Friday, January 02, 2015

Same, Same, Same? Shame, Shame, Shame!

Uniformity in more than their manner of dress (VIN)
The title of this post is the sentiment expressed by Rabbi Eliyahu Safran at the OU website. He is talking about the cookie cutter Judaism that has become an integral part of the Charedi world.  

That Chasidim are virtual clones of each other in the  manner of dress, the way they speak, and in fealty to their Rebbe is fairly obvious even to the casual observer.  Uniformity is the ideal in many Chasidic communities. In some cases the slightest deviation can bring severe consequences.  The Chasidic village of New Square is notorious for this. 

Recall the incident that got one member torched by an overly zealous young Chasid attached to the Skverer Rebbe. Why was he torched? Beause he dared to try and set up a separate Minyan for a hospitalized friend. While no one there condoned that act, it was surely motivated by the Rebbe’s zero tolerance policy to deviation.

But this sameness is not only found in the Chasidic world. It is now part and parcel of the non Chasidic Charedi Yeshiva world, too. The Chasidim have their uniforms And the Yeshiva world has theirs. The uniform of black fedoras, black velvet Yarmulkes, black suits and white shirts is now the de-rigueur  fashion trend. One will not see a blue shirt in sight anywhere among them. Not even a grey hat. 

It’s all about sameness. Looking the part, it seems, is now more important than being the part.  I wish their sartorial choices were the only area where sameness takes place. But that is merely a symptom of a deeper sameness that is expected of the young Charedi Yeshiva student today. 

Gone is the day when there was independent thinking. The only time a  mind can be used to its fullest potential is when learning Gemarah and its commentaries. Then a a brilliant mind can shine. But when it comes to thinking for oneself outside of that limitation, very few do. It is almost at the point where Roshei Yeshiva are treated like Chasidic Rebbes. No one dares to move in those communities it seems without asking their Roshei Yeshiva first. Even in the most insignificant matters in some cases.

The result is there in plain sight for all to see. And it is painful to look at. People with all kinds of potential are prevented from pursuing it. Instead today's Roshei Yeshiva encourage their charges to direct all of their energy into the Beis HaMedrash.

Now it is true that there are exceptions. But they pay a price. They are seen as  2nd class citizens by their peers. Women in those communities are taught that those who seek to express that potential and leave the Beis Hamdrash are not worthy enough to date, let alone marry. 

Those who are psychologically pressured to suppress their natural talents and instead tough it out in the Beis HaMedrash are ill prepared to pursue those areas later in life. Even though some overcome those disadvantages, many don’t.  Of those that don’t many remain impoverished and often become quite resentful of the hand they were dealt by their world’s lack of diversity. And instead encouraged to be a clone of peers. 

Rabbi Safran makes these point quite cogently in his article. Here are some excerpts: 
Yaakov understood that each person is unique and he expressed that understanding when he bestowed upon his sons his many blessings. Not only was each bracha unique, but in most brachos he compared his sons to various beasts of the field. Different blessings. Different beasts of the fields.
In considering Yaakov’s blessings, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik highlights the uniqueness of each animal, explaining that, “each animal has a unique capability.” Even amongst the beasts of the field, there is diversity. Each to its task. Even animals show diversity and uniqueness.
Lehavdil! How much more therefore, do people! And yet, so often, we simply lump all our children, our students, even entire communities,together as if they are monolithic; a single entity. What’s more, we impose identical goals and aspirations upon each and every one! Such behavior is cruel, not to mention counterproductive and foolish.
Yet, we pursue “sameness” with daunting vigor. In some communities, where appearance is strictly controlled, there seems to be the sense that if we control the “outside” we control the “inside”. These communities seek to create a sameness which renders each soul almost indistinguishable from the other. Same hat. Same clothes. Same curriculum. Same Jew. Same, same, same! More correctly, shame, shame, shame!
Perhaps that is changing. Perhaps there is now a critical mass of unhappy Charedim seeking to change there sameness into uniqueness.  I believe that this is what God intends of all of us. We are to seek our fullest potential in serving God. And no two people are alike. As Rabbi Safran notes: 
In her December 17th article in Mishpacha, Barbara Bensoussan highlights the understanding of Rabbi Doniel Frank, a Monsey-based therapist who has made it his mission to return personal integrity to the community or, in my words, give dignity and awareness to the uniqueness of each individual in the community.
Like many, he sees a burgeoning Jewish community that is graced with many blessings but also beset by number of crises, among them, “…older singles, broken engagements, early divorces, unhappy marriages, disaffected adolescents, addictive behaviors, parnassah issues… and the list goes on.”
While these issues may seem disparate and unrelated, Rabbi Frank sees them as symptomatic of a more fundamental issue, one that is deeply related to the need for individuals to be seen as, recognized for and dignified by their uniqueness and individuality, even as they are embraced as members of the community. 
I’m sure there will be resistance to the 'Doniel Franks' of the world. That Charedi leaders cannot abide change of any kind is more than evident in Israel where resitance to even the slightest alteration in  their high school curricula is called Shmad.  Unfortunately, many American Charedi leaders look Eastward for guidance and try to emulate it. This has resulted in more sameness than ever before as more and more high schools in cities like Lakewood are rejecting secular studies entirely.

Who will win this battle? Hard to say. Will Charedim continue along the Chasdic path of fealty to its religious leader in all  matters? Or - with the help of a Doniel Frank - will the grass roots rise up and create a new Charedi world where individuality replaces sameness? I hope it’s the latter.