Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Defining Charedim and Modern Orthodox Jews

An article in Ha’aretz really got me to thinking about how we define ourselves as Jews. The article asks the question specifically about Charedim. But I think it is fair to ask it about all of us. I will limit my remarks to two groups: Charedim and Modern Orthodox Jews. Nor should my views here be considered all inclusive. I am just expressing an impression that I have at this moment in time.

Let us first address Charedim. This was the subject of the Ha’aretz article. Who are they? What are they like? Are all Charedim equal? The answer to the last question is no. There are probably more differences among Charedim themselves than there among any other group. Ha’aretz makes these observations:

Who, in fact, is Haredi, a member of the ultra-Orthodox? Is it that fellow with the long side curls and a striped robe setting fire to trash cans, breaking reporters' bones and proudly declaring to a television camera that "every child born to me is revenge on the Zionists"? Are the Haredim those people from Beit Shemesh who a few weeks ago stoned a woman who was not modestly dressed, in their opinion, and almost killed her?

Maybe the Haredi is that thin, pale, shy young man walking in Bnei Brak, his eyes cast down, seeing nothing until he reaches the yeshiva, where he hides away until evening, poring over his books and barely remembering to eat or drink. Or maybe it's that portly Hasid walking along Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard, pushing a stroller crammed with a baby and two toddlers, with a few more kids tagging along. Also on hand is his adolescent daughter wearing a long blue skirt, and at some distance, his wife, the mother of his children.

Or maybe they are the students at Kiryat Ono Academic College, who will be lawyers and accountants, or maybe the young woman who will be the treasurer of the Bnei Brak municipality, or MA students at Harvard University, or owners and staff at a Glatt kosher restaurant in Herzliya Pituah. And maybe they're the Chabadniks in their mitzvah tank, who light Shabbat candles in the heart of Tel Aviv.

What seems obvious from this is that there are light years of difference between one extreme and the other . Charedim can be virtual Taliban-like terrorists but they can be also be non violent productive participants in the broader society. So what puts these two virtual opposites in the same boat?

It is their devotion to a common singular concept. Fear of Heaven.

The word Charedi comes from the word Chareid – which means to tremble. Charedim tremble with awe before the Almighty. They therefore pay attention only to God and His Torah. That occupies their entire thinking. They tend to therefore reject modernity whenever they can.

Charedim tend to see the world in more or less black and white terms. Good and evil. So both the Meah Shearim extremist and the Charedi professional will look at a secular value in the same way. If it is not in the Torah it has no intrinsic value. To the extent that some will be involved at all in the secular world is to the extent they see it as necessary for their existence – mostly for Parnassa – or livelihood purposes.

There are of course differences in how far one will tread into the secular world for even that purpose which can in part explain why some Charedim become professionals and others do not. But the attitude is the same. Stay out of the general culture as much as possible and focus everything on the spiritual and fearing God.

The focus on the spiritual is the primary reason so many of them want to stay in learning. They see learning the word of God through His written Torah and its accompanying oral tradition as the highest calling of man. They are willing to sacrifice much of their material welfare for it. That kind of devotion results in a great number of them dedicating their entire adult lives to learning Torah.

These Charedim are perhaps the hardest working people on earth. And their work bears fruit. They know a lot of Torah. One would have to be blind, deaf, and dumb not to see the dedication of those sincere Charedim who learn full time and are doing it L’Shma. When entering the Beis HaMedrash at Yeshivas Mir one can feel that dedication. It is in the air. The level of Torah learning of the Charedi who learns there is the highest of high and has the broadest of scope.

The Hasmada – dedication to the ideal of learning Torah and the determination to know Torah is incomparable. No other stream of Orthodoxy can match it. When one experiences a Yeshiva like Mir and sees 5000 young men poring over the Talmudic texts and its commentaries, one can only experience envy. I envy their dedication and the knowledge they seek to attain - and do attain.

I have of course criticized Charedim for the vast numbers who do this for too long. There are far too many – perhaps even the majority – who should not be doing this full time for too long after marriage. But that is a separate issue. No one can deny the dedication of the vast majority of them. (Yes I know there are fakers there too – but I’m not talking about them.)

That I believe that many of them need to prepare for jobs and eventually get them is a separate issue too. So too is the poverty factor that is prevalent among them. The point here is that they are sincere and dedicated Jews who see their task in life as Godly. Their wisdom is firmly based on an awe of God. And they thus fear sin.

That is the common denominator. Charedim see only Torah and nothing else.

Modern Orthodox Jews are as completely observant as their Charedi counterparts. (Yes I know there are exceptions but Charedim have them too.)But they also believe that Torah does not forbid - and even encourages - participation in the modern world. Modern Orthodox Jews do not tremble before God. This does not mean they aren’t Yirei Shamyim or God fearing. They certainly are. But they do not focus on the trembling.

They focus on being the best Jew they can be without trembling. And to the extent they choose to participate in the general culture they do it in permissible ways that do not violate Halacha. The attitude is that God gave us a world to enjoy and told us how to do it (by following Halacha). One need not fear the world and may indeed embrace it.

Modern Orthodox Jews believe in learning Torah too. And they certainly have their share of Masmidim - people who spend the vast majority of their time learning Torah. But their dedication to Torah learning is not the same as the Charedi dedication. You will not see a Modern Orthodox Mir.

You will of course see a Yeshiva University Beis HaMedrash full of students learning diligently for many hours. The Kol Torah coming out of there is pretty strong. The Beis Hamedrash is rarely empty – just like a Charedi Beis HaMedrash. But it is not the Mir - or any other Charedi yeshiva like it. Yeshiva University believes in Torah U’Mada. That means that the entirety of the day is not spent learning Torah. A good part of it is spent on Mada.

Obviously I’m not saying that is a bad thing. Being an adherent of Torah U’Mada myself I strongly endorse this approach. I think this approach makes one a better Jew. But I fully admit that that the level of pure devotion to Torah learning is not the same as it is in a Yeshiva like the Mir. And that is something to be admired.