first I was sure it was a joke, but now I'm not so sure.

He has gotten the crowd pretty worked up. On the one hand, he has the MO crowd trying to disprove all his radical positions. And from the other side, he has his chareidi buddies pleading with him to shut up before he embarrasses them even more. Poor Shimon. He just can't seem to win. What's a God-fearing, da'as torah-believing, gadol-following, yeshiva guy to do?

Whether or not Shimon is real, I think it's worth taking a closer look at him, because to me he seems to be a fairly accurate representation of the typical chareidi yeshiva guy. The only major thing that is different about Shimon is that he is speaking up. Most people who hold such views have way more tact and discretion then he seems to posses. But if you spend time in any black-hat yeshiva in America, Europe, or Israel, I guarantee that you will hear similar ideas being expressed constantly. It's definitely true that not all people who identify themselves as chareidi would agree with these positions. But the fact is that in many, many mainstream chareidi yeshivas, these views are persistently presented, they are promoted, and they are encouraged.

So why don't we hear from people like Shimon more often? Partly, because for some people, the fire eventually wears off and they adopt a more moderate stance on many issues. But for many others, it's simply because they know that people don't like hearing what they have to say, and speaking up will only antagonize their associates. Yet they continue to believe them, and quite fiercely too, convinced that they are the true keepers of the faith.

I therefore would like to thank Shimon. As I said in the comments at Hihurim, without individuals like Shimon telling us their views, frum people would be able to naively believe that the only threat a zealous yeshiva guy like Shimon poses is an extra long chazaras hashatz. If only it were so. The truth is much more grim. People like Shimon are taking over Judaism and gradually destroying it, one kol koreh at a time.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Issues of the Slifkin Controversy

The Slifkin controversy has generated much heated debate in the blogosphere, most notably at Hirhurim, and the intensity of the arguments seems to have distracted many people from what the core issues about this debacle are. In my humble opinion, it is not a problem that some rabbis want to consider certain views apikorsus. And it's even not so objectionable that they'd like to censor those views. To my unlearned eye, the problems seem to be:
  • The views expressed by R' Slifkin are not new ideas. They are sourced in rishonim, achronim, and various rabbinic writings that have always been accepted as part of the fold (even if not universally accepted). No doubt there are ideas in Judaism that are considered heretical, but to say that these views are unquestionably of that nature is ridiculous.

  • R' Slifkin has (or had) rabbinic support for saying what he did. It's ironic that so many of those people faithfully trotting out the chareidi party line of "We must trust the judgment of the gedolim" seem to have forgotten another truism of chareidi ideology: "You have to find yourself a rebbe and go by what he says." Nosson Slifkin did that. Now you want to nail him to the wall for it?!

  • The rabbis who did support R' Slifkin are now silent (for the most part). Either they are being cowed into silence, which is a serious enough problem in itself, or they just don't have the backbone to stand up against the tide and stand by their man in his moment of trouble, which is a whole different problem. Either way, the absence of unqualified support for R'Slifkin is very troubling.

  • There was no due process in this whole affair. Those issuing the ban did not treat R' Slifkin with the least bit of fairness. They didn't let him present his side of the issue, they deigned not to meet with him when he made attempts to do so, and they seemed to have based their rulings on incomplete and distorted information. This manner of going about the issues has been documented in the past (e.g. Making of a Gadol) and the fact that it continues to happen speaks volumes about the way this community learns from their past mistakes. In my opinion these figures should be sued for slander, libel, or whatever the proper legal term is. If this type of incident occurred in the non-frum world I have no doubt that the victims would do just that.

  • The ban was really engineered by various zealots in the community and is motivated more by sectarian sociological concerns than a deep and true commitment to torah principles. That they succeeded in their campaign is an indicator of how extremist viewpoints and ideologies are gaining greater power in the mainstream frum community. I elaborated on this in my previous post.
These are the truly disturbing problems of this fiasco. Not whether saying X or Y is actually kefira or not. Or whether the Left is treating the Right with a double standard. Or if it is actually kefira or just "close to kefira" (whatever that means). The real problem is what this all says about frum society, and frum society's leaders.

Some may not like this, but in my opinion, if something is rightfully deemed problematic, let them ban it. I don't think it'll do any good, and it displays a pathetic understanding of how people in today's society function, but if they want to behave like that, let them do so (after properly investigating if the charge is justified and after giving the defendant opportunity to privately make amends) and see how much good it'll do them and their cause.

Did I miss anything? Anyone else have suggestions about what they feel are the core problems this issue reveals?

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.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Better Than Worse

In reaction to comments I made about my upbringing, this writer expresses how he feels that if only I had been exposed to Modern Orthodox (MO) thinking, I would not have ended up as I did. Sorry, Dr. Woolf, but I think you're a bit mistaken. In the comments to that post, I explained how being exposed to MO would probably not have had much effect due to the thorough cleansing my brain had been through and how I would never had accepted anything from MO as legitimate. However, the reasons that that poster is mistaken really run much deeper than those cursory observations. Actually, too deep for me to go into now, what with more pressing responsibilities calling for my immediate attention.

What I can say now is this: Despite the fact that I'm not convinced that Modern Orthodoxy would have made me a more serious and commited Jew, it probably would have at least had the effect of not making me as ambivalent about frumkeit and torah as my yeshivish education did to me. Those years spent in the rigid and demanding yeshiva system probably had a worse effect on my feelings about Torah and yiddishkeit than any "apikorsus" I could have been exposed to in the writings of MO thinkers. Thank you, me dear family, rabbeim and roshei yeshiva, for protecting my holy neshama from those harmful and damaging influences. I can't imagine where I'd be today without you.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Gmail anyone?

I know it's only been a few days, but I've posted a number of (IMNSHO) substantive pieces already and I'm curious as to the readers feelings about what's been presented. So I'm offering up 15 gmail accounts to the commenters with the most informative feedback (not necessarily the nicest feedback) about this blog.

Do you think it's just more of the same angry yeshiva guy ranting that is found elsewhere? Does it speak to you? Are there any particular areas that you’d like to see me explore more of? What’s the quality of the writing? What’s the tone of the writing? Anything that struck you in any particular way? Is it all just incoherent rambling?

Since I need your real email address in order to send you a gmail invite, please send your comments to my email (daashedyot AT instead of just commenting here. (Unless you don't mind providing that info publicly.)

Being Led To Believe

Shtreimel has raised the question of "What type of rebel are you?" I think there are a few more categories that can be drawn besides his three, but the general ones he proposes are definitely a good start. I find myself asking that question so often lately. It's usually phrased somewhat differently, more along the lines of: What do I believe? Do I think it's all a load of bull? Do I even believe in God? Do I believe but not care? Different choice of words, but essentially the same query.

I'm gradually coming to some sort of clarity on this issue, but one thing that I keep coming back to is that every time an issue arises and I ask myself "What do I believe about it?" I always hear myself replying, "Well, I was led to believe..."

What's the difference between believing something and being led to believe something?

Someone much smarter than myself can go into the exact definition of what belief is. I'm not absolutely certain. A hasty definition that comes to mind would be the conviction that something is true, particularly of an idea that that one can't be certain of. But at heart, belief is about something that a person truly believes in themselves. (Yes, I know that is so circular, but my point will be clearer when contrasting it with the next idea.)

Yet most often when an issue arises that stimulates me to take a look at my convictions in a particular area, I usually discover that I don't have any real beliefs of my own on the matter. True, there are some ideas on it floating around in my head, but in 99% of the cases those aren't my own ideas. They are ideas that someone else told me to subscribe to, and which I kept as my own all my life. I was led to believe, and I willingly followed where I was led. But did I believe it myself? In most cases, the answer is no.

I really don't have a problem with this idea in general. It's understandable and acceptable to me that not all of my beliefs are my own. I think that we all do this in so many areas of our lives, not just matters of religious thought. There's no way that we can subject to analysis every idea that we are expected to believe or take for granted. We all have ideas in our heads which have shaped our personalities that haven't been thoroughly scrutinized and filtered.

Yet it's very disturbing how often this has been happening to me. How frequently I realize that on so many issues that my life revolves around (or in some cases revolved), I don't really have my own convictions. Some people might say that absence of belief is like saying "I don't believe", but to my mind, that's already a belief in itself, and while applicable in certain cases, most often a better way of expressing it is simply "I don't know".

It affects me on many levels. The most obvious one is in the myriad areas of Jewish practice. (This actually doesn't really bother me as much as it used to, as I've come to an overall conclusion that I don't care about most of it, so asking me what my beliefs are about halacha is like asking me what my beliefs are about head lice.) But it's about much more than halacha. I've realized that many of my values are also not my own. The way that I approach relationships is not my own. The qualities I admire in another person are not my own. My goals in life are not my own. The way I want to raise my family is not my own. My overall understanding of life, of Judaism, of practically everything of any consequence - it's all viewed from the frum perspective I was indoctrinated with that I no longer believe in.

Do you realize how utterly frightening this is? When I remove all these ideas that I've only subscribed to, and then look at what's remaining on the board, I'm left with a terribly short list of views that I've truly acquired on my own. It's practically a blank slate.

Ok, I'm probably overstating it a bit. Admittedly, throughout the past few years, most of my views on many issues have been modified somewhat in parallel to the changes I've made in my lifestyle. But despite that, on almost all important and central issues, there is still a very large and substantial part which is not my own, and when that is removed, there is a gaping hole in it's absence.

But there is more. Not knowing right or wrong might be the most obvious dilemma I face, but more important than that is that I simply don't have a fucking clue how to figure out the right answers to all these questions! I wasn't taught how to figure things out, to investigate, to come to my own conclusions. I was taught to listen, to accept, to ask someone else what to believe, how to live my life, what's right and what's wrong, and accept that he knows best.

And now I find myself with nobody to trust, but also no tools to figure things out on my own.

Where do I start?

Monday, January 03, 2005

True Growth

Ben Chorin has a great piece explaining his fondness for people (and blogs) that challenge the status quo in the frum world. He writes:

"The yiddishkeit taught in cheder, or the more modern equivalent, is filled with simple-minded myths designed to give meaning to our traditions."

If I could expand on that idea a bit, I’d say that the problem isn’t just that people retain these juvenile perspectives. It’s that we’re expected to! True, no one frowns upon a person that studies more and develops a "greater appreciation" of these narratives and teachings, but that’s only if the person is still spouting the original idea as truth and only using his newfound appreciation as a way of expanding on the original concept. However, if a person were to study anything which could (chas v’shalom!) cause him or her to reject any of those original ideas... well, that’s already stepping over the line.

Basically, in the frum world, when you reach adulthood you’re expected to have essentially the same views on Yiddishkeit that you had when you were in 3rd grade. And probably nothing would make our rabbeim prouder if when we died at a ripe old age we still thought everything we read in The Midrash Says really happened.

This idea of being frozen in one’s intellectual development (or better said, it being a one-way street) can also be seen in the more general idea of overall religious development: No one has a problem with a person that adopts a new chumra. No one sees that as illegitimate. (Although some might rightfully have a problem with chumras because they are often just superficialities, most often, a sincerely and properly done chumra isn’t considered inappropriate.) But if a person takes a good look at themselves and decides that something they’ve been doing for the past ten years is just not right for them, that they’d be much better served using their time or energies in a manner that’s not stipulated by the mishna berura, then it’s something that’s got to be opposed.

It seems to me that there is no real concept of growth in the frum world. Yes, there is some sort of notion that is often spoken about called “growth in frumkeit”. And of course, “growth in learning”. When people talk about “growth in frumkeit” what they really are saying is that the person has developed an increased tolerance for the annoyances of halacha. Either he has adopted some practice that’s even more restrictive and frustrating than previously or he has just learned to accept the aggravation quietly.

Sorry, but that's not real growth. As Ben Chorin says: “This process of rebellion and return can repeat itself many times in a person's lifetime.” True growth can be in any direction. That terrible moment of confusion when you sadly realize that you don’t have a clue as to how things are, when moments earlier you thought you had it all figured out – that’s real growth. Gaining a better sense of self-awareness - that's real growth. Even if that awareness is something which frightens you. (Oh my gosh! Does this mean I don't want to stay in kollel the rest of my life? Nooooooooo!!!)

Sunday, January 02, 2005


I know this isn't on topic at all, but I figure I could go off on a tangent every so often if it's worthwhile. Check out this absolutely stunning photograph of a sunset taken above the clouds. It's enchanting.

Trusting Those Who I Don't Trust

Note: If you find yourself bored by my long-winded drasha, please just skip to the last paragraph in the post.

So often when I've had debates with yeshivish people about a problem in frum society, and I've been able to convince them how real and serious the problem is, they inevitably fall back on the tried and true aphorism of, "The gedolim have set things up this way. It's da'as torah. We have to trust the gedolim. They're in charge. They know best."

In a different post I'll deal with the fascinating idea of da'as torah. There's so much to discuss about that fallacious concept. But for now, let me focus on the concept of me being told that I'm supposed to trust the gedolim. Let's take a closer look at this concept of trust.

The first thing that needs to be understood is that trust is not universal. It's exclusive to a specific (or a group of specific) aspects. That means to say that when one is trusted by another, they are being trusted for something specific. A doctor is trusted for his medical opinion, not for his knowledge of history. A family member may be trusted for their sincere efforts at assisting another, but maybe not for their investment advice. This is an obvious and self-evident observation, but needs to be pointed out because often enough people will mistakenly combine two totally unrelated areas of trust. For instance, when someone may decide not to follow the advice of a friend, the friend may feel betrayed and may respond with, "What? You don't trust me anymore?" The friend is looking at trust as a huge amorphous entity with no defined areas. Of course he's trusted, just not in this particular area. Obviously, often enough one is deemed trustworthy in more than one area, but the presence of trust in one area need not indicate that one is trustworthy in another.

The other important concept to understand regarding trust is that trust consists of two disparate elements. Both of these need to be present for there to be trust in any area. For illustration purposes, let's use the example of Jill looking to trust Jack.

Element one that is necessary is that Jill must be confident that Jack is looking out for Jill's best interests in the matter. If for any reason, Jill feels that Jack is not properly concerned about her well-being, or that he has other interests affecting his judgment, any trust that was previously there will be immediately undermined, and any further trust will be thwarted.

The second element that is needed is competency. Jill must be confident that Jack has a superior, or at least satisfactory, understanding of the issues related to the matter. Even if the first factor is present in Jack (that he is wholeheartedly dedicated to Jill's best interests), Jill won't trust his judgment if she feels that he doesn't understand the matter at hand well enough.

To use a concrete example, let's say Jill wants to leave her cat with Jack when she goes on vacation. She first needs to be assured that Jack is knowledgeable about caring for animals and has a certain degree of proficiency in that area. Then she will ascertain that Jack is concerned about caring for her specific animal. Only then will she feel confident enough to trust Jack to care for her pet.

If, let's say, Jack is an acknowledged expert in caring for animals, but Jill is aware that he occasionally does lab experiments on them, she won't trust Jack (the concern for her interests is lacking). On the other hand, if Jill knows that Jack would do anything for her and would only give his best efforts to help her in any way he could, but Jill also knows that Jack thinks animals grow well if they're watered regularly, she won't entrust her animal into Jack's loving care (the competency is lacking). Most definitely, if neither of these elements are present, Jill wouldn't ever entertain the thought of trusting him in this regard.

This understanding of trust is crucial for anyone to approach the issue of "trusting the gedolim" rationally.

In my particular case, how is it sensible for me to trust these people? They aren't displaying any of the necessary ingredients for a trusting relationship! Yes, they may have an encyclopedic mastery of shas and poskim, and they may display impressive proficiency in discussing fine halachic nuances, but when they make pronouncements about contemporary issues such as technology or science that reveals the most flawed and erroneous grasp of the subject matter, how can I consider them competent? How can I consider them fair minded and reasonable when they only allow one view to be expressed? When they consistently strive for the most strict and narrow view afforded? How can I view them as keen and discerning when I see them being taken in by charlatans and extremists who present distorted views of an issue in order to gain their support (successfully!)? How can I trust that they are men of foresight when they react to everything with knee jerk predictability? How can I trust that they have an appreciation of the grave problems of our society when their biggest concerns are things like exposed elbows and the manner of opening bottle caps? When their supposed solution to everything that they view as a threat is to circle the wagons ever tighter? How can I trust they are men of vision when they only point out the flaws of those outside their community? Or the most superficial and shallow of their own communities problems? How can I trust that they are men of integrity when they bow to public pressure, consistently retract their statements when pressured by others, and are so afraid to voice an opinion that deviates from the party line? When they are willing to rewrite history to suit their social agenda? How can I respect those who vilify the very soldiers who risk life and limb for their safety? Or those who will one moment gladly take money from a group and the very next moment tell their adherents how terrible that group is? How can I view them as humanitarian and charitable when the problems outside their community barely register on their radar? (And when they do acknowledge an incident from outside their ghetto, it's always framed in how it affects them, with practically no concern for those who are really affected.) How can I view them as understanding of human nature when many of their approaches are so dysfunctional it often borders on criminal? How can I view them as responsible leaders when they do so little to improve their devotees living conditions? When they try to keep their members ignorant of those opportunities which can help them better their lives? How can I trust them to be honest when I see them constantly using a double standard? How can I feel that they are concerned about my well being when they promote a society that cares nothing for the individual and is willing to let thousands be relegated to a life of deprivation and misery just so that the one "talmid chacham" should emerge? How can I view them as anything but hypocrites when they use torah and halacha as a shield to protect criminals and deviants? When they care more about maintaining their communities elaborate façade than about admitting that people are getting hurt? When they concoct teachings and interpretations that are so contrived and self-serving that they are laughable to anyone but their own constituents? How can I respect their efforts at trying to solve a problem when they haven't put a stop to the behavior that's causing it in the first place? If they can't even exhibit basic principles of human dignity such as sensitivity towards others, gratitude, appreciation of different lifestyles, different styles of Judaism, and different modes of growth, how can they expect to receive my trust and respect?

Would you trust such people?