Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Friday, 4 January 2008

The First Crack in the Wall

It is the job of paid public relations people to represent their organizations in the best possible light no matter what the circumstance. The most extreme example is recent times was Saddam Hussein's propaganda minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, who continued to preach about Iraq's greeat victory over the U.S. army even as American tanks rolled through the streets of Baghdad behind him.

Sometimes one wonders what public relations people must be thinking when they support a position that most people see as bizarre or indefensible. There are two answers I can suggest. One is that they are being honest in that they signed a contract requiring them present a positive spin and, having pocketed the pay cheque, they are duly fulfilling the terms of that contract. The other is that they actually believe what they're saying without an reservation.

Examples of the latter in Chareidi PR writing can be found here and here. Generally speaking, Rav Avi Shafran does his job of presenting the Chareidi world with great enthusiasm. Even when it comes to criticizing domestic abuse in his community, he manages to do so while downplaying the whole issue and dismissing most of the concerns raised. Unfortunately, far from convincing outsiders of the correctness of these positions, columns like this tend to alienate non-Chareidim even further.

Examples of the former, people who do their jobs honestly while also maintaining an insight into the group they represent, can be found here and here. While one will never see a Chareidi writer publish a mea culpa in so many words (he'd have to hand in his hat and membership car if he did), there are examples of insight into the troubles of the Chareidi world that can be mentioned.

Indeed Rav Yonasan Rosenblum's two columns represent a great departure from the usual synchophantic columns that portray the Chareidi world as a great utopia of learning and lovingkindness by discussing the biggest problem in the community today: the intential condemning of much of its people to permanent poverty.

In the first column, Money Matters, Rosenblum notes that 60 years of dependency on the State of Israel and outside donors to pay its bills has caused many Chareidim to forget that money simply doesn't show up on your doorstep one day without anyone taking the time to acquire it. He correctly points out:

A disconnect between effort and family income, which is one effect of government benefits, creates a sense of entitlement to even those things that would have been considered unimaginable luxuries one or two generations ago, including an apartment for every newlywed couple. Even in families struggling to make basic ends meet, it is not uncommon to find a number of children with their own cell phone and family cell phone bills of a thousand shekels or more per month. In supermarkets catering to the cost-conscious chareidi consumer, one still sees shopping carts piled high with soft drinks and junk food that are not only unhealthy but costly.

His conclusion is vague, of course, mentioning that something has to be done to solve the problem and the Chareidi community has to play a role but the fact that he mentioned a need for change instead of calling for others to simply up their contributions or for the State of Israel to simply hand over more money is a huge step away from the traditional "we have no problems and we expect you to pay all our bills" approach.

However, it is Rav Rosenblum's second column, Chemotheray as a Metophor, that truly heads off in a different direction than his colleagues'. He writes:

As a hora'as sha'a, in the wake of the Holocaust, the Torah leaders of the post-Holocaust generation advanced a societal model that had no obvious precedent in Jewish history. That new model was one of long-term, full-time Torah study for virtually all males. A necessary corollary of the model of long-term Torah learning for all men requires wives to become the primary breadwinners – at least for the period during which their husbands are sitting in learning. The only alternative would be for the parents of young couples to undertake to support them and their offspring as long as the husband is in full-time learning. While there might be some parents who can afford to hold out a number of sons and sons-in-laws in such a fashion, the number is obviously small. And so women working became the norm.

One could raise a difficulty with the second sentence, that the model involved full-time Torah study for all males. Without a qualifier, one wonders: was the model meant for all Jews? All observant Jews? Or only all Chareidi Jews? However, that would miss the essence of what he writes next, after pointing out that the natural order, according to the Torah, is for fathers to support the family while mothers do the important task of nurturing it so it will grow and flourish:

Needless to say, the vast majority of Torah homes in which the wife is the primary wage-earner enjoy admirable marital harmony and the children are flourishing. There is nothing inevitable about the strains in any given family nor is every strain incapable of being overcome. Since Gan Eden, life has never been easy, and each generation has its challenges. And we have witnessed the emergence of many "super-Moms" who appear, at least to the outside eye, to pull down large salaries, whose children always look tip-top and happy, and who seem to effortlessly manage their homes and serve tasty Shabbos meals. But those super-Moms may be setting a standard that most women cannot meet. Rebbetzin Faigie Twersky has spoken forcefully of the tension caused by the multiple tasks under which today's wives and mothers labor. The head of an Israeli project employing many chareidi women described to me cases of women deliberately underperforming so that they would be fired and could return to taking care of their families. The phenomenon is not widespread, but neither is it limited to a single case. I remember hearing a lecture 20 years ago by a prominent woman attorney, in which she described how she balanced the multiple demands on her time. A young woman in the audience, listening to the speaker describe staying up to 3:00 a.m. making Purim costumes, asked her: "But how do you manage to do everything?" With tears in her eyes, she answered: "You can't."

His conclusion is even more aggressive:

Divorce rates are rising in the Torah community, particularly among young couples, and we witness increasing numbers of our young leaving the fold (often only for a period of time) and many others who toe the line but without any evident enthusiasm. How much has the inversion of the normal roles of the sexes contributed to these trends? What has been the impact of overstressed and absent mothers been on children? I have no answers to these questions. And I doubt anyone else does either.

Actually there are answers out there, not in terms of specific statistics but through observation of Chareidi society over the last few decades. It's just that no one in the community wants to hear the answers.

Once again, Rav Rosenblum avoids coming to a open conclusion, ending with a non-commital "yeah, we have to do something about this" but it's not hard to see where this column and the other were leading. His bottom lines are that the Chareidi world sees free money as an entitlement while its odd domestic arrangements are slowly destroying its very framework. Something must change.

No one, God forbid, is suggesting closing all the yeshivos and kollels in Israel or elsewhere. As a nation of Torah, we need people of action and sound mind to continue to learn on the highest levels so we can be informed of ratzon Hashem in our daily lives. But just as an secular society would collapse if everyone decided to spend their lives working on their PhD's and no one wanted to do the actual jobs that make society work, Chareidi society is now finding out that they attempt to do the same thing has run its course and must change. A new Torah-observant society must emerge, one in which both working for a living and learning are seen as equally valuable.

If Rav Rosenblum is a voice in the wildnerness, then there is good cause to be pessimistic for the future. If, however, he is speaking for many who do not have the public voice and eloquence that he has, there is hope for positive change.

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