Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Extremist Mainstream American Charedi

As many know from reading this blog, I am a fan of Jonathan Rosenblum even though our Hashkafos are different. He is a Charedi with strong ‘Torah Im Derech Eretz’ leanings. I am a Centrist who believes in Torah U’Mada. Even though we may occasionally disagree - that does not diminish my respect and admiration for him.

On the contrary. I find him to be an honest and forthright proponent of his Hashkafos. He is both an intelligent and erudite writer with few peers in the Charedi world. In fact I find myself agreeing with him more often than not.

In a recent article published in Hamodia, Jonathan took issue with the current custom of automatically going to learn in Israel for a year or two which has created an explosion in numbers of American students now learning there. Specifically - he lamented the fact that this has given rise to a significant increase in the risk of young people going ‘Off the Derech’ to one degree or another. He therefore admonished parents to be more aware of these risks and be more hands on in selecting a Yeshiva. Perhaps more importantly he urged parents to realistically evaluate their child’s commitment to the beliefs and values in which they have been raised - before sending them away from home for a year or two.

This certainly a reasonable concern to be vigilant about.

Jonathan seems to have been attacked - same as I have been - by criticizing the Charedi status quo. The minute one takes a critical view of things Charedi one becomes subject to attacks by certain Charedi Kannoim - usually anonymously. But there is a difference when I get it. My criticisms are usually met with comments like ‘Who are you to criticize? You are an outsider?’ That is followed with the typical ‘You’re nothing more than a Charedi basher!’

That of course is a false reading of my motives and a gross misrepresentation of my views. Nevertheless I can certainly understand that a given Charedi might make that assumption . The thinking goes: I have an agenda to promote my Hashkafos. And it serves my purpose to put down other Hashkafos which automatically builds up mine.

Understandable. But wrong. But Jonathan can certainly not be criticized that way. He is ‘one of them’. But that didn’t stop it from coming:

Here is an excerpt from his recent article:

My op-ed " " in the July 23 Hamodia has occasioned more than the usual amount of comment, both in the form of an unusually large outpouring of published letters to the editor and in phone calls and private comments conveyed to me. Some of those comments have been favorable, even effusively so, and some no less critical – at least one anonymous caller took the time to call from the States to convey his opinion that I had lost my Olam Haba, chas ve'shalom.

He loses his Olam Haba. This is how some in that world see it. They will not accept any criticism at all. The slightest suggestion by anyone that something is wrong rewards them with this kind of retort – even when the benevolent intent is clear.

This response was not from some fringe fanatic. There are some Charedim who believe that what Jonathan said was absolutely wrong in the extreme. Were this comment from some hot-headed fanatic Jonathan probably would have ignored it. The only difference is that he went so far as to ‘inform’ Jonathan that he actually lost his Chelek in Olam Haba – his portion in the world to come.

Based on my own experience there are indeed many Charedim who think along the following lines: One may not criticize the status quo. One should leave any criticism in the hands of ‘the Gedolim’. If they haven’t said anything there must be nothing wrong. So any criticsm is - not only not warranted but – but it assures that one will lose his place in the world to come.

I have asked this question before. But I raise it again. Where do these poeple get these ideas from? How can anyone criticse another for expressing a heartfelt suggestion clearly made in the best interests of that very community? By one of their very own?

They want to criticize me? OK. I understand that they might see me as ‘the enemy’. But Jonathan Rosenblum?

The only answer that seems to explain it is that this is how they are indoctrinated: The world of Torah is holy. Don’t dare tamper with it – if ‘the Gedolim’ haven’t said anything is wrong then we are not permitted to entertain that notion… Not without risking our portion in the afterlife.

There are sincere constituents of the Charedi world that think this way. I used to get a lot of them commenting right here on my blog – in far less flattering ways than Jonathan did.

I can only surmise that there are competing versions of Charedi Chinuch. There are Mechnchim that advocate the approach of Jonathan’s critic. And there is another – far more realistic Charedi approach that is more self examining - willing to listen to criticism.

The question arises, which Yeshivos teach their students to think in this Kanoistic way? And why? And how many students as a percentage of all Charedim get indoctrinated this way?

My guess is that they are in the minority. I believe that moderate Charedim are indeed in the majority.

But that doesn’t elimnate the problem. There seems to be significant numbers of Yeshovos and Mechnchim that indoctrinate their student like this. Left unchecked their numbers will grow.

The battle lines are drawn. I really do feel that there is a war between the two Charedi approaches even if many Charedim would disagree. It is the moderate Charedi world against the extremist Charedi world. And by extremist I am not talking about the Meah Shearim types. They are a horse of an entierly different color. I am talking about mainstream, American Yeshivos that teach this rigid kanoistic version of Charedism.

It is imperative to fight this mindset. I will continue to do my part. But it is far more important for the moderate Charedi world to fight it with every ounce of strength they can muster. They cannot afford to sit on their hands and say. ‘Not to worry - the majority of us are not like that.’

There are enough Kannoim out there like Jonathan’s critic to intimidate the system into their world view. Moderate Charedim need to realize that the determined response of a zealous minority can be far more effective than the complacent attitude of the majority. And they need to fight that.