Friday, December 24, 2010

How Did We Get Here?

The banning Vos Iz Neias (VIN) leaves open some huge questions. Why did it happen? How is it possible that people who are considered Gedolei HaDor by so many Orthodox Jews can be fooled so easily and so often?

Let me be clear. These Rabbanim are great human beings. They are Moser Nefesh for Yiddishkeit. I know this for a fact in certain cases. No one should take that away from them. That they err is that they are human.

Nonetheless they are often vilified because of their mistakes. This is unfair. I can’t emphasize this enough. Those rabbis did not reach the pinnacle of their profession by being mediocre, uncaring, or by chance. They mostly earned it. Although in some cases Yichus helped push them into the limelight, that is not what kept them there. It was dedication and hard work.

I have in the past written about what makes someone a Gadol. It is a complex issue that remains in flux and I don’t want to reiterate it here. The point is when someone does reach this level of recognition by his peers and his constituents he should be considered a leader even if one disagrees with him.

But what is it that makes such a leaders o vulnerable to mistakes like this? I can’t definitively answer that - but here are some of my thoughts.

I believe that there are a couple of factors that created the problem and continue to impact upon each other to exacerbate it. The two factors at play are the influence of Chasidism and the move to the right. I believe that virtually every event that has had a negative impact on us over the last few years is related to this.

I want to make clear that I do not disparage Chasidus or Chasidim in any way. They are large and legitimate segment of observant Jewry with enviable assets. Their attention to the details of Mitzvos is unassailable. Their concept of serving God in joy and their Gemilas Chasodim - acts of kindness to fellow Jews of all stripes - is legendary.

My quibble with Chasidus is philosophical and theological. But that should not be mistaken for a lack of respecting them. As it pertains to observant Judaism - Chasidim are my brothers just like members of the left are my brothers and I love them with my full heart.

That said - here’s what I think happened.

In about the middle of the last century there was a mass influx into America and other western cultures of Holocaust survivors – mostly Chasidic Jews. They brought with them all the trappings and practices of Chasidus from in Europe. Unlike Europe where Chasidim and Yeshivishe Lithuanian Jews were for the most part geographically separated(there were exceptions) - in melting pot America there was an integration of the two worlds. Nonetheless Chasidim retained their own culture and way of life. Their customs – many of which are Chumros were very prominent and obvious to the Lithuanian Roshei Yeshiva whose communities never had those Chumros.

I believe that the Lithuanian Yeshiva world saw those Chumros and feared being accused of not being Frum enough. So they incorporated some of them into their own world. The following anecdote will demonstrate.

In about 1960 Telshe Yeshiva ‘s branch in Chicago opened up. They immediately established fundraising banquets. Those banquets had mixed seating – men and women at the same tables. This was nothing new for them since weddings were mixed in Lithuania too. In fact in late 40s – early 50s there is photographic evidence of the Lithuanian Gedolei HaDor of that era – men like R’ Moshe Feinstein and R’ Yaakov Kaminetsky sitting proudly with their wives at weddings.

Chasidm would never contenance any such scenario. So when Rav Zvi Hirsch Meisels (the Veitznier Rebbe) opened up a day school in about 1962 his banquets men and women were separately seated. Not to be outdone Telshe started having separate seating at their banquets. The thinking was explained to me back then by one of the Telzer Talmidim. Telshe was not about to be ‘shown up’ as not being as frum as Chasidim.

I believe this mentality has taken hold and is what drove - and still drives - many of the Chumros adopted by the Yeshiva wolrd. The homogenization of Chasdim and the Lithuanian Yeshiva world is in part the cause of the move to the right. That has also caused another Chasidic idea to creep into the yeshiva world. Roshei Yeshiva are now looked at in ways similar to a Chasidic Rebbe. Certainly those that are considered Gedolei HaDor.

And since appearance is so important to the Chasdic world appearance has become more important in the Yeshiva world. The more religious one looks, the more one is given respect and trust. If one looks Frum he must be Frum. A man with a long beard who wears a frock (Kapote or Bekeshe) will almost always be trusted. After all why would anyone want to look so different religiously if they weren’t truly religious. Thus - psychologically- they are granted a credibility they haven’t really earned simply because of their appearance.

Now it’s true that this is not automatic. There have always been evil people disguised as righteous people - wearing ‘the look’. But without any information to the contrary, I believe such people are generally given more credence by the right wing then those of us who look more modern. And if any such person is perceived in any way to be a community leader among his own – that pretty much gives him a free pass to make just about any claim he wants and not be questioned.

All of this is subliminal. It is an unconscious process of Chumraization based in part on a Chasidic infux into an America that does not have cultural boundaries. That is changing somewhat. Chasidim now have their own schools and live in places like Kiryas Joel that is virtually 100% Satmar. But the cat is out of the bag. Their presence in such close proximity in the mid to late 20th century has taken its toll. Intermingling with the Lithuanian world strongly influenced the Lithuanians to the right.

How does that impact on what happened with VIN? When a Chasidic Jew who is a respected member of that world with a claim comes before a religious leader of even Lithuanian heritage – he is going to be believed. There will be little if any skepticism about his veracity. And the ‘move to the right’ zeitgeist adds to the urgency of any claim.

Today when everyone is constantly looking over their right shoulder - when a religious looking Jew makes an accusation, it is pounced upon – God forbid any of his claims are allowed to continue even for a moment!

I think much of the same type thinking is in part the reason that Sholom Rubashkin has become such a ‘cause celeb’ in right wing circles. He is a Jew with a long beard and a big black Yarmulke. He is a kindred spirit – one of our own.

It’s probably true that they would have done the same for a modern Orthodox Jew. But I truly believe that the fact that he looks so Frum gives them an extra sense of outrage and urgency.

These are some of my thoughts. Is it so? I don’t know but from my perspective on history – it sure seems like a decent theory.