Friday, April 04, 2014

A Charedi Perspective

Guest Post by Menachem Mordechai Frank*

Typical look of Charedi Yeshiva students 
The following was submitted to me in the form of an e-mail by a American Charedi who describes himself as a ‘moderate’. Although I do not like publishing anonymous posts, I have once again made an exception here. I believe the perspective Menachem writes about does in fact represent the Charedi mindset of a great many Charedim. Probably the lion’s share of their American mainstream

As has been noted in the past, Charedim are not monolithic. There are extremists and moderates. And even within those two groupings, there is variance of opinion. As the old saying goes, two Jews three opinions. 

I have mentioned some of his points about the Charedi mindset in the past. But since I am not Charedi, many people simply feel that I do not know what I’m talking about. I of course reject that out of hand. But It is much better to hear it directly from someone whose feet are firmly planted in that world and who has been immersed in that Hashkafa all of his life. He went to mainstream Charedi Yeshivos both in Israel and the US (Mir, BMG). And he works in an administrative position in a business office. 

His letter was addressed to me and he makes assumptions about my knowledge of the Charedi world; or what my motives are (in most cases) that are either, incomplete, misunderstood, or in error. What is important here is to know what much of the mainstream Charedi world thinks. With that in mind, his words follow.

I am chareidi (probably what you would term “moderate chareidi”), and am dismayed by what I consider the high jacking of the charedi world by extremists. The yeshiva world that I grew up in and that I am so proud to be a member of seems to be quite different than what is the public image of the yeshiva world today. Today’s image is not something that I am proud of. Much of your criticism of the present day chareidi world is warranted. Having said that, there are times that, in my opinion, you are totally off the mark. However, to give you the benefit of the doubt, I think that you may be unaware of some of the philosophic basics of today’s yeshiva world. 

My assumption is that you are a good person and do not write your blog just to vent and create further division amongst klal yisroel. The purpose of your criticisms, I suspect, is to hopefully effect a change in the mindset of charedim. Therefore, it is imperative to be aware of these hashkafos, so that we know how to effectively argue against them. As they say, if you want to beat your enemy you need to know your enemy. 

Hopefully, no one here can be classified as an “enemy”, but you do need to understand the perspective of your interlocutor if you have any aspirations of possibly influencing his positions. Your seeming lack of familiarity with certain charedi hashkafos has resulted in a number of recurring criticisms which cause you to lose credibility with charedi readers that you may otherwise have success in influencing. 

I would like to make you aware of two points of charedi hashkafa that you seem to be ignoring in your posts. One, I more or less agree with, and the other I take strong issue with. However, as I mentioned, it’s important to understand their hashkafa, and their sources, if you ever hope of influencing their decision making.

A frequent criticism of yours is that the charedim’s decision to push a Torah only agenda to the exclusion of all else, has created a tremendous amount of problems for the majority of charedim who are not cut out for full time learning. While I completely agree with this fact, you need to be aware of the correct way to convince people that something needs to change. Hard core charedim are not fazed by the tremendous problems created by this hashkafa. 

Rav Dessler in Michtov M’Eliyahu (Chelek Gimmel page 355 ‐360) , argues that the hashkafa of the yeshiva world, as opposed to R’ Shamshom Refoel Hirsch, was to focus on creating Gedolim even at the expense of many individuals. He claims that Gedolim are only created with a pure Torah‐only approach. He acknowledges that there are many korbonos in this system. He validates this approach by quoting Chazal that “elef nichnasim l’mikrah v’echad yotzai l’horoah”. R’ Dessler takes this to mean that even if 999 “go off the derech”, it is still worth it to produce the “eched yotzai l’horoah”. 

Personally, I don’t see any reason why R’ Dessler understood the Gemara to mean that 999 would go “off the derech”. I don’t see any indication of that in the Gemara. In my opinion the Gemara is saying that not all 999 will become a Godol, but nowhere is there any indication, that they would not be solid productive members of klal yisroel and full shomrei Torah u’mitzvos. 

Additionally, I believe that R’ Dessler’s pshat in the Gemara is problematic with other Gemoros. (Particularly Brachos - 35b which seems to indicate that the Torah only approach is for individuals only and not for the tzibbur at large‐based on the understanding of the Chofetz Chaim in Biur Halacha). Furthermore, I would very much like to believe that R’ Dessler only wrote what he did as a form of hora’as sha’ah, and that were he alive today to witness the vast amount of korbonos that this system has created, he would say differently. 

However, I’m not aware of anyone of R’ Dessler’s caliber who wrote a refutation to R’ Dessler, or anyone who has proof that R’ Dessler would in fact say otherwise were he alive today. In fact, unlike the famous horaas shoah of the Chazon Ish that instructed everyone to remain in full time learning after the Holocaust, until the Torah world could be rebuilt,  there is no indication of any horaas shoah in R’ Dessler’s piece. 

He actually argues that it is an old machlokes going back at least 150 years. As much as I’d like to believe that it was a horaas shoah, it would not be intellectually honest of me to claim with any degree of certainty that it in fact was. While I personally choose to follow R’ Shamshon Refoel Hirsch’s philosophy, I cannot fault someone who chooses to follow R’ Dessler’s. 

Until we come up with a rock solid argument as to why R’ Dessler’s hashkafa doesn’t apply today, it is unhelpful to continue pointing out all the problems created by the Torah only approach. R’ Dessler has given blanket coverage to all arguments about the problems the system has created. I am hoping that someone does in fact come up with an irrefutable argument why R’ Dessler’s approach is no longer applicable, but I have yet to see one. 

Another frequent criticism of yours concerns many chareidim’s “obsession” with tznius and other matters. You have repeatedly asserted that it is possible to go to the IDF and come out a full shomer Torah umitzvos as thousands of Dati Leumi soldiers do. What you seemingly fail to understand is, that for chareidim, any slight drop in their level of ruchniyos is considered a catastrophe. 

An often quoted Gemara in charedi yeshovos is Chagiga 9A which expounds on the posuk “vshavtem u’rieesem…bein oved Elokim l’asher lo ovdo”, by saying that the difference between an oved Elokim to a lo oved Elokim is the difference between one who reviews his learning 101 times as opposed to just 100. The person who only reviewed 100 times is considered a “lo oved Elokim” in contrast to the one who reviewed 101 times.  The Gemara clearly states that the 2 people  are both considered  tzadikim. Yet it describes one  as an "oved Elokim" and the second as a "lo oved Elokim". 

Similarly, many chareidim may take the same view on others who may be categorized as tzadikim (ie.  a DL soldier who completes IDF service and remains a shomer torah u'mitzvos), yet in comparison to a higher level of ruchniyos which they may have given up on, can still fall under the category of "lo oved Elokim". This doesn't c"v mean that they look condescendingly on these other "tzadikim", but rather choose a different path for themselves. 

When people really live with this ideal then every slight level in ruchniyos really is a big deal, and not one they're willing to forgo. Of course there are people who aren't living this ideal and just pay lip service to it-but there are many who are authentic.True charedim really do live with this idea, and often go to great personal sacrifice to maintain a certain level of ruchniyos. They avoid going places where they might encounter women who are immodestly dressed, and are willing to part with the little money they have to try and ensure that they are fulfilling every mitzvah in the best possible way. Asking them to stop obsessing is like asking them to stop serving Hashem, to become a “lo oved Elokim”. 

While I believe, that sometimes the “obsessing” goes too far and can be counter‐productive, in many cases, it is legitimate. Someone whose fear of sin is as great as his fear of eating lethal poison will construct tremendous barriers around the sin. 

I think that there is precedent for this in many of the Gezeiros of Chazal and of the Rishonim (think‐the issur of tekius shofar on Shabbos because of a pretty far out concern that an individual might forget that it’s shabbos and carry his shofar outside. For that one individual Chazal uprooted the entire mitzvah of tekias shofar. 

There are countless other examples of really far out concerns which resulted in tremendous chumros –see Rama concerning waiting 5 days before performing a hefsek taharah, while in fact only 3 twenty-four hour periods is really required In fact, an objective analysis of many of Chazal’s gezeiros, will leave one thinking that today’s chareidim not nearly as “obsessive” as the earlier generations were. 

While it is certainly possible to be a shomer torah u’mitzvos in the IDF, I think it is almost certain that one’s level of ruchniyos might be adversely affected, even in the current Nachal Charedi system. The fact that there are elements within the army that like to provoke the religious soldiers (kol isha, females performing physical examinations, forcing soldiers to be mechallel shabbos  etc.) 

However isolated these incidents are, for chareidim, the very fact that the possibility exists already creates an untenable situation. Your seemingly cavalier attitude toward these unfortunate instances doesn’t help you win any arguments in the chareidi world. Your attitude seems to be, so long as the Nachal is 99% kosher that should be good enough for the chareidim. But it isn’t and never will be. 

Your comments on this subject serve to reinforce the chareidi position, that as soon as they’re exposed to the world at large, they’ll see a drop in their level of ruchniyos. While in yeshiva they have a tremendous sensitivity to any exposure whatsoever to immodesty, they see you arguing that so long as overall it’s kosher they should be able to deal with an environment that isn’t 100% safe by their standards. 

This argument can only be made by someone who has left the walls of yeshiva and no longer has the same degree of sensitivity in these matters. (I also have left yeshivah, and certainly do not have the same degree of sensitivity in these matters as I once had. I do not fault you, and I’m only trying to point out that this argument of yours will not resonate with chareidim, and it will also serve to alienate them from all the other valid points that you make). 

It is unfortunate that there doesn’t yet exist an environment within the IDF that any chareidi can be completely comfortable in. There really is no reason for it, other than extremists in the left wing camp who are doing whatever they can to prevent that from ever happening. 

I sometimes think about how much ground the IDF could have gained in each of these isolated incidents by severely reprimanding the instigators. It would’ve sent a clear message to the chareidi world, that their sensitivities will be respected in the IDF and that they have nothing to fear. Instead, there not only wasn’t condemnation of the instigators by the IDF, some of the religious soldiers were actually penalized. That did nothing to help send a message of understanding to the chareidi world. 

I believe that Yair Lapid’s heavy handed tactics (especially with his insistence of criminal sanctions) have done a tremendous amount of damage to any trust that the chareidim will have in the IDF’s willingness to accommodate their lifestyle. While I am in almost completely full agreement with Yair Lapid’s stated goals, I feel he has done a terrible job at implementation.  

In closing, I would like to once again commend you on bringing important issues to the attention of the public. I wish you tremendous hatzlacha in trying to restore the honor of Torah which has been trampled on by extremists. The point of my writing was not to criticize you, but rather to help you to better argue your points. It is only because I agree with so much of what you write that I feel I want your words to be accepted by more people. I hope that my letter will help you sharpen your arguments and be more convincing to chareidim who do not yet agree with your perspective. This is my first time ever writing to a blog, and I am an extremely shy person, so I will not be signing my name.

*Not his real name