Sunday, September 06, 2015


R' Yaakov Kamenetsky, ZTL
Men Darf Zein Normal. (We must be normal.) These words were uttered probably more than once by a true Gadol, one of the greatest of the 20th century, Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky. If I had to sum up my philosophy of life in a few words, those would be the words I would use. I saw them in print yesterday as I read Jonathan Rosenblum’s eulogy for Rabbi Dovid Landesman.

I am still in somewhat of a state of disbelief that this great man has died. And so suddenly. He was in Jonathan's words ‘a disappearing breed’. A man of conviction that thought outside the box while firmly implanted within it. R’ Dovid was a self described Charedi of American vintage living in a world where Charedim are vastly different from those of the world from which he came. 

As such he looked at issues independently and acted on his convictions. Even if went against the conventional wisdom of his community.  For example - after making Aliyah he felt a personal obligation to join the Israeli defense forces despite the antipathy Charedim have for it.  He felt that every Charedi in Israel should feel that responsibility. He felt as I did, that not every Charedi should be pushed into a life of full time Torah study. And should instead in many cases support their families.  The corollary of which was to become better prepared for the workplace somewhere along the line.

This is a remarkable break from a community that sees their rabbinic leaders as the last word on matters of public policy. These leaders insisted and continue to insist on a status quo of full time Torah study for man every male starting from kindergarten through marriage and beyond without the distraction of preparing for the workplace. And yet, despite this profound disagreement with the Charedi paradigm, R’ Dovid  considered himself an integral part of it. (Although a bit of a rebel.)

Jonathan characterized Rabbi Landesman in terms of being normal. A ‘normal’ based on his teachings of mentors like, R’ Yaakov Kamenetsky.  A ‘normal’ unlike the ‘normal’ of the Charedim of Israel.  For me ‘normal’ excludes extremes. Normal accepts a fair amount of gray. Not the extremes of black and white so characteristic of Israel. 

Jonathan is of the same mindset it seems. Having made Aliyah many years ago he sees the world as did R’ Dovid. He has written about these perceptions more than once. For which he has received a fair amount of criticism by some of the more black and white oriented Charedim in Israel. And yet he too defines himself as Charedi - with both feet firmly planted in that community, despite that criticism.

Here is what a Rav he respects (whom he did not cite by name) said about him. “Yonoson, the problem with you is that you see things in shades. But that doesn’t go in Eretz Yisroel: Everything here is black and white.”

I wish I could say that American Charedim have their standards and Israeli Charedim have theirs. But I fear that American eyes always look eastward. At least as far as some of the respected rabbinic leadership  goes. We are beginning to see less shaded thinking and more black and white thinking here. Which is why there are increasing numbers of Yeshiva high schools that are either eliminating secular studies altogether of severely curtailing them. They see the Israeli model as the ideal.

On the other hand there is the fact that there is a vast mainstream in America that is ‘normal’. A mainstream comprised of what I call moderate Charedim and Centrists (Right wing Modern Orthodox). They are the kind of ‘normal’ which I believe R’ Yaakov was talking about.

How this conflict plays out remains to be seen. But my sense of it is that normalcy must prevail if we are to continue to grow in numbers relative to other streams of Judaism which are shrinking. The only way we can have a viable existence into the future is if we lead normal lives. Not extreme ones.

Where does that leave Israel? I don’t know. Things are changing a bit. More Charedim seem to be joining the army and educational opportunities are popping up all over for Charedim that want to improve their lives materially. So there is hope even there.

Is it enough? We’ll have to wait and see. What is clear however is the black and white attitude that permeates the Charedi world in Israel persists and is catching on in America. These are competing forces. But there does not seem to be an active resistance to these programs or any active opposition to Charedi army recruits except in the most extreme pockets of the Charedi world.

I would prefer a solution in Israel that is more like the American paradigm suggested by R’ Yaakov’s ‘normalcy’.  That does not seem to be in the cards however. Instead, as noted above,  the Israeli paradigm seems to be catching on in America among some of its rabbinic leaders.

Normalcy can only flourish when extremes are either eliminated or at least discredited by the mainstream. That is the only way we can survive into the future. Because it isn’t only about our reproductive rates or insistence on a Jewish education for our children. It is also about being normal. Without that, I don’t think we can survive.