Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Showing Their True Colors

The Wolf recently wrote a post about a correspondence between an anonymous young fellow and a supposedly well known Rav in which the esteemed Rabbi relates his sentiments about the importance of full time learning and those who devote themselves to it. More accurately, he spells out in no uncertain terms his feelings towards those who don’t engage in it full time. Some choice excerpts:

"...there is no question in my mind that you are NOT doing that which HaShem wants you to do."
"...the truth is precisely that: you ARE sub-par!!"
"You are missing everything. I don't understand how you could believe for even a second that your lifestyle is what HaShem wants for us."

I must admit, it’s been a while since I’ve seen anything that so accurately reflects the worldview that I used to subscribe to. The whole thing was like a ride back in a time-machine for me. I could practically envision the Rabbi, standing at the front of the beis medrash, the bochurim looking up at him earnestly, and him repeatedly slamming his hand down on the shtender, shouting at us, "Those who learn one hour a day don't even know what quality in learning is all about! They don’t even know!" (Ahhhh... those were the days...)

I strongly suggest you read the full conversation here. There are so many worthwhile points to highlight from this exchange. Let’s start with the most obvious.

It should be patently clear to one and all the utter derision this rabbi has for those who do not devote themselves to learning. Now, to me, this is not news at all. Throughout the years that I spent in the black-hat world, this message was ingrained in us to a degree that we pretty much knew it was just one more incontrovertible God-given Truth. After all, isn’t it what all the gedolim and tzaddikim throughout history have done?! One can even hear in Rabbi B.’s words an almost confused tone, since he can sense that the guy wants to be a proper Torah Jew, yet the fellow just isn’t grasping something that is taken for granted by any well trained frum kid.

I’m not at all surprised that Rabbi B. is saying what he did. The reason I want to point out his statements though is not to put the focus on him, but rather to show the lie of those who deny the existence of this view. Far too often, when I’m discussing this issue with yeshivish people, they challenge me when I say that the chareidi world promotes a view that disrespects those who don’t devote themselves to learning. People deny that such a sentiment is common among the frum world, and that it is promoted in yeshivas. Well, here we have some irrefutable evidence of just how negatively they view such people. His words are dripping with contempt and condescension: "You are sub-par!", " need to think that in order to make you feel good about your lifestyle.", "Anyone who really believes really very very confused.", "You are missing everything." And let’s not forget his blasé disregard for women: "Don’t worry, most girls don’t understand a word about what I am speaking." Actually, what’s even more revealing to me than the content of his words is his tone. He fires off insult after insult, without even a pretense of being remorseful or apologetic. I suspect that he does so not because he’s an insensitive boor, but because he simply doesn’t even realize that he’s being offensive. To him, it’s obvious: some people are less than others - why should anyone have to apologize for stating what’s plainly obvious? His tone shows just how much he takes for granted that his views are immutable truth.

Once again, I don’t want to point at this rabbi as particularly culpable in this regard. I heard these sentiments expressed in such manner over and over by every single rebbe and rosh yeshiva I ever encountered during my years in the yeshivish world. It’s how it’s done in that world, at every level, from the earliest days of kids in cheder to the private chizuk-talks yungerman are given by their roshei yeshiva. This Rabbi is not the least bit unique. As one of the commenter’s said, "...where i live this is the hashkafah of the vast majority of the schools. in terms of high schools specifically, i think we are talking 90% or more (with perhaps some minor variations on the overall theme of the sentiments)."

And herein lies the hypocrisy. Because don’t these same people also endlessly moan about the "crisis" of people who "go off the derech"? Don’t they constantly write and talk about how we need to figure out and understand the causes of why someone would want to leave the frum world? (It’s the Internet. No, it’s movies. Maybe it’s the year in Israel. It’s probably all the sexual imagery nowadays. Could be it’s exposure to secular studies. No, no. It's because he eats chalav stam.) Is it really so hard to figure out? How can anyone in good conscience be surprised that someone would want to leave a society in which they are deemed sub-par?! How can this rabbi - and all those in the yeshivish world who subscribe to this view - honestly claim that they are bothered by the trend of people leaving frumkeit, when they are actively fostering a societal attitude that is pushing them out?

Of course, what I’m pointing out here is not anything new. Much ink has been spilled by people who acknowledge how harmful this view is. But what I want to know is, how does this Rabbi reconcile his stated view with the idea that he wouldn’t want to do anything that would push people away from being frum? Does he not realize what he’s saying? And more importantly - will those figures who claim to be working to solve the problem of "kids-at-risk", directly speak out against this Rabbi? Will they challenge him? Will they demand that those gedolim who he claims support his position explain how they can defend such a view?

Another interesting thing to bring attention to in this exchange is the fellow who is writing to this rabbi. I can’t help wondering, why is the guy even talking to this rabbi? He clearly subscribes to a different world view. He obviously feels that it’s ok not to be in full time learning. That he isn’t less valued, or judged somewhat deficiently in how he lives his life. So why is he looking to convince the rabbi of his view? If he’s confident in his position that he’s still a valued and respected Jew even while he’s not learning as much as Rabbi B says he should, why not just shake his head in amusement at the silly fanatic rabbi, and just go about his merry way?

As I read through the fellow’s replies, I found myself recognizing myself in his words. People often ask me, when I write about how the strictures and conformity of the society I came from contributed to me leaving the chareidi world, "But why did you have to go all the way? Why couldn’t you just have become a bit more moderate and join a Modern-Orthodox community?" It’s definitely a valid question. The truth is that I did live in the MO world for a few years. But throughout all my time there, I never could really get myself to believe in it the way I believed in the Chareidi worldview. (I don’t think it was because of any deficiencies in that particular system, but rather because of the tight grip the Chareidi world still had on my consciousness.) I liked that society, and I had rabbis and friends and even some family telling me that how I lived was perfectly acceptable, that I didn’t have to judge myself by the standards of my former peers, yet it seemed that I still looked towards my former world for validation. Like this sad letter-writer, I was living in a world that had one set of values, but I couldn’t give up on the idea that I should still be respected by those who judged me by a different set of values. I mistakenly believed that we both could see eye to eye.

In fact, the reality was that it wasn’t all just in my head. It wasn't just I that was looking over my shoulder to my former society. It was also them who were actively telling me to "come back." I had many encounters where people would usually implicitly, but sometimes explicitly, make some remark that expressed their disapproval for the life I was living. On the one hand, it would seem that I was outside of their sphere of influence, yet they were often still deliberately attempting to reach in and try to regain their hold on me. Like this Rabbi B. who tells his correspondent (who clearly lives by a different set of rules) how he can’t possibly be living the life that Hashem wants of him, I heard many of those messages from my family and acquaintances as they tried to impress upon me how mistaken my lifestyle was. (I find it especially ironic now, since some of those same people who were telling me then how I shouldn’t be MO because it’s so wrong, are now trying to convince me to adopt a MO religious lifestyle.)

It was only later in life that I realized how all this was actually an early step in my evolution out of the frum world. I was subconsciously realizing that as long as I was still frum, I would never stop judging myself by their standards. And by those standards, I would simply never be good enough. If I ever wanted to respect myself in a real way, I’d have to drastically adjust the basis of my values in a very fundamental way.

I think that this fellow, and so many others like him, do not quite realize the dilemma that they are facing. They think that there is one basic community with essentially a common message, and that they should be able, for the most part, to fit in comfortably anywhere within that nebulous society known as The Torah World. This is the mistake he is making. He doesn’t realize that Rabbi B. regards his view of "Torah Living" as only slightly less bastardized than how he himself would think of a Jews for Jesus adherent’s take on that same concept.

Wake up and smell the coffee, people! You’re not all on the same team! Didn't you learn anything from Slifkin?


Anonymous said...

I have some mixed feelings on this. On the one hand, I synpathize with the fact that you find it hard to fit in to OJ. But on the other hand, the tremendous emphasis on learning is what has set the Jewish people apart from everyone else (in a good way) for 2000 years plus. I mean, we are the people of the book! And the emphasis on IQ and study is why we have Einsteins, why we do good at business and everything else. I would also say its linked to ethics too. So, there are some good things there. Also, much of your resentment and dislike of OJ is due to the fact that you were never into learning. But of course I agree that for people who really can't stand learning, there needs to be an alternate derech, and they shouldn't be made to feel inferior. Well, maybe a little.

The Hedyot said...

I don't disagree that an emphasis on learning and scholarship is a wonderful and fine ideal. But a) it can and should be done in a way that doesn't necessitate viewing those who don't do it as second class and b) You can't claim that you want to stop people from being pushed away from frumkeit if that's how you relate to them.
Additionally, much of the learning that people who express this hashkafa are valuing is not quite of the sort that produces the great luminaries of society. As Rabbi B. said in his letter - "How many chaburos have you given this past month? How many difficult ktzosim have you answered?" I'm not saying that such learning is worthless, but I don't believe a lifetime devoted to that kind of learning is what produces an Einstein, a S. Y. Agnon, a Maimonides, or a Yisrael Aumann. You might see torah study as a springboard to other significant intellectual achievements and societal contributions, but I think you know that the proponents of this hashkafa don't want their great scholars to win Nobel prizes or discover scientific breakthroughs. They want them to stay in the beis medrash, hunched over the gemara, indefinitely delving into the depths of Rashi and Tosfos. The only breakthroughs they want to see from their scholars is a new chidush to answer up a shvere R' Akiva Eiger. The only sort of leader that they'd like their disciples to become are poskei hador.
The hashkafa expressed by this Rabbi is a very far cry from the basic idea of valuing learning. The notion of full time learning, that everyone should be doing it, that if you aren't doing it then god is disappointed with you, that it must revolve around certain scholarly pursuits - that's all stuff that doesn't have to be part and parcel of a hashkafa that values learning and intellectual growth.

Baal Habos said...

>It was only later in life that I realized how all this was actually an early step in my evolution out of the frum world. I was subconsciously realizing that as long as I was still frum, I would never stop judging myself by their standards....

I agree strongly that there is an elitist attitude towards learning. I too felt annoyance back in my believing days, when reading a history book by Berel Wein in which he stated the book is heavy on Rabbi's because that this the soul of the Jewish people. Having agreed with you there, I still can't see the leap from yeshiva boy to leaving Frumkeit because of that. After all if you really believe that God wants you to do Mitsvos, why should a zealous learning society drive you away completely? Having said that, I realize there's many paths to heresy (see )

and I'm certainly not judging you, just trying to understand you. BTW, I followed your comments on Cross-Currents awhile ago, in reference to some organization in Isreal and I do agree with you totally on that one.

Veganovich said...


What I think you are missing out on, is that in the Charedi world, the emphasis on being in yeshiva is not just because of what you do in yeshiva, i.e. learning religious studies, but because of what you do not do as a result of being in yeshiva, i.e. interact with the secular world.

I disappointed my Charedi parents by going to college, and working, even though they were aware that I was not learning when I was in yeshiva. Like most Charedim, they preferred their son be in yeshiva, for reasons independent of learning of any learning that might have occurred. (Although, they obviously would have preferred I learn while there.)

As for the relation between the emphasis on learning religious matters, and secular academic success, I think you overstate the case. I once saw an interview with Alan Dershowitz, in which he was asked if studying gemara makes it easier to study law. He said that he wouldn’t know, as he never really paid attention in yeshiva.

If the superior academic success of Jews is the result of the emphasis on study, rather than innate intellectual aptitude, you should see more of such success among people who were raised religious than those who were not. That is not the case. Einstein, who you mention in particular, grew up in a very secular environment.

Baal Habos said...

Veganovich, I'm not sure if the case is overstated. Might not Scholarship & High IQ be genetically passed down? So even if Dershowitz did not pay attention in cheder, possibly his ancestors did.

The Hedyot said...

> I still can't see the leap from yeshiva boy to leaving Frumkeit because of that.

Definitely, that doesn't quite fit. As you no doubt know, there was a whole lot more that contributed to that step than just this one issue. I hope to elaborate more on this soon.

Veganovich said...

--- Might not Scholarship & High IQ be genetically passed down? So even if Dershowitz did not pay attention in cheder, possibly his ancestors did. ---

Of course IQ is genetically passed down. But if Alan Dershowitz’s ancestors put in long hours in yeshiva, he would not have done any better in Law School as a result, because studying in yeshiva does not alter one’s genetic makeup.

Baal Habos said...

Hedyot, I'm looking forward to it.
Veganovich, if scholarship was always widespread and prized, would it not be "selected for" over many generations?

Veganovich said...

--- Veganovich, if scholarship was always widespread and prized, would it not be "selected for" over many generations? ---

Yes, but I do not think that social policy should be made out of a desire to breed smarter people. Selection does not increase the total number of people who are successful in business and science; it merely increases the percentage of people who are successful.

If the goal is to have a higher percentage of people who are successful in business and science, there is a less costly manner of doing it than having vast numbers of people devote vast amounts of time to studying worthless books. If there was a takanah made by the rabbis, that stated that everyone has to take an IQ test before get married, and the bottom 20% cannot have children, that would also result in a higher percentage of the Jewish community being successful. I really people would not comply, but I am discussing it as a theoretical matter.

KarkaOlam said...

Hi. It seems to me, the more I think of this, that the book, "The Unchosen" which many people have said is very simplistic, is not as simplistic as they say. I've only glansed at sections of it ( I have very little patience for those kind of books), but my understanding of it is that the idea is that if frum people were given more love and respect they wouldn't leave "the derech" as much. It seems that if you were more respected as a person when growing up, you'd still be frum - perhaps? Or is this just a very small aspect of why people leave frumkeit?

KarkaOlam said...

oops - glanced. Not really American so spelling is not always so great. sorry.

The Hedyot said...

> understanding of it is that the idea is that if frum people were given more love and respect they wouldn't leave "the derech" as much. It seems that if you were more respected as a person when growing up, you'd still be frum - perhaps? Or is this just a very small aspect of why people leave frumkeit?

Yes, it's a just one aspect, and for everyone it's different. For some people, more respect would have gone a long way towards alleviating the pain that prompted the leaving. For others, it would have happened anyway. For some, it had nothing to do with emotions, but rather beliefs. It's not so black and white. There are many factors that contribute to this phenomenon, and some of them are just the normal experience of growing up.