Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Of Fallacies and Common Sense

One of the major fallacies that many Charedim make about Modern Orthodoxy is that it is a watered down version of Torah observance. That is absolutely false.

What is watered down is the “Lites”. That includes both Modern Orthodox Jews and Charedim. By Lite I mean those who tend to do be observant more for sociological reasons than ideological ones. They look at what their peers do and more or less do the same. Serious Orthodox Jews include moderate Charedim as well as extremist RW ones. They include right wing and left wing Modern Orthodox Jews too. There is nothing “Lite”about any of them.

Serious Modern Orthodox Jews follow a Hashkafic path that is well thought out based on their own intelligence and knowledge and look for guidance to great Jewish thinkers who they look up to. In the Modern Orthodox world that includes Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, Rav Yoshe Ber Solovietchik, Rav Ahron Soloveichik - and Yibadel L'Chaim Tovim Aruchim – Rav Hershel Shachter and Rav Aharon Lichtenstein.

In the Charedi world they tend to listen only to their own Gedloim to determine what their Hashkafa should be. Their Gedolim includes Rav Aharon Kotler, RavElya Svei, Rav Shach, and Yibadel L'Chaim Tovim Aruchim R' Elyashiv, and R' Steinman.

This does not mean to say that Modern Orthodox Jews do not consider Charedi Gedolim to be Gedolim. We do. But we also have our own.

One of the primary differences between Modern Orthodox Jews and Charedim is in the concept of DaasTorah. Daas Torah is a more or less modern era term which translates as the “Wisdom of the Torah”. Charedim tend to look at their own rabbinic leaders to tell them exactly what the wisdom of the Torah is on any given subject. How far does such reliance go? Here is what one Charedi fellow calling himself afff(o) said:

The Jewish religion is not one where one is meant to think for himself. We are meant to follow the great people who have done the thinking for us.

This is very telling. I do not believe it is a Torah point of view. It is incorrect to say that God does not want the Jewish people to think for themselves. If that were true Gedolim couldn't do it either. And yet this is what a seemingly intelligent and knowledgeable Charedi fellow believes.

For all practical purposes Charedim tend to look toward the words of specific Gedolim as infallible. They will pay lip service to denying it - pointing out that they are human and thus fallible. But they will immediately follow that up by saying that since they know more Torah than anyone else we must listen to them on any and all matters. That is defacto infallibility. And it is probably the reason for afff(o)’s belief in blind obedience of “great people who have done the thinking for us”.

That can result in errors in matters of public policy that have adversely affected worthy projects. This was the case a couple of years ago with a charity concert that was to be given by entertainer Lipa Schmeltzer. It was canceled because of a snap judgment made by one such rabbinic leader. It was later admitted to be a mistake based on misleading information he was given.

Then there are also some Poskim whose word is considered the wisdom of Daas Torah that have Paskined mistakenly based on their own incomplete knowledge of facts - like medical knowledge which they thought they knew but in reality – did not. This is what happens when the Daas Torah of human beings is raised to a level of infallibility in practice if not in theory.

It is the insistence on this quasi infallibility - and furthermore attributing it only to certain Gedolim while rejecting it from others that makes the Charedi Hashkafa problematic for me. That kind of thinking is why –for example -the Hirschean Hashkafa of Torah Im Derech Eretz (TIDE) is so frowned upon today in the Charedi world.

Rav Hirsch clearly meant TIDE as a L'Chatchila - the ideal way for a Jew to view Judaism and to live his life. That is evident in his writings. But Charedi Gedolim – most notably Rav Baruch Ber Leibowitz decided that is is a B'Dieved – a secondary and not ideal Hashkafa. It was Rav Shimon Schwab the leader in the German Orthodox Jewish community - the heirs of Rav Hirsch’s Hashkafa - who had asked Rav Baruch Ber about TIDE. He was given that answer and he bought it.

That’s because he was educated in Charedi Yeshivos and indoctrinated to believe in the practical level infallibility of Charedi Gedolim! Today there are precious few left who actually believe in TIDE as a L'Chatchila - God forbid they should contradict both R' Baruch Ber and R' Schwab! Ironicaly in practice most Charedim are actually adherents of TIDE - albeit with a somewhat skewed understanding of DE as working for a living.

Modern Orthdodxy also believes in listening to rabbinic leaders. As I pointed out we have our own. But more importantly we do not rely on others to think for us in all matters. Of course we value the views of those bigger than ourselves.

In Psak Halacha when we can't determine with clarity what a given Halacha might be in a specific situation we ask those greater than ourselves to Paskin. Sometimes even Charedi Poskim.

In Hashkafa we do think for ourselves and look to those great rabbinic figures whose Hashkafos make the most sense to us for guidance along those paths. Modern Orthodoxy is not a “my way or the highway” monolithic Hashkafa. Nor do we generally ask common sense questions of our great rabbinic figures. The occasional times that we do, it is in the sense of getting their valuable input but not as the final word.

On the other hand - to understand the level of infallibility Charedim give to the Torah wisdom of their rabbinic leaders – one need only look at a YouTube clip of the last Agudah convention. They could not say the words “Daas Torah” enough times. And every time they said it - it was in the sense of how much we must listen to them on all matters. And that those who don’t – well – they aren’t really Bnei Torah.

Because of that constant message being hammered away at them over the years in their schools, shuls, and just about every other possible public and private venue – many Charedim have abdicated their common sense and ask Shailos on even the most trivial of matters. Questions that could be answered by utilizing the slightest bit of common sense!

Their approach to “Daas Torah” has gotten so out of hand that even the Yated Ne’eman felt compelled to take note of it. In an introspective op-ed entitled “The Seichel Deficit’ - Rabbi Avrohom Birnbaum asked the following questions:

Have we so relinquished our own critical thinking skills that we can’t even process information and make our own decisions regarding the welfare of our most precious commodities, our children? Have we become so passive that we can’t even do homework on our own, consult with our own doctor to whom we go for all other ailments, and make an informed decision?

Doesn’t that say it all?

Update: It has come to my attention that Rav Schwab clarified his position on whether TIDE was a L'Chatchila or a B'Dieved. The following excerpt is from Rav Schwab's Collected Speeches (page 243). It was delivered on February 18, 1990.

“So about thirty years ago, I took a second view of Torah Im Derech Eretz by first studying in depth the writings of Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch zatzal. Soon I found out that my notion of the Hirschian philosophy as a mere hora’as sha’ah was totally wrong. He did not consider his leitmotif as time-bound. It was not a compromise, it was not a heter, it was not a kulah, it was not meant to be b’dieved but lechatechila . True, he did not say to the Gedolei Yisrael of Eastern Europe, “kiblu da’ati— Accept my opinion.” He realized they would not accept his Weltanschauung. They followed mesoras avoseihem the traditions of their teachers. But Rav Hirsch also had behind him a solid mesorah from gedolim who showed him the way. From the time of Chazal through the period of the Geonim; the Rambam; the Chachmei Sepharad through the Talmidei Hagra all the way down to his own Rebbe, the Oruch L’ner and his disciples. Rav Hirsch had his mesorah.”