Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Problem with Frumkeit

I have recently been told that the Skverer Rebbe has made a Takana – a ruling for his Chasidim that limits the amount of money they can spend on Shtreimels - the furry Chasidic hat. If he finds that his Chasidim continue spending wasteful sums of money on them he will stop wearing one himself.

I am opposed to most Takanos of any kind. People have a right to spend their hard earned money any way they wish. But I understand why he would come up with this Takana now. It’s the economy. Religious institutions are now facing the biggest financial crisis of their existence. And more families than ever are struggling just to stay free of debt – while other families are becoming in increasingly greater debt than ever. Spending thousands of dollars on a single hat seem like a huge waste of money.

This Takana illustrates the importance that Chitzonius – externals – has attained in our day. So important are external appearances today that it now supercedes even obvious priorities in many cases. After all - how would it look if a Chasid walked around on a Shabbos without a Shtreimel? This is not only true of Chasidim but of Charedim in general. To them the black hat is the equivalent of a Shtreimel.

It isn’t only hats either. The Levush – the clothing styles of various segments of Chasidim and Charedim are fixed and uniform. The colors are literally black and white – a perfect match for their Hashkafos. The same thing is true about Hasidim. Almost all wear Bekeshes –black mid-calf length Chasidic style jackets and have beards and Peyos

It was not always that way. Many if not most Chasidim in pre-Holocaust Europe did not wear Shtreimels and Bekeshes at all. Nor did they all have beards and Peyos. Non Chasidic young men in Charedi Yeshivos then were not even allowed to grow beards and Peyos. They were told to shave them off if they tried. Young Charedi Yeshiva students in pre-Holocaust European Yeshivos like Mir and Ponevitch were quite dapper- in fact. I’ve seen the pictures. No card carrying Yeshiva Bachur would dare look like that today.

Some Gedolim of that era were clean shaven too. The founder of the very Charedi Yeshiva, Beis HaTalmud was R’ Leib Malin. He was clean shaven until relatively late in his life. And there are photos of a young and clean shaven Rav Gedalia Shorr as well. When Rav Aharon Kotler interviewed the original students for his Yeshiva some of them came wearing baseball caps.

Can anyone imagine anything like this today?

Today a high premium is placed on the ‘look’. Many Roshei Yeshiva and Rebbeim insist that their Bachurim – young students - dress a certain way. They spend many hours indoctrinating their young charges about ‘the look’- a look that distinguishes them from other religious Jews.

Even the style of Kipa has become important! Many years ago a young Yeshiva student who was both brilliant and sincere enrolled in a new - more Charedi Yeshiva. His bakground leaned to modern Orthodoxy. He was almost immediately told by one of the Roshei Yeshiva that his Kipa Seruga was to be replaced with a Charedi velvet style Kipa.

That made him very upset and he left soon after to a rival Yeshiva that was a bit more tolerant. He is now a huge Talmid Chacham. The irony is that he now wears a velvet Kipa. The tide of Charedi Chitznius is so great that he had no choice but to conform if he wanted respect from the Charedi community.

And it is not only young men who are indoctrinated that way. Young women are too. I had a conversation with a young woman looking for a Shiddah several years ago. She came from a wonderful family. Her father was a Rosh Yeshiva in a non Charedi Yeshiva.

But her seminary experience had indoctrinated her to reject any potential date that did not wear a completely white shirt. If he wore a shirt with a stripe in it she rejected him. She admitted that there was no intrinsic Issur but that she refused to accet anything but completely conformist behavior. What about Midos, Torah knowledge, or level of Mitzvah observance? Important but - not enough!

Chitzonius has become more important today than Penimius – internal character. Not that today’s Mechanchim don’t value character. Of course they do. But Charedi Yeshivos would sooner have someone of lesser character in their Yeshivos who wears a black hat than someone with exemplary Midos who doesn’t.

I believe that this attitude contributes to the climate of tolerated and even covered up bad or criminal behavior. This is why there is so much anger at a Moser - or informant about criminal activity by one of their own. The anger is never at the the criminal. It is almost exclusively at the informant! Oh… they will pay lip-service to condemning the criminal too – along with apologtics. But the anger is generated by and geared toward the informant!

All kinds of bad behavior is tolerated from ‘their own’. I’ve seen Rebbeim and Roshei Yeshiva look the other way when their Bachurim get drunk at a wedding and start acting rude to the older guests! As long as they ‘look’ right - that is what is important. They will rationalize- ‘Our Bachurim are not really so bad just a little over exuberant in celebrating Simchas Chasan V’Kallah’.

This is not Judaism. This is Frumkeit. It is Chitzonius taking the place of Ehrlichkeit – externals replacing sincerity in serving God.

Rav Shlomo Wolbe put it best. He said that Frumkeit is based of selfishness. People who wear their religion on their sleeves do so for their own personal aggrandizement and not really to serve God. One who bases his religious observance on Frumkeit - will remain self-centered, even if he adopts many Chumros. Is it any wonder that criminality sometimes results in individuals like these?

In my view, the cause of Judasim would be better served if Chitzonius was dropped like a lead balloon! Who cares what kind of Kipa your student wears?! The important thing about one’s clothing is that it be Tznius in all senses of the word - as long as it is within the well dressed norms of a civilized society. Clothes do not make the man. Nor does a beard and Peyos. Instead of giving Mussar to students about wearing a hat they would be far better served if the Mussar were about Midos and ethical behavior - Mitzvos Bein Adam L’Chavero.

If today’s Roshei Yeshiva can instill Ehrlichkeit instead of Frumkeit, I think half the problems in the Frum world would disappear. The Skverer Rebbe’s new Shtreimel Takana - has its heart in the right place. If I were him, I would put my Shtreimel away forever.