Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart
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Friday, 25 September 2009

Prisoners of Their Own Ideology

The classic Star Trek episode Patterns of Force tells a fascinating story that is in some ways applicable to what is happening in the Chareidi community today. It's also a great chance to see the crew of the Enterprise dressed as Nazis but I digress.
The plot of the episode goes as follows: A historian named John Gill violates the United Federation of Planet's Prime Directive not to interfere with the development of alien cultures. Finding the planet Ekos in a state of anarchy, he decides that the only way to save the civilization there is to introduce a centralized authoritative government. The most efficient model he can think of from Earth's history is the fascist model of Nazi Germany so he develops it on Ekos, making himself the Fuhrer and copying all of the most successful elements of Nazism in order to stabilize society. At first, things go well because Gill manages to avoid the negative aspects of Nazism such as racial scapegoating but the inevitable happens and his deputy, Melakon, decides to add in those evil facets of the Nazi regime the Ekosians had avoided until then. Melakon drugs Gill and turns him in a puppet leader, using him to advance his own racist agenda which involves persecuting aliens from the nearby planet Zeon (whose inhabitants have suspiciously Jewish sounding names) and attempting to wipe them out.
Captain Kirk and the Enterprise are able to foil the evil Melakon's plans after discovering the drugged Gill and getting him to broadcast his refutation of his deputy's program. Unfortunately Melakon does not take kindly to this and shoots Gill dead but his reign of terror has ended and Kirk can warp off to different planets in search of fresh alien females to seduce.
What does this have to do with the Chareidim?
First of all, l'havdil elef havdalos and then some, I am not comparing the Chareidi to fascists or Nazis, chas v'shalom etc. Please don't make any comments on this post like that. They will be deleted.
What interests me about Patterns of Force is that John Gill, while officially the leader of the planet Ekos, isn't really in charge by the time the Enterprise is. However, Melakon's inability to openly replace him seems to have evolved from Gill's developing a cult of personality around himself, something all good dictators tend to do. As a result, the Ekosians seem unable to conceive of a society that does not have Gill at its head and thus Melakon has to keep him around as a figurehead to justify his policies. Gill cannot act indepedently; his puppet strings direct all his motions. He is effectively a prisoner of his own ideology.
After the Second World War, Chareidi society underwent a tremendous change as a result of the Holocaust. As Rav Yonasan Rosenblum noted in his excellent article on the subject:
Let us think of the destruction of the major centers of Torah learning during the Holocaust as the "disease." The body of Klal Yisrael could not go on after the Holocaust without its heart – the talmidei chachamim produced in the great yeshivos. Time was of the essence, for how long can a body survive without its heart? 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. (The phenomenon of women working today, of course, is not solely a function of husbands learning. Even where husbands work, many Torah families find that the expenses of large families can only be met by both parents working.) The societal model adopted in the wake of the Holocaust was a radical departure from all pre-Holocaust models. In pre-War Lithuania, for instance, usually only one or two boys from each town were sent off to one of the great famous yeshivos. That is why yeshiva bochurim were known by the name of the town from which they came; there was rarely anyone else from the same town. And the model of women bearing the principal responsibility for parnassah is not only new, it is seemingly in radical contrast to the Torah model. Adam, not Chava, received the curse that he would wrest his livelihood from the earth by the sweat of his brow. The husband gives his wife a ketubah in which he undertakes to support her. The woman, in Torah literature, is always described as the mainstay of the home and as bearing the principal responsibility for the nurturing her children. The radical therapy adopted in the wake of the Holocaust worked. The Torah world was not only saved but rebuilt to a remarkable degree. The number of those learning full-time today dwarfs the numbers of pre-War Europe. And Torah is now the possession of the masses to a degree unknown in Europe. At the same time, we would expect a radical departure from the "natural order" described by the Torah to have untoward consequences/side effects. The impact of wives serving as the principal breadwinners has implications in three areas: with respect to the shalom bayis of the couple; with respect to the effect on child-raising; and with respect to the well-being of the woman herself, who is torn between her ambition to facilitate her husband's growth in Torah and her maternal instinct to devote herself to the nurture of her children. The societal model also produces certain secondary or tertiary side-effects – e.g., the emphasis on money in shidduchim.
Along with this adjustment came an evolution in the use of the term Daas Torah. Prior to a few decades ago, it is generally agreed that Daas Torah was applied to leading Torah scholars in the same way the word "experienced" is used with veteran physicians. Sometimes there isn't a clean and easy answer in the literature on a particular topic and extrapolations have to be made. A seasoned internist with a broad knowledge of the medical literature would be qualified to make such an extrapolation based on his large fund of knowledge and experience. In the same way, a major poske, drawing on his encyclopedic knowledge of halacha could come to conclusions in novel situations using his opinion based on that knowledge. This was Daas Torah.
However, after the war this shifted and suddenly radical or novel answers were no longer attributed to experience or intellect. The Chareidi community developed a cult of personality based on its "gedolim" and a phenomenon of "Gadol worship" appeared. Now answers to halachic problems that weren't based on prior shailos were a product of ruach hakodesh. The gadol, by virtue of being a gadol, was held to have a direct connection to God in Heaven and knew what He would say were He to have been asked to question.
The problem with any cult of personality is that it creates a separate orthodoxy all its own. In the Chareidi community, for example, there are certain laws found nowhere in halacha, for example, the de facto prohibition on working, the excessive tznius requirements, the ban on secular education for the purpose of achieving gainful employment, and the like. This is certainly more evident in the Israeli community than in the American one, possibly because the government in Israel supports this non-sustainable lifestyle in ways the Americans would never even consider doing.
For extremists who value this system, it is therefore very important that all people play their roles. A Chareidi wearing a blue shirt? Feh! No Chareidi wears a blue shirt. Photoshop him out of the picture. Think denim is too modern a fabric? No good Chareidi wears denim! Are the local girls not conforming to the Chareidiban dress code? Stone 'em, those p'ruzos. I'm not even go over the parking lot protests. These extremists have created an ultra-conformist form of chareidism. According to the kana'im they must all look the same, talk the same and think the same. Even history has been altered and any who dare to question the "We were always like this, even Moshe Rabeinu wore a shtreiml" revision is ostracized.
And who stands at the head of this society? The Gedolim. Everything is attributed to them, their word is law and their decisions, being daas Torah must be followed without question.
Except did you ever stop to wonder why so few of these radical announcements, such as the banning of Rav Nosson Sliffkin's books or the concellation of the Lipa Schmelzer concert, are actually made personally by them? Or how many of the rabbonim whose names appeared on these bans later admitted they had no idea how their signatures wound up there?
It's never by personal announcements but always either through a "spokesman" or a pashkevil plastered all over Yerushalayim. Even the most recent chumrah-of-the-week, a ban on tznius women sitting next to not-so-tznius women and attributed to Rav Chaim Kanievsky, shlita, came out in the form of posters, not an official declaration in person by the man himself. Again, did you ever wonder why?
I have come to believe that this is because there is something rotten at the core of Chareidi society. The leaders, the gedolim, aren't really in charge. Rather, the ideology along with its caretakers, the kana'im, are actually running the show. They have taken over and decided what is right and wrong for "the Torah world" and they are using the gedolim as figureheads to give authority to their initiatives. They are in turn propped up by their aparatchniks who use eloquent language to validate their simplistic approach to Torah.
Does anyone really believe Rav Kanievsky cares about separating frum women based on their adherence to ultra vs normal levels of tznius? Does anyone really believe that Rav Eliashiv cares about a Lipa Schmeltzer concert or that Rav Sliffkin's books were a grave threat to the Chareidi world?
But these gedolim are, for all one might disagree with their ideology, brilliant men who know the situation that they're in. Stop and consider for a second: what would happen if Rav Shteinman, shlita, were to one day stand up and say "You know, denim skirts, they're not so bad, especially the flopped large ones. I can't see why they're not tznius." Could you imagine the reaction? Might his "gadol status" be threatened? Might he be banned for disagreeing one iota with the extremist agenda? But how could that be? Isn't he a gadol? Don't all Chareidim have to obey his views?
How about the recent parking lot riots? Despite calls by both Rav Sternbuch of the Eidah Chareidis and Rav Eliashiv, the violent protests continued for weeks before simmering down. Yet if the Chareidi public really listens to their gedolim, why wasn't the violence ended immediately?
The answer is because the Chareidi extremists who are actually in charge don't care about what their leaders really think but only about what they should think. In the mind of the leaders of the violent protests, the gedolim should have supported them because the riots were the right thing to do against the hated chilonim. That the gedolim didn't support such a tactic was irrelevant. What they should think was more important than what they actually thought. Who they were supposed to be was more important that who they were.
And don't think the gedolim don't know this, that their status and power depend on living up to the expectations of the masses as manipulated by the extremists. Consider the example of the poster banning certain types of women sitting together. It is most likely that Rav Chaim Kanievsky was never even approached about the issue. The idea was probably hatched by an extremist who works for him and assumed that he would agree with this awful idea because the kana'im really do believe that all Torah true Jews think exactly like them.
It is less likely that Rav Kanievsky was approached and told that this initiative was going out under his name... or else. Given that many Chareidim routinely resort to violence to get what they want, is this such a far-fatched scenario?
This wouldn't be the first time whispers have been heard about extremists threatening gedolim with violence if their agenda isn't endorsed.
In summary, the extremists are Melakon. The gedolim are John Gill. What's missing is a James T Kirk to pull the curtain back and allow the Chareidi leadership to speeak without fear of being attacked by their loyal underlings.

11 comments:

E-Man said...

You said that John Gill was shot by Malkon and killed. That is probably what would happen if you got rid of the kenaim, the whole charaidi society would fall apart.

Garnel Ironheart said...

The problem is that the kana'im don't want to be gotten rid of and, as Murphy's Law teaches, he who shouts loudest has the floor. Until their own people start fighting back, the situation can't change. Those who don't like it will go OTD because that's the only choice they know.

SJ said...

If the "gedolim" are afraid of being attacked by the kanoyim how are the kanoyim loyal? O.O

karim said...

A valuable post on leadership

Thanks,
Karim - Mind Power

David said...

Sorry, a "gadol" worth the name isn't going to go with the flow that way. Either they issued or directed the issuance of the farcical nonsense that comes out under their names (in which case they're schmucks), or, as you suggest, they're being cowed into ignoring things coming out in their names, which is, for all practical purposes, tantamount to an endorsement (in which case they're gutless wimps). In neither case can they be considered leaders of the Jewish people; they're either rabble-rousers, or followers of a mob.

Anonymous said...

I loved your analogy.

Nevertheless, there is one crucial difference: The "gedolim" are not drugged or helpless. They bear responsibility for what goes on in their name.

Rav Elyashiv's history goes way back. We are so fixated on recent behavior (such as Rav Slifkin) that we hardly remember the things that went on decades ago. Besides Rav Elyashiv's fixation on delegitimising the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, does anyone today even remember how he put Rav Shlomoh Riskin into cherem? Even hung up the phone when Rav Riskin asked why he wasn't spoken to personally before being publically attacked?

My suspicion is that even if Rav Elyashiv doesn't personally initiate most of the specific banns and prohibitions carried out in his name, he certainly does approve of the general thrust as proper public policy.

Blaming the askanim removes the spotlight from where it really belongs.

Bartley Kulp said...

The truth is that the Gedolim are not being held hostage in any way. They are being manipulated. Enough said...

Off the Derech said...

>Blaming the askanim removes the spotlight from where it really belongs.

Hit the nail on the head.

Let's see Garnel squirm his way out of this one. Or like the famous Hindu, he may say, "suppose we change the subject?"

Devorah said...

Very interesting analogy. At first glance, all seems to be wholly accurate. But on further inspection, I wonder at the wisdom of using Star Trek to eludicate our current issues.

At first, I took issue with:

"However, after the war this shifted and suddenly radical or novel answers were no longer attributed to experience or intellect. The Chareidi community developed a cult of personality based on its "gedolim" and a phenomenon of "Gadol worship" appeared."

Untrue. There were these types of cults and cult personalities long before the war ever happened. Ever hear of a man named Shabtzai Tzvi? When he left Judaism, some even left Judaism to follow him. In fact, didn't Moshe Rabainu himself act as a kind of Gil? When he was perceived dead, the entire Klal Yisroel fell to pieces and created the golden calf. Once I started thinking along this road, further problems presented themselves.

Gedolim and their unique ability to generate followers, much like a planets around a sun, are nothing new. Neither is the ability to change a previously tested Torah model to fit with current times. Our ability to adapt is built into our religion, as with any sustainable religion. Too rigid, and the entire structure falls apart.

While we have experienced unique problems with our new models of Kollel, these are hardly catastrophic. New models are always looked upon with suspicion. However, you stated yourself that - under the proper conditions - this model is hardly what's eroding our culture.

I think what is catastrophic is our inability to accept each others differences. This intolerance has permeated now more than ever before, and it is this new addition to the "cult" that has divided us more than ever. Extremists are always present, and are also nothing new. The real measure of a society is how we deal with them. And currently, we advocate them. We call them zealots. They compare themselves to modern Pinchases. (Note to self: avoid anyone who self-references to Pinchas). And they are lauded for being exemplary Jews.

Chasidus has always been controversial, from its very inception. The way we've managed not to splinter Judaism into more fractions is to accept chasidus as an acceptable mode of life. The time has come to incorporate this idea into the mainstream. Starting with your own post.

Garnel Ironheart said...

> I think what is catastrophic is our inability to accept each others differences.

I agree 100%.

Look, Chasidus is basically the same as Gadol worship because it's essentially Rebbe-worship. Fine, but until the Holocaust you didn't find such a thing on the Misnagdish side of the Chareidi community. It's almost like they got envious and took it on as their own model without calling themselves Chasidim.

People like Shabtai Zvi were the exception, not the rule. Now it's the opposite way around.

Mike S. said...

I can think of at least 3 figures in the pre Holocaust Lithuanian yeshiva community who would qualify as charismatic leaders with cults of personality around them: R. Chaim Brisker, R. Noton Zvi Finkel of Slobodka and and the G"RA. Of course, there were many others who were held in very high esteem, but each of these started movements that represented radical breaks with their predecessors and inspired fierce deveotion in their followers in a way that theie fellows, some of whom (e.g. R. Y. E. Spector, Chofeitz Chaim) were held in even higher esteem did not.