Monday, May 11, 2009

The Reality of Ideals

A few weeks ago Harry Maryles wrote a blog post that ruffled quite a few feathers. His post seemed to be a personal rant of all the negative qualities he sees in the chareidi community. He mentioned their extreme obsession with tznius, their tendency towards apologetics, their reluctance to report criminals from their community, their negative views of those outside their community (especially towards non-Jews), their unhealthy fixation on super strict rituals, their focus on maintaining external conformity, and other various problematic issues. Naturally, a lot of people got upset with his characterization of chareidim and took him to task for such a negative portrayal. They claimed that these practices are not actually part of the chareidi community and that he was misrepresenting the true nature of that society. One commenter wrote:
One thing is clear [sic] evident is that you know very little about what chareidim are and stand for.
The next day Harry put up another post which presented a totally different perspective. In this one, he wrote in glowing terms about all the positive qualities he sees in the chareidi community: Their dedication to god, their single-minded commitment to learning torah, their countless chesed projects, their efforts to do every mitzvah in the nicest way. These and other various examples demonstrate the positive side of chareidi life. Unsurprisingly, this post garnered appreciation from those who had taken issue with the first post, and earned him praise for painting such an accurate picture of who they really were.

But you have to wonder - how can one group elicit such dramatically different portrayals? Which of these depictions truly represents the chareidi community? Are they really a bunch of superficial, xenophobic fundamentalists? Or are they a group of spiritually sensitive, kindhearted and generous scholars? Which is it?

As I read these pieces, I found myself somewhat agreeing with both pictures that he painted. As odd as it might seem, they're both true. Both these sets of qualities can be found to a large degree throughout these communities. One simple explanation for this discrepancy is the obvious fact that no community, not even one that preaches conformity like the chareidi community does, is entirely monolithic. Although they all like to place themselves within the expansive tent of 'chareidi' ideology, there is actually a broad spectrum in which one can find a wide range of behaviors and perspectives. But although this is true, I think there's an even more key issue to understand. When looking at these contrasting perspectives it's imperative to realize that one is an expression of the ideal chareidi community and the other is the actual reality of what you find in the community.

Chareidi society is a very idealistic place. The standards in that culture are set incredibly high. So it's true, in a sense, that they are all about serving god, doing good, and learning torah. If you asked any person in the chareidi world, he would tell you that these ideals are in fact exactly what the chareidi community is all about.

But if you look just a little bit closer at that world, you'll find that although they have these wonderfully admirable ideals, the actual day-to-day norms which are prevalent among its members are so unbelievably far from those ideals, one would be hard pressed to draw any plausible connection between the two. The reality falls very short of the ideal. Yes, the ideal is that they encourage people to devote themselves to pure torah study. But the reality is that that policy translates into vast numbers of people spinning their wheels unproductively, and wasting years of their lives on something they have no inclination for. Only a very select few have the mettle to live up to the ideal in the way it should be done. The vast majority find themselves frustrated and bitter, and the consequences are an economically crippled society. Yes, they have an admirable ideal of promoting Jewish continuity by raising large families, but the reality is that hardly any have the practical, financial, and psychological wherewithal to properly undertake such a responsibility. Instead, as a result of a misguided effort to live up to that ideal, far too many families struggle with high levels of dysfunction and family instability, which consequently causes all sorts of other problems in their society.

When those people took offense at Harry's depiction of the chareidi community, they were partly right. Those aren't the sort of practices the community defines itself with. But the sad reality is that those sorts of attitudes and practices are actually very commonplace in the community.

So I guess the question is - how should a community be defined? By its ideals, or by its adherents?

31 comments:

laura said...

Excellent, excellent post. Every rational person will *tell* you that ideology and reality are not the same thing, but it takes honesty and perceptiveness to actually *realize* it.

alex said...

"I found myself somewhat agreeing with both pictures that he painted. As odd as it might seem, they're both true. Both these sets of qualities can be found to a large degree throughout these communities."

I agree. Similarly, I often agree with the two pictures often drawn of the ex-Orthodox "community."

XGH said...

I disagree with you. Learning Torah is your pet peeve, granted. But I think both portayals are indeed both true at the same time. They do do a lot of chessed, and they also don't like reporting child molesters to the police. As someone who lived in Chareidi society, you should be able to provide the cultural/religious explanations for why this is so.

ej said...

There are two questions you are running together. Why there are diametrically opposed views on the value of charedi life and why are so many who are not charedi obsessed with charedi life. I can think of two answers. Many take charedim as the most authentic expression of traditional Jewish life going back to medieval times. They measure themselves by a charedi yardstick, and then when they feel inadequate they struggle with the yardstick. One example...I think many have bought into the idea that we ought to be talmidei chachemim, scholars, knowledge seekers. When we're not, we beat up on charedim for not working enough, kollelim and so on, which in fact is none of our business, all as a way of trying to signal to ourselves that the ideal is flawed.

The other explanation I think relevant is that we have a transference going on with charedim, and we project attitudes of love and hate which first emerged with respect to our parents onto charedi society imagined as a parental figure.
I take issue with your claim that "The vast majority find themselves frustrated and bitter" or that "hardly any have the practical, financial, and psychological wherewithal to properly undertake such a responsibility (as raising a large family.)" There are some who are bitter as in any society, but you have no solid evidence about the vast majority. And to say hardly any know how to raise children is again an exaggeration. There are undoubtedly consequences of having large families, but we are not in a position right now to say much, other than the arithmetic truth that per capita income within a family goes down as the number of children goes up.

Charedim are like the stock market. Just when you think you have them figured out, it turns out to be a projection of your fantasies and in fact they are reading you. Strong ‘texts’ that generate transferences have this quality.

The Hedyot said...

XGH - Where do you disagree with me? I said the same thing - "As odd as it might seem, they're both true."

I was only explaining how it is that both are true.

The Hedyot said...

ej -

Seems to me that you're the one projecting.

laura said...

Ej: Many take charedim as the most authentic expression of traditional Jewish life going back to medieval times.

That's interesting, considering that current charedi society would probably be unrecognizable to a traditional Jew from medieval times.

"I take issue with your claim that "The vast majority find themselves frustrated and bitter..."
Yeah, I agree. Hedyot, the phrase "vast majority" is hyperbolic.

ej said...

DH...I disagree on two points. I think the good/ bad aspect is not due primarily as you argue because there is a difference between ideals and reality. The stories I offered-up were we bring out the bad as a way of distancing ourselves from charedi values we have internalized; and because we are permanently ambivalent because charedim are a transference object. We can't love 'em (join them) but we can't leave 'em.) Relationships are sometimes this way.

I also believe you exaggerate the flaws, (reason yet to be determined) and I cited the relevant quotes.

Think about it for a second. There is a much greater discrepancy between theory and practice in Conservative and Reform denominations. Has any one in this space spent more than a minute thinking about this? Most everyone writing here is closer in temperament to Conservatives than charedim. And yet who looks at them, who thinks about them and who cares what they actually do?

As for my projecting....my explanations apply to me as much as to anyone else. I am not standing in some neutral position above it all seeing things whole and the way they really are. I am one more voice adding my two cents. Hopefully, and there is no guarantee, from the plurality of voices we can get closer to reality.

ej said...

DH...I apologize. I thought your question to XGH was directed to me. The first three paragraphs of my last comment are redundant. You can delete them if you wish.

The Hedyot said...

> Hedyot, the phrase "vast majority" is hyperbolic.

I disagree. To the degree which people are not able to focus their life on a pursuit which lets them cultivate their talents and feel good about their accomplishments (outside of the beis medrash) they are frustrated. I believe that this applies to the vast majority of the population.

david a. said...

DH,

IMHO, there exists a very fundamental “hashkafa” problem in this community that to me explains how such supposedly meticulously observant and God fearing jews could perform deeds that to many of us are plain wrong and some even evil.
And that is, the idea, that deep down inside, many of them believe that since the Torah (s’bekesav and Chazal) encompasses everything, anything that is not explicitly covered in that Torah can not really be all that important and hence is treated as such, despite paying lip service to the contrary. Pedophilia, tax evasion, treatment of non-jews, health issues, attitude to women etc. (the list is sadly much too long).

The Hedyot said...

> ...there exists a very fundamental "hashkafa" problem in this community... that is, that anything that is not explicitly covered in that Torah can not really be all that important...

Could be for some people. But I can't say this was the case in my community.

laura said...

Wow, Hedyot. Projection. Classic.

The Hedyot said...

> Most everyone writing here is closer in temperament to Conservatives than charedim. And yet who looks at them, who thinks about them and who cares what they actually do?

This is true, but I think it's simply because those communities don't try to affect my life in any significant way. When I go to a reform shul, they don't judge me and look at me funny. When I go to a chareidi one, they do. Additionally, reform and conservative are not where my family and former friends are so they have very little bearing on my life. Whereas the polices and practices of Orthodoxy do impact on my life at various times.

Joshua said...

I agree with the remark about Torah study. I'd take it a step further and note that very little comes out of the charedi community that we would see as productive torah study. They don't synthesize or produce new research. You won't see charedim comparing how different places and era dealt with different halachic dilemmas. All it is is learning the same things, again and again and again, with no new input. There are exceptions to this, but it is by and large true.

On the other hand, the charedim would probably argue that that's what torah learning is supposed to be. Moreover, they would likely argue that everyone should be learning torah whether or not they are good at it.

e said...

Joshua: what you describe as "productive" torah learning, the chareidim would describe as useless silliness.

They wouldn't want to learn with a historical perspective, because that would imply that chidushim of the talmidei chachamim of past generations were influenced by their circumstances, which smacks of kefirah.

The Hedyot said...

e -
This is very true, but regardless of how one defines 'productive' learning, I maintain that a very large chunk of bochurim in yeshivas do not really have any idea what is going on in the shiur most of the time (and really have no interest in it either). More than 50% in my experience.

By no stretch of the imagination can that be considered productive.

How come no one addressed my question: How should a community be defined? By its ideals, or by its adherents?

Shaya Getzel said...

As a good friend of mine is fond of saying, "don't confuse Jews with Judaism"...

TikunOlam said...

EJ, I think you are way off base with your "projection" analysis. There seem to be two groups that have a lot to say about the chareidi world. First are the MOs who think that the chareidim are a cult version of Judaism and have gone off the deep end and distorting their religion. The second group are those that left. The rest of the world has no interest.

Observer said...

Ej states >I take issue with your claim that "The vast majority find themselves frustrated and bitter" or that "hardly any have the practical, financial, and psychological wherewithal to properly undertake such a responsibility (as raising a large family.)" There are some who are bitter as in any society, but you have no solid evidence about the vast majority.<

I have noticed now, for perhaps 35 years or so, that many chassidic men I've met, as they get older, seem to be very sarcastic and bitter.

kisarita said...

there's a common thread running through both the positive and negative characteristics- and that is, maintaining the community system.

chesed maintains the community system. so does hating outsiders and protecting child molestors- in the short run.

ej said...

TikunOlam...not so fast. Israeli society is busy with charedim and not just because they are shirkers and welfare clients. They think and write novels about their sex lives. Has you ever seen a movie about the sex life of a liberal LWMO Jew?

The MO suck up to charedim, just read XGH, Rabbi Maryles,and even Hirhurim. You seem to agree those who left are busy with charedim, mostly their failures,(see this post.) Conservadox are also busy, being frequently dependent on charedi life for kashrut, mikvaot. Interest begins to wain and ignorance seems to grow exponentially somewhere towards the middle of Conservative Judaism, but then the imagination takes over even more. I am saying charedim occupy a place in Jewish consciousness similar to blacks in the American psyche. I could easily be mistaken.

Observer...I can only speak from my limited experience. I have found chasidim to have an aggressive,sharp wit, frequently in your face. I would agree sarcasm figures prominently and I should add I believe it was this way back in Eastern Europe. I have no experience of bitter. They seem to sing and party a fair amount.

gillian said...

Observer, you are absolutely right. I've noticed it myself! And I have also noticed, for the past twenty five years or so, that many pretty people become sarcastic and bitter as they get older. Also, many ugly people. And wait, I've also noticed that many Blacks become sarcastic and bitter when they get older. And have you seen the old sarcastic and bitter Asians? And I've also noticed, but only in the last twenty years, that many Republicans become sarcastic and bitter when they grow older. Come to think of it, there are quite a number of blonde old sarcastic bitter people, too. Not to mention all those old, sarcastic, bitter brunettes! What's up with that?

Johnny said...

I disagree with the axiom "Don't confuse Jews with Judaism." It is often used to excuse the negatives that Harry described, but the reality is "lo bashamayim hee" which means that the Torah is not meant to be a hypothetical; it's meant to be practical.

Thus, to answer Hedyot's question, we must judge them by the adherents, not the ideals.

laura said...

Excellent, Johnny. But which ones? There are all kinds of adherents, you know. You can pick the baal chesed or the bigot. Which kind of leaves you in the same quandary Hedyot's in, don't you think?

Scovle said...

"You can pick the baal chesed or the bigot. "

Not really, because the baal chesed and the bigot could be one and the same person.

XGH said...

> I was only explaining how it is that both are true.

No - you explained it as the difference between ideals and reality - which is totally not what I was saying at all.

alex said...

Johnny wrote: "I disagree with the axiom "Don't confuse Jews with Judaism.""

I agree and disagree.
In my opinion, you gotta look at the percentages.

Not Chareidi said...

Not the ideals. There's a saying the road to you-know-where is paved with good intentions.

mOOm said...

In Israel the problem is the large financial benefits the haredim take from the state combined with their unwillingness to contribute much in return and their attempts to impose their views on the majority.

Sarah said...

I haven't read through all the comments, but your post reminded me of a conversation I had a few years ago. I had brought in two non-Jewish instructors from the United States to teach a self-empowerment class in Jerusalem called "Understanding Yourself and Others." It was the same class format that they do in the States (www.grc333.com) but we tweaked it so that it was Shomer Shabbat, men and women didn't have to touch each other if they didn't want to, etc. I think about 80% of the participants were Orthodox, and some were quite Charedi (or as Charedi as a person can be and still attend a co-ed course). Anyhow, of course you get to know people really well in a setting like this. After a day or two I asked one of the instructors, again a gentile man who had never been to Israel before and hadn't encountered many observant Jews before, what he thought of us and our community. The first thing he said was "I'm struck by how incredibly hard the men are working to 'get it right.'" His comment made me see religious men differently. I realized how much pressure they were under -- internal and external-- to be good Jews, good husbands, good fathers, good providers, good learners, good daveners, etc etc etc. It gave me new respect for how hard these particular men were working on themselves, how high the bar was set for them.