Wednesday, June 01, 2011

My Response to Rabbi Bechhofer

I am stunned.

Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer is someone that I greatly admire and look up to – even though he is at least 20 years my junior.

He is one of a kind. A brilliant Talmid Chacham who brings his vast knowledge on many subjects to bear in all of his lectures. Be they Shiurim in Gemarah or lectures in Hashkafa. He is a Baal Machshava ‘par excellence’ - a true thinker who does not follow the party line but seeks Emes in everything he does. Whether one agrees or disagrees with him on any given subject - he is a role model for the kind of Mechanchim that are sorely lacking in the Yeshiva world.

His stated Hashkafos are those of Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch’s classic Torah Im Derech Eretz (TIDE). He is in fact currently involved in trying to establish a new Yeshiva along those lines.

Which is in part why I am so stunned by what he said about my last post. Here are his comments in full:

I am deeply disappointed by this post.

"Flipping out" is a derogatrory term (that I admit I use because of its prevalence) for any change for the better in Talmud Torah and/or Yiras Shomayim.

It is not intrinsically linked to Charedism, and its use is pernicious.

And, buying a hat when one returns, say, from one's first year in Sha'alvim is not a sign of a sea-change of any sort. I know, I did it.

If this post contributes to one bachur not "flipping out" lest he be termed "Charedi", ר"ל, its effect will have been horrific.

RHM, you should not be responsible for such a terrible outcome.

Take it down.

I am wracking my brain as to why he feels that way about my thoughts on this subject.

First I would ask if he would not agree that the institutions that I object to not only follow the Charedi party line hook line and sinker – but completely reject TIDE. Not only do they reject it - they have redefined it into something other than Rav Hirsch espoused. At best they see it as a B’Dieved.

The Charedi world has even managed to convince Rav Yisroel Mantel, the leader of the Orthodox Jewish German-American community (KAJ otherwise known as Breuer’s - Rav Hirsch’s natural constituency) to reject TIDE. Rav Mantel got up at a banquet celebrating the bicentennial of Rav Hirsch’s birth and declared that we cannot even practice TIDE today since none of us are on a level to understand or interpret Rav Hirsch’s Hashkafos properly. He defaults to Charedi Hashkafos. This is something with which Rabbi Bechhofer would surely disagree.

Rabbi Bechhofer was so upset at my thoughts on this subject that he asked me to take down the post. He apparently sees it as a dangerous impediment to a young person’s growth in Judaism.

I believe that he feels this way because of one of these two possibilities. He either misread my thoughts or misinterpreted them. I can’t believe that he thinks a Yeshiva misrepresenting itself is a good thing.

Rabbi Bechhofer focuses on two things, each of which I will address.

First there is the ‘Black Hat’. He appears to be upset that I consider wearing a black hat as something awful citing his own choice to put one on after his experience as a student at Shalavim. Let me clear that up. I do not consider the act of wearing a black hat in and of itself something terrible. I wear a black hat. Many people with my Hashkafos wear a black hat.

This is not about wearing a hat. It is about what the “Black Hat’ has come to symbolize that is the problem. The very term ‘Black Hatter’ means not so much that someone decided to put on a black hat one day. It means that he follows Charedi Hashkafos. And that often implies rejecting other Hashkafos as B’Dieved at best (like TIDE) or Krum at worst (like Torah U’Mada). This is the ‘black hat’ I object to. Not the one an adherent of TIDE or TuM might wear.

Second there is the term ‘Flipping Out’ which I think is Rabbi Bechhofer’s greater objection. He seems to be saying that by using that phrase I will be causing potential insidious harm or ruin to someone because they will resist ‘any change for the better in Talmud Torah and/or Yiras Shomayim’.

This was absolutely not what I said or what I meant. I was very clear. Let me excerpt my exact words:

Flipping out’ was addressed a few years ago by authors of a book that studied the phenomenon and found that in most cases these young people did not in fact flip out, but just became more committed to Halacha. They observed that this was a good thing. If the story ended there, I would agree.

That Rabbi Bechhofer feels that I have misused the term to discourage such growth is therefore in error. I clearly agree that growth in Talmud Torah and Yiras Shomayim is a good thing. That he would think I say otherwise is a puzzlement to me.

If one reads of the experiences of some who have attended Yeshivos like these and sees the extent to which they embrace extremist Charedi values while rejecting all others, one could hardly call this simply growth in Judaism.

Daniel Schwartz’s experience is very illustrative of this. That a Yeshiva could threaten to expel a student for going to a Shiur in Tanach by a world renowned expert like Nechama Leibowitz has nothing to do with promoting Yiras Shamayim or advancement in Limud HaTorah. But it has everything to do with Charedization – a Charedization that rejects Rabbi Bechhofer’s own Hashkafos!

I would just close by saying that I do not believe that my thoughts on this subject will harm anyone. The clear intent here is to comment on problems inherent in or connected to this phenomenon: the Shiddach problems mentioned in the Jewish Press article; and the friction, disappointment, and occasionally disharmony between parents and children when due to their year in Israel they reject the legitimate values of their parents.

And perhaps most importantly it was written as a warning to parents - to thoroughly check out the Yeshivos and seminaries in Israel they send their teenagers to – so that they can avoid those problems. But I can assure Rabbi Bechhofer that I am four square behind the goals of real growth that Rabbi Bechhofer mentions and that should occur during that year.


Upon further reflection, I see that I have still not made my views clear. So let me add the following.

Yeshivos like Keren B’Yavneh and Shalavim are clearly not in the category of the kinds of Israeli Yeshivos I was talking about. These are Hesder Yeshivos – obviously not Charedi. They are serious about learning, do not denigrate college, and do not use deceptive practices when recruiting students from high schools.

The kind of Charedism I referred to in the post is the extremist kind that is guilty of the kind of indoctrination experienced by Daniel Schwartz. Furthermore my criticism here is not even about their extremism so much as it is about their deceptive recruiting practices.

I would also like to make clear that I absolutely encourage every high school graduate to spend a year of legitimate growth in Israel. In many cases it is critical to their Judaism to do so. My only caveat is to make certain that due diligence is done to see to it that the Hashkafos of aYeshiva do not seriously contradict the Hashkafos of the home.

And finally there is ‘The Black Hat’. I want to make abundantly clear that I have no problem with anyone who wears one. It is the ‘Black Hat Hashkafa’ that is problematic for me. If one wants to wear a black hat because that is his community standard of dress and he wants to identify with it - that is a perfectly fine thing to do.

Also if someone wants to identify with his Rebbe who wears a hat, that is fine too. Rav Hershel Shachter wears a black hat. Rav Ahron Soloveitchik wore a black hat even though he did not require his Talmidim to do so. If a Talmid wants to emulate his Rebbe’s behavior, Kol HaKavod.