Monday, January 31, 2011

The C Word

I read with interest Rabbi Avi Shafran’s complaint about the term used by the media to describe co-religionists of his Hashkafa. He does not like the term ultra Orthodox. He sees the word ‘ultra’ as meaning extremist – which he categorically rejects. He prefers the word Charedi.

The funny thing is that in his description of Charedi Hashkafa, there are only a few relatively minor points of difference between my own Centrist Hashkafos and his. In fact I think what he is really describing is what I would call moderate Charedim. He is certainly not describing Chasidim. The only difference between us might be the following paragraph:

Most reactionary of all, we tend to shun what passes for music, entertainment and popular culture these days. We even have the chutzpah to buck the contemporary assumption that witnessing thousands of enacted murders and other immorality on screens is benign.

In fact even on this I would have partial agreement with him. My only disagreement is that I do not shun all of popular culture – only that which contradicts Halacha. But I can certainly understand and even respect his view. I would posit that many Centrists would even agree with him about the impact of watching the enactment of ‘murders and other immorality on screens’.

For me this is yet another indication of the direction I see Orthodox Judaism taking. The values of Centrist Jews (or right wing modern Orthodox Jews) and moderate Charedim are virtually the same. But I respectfully challenge him on the validity of his term of choice – Charedi. Of course I use that term to describe them too. But is it really a fair description of who they are?

The term Charedi is derived from the Hebrew expression ‘Chareid L’Dvar HaShem’ - trembling about the word of God. It is meant to show the seriousness with which truly devout Jews see their obligations to God. Charedim feel God’s awesomeness and understand His requirement of us – His people – to do His will. They literally tremble in their desire to perform the Mitzvos properly . This for example often results in taking the most stringent approach (being Machmir) in doing any Mitzvah out of fear that using a leniency might - according to one differing rabbinic opinion – not be fulfilling the Mitzvah at all.

If one looks at the care a Charedi Jew gives to even the minutia of Mitzvos one cannot fail to be impressed by their devotion. For example the care a Charedi Jew takes to buy the Daled Minim (the four species - usually referred to as the Lulav and Esrog) for Sukkos.

One will find Charedi Jews looking at every leaf of the Hadas, checking the Esrog with a magnifying glass for any blemish, and myriad other technicalities that may invalidate any of the four species. This truly testifies to the devotion. As does the time and money they are willing to spend on as perfect a set of Daled Minim they can find. No matter how modest their income – it seems like money is no object. I think this kind of behavior can be seen among the vast majority of Charedim.

And yet, 19th century Gadol Rav Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor (pictured above) had a different view about the majority of Charedim in his time. In the Torah portion we read just a couple of weeks ago, we find Yisro advising the Gadol HaDor of his time - his son in law Moshe Rabbenu - to delegate authority and how choose those to whom he will delegate it. One of the qualities Moshe was told to look for is that they should be Anshe Emes – men of truth.

Commenting on this - the Sefer Meorah Shel Torah (p.82)* relates the following anecdote. Rav Spektor was once asked to settle a dispute in his community between Charedim and secular Jews. He said the Emes lies with the secular Jews. The Charedi Jews were surprised by the answer and asked him how he could side with them against the Charedim? He answered that the secular Jews are truthful in their secularism. But it is truly hard to find many Charedim that are completely true to their name.

One has to understand R’ Spektor’s words. Were most of the religious Jews of his day not religious enough to be considered trembling before God? I think the answer may lie in observing how many of today’s Charedi Jews act.

Their trembling seems to be manifested mostly in Mitzvos Bein Adam L’Makom – ritual Mitzvos. When it comes to Mitzvos Bein Adam L’Chaveiro it is another story. How many people – Charedim as well as modern Orthodox – are truly as careful in interpersonal relationships as they are in choosing a Lulav and Esrog?

Not that any of us are mean to our fellow Jews. I believe that the vast majority of mainstream Orthodox Jews of all stripes treat others well. But do Charedim in particular live up to their name? Do they go over their interactions with others with the same magnifying glass that they do an Esrog?

How about other Orthodox Jews? Do they look at Modern Orthodox Rabbis with the same respect they do Charedi rabbis? Do they tremble before God before they address all of their fellow Jews – no matter what their Hashkafa?

What about secular Jews? Do they tremble before God when addressing a secular Jew?

What about non Jews? Are they treated the way God wants them to be treated – as creations made in His image? Do they tremble before God when they interact with a non Jew? Do they examine their words with the same care they do an Esrog? Do they tremble before God when considering cheating on an income tax return?

Of course these questions may be asked of all of us, no matter what our Hashkafa. Most of us are honest and treat others well. And I would add that there are many people of all stripes that do ‘tremble before God’ in all those instances. But can anyone say that most people who call themselves Charedim live up to their names? Are they really Charedim in all areas? Or is Rav Spektor right?!

Perhaps the term ‘Charedim’ is then misused. Perhaps it should be a redefined as those who truly are Chareid L’Dvar HaShem in all areas. Not just ritual. And not just interpersonal relationships. Charedim should include those of any Hashkafa who live up to the meaning of the term. And certainly not apply to those wearing the uniform typified by the black hat. Perhaps those who do not tremble at all Mitzvos but only Lulav and Esrog type Mitzvos should not be called Charedim at all.

*taken from Torah L'Daas