Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Adopting the Chumros of Chasidim

By now - the move to the right is a rather well known phenomenon. It has been addressed many times by many people including me. One of the more prominent Jewish thinkers, Dr. Chaim Soloveitchik wrote a landmark essay on this subject a few years ago.

His thesis is that there is a loss of mimetic tradition in our day. We have abdicated our own Mesorah in favor of the book. The current system of Chinuch attaches far more importance to what is written a Sefer than the Mesorah transmitted in the home.

In defense of this new emphasis of the book over one’s own family Mesorah - it is seen as a way to prevent those family customs that are not rooted in Halacha. Seen in this light one can understand this shift in emphasis. After all not everyone has the Mesorah of a Chaim Soloveitchik.

How is one to tell the difference between legitimate and illegitimate Mesorah if a parent does not have the background to know what is real and what isn’t? To avoid that problem they teach their students to look in a Halacha Sefer if they want to know what to do.

Of course the problem with that is that some of us do have legitimate family Mesorah. But in order to equalize the playing field they have taken a ‘Lo Plug’approach. This creates a society of like mindedness that can easily lead to an entire community adopting Chumros never envisioned by their ancestors.
While I agree that his thesis is very contributory to the problem of ‘moving to the right’ I do not see it as the sole reason for why things are so radically changed. I see it more as a reactionary response to two phenomena.

On the one hand rabbinic leaders on the right desire to extricate their adherents from a secular environment perceived and promoted as completely antithetical to Torah. All efforts are then made to separate from it. This can entail Chumros specially designed to avoid any contact with the outside. Bans against all forms secular media are as much for that purpose as they are for protecting people from viewing porn.

But there is another front they react to that in my view is the major reason for the move to the right. Chasidim.

Chasidic Chumros now pervade all of Orthodoxy. In pre-Holocaust Europe the Yeshiva world used to have its own values independent of Chasidic influences. That’s probably because they had always been for the most part two separate communities geographically each with their own customs. The strictures of modesty are an example of just how different these two communities were in the past. The Lithuanian Yeshiva world never had a problem with mixed seating at weddings. Chasidim shunned mixed seating weddings.

And when the two worlds occasionally crossed paths – even the greatest Lithuanian Gedolim of that era did not allow themselves to be influenced by the strictures of Chasidus.

There is a famous story about the Chafetz Chaim, a Lithuanian Rosh Yeshiva and R’ Meir Shapiro of Lublin a Chortkover Chasid. If I recall correctly the Chafetz Chaim heard that R’ Meir Shapiro and his wife were going to be in his town one particular Shabbos and invited them to eat their Shabbos meals at his home. Rav Shapiro accepted on condition that the wives would sit at separate tables. The Chafetz Chaim turned him down. He would not bow to the Chumra of a Chasid even at the expense of giving up the Mitzvah of Hachnosas Orchim!

Today, it seems the opposite is true. In post Holocaust America and Israel the influx of Chasdim has overwhelmed the culture. There is no longer two geographic worlds. Ameircan Orthodoxy had a melting pot of its own.

The Lithuanian style Yeshivos were the only game in town immediately post holocaust. Chasidim sent their children to those Yeshivos . They were by far the larger percentage of students there. The balance of Minhagim per student was overwhelmed by Chasidic influences. Their Chumros became the Yeshiva’s Chumros. Mixed seating at weddings is a thing of the past in Yeshiva circles.

But that isn’t all. Chasidic Chumros related to Tznius have taken over in many areas. I believe that this is responsible for some of the off the wall behavior that has resulted from it. Chasidim are obsessed by these issues. Ger for example is known for that. They will never take a walk with their wives in the street on Shabbos. The men will always be several steps ahead of their wives. No matter how old they are. Contrast that with stories told about Rav Gifter (no Mekil on any issue) who was seen walking together arm in arm with his wife in their later years.

But this has not stopped the general trend in the direction of Tznius. The Yeshiva world never sees a Tznius Chumra it doesn’t like. That’s why we have Tznius squads in places like Ramat Bet Shemesh where one will also find bans on women entering a store wearing pants!

Is it any wonder that Burka ladies were invented? And that their numbers are increasing? Yes they are still a relatively insignificant minority - and of course no one approves of that mode of dress. Not even the most extreme Chasidim.

But that they exist at all can be directly traced to the obsession with Tznius generated by Chasidic influences in my view. This is the community that has innovated segregated buses and even segregated sidewalks. This is the community that generated the Tznius squads and Tznius Hechsher organizations. This is the community that refuses to publish pictures of women in any manner in their publications.

They have influenced the rest of the Charedi world along these lines. That’s why for instance there are fewer and fewer brides going over to their husband’s side for a few minutes during the dancing at their own weddings.

And now there is a new Chumra that has come out from these sources. Women are now being told that using a cell phone in the street is a breach of Tznius.

Will we ever get back to normal? Will we ever have a prominent rabbinic leader of Lithuanian heritage stand up and say, enough with these Chumros already?! Will we ever hear them say something like ‘Let the Chasidim do what they want but let us stop trying to beat them at their own game?’