Friday, June 16, 2017

Is Judaism Without Labels Possible?

Ron Yitzchok Eisenman: Charedi or not Charedi?
Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman distributes a weekly ‘Short Vort’ to his congregants and anyone else interested in what he has to say on any given event or matter in the Jewish world. His latest contribution asks a question that most of us would seem to have a ready answer to: Are you Charedi?

He asks this question in light of the recent trip taken by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He was flown to his destination by a female Charedi pilot. The Prime Minister made note of that with the following ‘tweet’: 
“We are now going to meet with the first Hareidi woman pilot. You are invited to join. She is the first, but not the last.” 
Rabbi Eisenman was moved to ask the following question based on this event: What exactly about this woman makes her Charedi? Using the definition found in Wikipedia, it would seem that she clearly not Charedi. Here is how it is defined there. 
“Hareidi Judaism is a broad spectrum of groups within Orthodox Judaism, all characterized by a rejection of modern secular culture…”
“In contrast to Modern Orthodox Judaism, which hastened to embrace modernity, the approach of the Chareidim was to maintain a steadfast adherence both to Jewish Law and custom by segregating themselves from modern society.”  
Rabbi Eisenman notes that the pilot - Ms. Spiegel/Novak - would not qualify by this definition. And yet I’m pretty sure she  self identifies that way. He concludes the vort with following: 
I am just wondering what makes me or you or anyone else Hareidi?What makes one Modern Orthodox?What makes one Chassidish?Do we really need these categories?Are they really helpful for our spiritual development?Just wondering… 
These are all excellent questions that I have not really dealt with at any length. I thought I’d give it a shot. Before I begin I should make clear that there is a lot of overlap at the edges. And there are many exceptions. But I do believe that each category can be defined.

Let me answer the last question first. The answer is no. Categories do not help our spiritual development. If anything they do the opposite. Unfortunately they have thrust upon us by those who have decided break away from the mainstream and create their own categories. We therefore have no choice but to define who we are in contradistinction to those that have rejected some of our values.

Being Chasidish is rather easy to define. While there are individual differences between various sects of Chasidim, they are generally people that follow the dictates of a given leader called the Rebbe whom they see as the holiest human being alive - closer to God than anyone else on earth. They therefore honor him in the extreme and see his blessings as the most potent because of it. 

They follow the unique  customs and lifestyles that he or the founding Rebbe established. Customs that include unique personal grooming (long Peyes and usually a full beard) and a unique manner of dress. They are encouraged to isolate themselves  as much as possible from the general culture so as to avoid what they see as values that are anathema to their beliefs.  

Modern Orthodox Jews are those that observe Halacha and tradition while embracing those parts of the culture that are permitted by Halacha.

Charedim (that are not Chasidic) is a category that rejects modern culture too (except for those things that are necessary or beneficial to one’s health and well being). But they do not have a Rebbe nor do they have the personal grooming habits of Chasidm, They do not have long Peyes Nor long beards and usually trim them. They dress in modern clothing (e.g. a suit and tie for men). And do not isolate themselves as much. 

They are generally better educated than Chasidim in secular subjects, often getting advanced degrees, getting good jobs or becoming professionals. They also tend to be more involved in the culture either through their jobs or in their lifestyles - albeit some with guilt. While they do venerate their rabbinic leaders (usually a Rosh Yeshiva), they do not see them in the same way Chasidim see their Rebbe as a near God-like figure.  (Although there has been some movement towards that type of veneration in the last few years among the more right wing Charedim calling it Daas Torah.)

Why the term Charedi? It is rooted in the expression Chareid L’Dvar HaShem – trembling at the word of God. (It is found in Tanach I believe. Sorry to say I can’t quote the actual source.) 

This is a term chosen by Charedim themselves. I would have thought that describing one’s group as trembling is not very flattering. But they see it differently. They want the world to know that they tremble at the awesomeness of an omnipotent God that has the power of life and death over all things. And Who judges every single act by every human being. 

The consequences of not doing God’s will is spelled out quite graphically in the Torah. It isn’t pretty. There is also the matter of an afterlife that will deal with all of our actions here on earth – rewarding those that follow His word and punishing those that violate it. So they ‘tremble’ at the possibility that they may not be serving God’s word properly and suffer some very dire consequences both in this world and the next.

Rabbi Yosef Bechoffer once mentioned to me that it bothered him that Charedim co-opted that term for themselves. We should all be Chareid L’Dvar HaShem.  That, he says is a positive characteristic. Yes, we should all fear God, I agree. But does not mean we lead our lives in the trembling fashion that the term implies nor should we identify that way. That is certainly not how I would choose to identify. But that is their choice.

What about Rabbi Eisenman’s question about Ms. Ms. Spiegel/Novak? If she does not eschew modern culture and does not separate herself from it, why does she consider herself Charedi?

I believe there are several  reasons for that. First she was raised in a community that has those values. Becoming a commercial pilot is indeed a departure from their norms. But my guess is that aside from becoming a pilot, she is Charedi in every other way.

I doubt for example that she has a TV in her home, Or that she attends movies. Or theater. Or is she a fan of Justin Beiber or Beyonce. I’m sure her children attend Charedi schools. Separate seating at public events like a wedding or a banquet are the norm. Her husband is probably well entrenched into that world, whether still in Kollel or as a working Charedi. I doubt that her husband or  any of her children were in the army. Her close friends are probably all Charedi and the Shul she and her family attends is probably Charedi too. In short she lives the Charedi lifestyle despite having a career no other Charedi has – man or woman. 

I wonder, though, how her community reacts to her? Are they accepting? If not do they hide it? Or have they created some distance between her and themselves?

As noted above, sometimes the lines are blurred between categories. I’m not sure how that manifests itself in Israel. But in the US the blurring of lines between Moderate Charedim and Centrist Modern Orthodox Jews is already happening in a big way. And creating a new mainstream of Orthodoxy I have called sociological centrists. While the two groups will still retain their own unique values, their lifestyles hardly differ. 

With the extremes of the right and left seeming to go off the deep end and heterodoxy seeing their numbers dwindling by an assimilating mass exodus, intermarriage, or being defined out of Judaism as defined by Halacha (via patrilinial descent or improper conversions)...who knows? Maybe the new sociological centrist (consisting of moderate Charedim, Centrist modern Orthodox Jews, and Jews that we have successfully reached out to) whose numbers are swelling will eventually be able to shed any kind of label and be known simply as Jews. 

Is that a good thing? Yes and no. Shedding labels is good. But the loss of so many Jews from Judaism is a tragedy beyond description!