Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The New and Improved Moderate Agudah?

Image from Facebook 
563 likes. And 229 shares. That’s how many likes and shares Mrs. Suri Weinstock got on her Facebook post (re-posted on Cross Currents). I don’t know what the record is for shares and likes are for a Facebook post by a non celebrity. But I do know nothing I ever posted on Facebook got anywhere near those numbers.

Mrs. Weinstock wrote about her experiences at this year’s Agudah convention. What she wrote was not all that much of surprise to me. Although one might think so because of some of the criticism I’ve had over the years. But it was a surprise to Mrs. Weinstock to hear so many things that resonated with her in a very positive way.

Agudah’s constituents are mostly moderate Charedim. That’s why it is not so surprising to me that many of its speakers spoke in moderate tones.  Agudah is led by American Charedi rabbinic leaders that understand they live in an American culture and must in some way address it in ways that are compatible to it. Even though they might look down on it as a whole.

This is in contrast to the Charedi culture in Israel which is far more isolationist than the Charedi culture in America. Moderation there does not rule the day. Which is why we so often hear extreme statements coming out of Charedi leaders in Israel.  Which may be why Mrs. Weinstock wrote the following opening lines: 
I must admit that I was surprised by how not extreme, normal, and positive they were! Here I was, literally surrounded by some of the undisputed gedolei hador, listening to incredibly holy people, and a part of me was expecting to hear things like, “You are awful and not frum enough and it’s causing people to get cancer!,” etc
There is also the way Charedi educators indoctrinate their students which is also apparent from Mrs. Weinstock’s comments: 
Let’s just say this was not the way the topic of tznuis was approached in school when I was a kid. 
What generated this response? The following message from a speaker at the convention: 
When Rabbanit Yemima Mizrachi was asked how a woman can encourage her daughter to dress b'tzanua, she said "You must speak about tznius, *b'tzanua.* Be gentle and positive, and tell her she is beautiful and holy. And whatever you do, STOP telling her she is causing others to sin! STOP!! Tell her she is holding up the world and elevating the spiritual plane of the Jewish people with her tznuit and mitzvot! And don't you DARE tell her she is causing people to sin!!" She literally screamed this at us! She said when you are constantly talking about your daughter's body or your son's eyes, you are not handling the matter b'tzanua, and are missing the point, all the while creating damage. 
First it should be noted that her reference to Agudah’s rabbinic leadership as ‘undisputed gedolei hador’ and use of the phrase ‘Daas Torah’ places her squarely in the Charedi camp. Phrases like these are typical of the Charedi camp and atypical of the Modern Orthodox camp. But Mrs. Weinstock is clearly what I call a Moderate Charedi. They believe in ‘normal’. Instead of hearing the extremes one hears out of the Charedi camp in Israel, she in fact heard speaker after speaker advocate what most of us would consider within the range of normal behavior. Here are some more examples: 
Rebbetzin Leah Feldman, wife of the Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Yisroel, when a woman asked how much she should sacrifice for her husband’s learning, as it was leaving her to feel neglected: The Rebbetzin didn’t need a second to think, before saying that a woman must tell her husband that she needs his time and attention! And it’s too bad if his learning has to wait a little! She said something along the lines of “You matter and your relationship matters! 
When Rabbi Yaakov Bender, Rosh Yeshiva of Darchei in Far Rockaway, addressed someone's concern that his son wants to follow sports, he said that you have to raise your kids to be normal. If they are good kids who go to yeshiva, and have a good family, and they want to follow sports a little -- relax!  
Rabbi Bender implored us all to learn to live with each other with kindness and decency. He made it clear that if you block someone's driveway because you wanted to make it to Mincha, your tefilla wasn't worth much. He and others said you should knock on the doors of your Non-Jewish neighbors when you move into a new town, and introduce yourself and find your common ground. Be nice; be a good neighbor. Do what Rav Pam's Rebbetzin did and hand out candy on Halloween. 
The issues discussed by these speakers are the same as many that are discussed here. Usually as a criticism for not thinking or behaving in ways advocated by these speakers. That there were many speakers that urged adoption of  the kind of moderate attitude that I often advocate is indicative of the fact that too many of their constituents don’t have this attitude. It is gratifying to see that American Charedi leaders advocate attitudes that - while not necessarily identical to my own - are nevertheless very ballpark on many issues.

Although she didn’t say so, the surprise at the convention that Mrs Weinstock said she experienced speaks to the values she was taught by her teachers versus the values she should have been taught as per Rabbanit Yemima Mizrachi. It raises the question about why Charedi educators have been veering off message. 

Are Charedi teachers still teaching their students Tznius as Mrs. Weinstock was taught? If so, then Agudah would do well speak to Torah U’Mesorah officials and ask them to require new guidelines for teaching Tznius along the lines of Rabbanit Yemima Mizrachi. And put an end to the way it has been taught before. It would make for a far better world.

Finally, I want to say that it was refreshing to see the speakers at this convention not harangue people about the evils of the internet or smartphones; or how bloggers are ruining Judaism; or about the defacto infallibility of ‘Daas Torah’. And instead take a far more moderate tone in addressing their constituents. I applaud them for it. Moderation is after all already a fact of life among most Charedim. 

Hopefully the moderation expressed this year by Agudah will begin a new era of Achdus between wider swaths of Orthodox Jewry where - despite disagreements - mutual respect will rule the day. Maybe next year they can have a Rosh Yeshiva from Yeshiva University address their convention. Wouldn’t that be nice?