Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Memes and Judaism: Why Orthodoxy is changing

Guest Post by Yossi Ginzberg - 11/02/08

I recently wrote a tongue-in-cheek quiz called “How Frum Are You, Really?” which was posted on this site. While it received comments both critical and approving, it is the critical ones that I would like to address here, in a more serious way this time.

There’s a traditional adage, “Hakol talui b’mazal, afilu sefer Torah shebehaichal”, that can be interpreted as meaning that even mitzvot each have their own “luck”, and thus some are carefully observed while others are much less so.

We see this today in many ways. An example: Shemita observance has grown to the point where promoters of this mitzvah raised and distributed some $11 million, while the mitzvah itself is only rabbinic today and no longer a biblical observance (i.e., on a par with Hakhel or Machatzis Hashekel). Not that I have any intention of arguing with the Gedolei Torah that appear to unanimously support this, but still I cannot help wondering: The Orthodox birthrate is plummeting and a good part of that is due to the high tuitions at day schools, so wouldn’t that money have been put to better use helping resolve that situation?

Another example would be our not using products that have any trace of wine in them, unless they have a kosher certification. Since the original prohibition of non-Jewish wine was limited to wine made by idolators, why ban it now? The Shulchan Aruch expands on this, explaining that today the ban is due to an edict promulgated to reduce casual drinking with non-Jews in order to reduce intermarriage. So why extend it to products manufactured with only a trace amount, like whiskeys aged in sherry casks?

This question arises again and again, and not just in regard to allocation of funds. How about kosher slaughtering? Is the massive repeated desecration of Gods name allowable just to have meat? (Issues with problematic slaughtering have been ongoing for hundreds of years, see the responsae) I would have thought it better to mandate vegetarianism.

Likewise for the annual live-chicken kaparos tumult, where even in the best of times we are mocked. How much more so when we are correctly accused, where cruelty and diversion of the donors funds is apparently rife?

I feel that these issues go beyond the “luck” of the mitzvah.

These questions are not small ones, to my mind, but they go the core of what living Orthodox Judaism really means. We self-proclaimed Judaic intelligentsia like to mock the “Chai rotel”, sneer at the Kupath Ha’ir glossy presentation of magic cure-all formulae, and bewail the poor Rebbe photo used to scare away rodents, but there is an underlying issue here that I fear is being ignored.

I suspect that my feelings might be akin to those Martin Luther felt when he nailed his objections to the cathedral door.

I feel that my beloved religion is being hijacked, that the beautiful tolerance for emotion and spirituality added to deep study that was the innovation of Chassidus is slowly being perverted into a series of ritualized observances that mix ignorance with superstition and are slowly replacing- and usurping- intelligent observance.

For quite some time, almost every segment of American Orthodoxy has been complaining loudly over perceived changes to their beloved religion. What happened to the remembered and beloved mixed swimming/ mixed seating/ non-judgmental / gray hatted/ sleeveless/ open-minded/ good old-fashioned plain Jews? How did we get to be a people of only black hats and only long skirts, with such limited tolerance for anyone who refuses to be so attired?

This massive question has been bandied about for quite some time, and many partial explanations have been offered. To my knowledge, however, there’s never been a single logical presentation of a comprehensive response to the question. I will attempt here to present a cohesive total explanation, a unified theory of modern Judaism.

What’s a meme?
I heard someone characterize a meme simply, as being to an idea what an earworm is to music.
Technically, however, the definition is this: A meme (pronounced meem), as defined within memetic theory, constitutes a theoretical unit of cultural information, the building block of culture or cultural evolution which spreads through diffusion propagating from one mind to another analogously to the way in which a gene propagates from one organism to another as a unit of genetic information and of biological evolution. Multiple memes may propagate as cooperative groups called memeplexes (meme complexes).
Biologist and evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins coined the term meme in 1976. He gave as examples tunes, catch phrases, beliefs, clothing fashions, ways of making pots, and the technology of building arches (1).

An example of a basic meme in Christianity is their belief in eternal damnation for non-believers, which forces believers to convert those they love. Their creed expands this further by preaching, “Love thy neighbor”, and thus effectively forces all true believers to devote much to proselytizing, to save also those that they are supposed to love.

The most basic belief in Judaism is a meme, that of belief in one G-d. This is of course a truism to me as a believer, but it is also a meme that serves Judaism well. It eliminates any moral questions that might otherwise arise regarding proper behavior, because I don’t have to worry about any other gods. More than that, it compels my behavior even when no one is looking, since an omnipotent G-d can see me at all times.

How Does it Work?
Although to most Americans Amish culture is far too intensely rigorous to even bear consideration as a “reasonable” religion, their religion has some interesting lessons for the Orthodox Jewish world. Their distinctive dress, their beards, their ban on use of electricity, and their refusal to use cars all make them anachronisms even compared to the strictest Chassidim.

Unlike in Judaism, the rules in the Amish “Ordnung” (their religious rulebook), stem not from a belief that this somehow is mandated by heaven, but rather they accept that it is all man-made, subject to change, and designed only to preserve their separation from the “English” (all non-Amish). They can thus relax the rules when perceived by the Elders as necessary, as they did when their economy was threatened by government regulations that required refrigeration on dairy farms (their main occupation) went into effect, and the elders voted to allow electricity use but for this purpose only.

The rules are well-thought-out, and have stood the Amish well. They surprisingly have a very low rate of what we call “children at risk”, despite their allowing them a year or so of exposure to the outside world during “Rumspringa”, where they are encouraged to taste what they will soon most likely renounce. The percentage of Amish children who accept the religious strictures on return from their year off is estimated at an amazingly high 80% in “The Riddle of Amish Culture”. (Donald Kraybill, Johns Hopkins, 1989). Given the strictures of what they are accepting, even a much lower number would still be surprising to most of us.

One of the notable bans they have is on the use of automated farm machinery. Counter-intuitive because most of them are farmers, this ban is over the years actually becoming stricter and more popularly observed.

According to memetics, the reason is that the Amish meet their need for manual labor by having large families who start working young, and in turn pass this heritage of “no machines” on to their children. Since they tend to marry young and have large families, their population has been doubling every 23 years, far faster than the general population. With each new generation, the growth of the automation ban rules a larger percentage of American farmers (2).

This idea, that manual labor is good for the Amish, is another example of a meme.

An example of a comparable current Jewish meme would be the eschewing of higher secular education for the sake of learning Torah, even after marrying and having a family to support. This meme has spread immensely over the past few decades, to the point that in probably most Orthodox communities today worldwide, more newlywed men are learning full-time than are working. The meme has grown so dramatically for many reasons, perhaps among them that because a father himself was supported by his wife or their parents he is almost forced in turn to support his children to do the same.

The Ramifications
The effect of this meme is the dramatic growth of kolel communities, and all the amenities that attend that such as more seforim published, more shiurim, and so on.
Another effect, not as beneficial and certainly not as well understood, is this: Since kolel women are trained to earn a living, they are far more financially independent than Jewish women have ever been, and are thus free to release themselves from unhappy marriages with far more ease than was ever before possible. They have in fact been doing so in numbers that have astounded the religious community, which used to think itself immune to the widespread and fast-growing divorce rate among the secular (3).

An undesirable subset of this meme is the added pressure on the “best” potential kolel boys to marry girls from wealthy homes, so that they can continue to learn. This desire adds pressure to the less wealthy, by reducing the available boys to choose from dramatically. This is an about-face from the accepted standard in the secular world, where the meme for girls is, “Marry rich, so we won’t have to worry about supporting you.”

Changes in Judaism
Once, memes were changed by rabbinic decree, as that of committing the Talmud to writing. Some were changed by governmental fiat, as in the first translation of the Torah. Others were caused by persecutions (allegedly), as reading the Haftorah or outrageously young marriages. Yet others were hotly contested innovations that were subsequently successfully accepted almost universally, as was the kabbalistic origin of Kabbalat Shabbat.

Now, changes occur in more subtly. One of the most obvious came about because years ago, there were insufficient Orthodox Jews in America to allow them all to marry people with the exact same set of religious styles and habits, and thus couples were made with uneven levels of religious observance. Another source for change was the influence of modern travel and communication, factors that have completely changed the old standard of marrying one with the same background by allowing matches over great distances (4).

As a result, there were eventually many thousands of “mixed” marriages, ultra-Orthodox scholars with women who barely kept Shabbat, Litvaks with Yekke’s, Chassidim of one Rebbe with those of another or even with Misnagdim, every conceivable combination. In sum, geographically ethnic origins within Judaism are for the most part no longer a factor at all outside of the most extreme right-wing circles.

In almost all these marriages, the newlywed couples strove for homogamy, or religious agreement between the spouses. This made life more pleasant in the home, and made it much more likely that the children would be religious, too- In homes where the parents disagree about religious issues, the children frequently abandon religion altogether.

In addition to homogamy, the lines between halachic issues and both sets of accumulated customs and /or “chumras” have become blurred via these mixed couples, since in many cases one or both has insufficient Torah knowledge to differentiate between mandated rules and family custom, yet has a strong desire to retain tradition in every detail. As the older generation of Roshei Yeshiva used to put it, “G’hert ober nicht derhert”, or to paraphrase Hegel, “What is heard is often not understood”. This became especially noticeable in the United States in the period after WWII, when many matches were made that would have been unthinkable a few years before, in the “old country”.

Embrace of chumras
Due to the above reasons there has been a great confluence of customs stemming originally from widely varied sources, customs that years ago would never have been found in the same home. More, being misunderstood as improvements in religious practice rather than compromises and familial custom, they are spread via modern communications to relatives and friends worldwide, in a way that could never have occurred before inexpensive telephony and email.

Another possible factor is the overwhelming increase in the speed of technological advancement. Older people, feeling anxiety at the new world and its innovations, would be more likely to adopt new strictures out of simple lack of knowledge, as well as a desire to improve their religious standing so as to “repay” Heaven for having saved them from the Holocaust. For example, many immigrants in the years after the last war refused on Passover to eat unfamiliar tomatoes, avocado’s, and the like simply out of a lack of familiarity with their kosher-for-Passover status, and this perceived “ban” is now de rigueur in thousands of homes of their children, albeit based on ignorance not halacha.

Both factors were strongly abetted by the lack of formal religious education available during the many years of WWII, its prologue and its aftermath.

This embrace of strictures, whether they come from inside the person in an attempt to be “better” or from without as an attempt to conform to spousal/ community/ neighborhood levels of observance, often manifests itself as an open embrace, without any attempt to understand the whys and wherefores. Thus, if one hechsher is good, two is better. If kitniyos are like chametz, banning all vegetables is even more kosher. If too tight is bad, baggier and longer is better. If bright red is brazen, dull dark colors presumably manifest a higher spiritual level.

These new levels of religious self-improvement, although generally starting without any rabbinic participation, rapidly become memes and spread through a community. It doesn’t take long for a newfound stricture to become the norm, by which point it does in fact halachically obtain some validity, and in issues of tznius at least, become the new standard (5). There is no set level on the maximum side for these, so ever-higher standards can be set. Examples are Satmar chassidim having women shave their heads and still cover them with at least two layers to prevent even a single hair from ever being seen under any circumstances, or the newest: while the Talmud and halacha both speak about sleeping nude, R. Falk “approves” of women wearing both pajama pants and a nightgown to bed for “extra” tznius in his best-selling guide to tznius, a book that has become the standard in many places. (Oddly, the book fails to comment on exactly where a woman may sleep, a seemingly important detail since the issue is exposure during sleep. I imagine a future edition will advise a double-locked door on every bedroom.)

This new attitude towards clothing adds discreetness to the old standards, when simply being long enough was sufficient. Today, it not only needs to be longer, it needs to be loose enough and drab enough not to call for attention. For those with too little imagination to visualize proper standards, there is a novelty- the first illustrated pamphlet ever to diagram exactly what needs to be covered. This is apparently the first time ever that a book with drawings of women has been put out with rabbinic approbations (6), itself an innovative move.

This has also spread to clothing rules for men, which used to be nonexistent. In religious communities worldwide, the standardized uniform for adult males is now a white shirt with a black suit, usually accessorized by a bland tie, irrelevant of the occupation or social standing of the man. Exceptions are of course made for work clothing when necessary, and sometimes for recreational purposes. What was unheard of 20 or 30 years ago- “frum” men skiing- today is commonplace, as is seeing men schussing downhill in a black suit, white shirt, and with tzitzis flying! (7)

In another male innovation, a truly novel concept has emerged as a meme: A black hat is required not only for prayer, but for almost every public appearance. Illogically, a dusty, dirty, beat-up old hat is still considered better than no hat. Given that the alleged origin of the whole hat thing (8) is an issue of respect for the Lord during services, this is a somewhat counter-intuitive stance. The extant old photos of shtetl Jews wearing ragged old clothing for prayer is insufficient evidence, as most never had better clothing available.

There are other examples of the spread of the mens-wear memes. Until about 1980, wearing a silver collar on one’s tallit during Shabbat services branded one as connected to chassidus, at least minimally. This is no longer the case at all. Likewise with the kipa- Wearing a leather or a black knit kipa no longer carries a political message, as it did 30 or so years ago.

Hair covering
The “frumming” of clothing has also manifested itself in attitudes toward hair-coverings for women.

While the issue is an old one, and certainly well documented in Halacha sources, in recent years it has become far more intensely observed. Most Orthodox schools now accept covering all hair as the absolute standard, although, like having a television in the home or the ban on internet access, this is frequently observed only in the breach.

This is not only a standard for the teachers to adhere to and to teach: It is also in most cases now a prerequisite for the parents to observe if their children are to be considered for admission to the school.

Part of this is based on simple realities: Until the last few decades, wearing a wig was an incredibly brave thing to do, seeing that they were generally ugly, expensive, and very uncomfortable. Now that they are frequently indistinguishable from real hair, it is only an issue of comfort and expense, and as such presumably easier to comply with for those so inclined. Likewise, the more recent customs/ rulings about the complete covering of every hair are now more easily observed without visible penalty, since the technology of hairlines on wigs has improved and the range of styles has expanded. So much so, in fact, that the recent and rapidly spreading meme emerging from the extreme right is an anti-sheitel attitude, precisely because they have become so natural and good-looking. Again, see R. Falk’s book for polemics against attractive Sheitels. It seems logical to expect this meme to grow too, albeit slowly because it is so extreme (9).

Another possibility, although I would deem it very unlikely simply for aesthetic reasons, would be the widespread adoption of the old Polish-style “shtern-tichel”, a headscarf worn with just a bit of obviously false hair pasted on the front of it, which looks more like a new way to recycle esrog-wrapping flax. Although it is being seen with increasing frequency in Boro Park and Williamsburg, I suspect that this will remain a purely fringe phenomenon adopted only by the zealots and the mentally disturbed. This is also the case for the burka-wearing Jewish women of Ramat Bet Shemesh and Jerusalem, whose extreme style, while undoubtedly motivated by sincere spirituality, approaches the dementia of the Taliban more closely than it approaches any authentic Jewish value.

Mechitzas today are not only higher and less transparent, but appearing in places where they didn’t use to, i.e. in place of mixed seating at weddings, and so on. There is a strong pressure now to introduce them at smorgasbords, vorts, and sheva brochos too. This would appear to be simply another manifestation of the same type of thinking that evolved the sheitel attitude- if a little coverage is good, more is better and frummer. Here again, the frummest common denominator will win out, since those who “need” the mechitza can appeal for it to be there, while those who don’t cannot appeal. In a sense, this is like the position of the Reform vis-à-vis the Orthodox, when they demand that not all events be kosher. The logic is certainly there on the side of the kosher- after all, anyone can eat kosher- but it still leaves the other side feeling disenfranchised. Here too, those who would prefer no mechitza at secular events will be left with ill will, and no way to dissipate the hostility. With repeated exposure, this feeling will create hostility toward the mechitza-promoting faction.

Some of the newest synagogues have apparently accepted that balconies are insufficiently decorous and are installing reflective glass, presumably seeing this move as an improvement in tznius. It seems odd since many, if not most, of the oldest synagogues in the world all had no problem with just a balcony, and suddenly the communities most likely to have women dressed to the highest standards of tznius feel they need this added deterrent. This is perhaps a testament to Victorian excesses stimulating increased libido.

A similar situation is developing now in Israel, with regard to separate seating on buses. This too will inevitably force generate some hostility to the Orthodox world, while it will be perceived by those supporting it as a neutral action.

Why are two or more supervision certificates now found on almost every kosher product, even items that until recently required no supervision at all? (10,11)

The concept of kosher supervision conflicts with the general trend in one way. Although we see an evening-out of the differences between various right-wing communities, they still may insist on their own hechsher. Where Jews used to identify themselves as Galitzianers, Litvaks, Yekke’s, and the like, today they are more likely to overlook territorial boundaries and even Chassid/ Litvak differences and more likely to bond with each other, both seeing the less rigorously Orthodox as the “other”. This is additionally empowered by those who, while not being a part of the group, admire their kosher standards. Thus you have many who are philosophically far from the KAJ community, yet still prefer that supervision for their own reasons. Likewise for Satmar, and some others (12).

On one hand, the overuse of hashgochos makes products more expensive to produce and to buy, a disturbing trend. On the other hand, it’s a step up from a few years ago, when labeling anything with the word “heimish” made it acceptable for use. Of course, go back a few years more and you will find that many people who bought anything that didn’t have lard or gelatin listed among the ingredients.

Still a puzzle to me is why Orthodox individuals usually careful of “Lashon Harah” or tale-bearing, will not hesitate to malign or impugn the reliability of certain rabbis and their hechshers, despite the rabbi’s scholarship or observance. This would seem to imply a certain level of self-serving self-esteem overdose. Likewise those who automatically take the more extreme side of every rabbinic dispute, i.e. re the eruv. I suspect that this quirk alone is sufficient material for another essay.

Travel to Kevers/ Burial in Israel
Another modern innovation, primarily ascribable to the ease of travel worldwide in these modern times, is travel to “Kever Avot” or “Kivrei Tzaddikim”. Normative Judaism teaches the value of charity more than it does the value of pilgrimage travel, which would appear to be too close to non-Jewish sources. With the exception of Breslav, difficult and expensive travel for this purpose was almost unheard of until recently. Traditionally, observing the annual memorial of a tzaddik’s death was done by learning Mishna, saying tehillim, lighting candles, and/ or giving charity (13).

Similar to this is the newly expanded custom of burying American Jews in Israel. Torah teachings would seem to invalidate this custom (14) and in fact there are numerous responsa dealing with this issue, few if any of them encouraging it. Generally, it was accepted until recently that only exceptional tzaddikim and those who had a close connection to Israel should be transferred there for burial. Nowadays, it seems that there are no longer any accepted boundaries at all. Rather, people are doing this as a display of filial respect, presumably unaware of the halachic issues. What manifests in secular society as an expensive casket is being replaced in Judaism as an expensive overseas funeral. Too, like the pilgrimages, the newfound custom is fast evolving that one travel to the grave for every yahrzeit, another expensive and foreign innovation.

All the above memes seem to be triumphs of emotion over Halacha or custom and tradition, and innovative to Judaism. It is also reasonable to think that they are partially a result of the newfound riches of our society, where it seems reasonable to undertake travel to Israel two or more times a year, or travel to Mezeritch, Radin, or Berditchev for just a few hours. While surely these trips are all surely well intentioned, they are undoubtedly extra-halachic and certainly antithetical to the High-Holiday expression of values, “Repentance, prayer, and charity”.

Segulas/ Kameyas
While the red string phenomenon has outgrown restriction to normative Orthodox Jewish popularity, many similar ones are growing only within the community. It is only in the recent past that most of these have entered the average American Orthodox home. While each ethnic group, especially Sfardim and Chassidim, did have some amuletic prescriptions, the wholesale acceptance of all of them for everybody is a new thing. Reading certain parshiot from a klaf, certain recitations on special days (erev rosh chodesh Sivan, Tuesday of Beshalach, Tu Bshavat), and many others are all manifestations of the liberal Americanized attitude, “It can’t hurt, so why not?” and also a growth of Holocaust survivors open-minded acceptance of a fast-paced new world. Seeing efficacy in having a kabbalist examine one’s mezuzah’s or ketuba, or having special seforim hidden away (15) or saving a piece of the afikomon or the Hoshana, all are manifestations of this attitude (16).

The profit motive has also been able to enter into this potentially lucrative field. Many, perhaps most, of those most likely to seek paranormal charms and miracle cures are those in psychic pain, and thus most susceptible to suggestion and the most likely to spend money on unproven alternative therapies. The average religious bookstore in Jerusalem today has a significant percentage of its area devoted to “magic” charms. Likewise, pilgrimage sites keep being “rediscovered”. Recently, I learned of an attempt to promote an obscure Arab village in the north of Israel as allegedly being the biblical Shunem, home of a woman that the prophet Elisha did a miracle for. Even if the unsubstantiated attribution is true, there is absolutely no rational, halachic, or masoretic tradition that accords this place any value at all. So what is the basis for promoting Jewish pilgrimages to this place? “The (Arab) owner of the house adjacent to the site works as a car mechanic in downtown Afula He (the Arab) claims that the (Arab) residents of Sulam attribute their well-being to the presence of the holy woman who lived there” (Inserted parantheses mine, Segulah for Childless Couples, Jewish Press, 3/21/08.) Solid reason for a new Jewish custom? Not so much, in my opinion.

Ayin Harah
Fear trumps everything. No parent will take risk with his child, and thus acceptance of the least rational ideas gain acceptance when a childs future or health is involved. Since there is in fact mention of the concept in Talmudic and other traditional sources, it is hard to call it an erroneous meme, but its’ recent expansion in both application and popularity certainly show memetic influences.

This is especially visible with regard to shidduchim, where tension has somehow worked to expand definitions of the halachically acceptable to include even such radical things as “gissin blei” (Pouring lead into cold water and examining the shapes created to determine if the person is being hurt by an evil eye), undoubtedly far closer to witchcraft than would have been accepted years ago.

Embrace of Chassidus
Generally unremarked except by those who were students there long ago, even main-stream Litvish yeshivas today are full of students with Chassidic attire. Unthinkable years ago, the full acceptance of this stream of Jewish thought is today a fact. For the old-timers, it is a living proof of the way that Orthodoxy can change radically, if slowly.

In the 1960’s, I had a friend from yeshiva with whom I was quite close, yet it was several years before I accidentally ran into him during a vacation trip to Boro Park and found out that he wore a bekeshe (Chassidic mens black silk coat) on shabbos, something he would not have dared do in the yeshiva in those days.

This is more than a broader tolerance for differences, this represents acceptance that there may be other equally-valid ways to serve Heaven, a sea-change from the traditions of previous generations, and an excellent example of changing memes.

Segulas via Agency
This is a very puzzling and very recent phenomenon. While standard Jewish thought was always strongly based on a very strict belief in personal reward and punishment, so much so that explanations were necessary for the value of the mourner’s Kaddish, now we have the opportunity to help others by simply baking challah, going to the Kotel for 40 days in a row (17), or accepting to not speak lashon hara for an hour a day.

Puzzling, and apparently still developing, this is a new meme, and bears watching as it does threaten important traditional Jewish philosophies, especially that of personal responsibility.

Transmission and Propagation
As noted elsewhere herein, there are several ways that memes travel from one to another, whether groups, communities, or families. Exposure to any one of the carriers will introduce the meme, and coupled with the “why not, it can’t hurt” meme, the new meme will require minimal exposure to spread very quickly. A simple story of a segula that helped someone, even if these are more often than not urban myths, when spread via an Orthodox newspaper or magazine will gain credibility and be believed without any further investigation.

Another source of these newfound amuletic formulas is from advertising for various charities, which promise spiritual or actual rewards for donations. Supply oil for the Ner Tamid! Give wine to those making the pilgrimage to Meron! Light a fire in memory of a Tanna! Light a candle at Rabbi X’s graveside! All appear to be successful ad campaigns, and are as yet apparently uncontested by anyone. Even the age-old ceremony of kaparot, once thought to be inevitably headed to the ash-heap of history as a custom that would never be accepted in America, has returned and is larger than ever, thanks to having found an ability to earn a nice profit for the providers of this service.

“Don’t tell anyone, it’ll hurt the kid’s shidduchim” is a tragic buzzword in some communities. Whether the discussion is about hiding a child’s illness or about the uncle who married out, the entire concept is sickening, but a logical and sadly necessary result of the climate of fear brought on by the sad combination of lack of knowledge and the fear of being ostracized for having something of unknown religious value. Having an uncle that is a religious fanatic is never hidden, only the less religious or unknown-value factor is. This meme is also spread with astonishing speed because of the pervasive fear of the dangers of the unknown.

Hysteria, evolving naturally from the difficulty these days in getting into the “right” High School, which may help you get into the “right” seminary, which may help you find a “better” shidduch, is being carefully nurtured and is causing many bad things to happen, most of which are outside the scope of this article. What is relevant here is that the fear in effect forces the adoption of attitudes that otherwise might not be so readily accepted. But what is a parent to do when a 15-year-old girl comes home crying that she’ll never get married because her parents failed to feed cholent to the whole shul at a Kiddush? What can one say to a child nervous about an upcoming wedding, who insists that her chances for happiness will be better if they give the shadchan a whole pile of money? Or the 30-year-old daughter who blames her inability to find her “basherte” on her mothers wearing ankle socks?

Additional impetus is given to the right-wing meme. Spread by higher immigration rates for Chassidim after WWII, a higher birth rate for Chassidim, the financial incentive of food producers to make their products acceptable to a larger market, the occasional threats of censure from the pulpit or kids school for those failing to accept community standards, and kiruv standards, where those as yet unlearned are taught that “this is how it must be”. There are undoubtedly a host of others, as well.

The Future
Making predictions is a fool’s game, I know. Not only is predicting the future impossible because there are so many factors involved, but also because while there are certain trends that we can see, we must presume that there are many others that we cannot see.

Having made the disclaimer, here are some portents that seem obvious at this point.

The large family meme, a subset of the “extra frum by redeeming unborn souls” meme, will encourage large families among the next generation of family members….IF the parents can afford and effectively handle the large family. Otherwise, it will have the opposite effect, leading those unhappy children to have small families, since they will regard parenthood as a bad thing. Since no license is required for parenthood, we can assume mixed success here. The religious ban on birth control will (and has been, apparently) joining the other unenforceable bans in disuse, like reading English on Shabbat.

As mentioned, the kolel meme has had a side effect of at least partially increasing the number of divorces in that community. This may or may not be considered a bad thing, since one might legitimately assume that a wife in that community is well aware of the status loss she will have, so if she decides to leave anyway she must have compelling reason. More important to the issue here is that most memes will have some side effects, and some of those might be unpredicted and undesirable (18). The increased difficulty of supporting multiple kolel couples relying on the same parents, along with the rise in awareness that not every man in kolel should be there, will likely trim the percentage that enters, and reduce the length of stay for others.

An awareness that a young man not in kolel can still be a good husband, father, and Jew will surely lead to greater acceptance of secular education. It will also probably help better deal with the issues of “kids at risk”, as the absolute stigma of not being a yeshiva student will ease. Too, along with the advanced education and different jobs will come more Internet use, and more homes with connections even in the most religious communities. This will work to further broaden attitudes through exposure to the secular, working from within. This type of exposure to the greater world outside is credited by most with being the major underlying cause for the breakup of the Soviet regime, so it isn’t too far-fetched to think it will have an impact on the frum world, despite the best right-wing attempts to regulate Internet use to work-related tasks only.

Another assault on the large-family meme is the dramatic increase in housing costs over recent years. Home ownership is no longer a given for Jewish couples with children, as it once used to be. How this will play out long-term may be interesting, as in effect the own-your-own-home meme is competing with the have-a-lot-of-kids meme. Birth control, no longer as exotic or foreign as it used to be, may become more widely used despite the anti-halachic implications. There is, in fact, much anecdotal evidence already that family size among the Orthodox and even among the black-hat group is decreasing rapidly. This is also exacerbated by the need for the wife to work outside the home for economic reasons, and so impacts even non-kolel homes. The high visibility of the smaller families, working husbands, and higher education in the Orthodox community will lessen the cognitive dissonance currently felt by those practicing these things, leading to their eventual probable total acceptance by even the right-wing in the community.

Yet another issue that will be impacted by this is the large-wedding meme. Holocaust survivors, thrilled to show their success at rebuilding their lives, were delighted to host lavish affairs to celebrate lifecycle events. They generally had small families, allowing this conspicuous consumption. Today’s situation is vastly different. Families being so much larger, what was considered a huge wedding 40 years ago is a small one today. For most people living on a salary, even with medium-sized families, lavish weddings are a luxury they cannot afford. Too, with so many weddings in the Orthodox community, being invited to one is no longer the rare and joyous event it once was. For these reasons, it is logical to think that the huge lavish Jewish wedding lovingly mocked in so many movies about Jews will soon be a thing of the past. Time and finances will accomplish what takanos could not.

Rising housing costs combined with the home-ownership meme mentioned above and abetted by more open acceptance of education and profession choices will likely combine to make living outside “Jewish” neighborhoods more readily accepted. 30 years ago some parents cried at their children moving to another part of Brooklyn, while today that is no longer an issue. Likely, in a few short years, anyplace with a synagogue will be acceptable, even cross-country. This move out of Brooklyn (or similar closed old communities) will likely also raise the tolerance for deviance in clothing and thinking among those who move to more religiously egalitarian places. Eventually, this should impact on all Jewish communities, with the exception only of those that are totally rigid about even small deviance in dress, i.e. Satmar, where every article of clothing carries a religious value, even the men’s underwear being different from what the “others” wear.

It is important to note that memes are transmitted not only by parents, but also by teachers, peers, and role models. As an example, think about a child seeing a junkie shooting up and getting a blissful smile on his face- it will take much more than a “just say no” ad to prevent this child from later trying drugs. Likewise, when a child sees a community elder, neighbor, or man he knows from shul being arrested for some criminal action, the created meme is very vivid. It may be a meme that says, “Don’t do that”, but if he perceives that there are no consequences for the action, that the individual is not publicly excoriated, that he still sits at the head table at a yeshiva dinner, that adults joke about the offense, the meme created is one that says, “crime is acceptable in my community”. It would seem unimportant if the offense is white-collar or blue. It is imperative to change Orthodox community attitudes toward criminality, lest the significant rise we have seen in recent years continue spiraling upward.

This would also apply to religious abuse issues, like agunah or bet-din abuse, or teacher-child inappropriate contact.

In another potential problem area, the old conventional wisdom has always been that the religion stands on the three pillars of Torah, Worship, and Gmilas Chesed. However, the new memes have put much more emphasis on “lesser” commandments and rabbinical ordinances, such as Lashon Harah (19). Since there may be a finite capacity for self-control, it is a possible outgrowth of these new values that they will eclipse the traditional three in observance levels. In point of fact, we see in most religious communities today organizations set up for the promotion of individual issues, such as the above, or shmitta, or shatnez, or bikur cholim, yet I have never in my extended travel seen or heard of an organization for promoting the Ten Commandments or for minimizing chilul Hashem. This should hopefully change as children with solid Jewish educations age, and can better differentiate between Halacha (required) and chumras (optional). That new generation will also likely be likelier to reduce the use of dubious segulas, for the same reason.

Their exposure to certain modern-day issues that the current generation cannot deal with, like sexual abuse by teachers, will likely leave them better equipped to deal with these problems, too.

Not all is bleak. Orthodoxy appears to be on the cusp of making a very dramatic change from insularity, from ostracizing agents of change, to tolerance and even acceptance of new standards of dress and behavior while still expanding Torah study and halachic observance, in both quality and quantity. Let us hope that the dawning new age will take full advantage of the blessed bounty that this generation has enjoyed, and grow in the right directions.


1) Wikipedia, Meme
2) Thought Contagion, by Aaron Lynch, Basic Books
3) It goes without saying that this is far from a direct cause-and-effect relationship, and that there are many possible causative factors in every divorce. Exposure to the outside world, family history and support, feminist leanings, unrealistic expectations, and a host of other possible reasons are all also part of this equation. This is, in general, a recurrent issue throughout the topics discussed in this article: When an explanation or theory is offered, it is simply one of many possible issues involved. Being overly simplistic is dangerous.
4) At one time, matches between Ashkenazim and Sfardim were so rare that Sir Moses Montefiore, in an attempt to encourage them and lessen strife in Jerusalem, offered any “mixed” marriage a gold Napoleon! A Napoleon was a very valuable gold coin.
5) Among others, tznius and the rules of what is considered clothing for shabbos are variable and based on community norms.
6) Other than books printed in the early days of the press, when non-Jewish title-page frames were used, and sometimes they had anachronistic drawings. I have an old sefer with a nude Venus on the half-shell on its frontispiece.
7 There appears to be some leniency on wearing a black hat while actually on skis, although it must be nearby for prayer time. Hunter Mountain, for one, has a mincha minyan every Sunday in season.
8) See Mishna Berurah, Hilchot Tefila
9) It may also be contested strongly by Chabad, which has a ban on women wearing hats or snoods in lieu of wigs, allegedly based on the last Rebbe’s demand. (R.A.M. Schwie letter, BD of CH, 5764). Chabad is unusual in their total rejection of other paths in Judaism, witness the following comment by a Chabad mashpia (advisor) re learning tznius from R. Falk’s book: “Edit out all the musar in (R. Falks) sefer which does not fit darkei chassidus Chabad”. (Bittul, ChabadTalk website, 10/27/06). Chabad is the exception in Chassidus in open attitudes in some ways, embracing new technologies and people, but suffering a higher dropout rate because of open-ness (Chabad on line).
10) My local synagogue uses a seltzer brand that is Orthodox Jewish-owned, named in Hebrew, and still it has 3 certifications although only one ingredient.
11) In a 1930-era Torah journal from Hungary that I have, there’s an ad for a kosher-for-Passover cigarette brand, so unlikely “chumras” are not totally new. Still, it’s hard to top the Israeli company marketing a toilet cleanser with a hechsher.
12) An exception to this is Chabad, who as a rule deny theological legitimacy to other Chassidim, even to the extent that they won’t use a non-Chabad hechsher on milk, a supervision that is acceptable when done by a child. This tendency will likely increase as they grow more alienated from other Orthodox groups, which is happening anyway for other reasons.
13) This is in addition to the already-existing problem of where one is to direct his prayers when at a grave, already seen as a problem by the Vilna Gaon, who (among others) addressed it.
14) Based on “v’lo setameu as haaretz. See Igros Moshe by R. Moshe Feinstein.
15) Either kabbala, e.g. Raziel Hamalach, or Chassidic works from certain editions seen as holier, e.g. Slavita printings.
16) There are so many and the perceived desire for them is so great that there is a website devoted to reporting them, http://sgula.goop.co.il/
17) Aish.com has an exposition on the subject by “Ayelet the Kosher Comic”. Touching, but not a substitute for scholarship.
18) For example, school dress codes may be intolerable for some few kids, and will cause them to leave school and eventually the religion. This has been deemed an acceptable risk.
19) There was a move a few years back to purchase the home of the Chofetz Chaim, move it board by board to the U.S., and enshrine it as, presumably, a site for pilgrimage. This is precisely where the problem lies: In adoring a “newfound” mitzva so much, we endanger our sense of priority in mitzvos.

Sensitives may discern a slight antipathy against this subject on my part, and will be validated by my pronouncement that I firmly believe that Rabbi M.D. Steinwurzel z”l (Rabbi, Bais Efraim and R.Y. at Yeshiva Bobov) was correct when he said, “ Had the Chofetz Chaim known how much innocent blood would be spilled in the name of Lashon Harah, he would never have written on the subject”.

I have myself seen the assumption made of a frum man who wore a wedding ring, that he was not one of “ours” and must have skeletons in his closet, when he just worked in an environment that would have led to trouble had he not constantly worn the sign that he was married. I have seen the assumption made that a family with a new kitchen was lying when they asked for tuition help, when the kitchen was paid for by a grandmother. I have seen the assumption made that a middle-aged couple divorcing was because the man was dissatisfied, rather than that the woman wanted out, when the truth was not so.

Worst was my own taste: After a disastrous investment with a Torah scholar who also turned out to be a crook, I was asked by someone, “How could you invest with that crook?”. When I replied that obviously, I had not known his predilection and asked why he hadn’t called me to warn me, he replied, “Lashon harah!”.

The classic case in the Talmud of Chassid Shoteh, an over-religious idiot, is of a man who sees a woman drowning but declines to save her because it is inappropriate to touch a woman. Lashon Harah is today’s raging river, and the failure to properly investigate and to reveal is causing at least as many losses as any raging river.