Friday, June 30, 2006

A Brief Review of "Sliding to the Right"

Guest Post

Mr. Steve Brizel has offered to write a critique of the recently published book by Dr Heilman. Although I have never personally met Steve, I have known him via the Avodah/Areivim e-mail list for many years and know him to be a man of great integrity. We think alike on most issues and when we ocassionally disagree it is with the utmost of mutual resoect. I have not personally read the book but with that intriguing title, I plan to. In any case without any further ado here is Steve’s analysis:

Dr. Samuel Heilman is one of the foremost scholars of ethnic sociology, with a number of books on American Jewry and the Charedi world. His latest book "Sliding To the Right" has much to commend to the both the Charedi and Modern Orthodox ( MO) reader. However, IMO, the book is flawed and suffers from a number of historical , sociological and ultimately hashkafic flaws.

As I stated, "Sliding To The Right" has an excellent generalized review of the growth of Torah Judasim in the US, especially after WW2. However, there are some serious errors in this regardrender much of the analysis and conclusions open to a number of varying and different interpetations. Moreover, the work suffers from a sanguine of the not so good old days of MO . Here are some of the more glaring errors:

In the first instance, Dr Heilman's presents the reader with a highly simplistic view of RYBS. Dr Heilman cites numerous MO rabbanim favorably and condemns the influence of RHS. In fact, R Rakkaffet quotes RYBS as viewing his students in the 1970s as being far superior to his students from the early 1940s and 1950s. RYBS's influence, Talmidim Muvhakim, the yeshiva world's relationship with RYBS and his view on ecumenical issues and feminism are passed over in silence.While Dr. Heilman's portrait of RYBS as a philosopher and MO leader, all of RYBS's Talmidie Muvhakim ranging from RAL to RHS reject that as RYBS's main focus.

RYBS, as opposed to just RMF, was very much opposed to ecumenical dialogue of a theological nature with other faiths. RYBS also opposed joint rabbinical bodies with heterodox movements which he viewed as impinging on halachic prerogatives but supported lay MO groups who participated in groups that dealt with external and non-halachic issues and allowed them to exercise a veto on any herterodox suggestions that remotely smacked of religious pluralism. The existence of this veto caused the heterodox groups to leave the Synagogue Council of America, as opposed to the MO walk out suggested by Dr. Heilman. These long established facts are nowhere to be found in either the text or the copius endnotes.

RYBS opposed the feminsist critqiue of halacha which was aided and abetted by some prominent MO rabbinical figures. Dr Heilman viewed Edah as a counter attack by this group and its lay board. Yet, Edah very recently closed up shop-allegedly because of financial issues . IMO, one argue that Edah never developed any traction out of the circles that founded and directed it. More fundamentally, one can argue that its On Line Journal contained second rate scholarship and a fawning attitude for heterodox scholars and views. This editorial stance and attitude was frequently accompanied by an attitude of near contempt for anyone that would follow or advocate adherence to accepted Psak. The articles contained therein also ignored the teachings of RYBS . IMO, its conferences and agendas had the aura of a MO equivalent of a Woodstock reunion focusing on issues that had lost their importance and relevance many years ago.

Dr Heilman broadly hinted that ikarim of Yahadus such as Am Segulah and Bchiras Yisrael were racist. IMO, this suggestion bespeaks a doctoral level of secular education and a Jewish education that seemingly lacks familiarity with Hashkafa 101 as developed by Chazal and Rishonim, especially the Mfarshim on the relevant Biblical passages.

Dr Heilman's understanding of TSBP is largely based on the seminal article of DCS. Yet, one can argue that both DCS and Dr Heilman ignore the dynamic nature of TSBP which allows for Chiddushim in every generation both lchumra and lkulah and which can change that which was prohibited into the permitted and vice versa. FWIW, Dr Judith Bleich disputes and repudiates DCS's notion that our unlearned ancestors understood the meaning of Tefilah, etc than we do and applauds the development of a generation that is mdakdek, as opposed to being either mindlessly machmir or meikil.

Dr Heilman bemoans the takeover of MO schools by Charedi educated educators. Yet, he offers no suggestions to attract MO educated teachers and seemingly ignores YU"s own graduate school in Jewish education that produces trained mchanchim who are musmachim and Kolleleit of RIETS.In addition, Dr. Heilman offers no serious analysis of the two sides of the same coin-kiruv rchokim and chizuk krovim. There is an all too brief discussion of NCSY and its achievements and a reference to winter Kollels without analzying why anyone would opt to become a BT or spend a winter break learming Torah.

Dr Heilman shares with many MO laypersons a misguided view of RIETS. They view RIETS primary function as training MO rabbanim. That view simply is IMO mistaken. WADR, one cannot claim or wish that RIETS is a Beis Charoshes LaRabbanim ( "rabbinical factory" as R Chaim Ozer ZTL called the Hildesheimer Seminary possibly incorrectly- BUT which might be applicable to a would be competitor of RIETS known as Yeshivat Chovevei Torah). Dr. Heilman seemingly overlooks or rejects the notion that a yeshiva's best products may not just be Gdolim, but Baalei Batim who are Shomrei Torah Umitzvos whose vocation may be learning, despite their occupations during their working hours.

RIETS is a yeshiva that produces world class talmidie chachamim from its kollels, as well as pulpit rabbanim, mchanchim., rebbes and chaplains. It also produces many educated Baalei Batim and lay leaders. RIETS 's students also organize and run the largest Seforim Sale of Seforim, etc in the Western Hemisphere.

Despite the fact that he excoriates RHS's POV and views in general, Dr Heilman's book contains nothing that would show that he spent any time discovering what a RIETS kollel avrech does in the course of a day. IMO, this presentation is simply deficient in too many ways to be fully articulated in this review. Yet, I do believe that this is a flaw that one cannnot ignore in passing.

Anyone who knows anything about the RIETS Kollelim could have told Dr Heilman that RIETS Kollelim undergo frequent rigorous bchinos that separate the stars from the pretenders.Unlike other yeshivos, they receieve a decent stipend but cannot sit and learn forever. Many have assumed their roles as rabbanim and mchanchim, These young men also give chaburos ( oral presentations ) in front of the RK and their peers, publish in Torah journals , help RY edit articles and seforim and give shiurim in shuls around the country. Many also pursue graduate degrees in Jewish education, receive extensive training in pastoral psychology and public speaking and are exposed to a battery of speakers in conferences who probably would not speak before any Kollel. These young men are all brilliant and have literally given up the possibility of earning megadollars in the professions or Wall Street to become the next generation of Poskim, rabbanim and Magidei Shiurim. IMO, their regimen is as focused and rigorous as an intern/resident/ fellow in medical training or an associate in a white shoe law firm grinding his way to partnership. Perhaps, Dr Heilman should have spent a day inside the RIETS Kollelim instead of focussing on websites and wall posters.

More critically, IMO , there is another significant methodological flaw is comparing the Charedi neighborhoods of Williamsburg, Crown Heights and Boro Park with the far more cosmopolitan neighborhood of Kew Gardens Hills solely based upon the external evidence. IMO, this technique ignores the fact that the three Charedi neighborhoods are far more monolithic in terms of hashkafa and residents than KGH. KGH is a unique neighborhood where Rabbanim and Baale Batim work together on many aspects of Torah, Avodah and Gmilus Chasadim and where we have the unique honor of many different Talmidei Chachamim grace our steets and shuls as neighbors and friends. Where else could R F Schonfeld, R NI Oelbaum, Yeshiva Chafetz Chaim, Yeshivas Ohr HaChaim, Lander College for Men, R D D Berger and R D S Leiman all live and feel welcome? Where else could both RHS and RN Oelbaum speak together? Where else does a Vaad HaRabbonim not only provide a first rate hashgacha but also helps new educational initatives get off the ground? Contrary to Dr Heilman's contentions, there is little, if any, presence of the Psak by Poster phenomenon that is present in other Charedi communities.

More fundamentally, Dr Heilman views religious change and evolution by MO adolescents as imposed from without, as opposed to emerging from these young men and women who have been exposed to a world that simply values Torah, Avodah and Gmilus Chasadim as a a 24/7 way of life and Talmidie Chachamim in a very profound way as opposed to a minimal MO manner.Dr. Heilman bemoans Kevias Itim LaTorah and Tefilah with Kavanah as evidence of cult like behavior and denies the possibility of genuine growth, as opposed to stagnation in Avodas HaShem. Dr Heilman fails to address the issue that some MO parents seemingly view religious change in Israel as more of a threat to their lifestyle and compromises with halacha than that of a child who dropped observance completely, regardless of the etiology.

In summary, while Dr Heilman's latest book has to offer in its analysis of the trends within MO, it ultimately misses the target and contains faulty history and hashkafic analysis combined with a bias towards the M side of MO.