Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart
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Sunday, 24 February 2008

Why I Can't Be Chareidi

Despite my occasional criticisms and bellicose words, I bear no ill will towards the Chareidi community. In fact, there is quite a bit I admire about them. Further, I have strong connections with the Chareidi world - my rebbe is Chareidi, my best friend is Chareidi, and I started learning gemara in a Chareidi yeshivah with which I still maintain close ties.

What do I like about the community? Firstly, there is the unwavering loyalty and allegiance towards God, His Torah and living life according to halachah as much as possible. Chareidim are proudly Jewish and let Torah values permeate every area of their life. They do not apologize for standing out and never compromise in places where others might want to tone down their Jewishness in order not to stand out. For Chareidim, being Jews is not what they do, it is what they are. I think this attitude is extremely laudable. Given how over the centuries Jews are learned to apologize for everything and to keep their heads down, their proud expression of their Jewishness is something we can all learn from.

Then there is their commitment to learning and praying. I once heard a Rav comment that the problem with kiruv is that some people never get past the fun stuff. Shabbatons and programs are must-attends for them but when it comes to showing up on Monday morning at 7 am to daven, the thrill quickly wears off. For Chareidim, this doesn't happen. For them, an early morning Shacharis is an experience, not an obligation. Those big heavy books on the back shelves of the shul aren't just for show or to help increase the dust content of the building. They're for pulling down, opening and learning from. There is a never-ending attempt to connect to those personalities who have become legends and see the connection from them to us. Hillel, Shammai, Abaye, Rava, Saadiyah Gaon, Rambam, Rashi and the rest aren't names. They're teachers and compatriots. A Chareidi never says "In Rashi's commentary..." but rather "Rashi says..." Rashi is alive for them and teaching them in the present. That kind of dynamic amazes me.

So if I'm that enthusiastic about these features of the Chareidi world, why haven't I gone out to buy my bekisher and Borselino yet? Why do I continue to wear multi-coloured suits (well, okay, each suit is one colour but I have different suits of different colours) and a large knitted kippah?

For one thing, a lot of Chareidi culture relies on insulation from the outside world. I will not argue with the fact that there is a lot to negatively influence Torah-observant Jews out there. Free exposure to any and all aspects of the surrounding culture is not something for the faint of heart or faith. The problem is that the Chareidi world has, to a large extent, taken that insulation and turned it into a principle of the faith. The outside world is no longer something to be handled with care. Rather, it is something to be ignored, disdained and, on many occasions, overtly disrespected. Perhaps it is my job which immerses me in that outside world on a daily basis but I can't turn myself off from it with quite that thoroughness. There is much that is good in the outside world, many things we as Jews could learn, and much that is positive to be inspired by. A simple blanket condemnation of anything that is "the other" is too simplistic for me to accept.

The second is the famous statement of the Chasam Sofer, zt"l: "Anything new is forbidden by the Torah." If one looks at the history of halachic development before and after this statement, the contrasts will be amazing. Look at the Rishonim and the early acharonim, their breadth of thought, their daring in interpreting the Torah and the rest of Tanach, especially the prophetic or less-than-literal parts. Even the development of halachah was seen as a normal thing, as long as it proceeded along traditional lines and was not guided by secular but rather religiious need.

After the decree, however, things seem to have changed. Or rather, not changed. We are told that the way the Chareidim dress is the way they have always dressed. Moshe Rabeinu himself probably wore a shtreiml at Matan Torah. Innovation in halachah, changes to address crises in the Torah observant world, are all ruled out before they can even be suggested. The only progression is towards the stricter of any possible interpretations.

Thus one can find earlier authorities questioning if our world is davka 5768 years old or is the first chapter of Bereishis meant to be interpreted in an allegorical fashion. Nowadays, such a suggestion is "beyond the pale" and proof of heresy (just ask Rav Nosson Sliffkin). Things that never were an issue not so long ago, relatively speaking, like the type of headwear that makes you a "good" Jew, or whether or not sandals are acceptable footwear, have been decided and any questioning of the final decisions is again "heresy".

I can't accept this limitation. God, in His perfect and infinite wisdom, gave us a Torah that was meant to grow over time. In his commentary on Chumash, Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch notes that the structure of the Aron Kodesh in the Mishkan - stone tablets inside wood ark inside gold covering - denotes that the original base Torah is everlasting and unchangeable, just like stone. Yet, like wood, our oral apprecation of the Torah is meant to grown and blossom, while the gold covering symbolizes that this growth should be with the purest of intentions - the desire to achieve perfection as defined by God and His Torah. Thus to attempt to free the halachic process because of external pressues, for example the reaction to Reform and Conservativism, would be akin to removing the wooden part of the aron. One may have pure gold surrounding unchanging stone but one does not have what God instructed us to build.

Finally, there is the concept of Daas Torah that troubles me. It is one thing to say that "Rav so-and-so is the biggest expert in this subject so what he says is authoritative". I can understand that and certainly there are many Chareidi leaders who have selflessly dedicated their lives to understanding Torah and God's intentions for this world. One cannot imagine the sacrifices they have made to advance Torah in this world and we certainly cannot hope to debate them on what they know so well. And I am not suggesting that.

But Daas Torah has evolved beyond this extreme b'kius into a political tactic. Consider the recent debate on whether or not metzitzah b'peh is permitted if done indirectly through a pipette. Even a superficial examination of the halachic literature demonstrates that major authorities can be found on both sides of the argument. But the response to this challenge from the Chareidi world seemed unbelievable: Daas Torah says that you have to do it directly and a pipette is not allowed. End of story.

Except again, that is not how halachah works. To use something like Daas Torah as a trump card when one is losing an argument cheapens the entire concept and brings down the level of respect it is entitled to. Why should I respect the Gedolim of the Chareidi world if their answer to anything they disagree with is "Daas Torah 'cause I says so!"?

I hope and pray to God Allmighty that I can take those aspects of the Chareidi lifestyle, the passion and depth of belief, and combine them with those aspects of other Torah observant groups, and help create for myself and my children a Judaism full of enthusiasm and energy, unwavering loyalty to God combined with respect for those who make His Torah their life work, without giving up my free will and independence of thought so that I can make God my personal God and reach a connection with Him and His Torah. I truly believe this is what the Allmighty wants from each of us. May we be successful in our endeavours.

1 comment:

Hersh said...

Check out http://oneabovesevenbelow.googlepages.com/ .

According to him, being chareidi may be easier than you think.

HS