Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

The Root of the Problem

A guest column over at Cross Currents is unusually perspicacious in its analysis of some of the problems in the Chareidi community. As Rav N. Daniel Korobkin notes:
Growing up in the yeshiva day school system of the 70’s, I remember starting our day every morning with davening, and later when we got to English class, we faced the American flag and recited the Pledge of Allegiance. We also sang songs like “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” “Grand Old Flag,” and “America the Beautiful.”
But then I grew up and went off to yeshiva. Something changed within me. The change was so gradual and subtle that I can’t even tell you how it happened. I don’t remember any rebbe or rosh yeshiva giving a whole mussar shmuz about the evils of America, but still, there was something in the air. There may have been a comment like the famous vort, “America stands for ‘Am Reika’ – an Empty Nation.” Or, perhaps it was just the emphasis on the tum’a (spiritual impurity) of the secular world that left me with a negative attitude toward my gentile countrymen and America in general.
Whatever it was, it had a profound effect. When returning home from yeshiva, I recall that I and others like me would mock the provincial and “modernishe” practices of our parents’ synagogue. Things like the Prayer for the Welfare of the Government, recited in many shuls before Mussaf on Shabbos, evoked smirks and winks from the more “sophisticated” yeshiva boys.
And so, we decided to daven in the “frummer” shuls, the ones that omitted those newfangled prayers that had nothing to do with Yiddishkeit, and that were therefore not printed in the “authentic” siddurim. Pledge of Allegiance? Ha! That’s for the goyim. No child of mine will start his day pledging fealty to a country whose values are morally corrupt!
This is where we got it wrong, and this is where our rabbis strayed, whether through acts of commission or omission.

What impressed me most about this essay was its lack of dancing around the main issue. We have been lead in the wrong direction by people who are prepared to live off the largesse of the Western world without any desire to say "thank you" for what they receive.
For too many frum Yidden, anything assocaited with the dreaded goyim is bad. Anything, except the money they print. There are those in a position of authority who really believe that cheating, stealing, lying is all permitted vis a vis the gentile world based on faulty readings of halachic codices and a simplistic understanding of parts of the Talmud that deserve better. As a result, we find ourselves in a situation where some consider it a mitzvah to not give hakaras hatov for all we get from the world around us.
We have seen it in the riots in Meah Shearim where people whose food, electricity, running water and basic security is all provided by the State they so loathe. We have seen it in the recurrent tax frauds that have been uncovered in the Jewish community in North America. People are all too ready to say "Well, it was just a goy I stole from", as it that suddenly makes it mutar and ethical.
Perhaps Rav Korobkin is right. Maybe it did all start when someone said "I don't care that Jews have prospered in North America like they did nowhere else since the destruction of our Temple (may it be speedily rebuilt)." If that's so, then our response as mature adults shouldn't be to ignore it or dismiss it as a crank opinion. Rather it should be to announce that although our first fealty is to God and Torah, we have a duty as frum Yidden to be good citizens of the country we live in and show graititude to it for all the kindness that it has extended to us. This selfish abosence of hakaras hatov must be countered lest folks who don't know better begin to believe that it is the definitive opinion of our community.
In the meantime, I would like to echo Rav Korobkin's challenge: does your shul show proper gratitude?


LazerA said...

Well, it seems that some believe that hakaras hatov is no longer a foundational concept in Judaism. See here.

Sorry, couldn't help it.

Actually, I strongly agree with your point, and I continue to be mystified how this attitude ever got started. It certainly wasn't the attitude of the great rabbonim and roshei yeshiva who came over from Europe, who were very conscious of the blessings America has bestowed upon us.

I remember, roughly 15 years ago, when a group of bochurim were shmoozing with R' Shmuel Berenbaum זצ"ל about some event in the news (I don't remember what the issue was) and someone voiced a negative comment about the American government. R' Shmuel immediately rejected this comment, saying, "America is a malchus shel chessed!"

The description of America as a malchus shel chessed was commonplace from the great Torah scholars of that generation.

I don't know what happened, but we have clearly NOT been following the lead of our gedolim in this area.

Dr Mike said...

I wonder if it's a generational thing.
Look at the average immigrant experience. The generation that comes over works 25 hours a day, 8 days a week so they can afford to send their kids to university to get a good livelihood.
The second generation goes to university and does well in medicine, accounting, or nebich, law. What drives them is the memory of how hard their parents worked and sacrificed for them.
The third generation is raised without that example. Because the parents have "made it" they're complacent and lack the drive, often failing to reach the goals their parents did.
Perhaps this is what's happened to us. The first generation that came over knew first hand about ghettos and pogroms. American was a miracle land for them.
Their kids knew the stories first hand and learned gratitude from their parents.
The current generation, having learned only that the shtetl was this wonderful place filled with Tevya-type characters who were steeped in piety, doesn't realize what real anti-Semitic hatred is and takes freedom and prosperity for granted. And as we learn in Haazinu, when Jews get fat with wealth, we kick at our benefactors, especially The Benefactor.

David said...

Good post; this issue has bothered me for a long time. I have found that America seems far more comfortable with my Judaism than Orthodoxy is comfortable with my Americanism (if that makes sense). On the Zionist side of things, I've heard people push the notion that, as a Jew, I don't really "belong" here; on the black hat side, I hear more of what you described in the post. I can't fault my own shul too much for this, but I have noticed a sort of corollary to it-- the phenomenon of "pining for the shtetl." I've heard my rabbi reminisce about the good old days (he was born in the States) of our far greater kedusha in Old Europe. My impressions from my zeida (who knew more on the subject than my rabbi) were that Old Europe sucked, big-time.

I remember many years ago, I visited England-- I was impressed that, down the apse of some of the ancient stone cathedrals, old regimental flags were flying. I look back on this with some envy-- why can't synagogues foster an American pride? Having been lavished with both material bounty and religious liberty, I can't help but think that we owe our country as much loyalty as any other ethnic or religious group.

Garnel Ironheart said...

My father has been very emphatic about what life was like in Europe. It did suck big time. Imagine a life in which you had stones thrown at you every day while walking home from school accompanied by the cry "Dirty Jew!" Imagine pogroms, grinding poverty. Yes, there was tremendous spirituality but life was hard. That's why when America first opened the gates in the 19th century, many voted with their feet and ran for the new world.

But there is a balance in North America. Yes, we must be loyal and contributing citizens but we must also remember that our true homeland is Israel. Fortunately that doesn't raise as much of a problem as it does for Jews in Russia or Iran. So there's that much more reason to include the prayer.

David said...

"But there is a balance in North America. Yes, we must be loyal and contributing citizens but we must also remember that our true homeland is Israel."

What's a "true homeland?" Does that mean that you think I owe political loyalty to the state of Israel above that which I owe to America? I have an attachment to Israel as a notion (and due to the fact that it's a western style democracy), but I have no intention of ever living there. So, how could it be my "homeland?"

Anonymous said...

I remember the same feeling about the Prayer for the government at the ripe age of eleven. I think the explanation maybe something other than you offer. At the time we recited the pledge without any snickering as well.
It was in the old Sidurim .On Simchas Tora we would find an old Machzor and and recite the prayer for the Czar and Czarina.

In the UK , in the most right wing, Litvish at any rate, shuls and Yeshivas in Gateshead they pray for the queen.

A Yeshivishe davening has no speaches, no Rabbi at the pulpit. We made fun of the Rabbi's praving and his prayer for the government.


Nishma said...

Part of the problem is the underlying reason for why many adopt observant lifestyles or maintain them if they are born frum. Simply, for these individuals, the motivation is Jewish nationalism. The result is that any mitzvah that furthers this feeling is celebrated and those that do not satisfy this drive are either downplayed, ignored or, even, challenged and ridiculed.

Torah is actually multi-dimensional and touches upon drives and value motivations within an individual -- oftentimes in an almost contradictory way. This is why the Rav talks upon the dialectic and Divine mystery that is at the centre of Torah. Our relationship with the umot ha'olam involves many dimensions and the reality is that while we have the statement of Rabbi Shimon of Halacha: Esav soneh l'Yaakov, we also know of the great friendship between Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi and the Roman Caesar (whose name, unfortunately escapes me at this time) who was descended from Amalek. And regarding Amalek, see the Rambam who basically declares that any good, moral non-Jew even if genetically descended from Amalek, is not deemed halachically from Amalek -- but see also Rav Chaim who held that any devout anti-Semite has a din of Amalek.

The point is that Torah is complex and we often attempt to simplify it by making it subscribe totally to specific emotion or value that we have used to generally foster it and promote it within our lives be it nationalism, spirituality, etc. It is much broader than that and it is time that people do not try to simplify Torah into a package in which one can easily fit.

Bottom line, nationalism became a great way to promote allegiance to Judaism and attract people to observance. Be Jewish, etc. Included in that is a dismissal of facets of Torah that do not promote this type of nationalism, such as having a sense of hakeret hatov to our host countries and societies. And with that attempt at simplicity, one simply misses boat, turning Torah into a system that meets one's simplicty rather than a challenge that forces us to grow.

I invite anyone, if they are interested in this topic, to read my latest article, The Wall, in the Commentary section of the Nishma website at

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Off the Derech said...

R' Yehuda and Turnusrupus, I believe.

Off the Derech said...

Apologies. Antoninus.

David said...

I'm curious on the Rebbe/Antoninus thing... it seems that all the sources which discuss this are Jewish. Are there any non-Jewish sources which discuss the relationship between the two men?

Garnel Ironheart said...

From my brief survery of the subject, it doesn't look like it. However, that means nothing for 2 reasons:
1) The two men were contemporaries and Antoninus Pius (his full name) is recorded in Roman history as having a fondness for Judaism, recognizing the Perushim as the dominant form of the nationality as opposed to the Tzadukim. Since Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi was also the political leader of the Jewish population of Yehudah at the time, it's not a stretch to say they knew each other.
2) Historical revisionism wasn't invented in the 20th century but it does serve as an important lesson. For example, most Russians don't know about the Ukrainian genocide in the 1930's and most Turks know only a little about the Armenian one in the 1900's. So once again, it's not a stretch to suggest that once Constantine converted to X-ianity his people would erase all Roman references to Jewish favouritism, leaving the Talmud as the only contemporary document mentioning it.

David said...

"Historical revisionism wasn't invented in the 20th century but it does serve as an important lesson. ... So once again, it's not a stretch to suggest that once Constantine converted to X-ianity his people would erase all Roman references to Jewish favouritism, leaving the Talmud as the only contemporary document mentioning it."

Do you consider "historical revisionism" a possible factor in the collection of Talmudic stories about Rebbe and Antoninus? Do you believe that Antoninus travelled through a special tunnel every day to learn Torah with Rebbe?

Garnel Ironheart said...

Oh I hadn't heard that one. I would believe that it didn't want it well known that he was going off all the time to meet with the de facto leader of the Jews and perhaps that's what's meant by the tunnel story.

Remember the old statement: if you disbelieve any word of the Midrash, you're a heretic. If you believe every word, you're an idiot.

David said...

The old statement (from R' Avraham ben Ha-Rambam) is actually that if you disbelieve "every" (not "any") word you're a heretic. Which is to say that, at a minimum, one ought to be a bit circumspect in believing stories about Rebbe and Antoninus. Which is why I wondered whether there was any indication, outside a collection of Talmudic folktales, that the stories were true.

Garnel Ironheart said...

Like I said, I doubt it and I still think those are two good reasons for it.

I have no doubt that they met and that there is lots of truth to the Talmud's stories about what they discussed.

Anonymous said...

I recall reading that ex-President Clinton listed his favorite book as being written by Antoninus.