Thursday, March 15, 2012

Growth or Chasing Chumros?

Her story resonates with me. Tablet Magazine has an article by Avital Chizhik - a young woman who says she chose Orthodoxy - describes her experience and feelings about how different right wing Orthodoxy is from what motivated her to be observant. Clearly she is put off by it. But she remains observant.

This is in stark contrast to the scathing attack by the now secular Deborah Feldman against her former Satmar community. An attack that has increasingly come under fire for its inaccuracies.

I am not judging Ms. Feldman. I have my issues with Satmar. But I abhor using misperception, misinformation, and possibly even outright lies to make your point. Or even to embellish the truth. But even if true - her experiences are not typical. Ms. Chizhik on the other hand has not abandoned observance in a huff of disappointment. She has remained observant and true to her beliefs.

What she decries is not the truth of the Torah or the burden of Mitzvos. She decries a mindset that has over time developed into a society where Chumros are seen as a requirement for membership. Membership to a group that sees itself as the only authentic expression of Torah Judaism.

Here is a brief description from the article of what she is talking about:

Welcome to a culture that no one outside will ever understand—that of the yeshiva girl. It’s an insular, narrow space, where the outside world is demonized en masse; where religion becomes a competition in which everything is tallied up, right against wrong, and every additional stringency that is taken on instantly earns communal admiration. (One of my few relatively modern teachers in high school dubbed this “Orthodox Compulsive Disorder.”)

When choosing to be Orthodox, I sought authenticity and reason, passionate spirituality, closeness with God and with history. I love my religion, traditions, law, community, the small politics, the debates over the Shabbat table about the heights of the mechitzah in shul. But the widespread neuroticism, the vehement zeal: This is something new. This isn’t the brand of Orthodoxy that I embraced and emulated growing up, and it’s not the religion for which my parents defied our Russian family’s avowed secularism.

How true this is. We live in a world where ‘growth’ in one’s Judaism is equated with the adoption of ever more Chumros. It wasn’t always this way. The world in which I grew up was nothing like this. In the America of the fifties and sixties Judaism was more like the description of the Judaism Ms. Chizhik sought. What she has found is distasteful to her and in my view has little to do with authentic Judaism.

This is not to say that one should never be Machmir – stringent in one’s observance. It is laudable to be stringent in some cases. But to see virtually every stringency as ‘growth’ in one’s Judaism makes a mockery of how many of our parents and grandparents lived. As an example - I am reminded of the story about how the heirloom Kiddush cup used by one of the Gedolim of the early 20th century is not used by his heirs today because it is less than the Chazon Ish’s minimum Shiur for a Rivi’is. (A version of this story is recorded in Jonathan Rosenblum’s biography of Rav Eliyahu Dessler. He was a nephew of Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski. His uncle had given him that kidush cup as a wedding gift. According to this version Rav Dessler used this cup at his wife’s request even though when he moved to Bnei Brak he preferred to use the Chazon Ish's Shiur. Upon her death he ceased using that cup and used one that had the Chazon Ish’s larger Shiur.)

These Chumros are now manifested in just about every facet of life. Mixed seating at weddings was standard operating procedure in the pre –Chumra era of the fifites in Amercia. Rabbi Aharon Rakeffet is on record as describing what he saw then. As he would pass by a table at a wedding where Rav Ya’akov Kaminetsky was sitting, Rav Ya’akov would smile that famous smile of his and proudly introduce his wife who was sitting right next to him. This would never happen today. In fact today, some Roshei Yeshiva will not even attend a wedding that has mixed seating at the dinner. Those that do - will often request that they be given a table consisting of men only.

How silly that is. Would these self same Roshei Yeshiva not sit at a table in their own homes with their wives? Does he never invite families for Shabbos and sit at the table with them? Or does he set up separate tables for men and women there too?

And yet this is the new standard. It is de-rigueur for Charedi Yeshiva students to have separate seating. Those who would have mixed seating at one of their Simchos would put them “Chutz LaMachaneh”.

There are many examples of this kind of behavior in the Charedi world. The sexes are increasingly being separated. Women are increasingly being de-feminized. It is now considered un-tznius for a woman to look like a woman. Right wing Judaism is evolving into the realm of the near abnormal. How bad has it become? Here is a description by Ms. Chizhik about a school experience her sister had:

One sister began to cry as told me how her rabbi had told the class that one who transgresses the boundaries of forbidden physical contact, even in the most casual and unaffectionate of manners, a mere handshake, is considered adulterous and thus is deserving of death, according to biblical law.

I’m surprised there aren’t more Deborah Feldmans in America!

On the other hand many impressionable young people buy into this kind of message. Small wonder that there are now Burka ladies in Ramat Bet Shemesh. They certainly do not stem from modern Orthodox circles. They get their cues from what I just described. They have just taken it a step further.

Tznius is only one area about which the Charedi world has become obsessive. Secular studies have become increasingly disparaged. Secular newspapers are virtually banned. Secular literature too. The outside world is considered evil and to be avoided as much as possible. That has increased insularity to the point of isolation in some communities.

If this trend continues the world of the right will be devoid of any semblance of civilized behavior. They will not know how to act outside of their very closed society. They will see no value in anything except their own narrow world. And that breeds contempt for everything outside it.

Of course not every Charedi thinks this way. I often refer to the “moderate Charedi”. They do not differ in their lifestyles that much from the right wing modern Orthodox Jew. But there is no doubt in my mind that the trend in education in many right wing circles is toward Chumros. The more the merrier. They call it growth in Judaism. I call it chasing Chumros. This is what passes for Chinuch in some circles. As a result there are still plenty of Charedim that are anything but moderate. And they are pretty zealous about it.

How did we get here? I’ve discussed this before. I believe it has to do with the atmosphere in America and Israel at the time of the major influx of holocaust refugees in the 40s and 50s . They came from both Chasidic world and Lithuanian style Yeshiva world. They were in the main separate enclaves in pre-war Europe. Upon arrival in America they were all thrown together in one big melting pot.

The Yeshivos were basically of the Lithuanian style. Chasidim had no choice but to send their children there. But the Chasidim had an impact. They have always seen themselves as the “Frumest” version of Orthodoxy. The very term “Chasid” was adopted by the early Chasidic masters to indicate their greater piety.

Many of the Chumros we have now come from their influence. Of course now many have returned to having their own enclaves - creating places like Squaretown and Kiryas Joel. They also now have their own Yeshivos. But the damage is done. The course of right wing Jewry has been set. And I believe it is the wrong course.