Thursday, November 18, 2021

On Being Holier Than Thou

Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld and Rav Avrohom Yitzchok HaKohen Kook
One of the many thing that trouble me is the ‘holier than thou’ attitude on the part of so many of my co-religionists.  I see it all the time.  People of one Hashkafa looking down at people of another Hashkafa.

This sad phenomenon is at its worst in the extremist pockets of Orthodox Jewry. Such as was the case a few years ago when extremists at Ramat Bet Shemesh Bet called a 7 year old little girl a whore. Even though there were ulterior motives, those people based those calls on the way she was dressed. Which was not in accordance with their own standards of dress – even for little children.

But these prejudices are not limited to extremists. We are all guilty of it to some extent, I think. Shamefully so. I see this kind of condescension here all the time. This point was brought home to me in an anonymous 2009 article republished a couple of days ago on Beyond BT – a website designed for the newly observant. 

The writer who calls herself ‘Anxious Ima’ is a Baalas Teshuva living in Israel. She talks about her own judgmental attitude in a ‘story’ she relates. Upon encountering another Orthodox Jew, a mother feeding her baby, she eyeballed her and thought the following:  

…I see, one of us, a frum young mother cradling a newborn baby in her arms. She’s cute—the mother I mean: one of those rare creatures who combines her Yiddishkeit with an inbred funk. I’ll bet that she has jazz on her CD player and pesto and sundried tomatoes in her fridge and davens where no one winces at the long curls tumbling out of her beret or the fact that her flary skirt stops just above her knees. 

She reminds me of a discarded earlier version of myself. I’ve since gotten stodgier, and frummer, taken on borer and bug checking, shatnez and tznius . But somehow in the course spiritual climb, I’ve gotten judgmental. It is almost as if someone managed to install a frumkeit checker in my brain which automatically monitors the madreiga of everyone I encounter.

Ooops , here comes the young mother’s reading —several notches below me ( I could have guessed that) , definitely not Bais Yaacov material, wouldn’t pass through the admissions board in Kiryat Sefer…. a joke, a pseudo-orthodox Jew….. right?

Although the writer admits she made up this story – she did so to make a point: 

So why the frumkeit checker?

A few reasons come up. It’s a kick, albeit an unhealthy one. Righteous indignation is a high. There is a perverse thrill in that irresistible “how dare she” feeling that comes from sneering at someone else’s (especially someone younger and cuter) deficiencies.

And the checker also deflects insecurity, by marginalizing anyone different and potentially threatening and it begs a little question that most of us don’t like to ask—what if she is right and I am wrong. Putting her down changes that subject.

I think the writer nails it. There is nothing noble or honorable about looking down at the religious standards of others. Who is anyone to say who is right and who is wrong?  And yet when it comes to the Charedi world, I find this judgmental attitude to be pervasive. 

There is the idea for example that full time Torah study to the exclusion of all other subjects reflects the highest ideals of religious observance. But that may very well not be the case. Who is to say that the TIDE (Torah Im Derech Eretz) philosophy of R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch isn’t the ideal form of Judaism?  The same can be asked about those who follow the philosophy of Torah U’Mada. Or Religious Zionism. We may all think we know what form of Judaism is best - justifying how we live, but who can really and objectively determine that?

The answer is that only God knows. All we can do is follow our instincts which are largely based on how we are raised and educated. But that does not mean we judge others as lesser Jews. The truth may very well be that we are the lesser Jew. Who is to say?

The concept of Elu V’Elu - these and those - seems to be lost on much of the Charedi world. But it should not be. As long as one’s philosophy is L’Shem Shomayim (for the sake of Heaven); does not contradict Halacha; or generations of long held tradition (Mesorah), none of us can claim superiority. And yet I hear some rabbinic leaders on the right making that claim all the time. Preaching that their way is the only way - or at least the ultimate way to live their Judaism. The corollary of which is that other ways are inherently inferior.

I believe that this attitude is instilled by many Charedi Mechanchim into their students. And that this is in large part responsible for the ‘holier than thou’ attitude I so often encounter.  

One of the prime demonstrations of this is when as a young student - TIDE adherent, R’ Shimon Schwab asked R’ Baruch Ber Liebovitz, an icon of the Charedi world in his time, what he thought of TIDE. R’ Baruch Ber answered  that R’ Hirsch meant it NOT as a L’Chatchila but as a B’Dieved… a way of life for his time where German Jews were being lured away from religious observance by the enlightenment spirit of the times.  R’ Hirsch, he said, never intended it as the best way of life for all Jews. To R’ Baruch Ber the way one should lead their lives was to be Charedi.

But the fact is that it well established that R’ Hirsch did not consider TIDE a B’Dieved. He considered it a L’Chatchila. He strongly believed that the best way a Jew could live was according to the TIDE philosophy. R’ Schwab was at first persuaded by R’ Baruch Ber but later retracted after realizing that R’ Hirsch meant it as a L’Chatchila after all.

But most people on the right heard only what to R’ Baruch Ber said and consider TIDE to be a Jewishly inferior way of life.

The same thing can be said about Religious Zionism. The right considers that Hashkafa to be near blasphemous. And looks down at  people that follow it - considering it religiously inferior. As they do its founder, R’Avrohom Yitzchok HaKohen Kook. (The original Satmar Rebbe used language about him the the bible uses about Haman – the Hitler of his time!)  

This is not the way Gedolim of R’Kook’s time thought of him. Rav Issar Zalman Meltzer whom many considered to be the greatst living Rav of his time (the Gadol HaDor) said about R’ Kook that he was greater than he (Rav Issar Zalman). It is also well known that Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld whom many consider to be the leader of the very Charedi Yishuv HaYashan and fierce ideological opponent of R’ Kook - respected him nonetheless.

This is where the problem lies. We now live in a world of unprecedented divisions (at least since my time on this earth) in almost all areas of life. It would be nice if the right wing acknowledged that they may not have cornered the market on Judaism; understood the principle of Elu V’Elu; and  treated all other observant Jews as equals. Even if they disagree with them which is their right.

Unfortunately I don’t see this happening any time soon. But the truth will not be denied if I can help it.