Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Normative Judaism or Taliban Judaism?

I was forwarded (by someone that I am not sure wants attribution) a letter that appeared in the Yated which reads in major part:

Recently, certain Bais Yaakov schools have changed their policy in regard to both high school and elementary school graduations. Whereas fathers and zaides were previously allowed to attend, now they are herded into a separate room and only allowed to enter the auditorium at the end of the ceremony for the handing out of diplomas.

These schools might as well forbid males to attend the entire ceremony. It is demeaning and insensitive to treat fathers and zaides this way.

On the day when they want to shep nachas from their daughters and granddaughters, they are treated like second-class citizens. If the administration feels men shouldn't listen to girls' valedictorian speeches, they should ban them from coming outright. One is either given a proper invitation or not invited. Becoming "frummer" should never be at the cost of hurting another's feelings.

I sympathize with this Charedi parent. She expresses what I am sure is a normal Charedi reaction. It is in fact a normal human reaction. But I am equally sure that her complaint will fall on deaf ears.

Even though I have predicted that the two worlds of moderate Charedim and right wing modern Orthodoxy will merge - this does not mean there aren’t forces in play from the far right! This letter is evidence of that.

Bais Yaakov is the mainstream Charedi school system for girls. For most Charedi parents - whether they are moderate or very right wing - their daughters attend that school system. While these schools vary based on community standards they do have baseline policies. It looks like this is the start of a new one.

One of my problems with the more right wing type of Charedism is its eagerness to adopt ever increasing modalities of Frumkeit. For that they look eastward. Israeli Charedism is the model for this behavior.

In this more right wing segment of the Charedi world secular subjects in the schools are at best tolerated and - if possible - eliminated from the curriculum. There are some Charedi schools already like that. And now in a policy that mimics Israeli Charedism Bais Yaakov has taken fathers another step away from their daughter’s lives.

The current standard in Israel is that Charedi fathers do not participate in any way with their daughters in their schools. They do not go to parent-teacher conferences. They do not attend graduations. To the best of my knowledge they do not attend any school functions. Only mothers do any of that.

I don’t think this type of separation was ever the case in non Chasidic American Charedi schools. Not even in the most Charedi of Bais Yaakovs. Fathers and grandfathers could go and enjoy the achievements of their daughters and granddaughters freely. If someone’s daughter happened to be valedictorian, one could be there and ‘Shep Nachas’.

What an honor and joy it is when a father can attend a life cycle event of a child. This is how I felt when my 3 daughters graduated from both elementary and high school. I truly felt proud on those days. A milestone was reached and I was there to witness it. I wouldn’t have missed any daughter’s graduation ceremony for a million dollars.

But even a million dollars can no longer buy such Nachas in some Bais Yaakov schools. Not anymore. Nope. Israeli Charedism is creeping further into American Charedi culture - taking a new step in a series of steps towards a Taliban like lifestyle. Oh… fathers can still attend the actual handing out of diplomas at the end of the ceremony. For now. But it is only a matter of time before that is banned too.

I don’t get it. Why the need to do something like that? What is gained? What lessons are learned? Do we really achieve greater holiness with that? Do we really need this steady sinking into an abyss of Taliban style Charedism? How far is this going to go?

One might ask why I care about how extreme the Charedi right becomes. The answer is that they do not live in a vacuum. Their move to the right affects us all. When the extreme right moves to the right, it pulls ‘the whole’ right along with them. We are all connected. This means that at some point, even moderate Charedim will see this as the right thing to do.

Some may say, what’s the big deal?! So what if you don’t attend a boring graduation ceremony? That’s fine - if you don’t want to attend. But what about the father who does want to attend? Why should he be denied?

But that isn’t even the point. The point is that a perfectly permissible way of Shepping Nachas today is being turned into an impermissible way tomorrow. It is not so much about this one thing. On the larger scale of what is truly important in Judaism this seems like relatively minor point. But it isn’t just about this one point. It is about a direction we are going. A direction that is not normal.

I truly do not believe that this is what God wants of His people. And yet this is the direction we are going.

Meanwhile what about this new entity of moderate Charedim and right wing modern Orthodoxy that is evolving? How do they fit in to all of this?

I don’t know. Maybe what we have here is the new divide. Perhaps instead of Modern Orthodox and Charedim - the future will give us normal - and Taliban!