Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart
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Saturday, 28 November 2009

Fighting With One Hand Tied Behind Their Backs

I was learning with a prominent Rav the other day when the discussion about how the poor state of dialogue between Chareidim and the Modern Orthodox came up.  Amongst other things, he noted that there always seems to be an unfairness between the two groups that always leads to the Modern Orthodox losing the dispute in question.  The factor?  The role in leadership in the two communities.
It is well understood that modern day Chareidim have, to a large extent, deified their leaders.  Under the rubric of Daas Torah, they have imbued their great scholars and religious figures with a semblance of omniscience.  The idea that one might suggest that a "gadol" has erred is considered heresy, kofer b'ikkar.  A "gadol" must be followed in all his instructions (unless those instructions are to stop rioting and attacking people) and questioning him is like questioning God - you just don't do that.
The Modern Orthodox community, on the other hand, has a much more nebulous sense of leadership.  There is, of course, the Rav, zt"l and many prominent names in today's Yeshiva University community but they do not have the presence in the life of the average MO that Chareidi gedolim have in those of their followers.  The Modern Orthodox admire the Rav but they don't necessarily see him through a "veil of holiness".
How does this affect the dialogue between the two communities?  Well, think about the reaction a member of each group would have to one's questioning the p'sak or credentials of their leaders.  In general, Modern Orthodox folks reacts in a much more mild fashion to such an attack than do Chareidim.
For example, it is quite common for Chareidim to be dismissive of the Rav.  Whether he is called "pasul", "the guy who went to Yeshiva University" or just "J.B." is irrelevant.  He is not accorded the respect a genius and spiritual giant of his stature deserves by many on the other side of the fence yet one does not hear screams of outrage from his supposed followers and students. 
Now consider this contrast: the next time someone Chareid intones that MO's are wrong because of an opinion of the Chazon Ish, zt"l, try this line - "Ah, who care about ol' man Karelitz?"  Or if they rail against modern innovations by quoting the Chasam Sofer, zt"l, use this one - "Mo' Shreiber?  Not interested in his views, thank you."  Can you imagine the reaction?  The screaming, the spitting, the fire and brimstone that would result is enough to give anyone second thoughts before using the sentences in casual conversation.  Yet the same people who would go ballistic if the Michtav M'Eliyahu was dismissed as a reactionary old fuddy-duddy would have no problem saying that Rav Kook was an ignoramus who despoiled the clean waters of Toras Eretz Yisrael!
I think one more point is salient. Another reason that Modern Orthodox leaders would never show disrespect to Chareidi authorities is because those authorities are important to them to. For example, one cannot have an honest discussion on heter mechirah without looking at the opinions of Rav Kook, zt"l. For a Dati Leumi this is obvious. Thus the Chazon Ish's opinion would be invoked and discussed with the respect due a scholar of his calibre. For a Chareidi, dismissing Rav Kook is second nature. Who cares what he thinks!

Does this point to a difference? I think it does. Modern Orthodoxy is, in its purest form, interested in determining the Torah's truth. If the Chazon Ish turns out to be right, so be it. Chareidism nowadays is interested in the Torah's truth from a narrow political viewpoint. The Chazon Ish is pre-determined to be right so there's no real discussion.If you think about, this should be no surprise.  As I noted above, the Chareidim have bestowed an incredible amount of respect on their leaders, and their leaders alone.  On the other hand, Modern Orthodoxy has not done the same with its leadership.  A Chareidi is genuinely insulted when he feels one of his leaders has been treated with less respect than he is due.  A Modern Orthodox does not.
As a result, when the two groups trade opinions, there is an inherent unfairness in the debate.  While the Chareidi has no hesitation to announce that only his rabbonim are real rabbonim, the Modern Orthodox treads far more carefully in order to avoid showing disrespect to his opponent's icons.
One might therefore look at this almost as a situation involving a bully.  Appeasement rarely makes an impact with such a person while standing up to him accomplishes that much more.  Until now Modern Orthodoxy has knuckled under to the Chareidim on most important matters affecting the shomer mitzvos community - tznius, Zionism, heter mechirah, and such.  The reason has been a desire to minimize internecine fighting and encourage achdus amongst those of us who are yirei Shamayim.  Bad enough they're screaming, the thinking goes.  What does our shouting back accomplish?
Is it time to ask a different question - what has the Modern Orthodox sensitivity in this matter accomplished for the community? Is it time to start standing up and shouting back?

12 comments:

Izgad said...

Good post!
I think you are right on the money here; we cannot cede one inch in terms of accepting the authority of Haredim and their leadership. I do not believe that it is particularly useful or gentlemanly to use ad hominum attacks. That being said I do see Haredim as being under the assumption of idolaters for their actions. Essentially the Haredim can be divided into actual idolaters and people who are clearly not willing to take a serious stand against idolatry and thus completely unfit for leadership. When I make the case about certain practices like giving to a certain charity is idolatry the defense I hear is that it can’t be idolatry because gedolim support it. To which I retort that they have it backwards. You start with people who believe what they should and work your way from there.

Garnel Ironheart said...

I think one more point is salient. Another reason that Modern Orthodox leaders would never show disrespect to Chareidi authorities is because those authorities are important to them to. For example, one cannot have an honest discussion on heter mechirah without looking at the opinions of Rav Kook, zt"l. For a Dati Leumi this is obvious. Thus the Chazon Ish's opinion would be invoked and discussed with the respect due a scholar of his calibre. For a Chareidi, dismissing Rav Kook is second nature. Who cares what he thinks!
Does this point to a difference? I think it does. Modern Orthodoxy is, in its purest form, interested in determining the Torah's truth. If the Chazon Ish turns out to be right, so be it. Chareidism nowadays is interested in the Torah's truth from a narrow political viewpoint. The Chazon Ish is pre-determined to be right so there's no real discussion.

Mordechai Y. Scher said...

I was about to post in response to your last line/question; but you've answered well enough with your comment here. Why not add that as an 'edit'/addendum to the original post? I truly think that has much to do with the answer. It also emphasizes that our pursuit of Torah is, indeed, a pursuit of the truth of Hashem's Torah.

Rav Soloveitchik's respect for some of his opponents was certainly because he saw them acting within the 'battle of ideas of Torah' - milhamta shel Torah.

Rav Tzvi Yehudah Kook acted similarly. I NEVER heard a disparaging word about a talmid hacham of any stripe in his beit midrash. Severe criticisms of ideas and behaviors? Yes. But never a demeaning word for a hacham himself. I was pretty shocked when I discovered students from other yeshivot speaking disrespectfully of Rav Kook, or Rav Goren, etc. And I had no grounds to argue, because the positions they took relied on personalities, as you've noted; and not substance.

In fact, a certain popular talmid of Rav Solovietchik always disturbed me precisely because he broke with this 'tradition' and sometimes castigated accepted hachamim in his talks. I understood and even sympathised; but I was taught that was simply not to be done.

I think another piece missing is the notion of dignity in Torah. We were taught to respect our hachamim, to treat them and ourselves with dignity. We were also taught to aspire to be one of them. Much of the charedi world treats its rabbanim with a mysterious unattainable air. This is certainly true with chasidim. That isn't respect or dignity, which can be shared to a degree. That's near worship, with all the scary implications.

Lastly, the Maharal is a big influence at least in Dati Leumi circles. He is a proponent of the idea that a Jew's inherent sanctity is untouched by his behavior. (See Chapt. 36 of Netzah Yisrael, IIRC)

In the end the differences are, IMO, so deeply rooted that comparison is pointless. A vision of Torah that is predicated upon, and further promotes, dignity is part of what we pursue. A vision of Torah which is not only treading water, but building and advancing society is what we promote. Such notions will create entirely different aspirations and social behaviors in comparison to a pursuit of some religious fantasy that only waits for an unknown future, and is therefore not required to answer for itself in the short term.

Sorry, I got off the track there...

The Leader, Garnel Ironheart said...

Excellent points Rav Scher. I also took your suggestion and added the comment to the main post.
Thanks.

Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

The movement within this post and subsequent discussion is most interesting. It began with some recognition of a powerful respect for Torah leadership within the charedi world being compared to "a much more nebulous sense of [Torah] leadership" within the MO world but then developed into a presentation of how MO generally extends proper respect to all chachamin while many charedi individuals do not. So we have a critique of MO for not extending proper kavod to chachamim while also praising MO for extending proper kavod AND similarly we also have criticism and praise for the charedi world precisely on the same issue. What's really going on?

It would seem that the praise we find within the MO world regards how they treat others, i.e. leaders on non-MO camps within Orthodoxy. MO refers to the Hazon Ish in a much more respectful manner than how Charedim refer to Rav Kuk. Yet in herms of how MO treats their own gedolim, we have a problem. There is not the same reverence for the Rav as there would be for the Hazon Ish. Of course, there is the further question that seems also to have been raised whether the reverence given to Charedim gedolom is really proper -- but that is still not to say that the way MO treats its own gedolim is proper.

The matter would seem to be much more comples than one would first think. The essence of the problem is actually how we balance "wisdom and authority" and "autonomy and authority", two similar but different challenges. How we approach this issue, specifically the latter one, will also be greatly affected by the distinction between Charedi thought and MO thought since MO values autonomy to a much greater extent that the charedi world does.

It is the study of this subject of balance that really is the essence of this issue. While I have dealt with the latter topic in an article that is not available on line, my article on the subject of Authority and Wisdom specifically in connection with the Slifkin Affair is available on line at http://www.nishma.org/articles/commentary/slifkin.html and I would invite eveyone to take a look at it.

The real challenge is to maintain the dialectic between these forces. The problem in the MO world is that, in championing autonomy and, to an extent, wisdom over authority, they ignore the necessary dialectic that really the essence of what should be our relationship with our chachamim (to whom yirah is also to be extended from the commandment of yirat Shomayim). The reason I said "to an extent" is that sometimes I feel that the reason this dialectic is not at full intensity within the MO world is because it is autonomy that is the driving force of the tension rather than wisdom -- for one of the reasons for the necessary respect of authority is the recognition of the wisdom of those whom we are to respect.

Of course, one of the reasons for the lack of the dialectic in the charedi world is, of course, the lack of concern for autonomy but also the discounting of wisdom within the person, ie. do not think, just listen. And just listening means encountering only one possible correct voice that has to be followed, for otherwise one has to think to make a decision as to whom to follow. Yet the lack within the MO world of that mysterious, awe-filled level of respect that should accompany our relationship with Torah scholarship is because the value of Torah authority is not given full weight. That way, expressing autonomy and personal thoughts on wisdom is easier -- but the dialecitic is tragically still lost.

Bottom line, we should speak of the Rav and Rav Kuk with the same awesomeness that the charedi world speaks of the Hazon Ish while still, as the Rav wished us to, ariving at our own LEARNED opinions and we should demand, similarly of the charedi world as they still maintain their commitment to the opinions of their gedolim

Rabbi Ben Hecht

David said...

"A Chareidi is genuinely insulted when he feels one of his leaders has been treated with less respect than he is due. A Modern Orthodox does not."

Just what MO needs! The same cult of personality into which Chareidi Judaism has degenerated. Arguments by reference to the authority of a person whose opinion is being expressed are not persuasive.

Garnel Ironheart said...

On the contrary, David!

As Rav Hecht noted, although MO should avoid the error of Gadol-worship, there is still a sense of yirah that MO should have for its leadership. After all, they are providing us with Torah-direction and this is considered the holiest task a Jew can be involved in.

David said...

I think that a sense of yirah directed at a human being is a truly awful idea. It's that kind of foolishness that has led the Chareidim to become the self-parody that they currently are. Indeed, at its most extreme, it led Chabad to become a slightly modified version of Christianity. The best part of having rabbis instead of priests is that they're supposed to be human-- respect them, by all means, but don't abuse them by clothing them in your own pseudo-Chareidi fantasies about their supposed gadlus. Use your own brain, and stop assuming that BS changes its fundamental qualities because it leaks from the mouth or pen of a rabbi.

And, for the record, as a physician, you have significantly more education than most rabbis will ever have. Perhaps they ought to have a bit more respect for you...

Garnel Ironheart said...

I think the problem is that we may be defining yirah in different ways. I'm not thinking of it in terms of fear, or even awe, but form respect. To use your example, you listen to your physician not just because of his education but because of your respect for him. If you didn't respect him, his erudition wouldn't matter. I would say it should be the same with rabbonim. A Jew takes his spiritual health as seriously as anybody should take their physical health. As a result, each of us should have a rav that we respect and whose opinion we follow when we need advice and guidance. And I really don't think there's anything wrong with that.

David said...

No, I listen to my physician because he has the credentials and the batting record. I do respect him-- for those things in particular. I have no idea what sorts of things he may be up to on a moral level, nor am I overly concerned about it; I don't want (and he has not offered) his moral guidance. He either provides good medical advice/treatment, or he doesn't (and it's up to me to make that call).

As to rabbis, Chareidim go to the rabbi for everything (including medical guidance), and assume that he is qualified to advise them on all topics. In other words, he's not a 'spiritual physician,' he's a cult figure. I don't understand why you think that would be a good thing to bring into MO.

And, for the record, the reason that MO don't do well in the "dialogue" is that they lack the maniacal certainty that they're right and that their rabbonim p_ss Bartenura Moscato and cr_p cholov yisroel chocolate ice cream-- and this is to their credit. Nobody wins an argument with a fanatic; that doesn't mean that the fanatic has truth on his side. It means that you should marginalize them and worry less about what they think, or whom they worship.

Garnel Ironheart said...

Your first paragraph is very close to what I'm thinking.

Look, let's say you go to a cardiologist. He's fat and smells of cigarettes. He also happens to have a dozen diplomas on his wall testifying to his expertise. I don't know about you but I'd have a lot of problems with his advice. Yes, he might be giving me the latest evidence-based guidelines on dieting, exercising and not smoking but one look at him and the thought "If he's so good, why does he break all the rules he's telling me?" would ruin any positive impression I had of him.

As well, I would not ask for moral guidance and in my roles as a physician I strongly avoid offering any, even when directly asked. My job is physical and mental health, not moral rectitude.

A good Rav serves the same role in spiritual matters. I agree that one should not go to a Rav for everything. Medical advice, financial advice, etc. are things rabbonim are not trained in. Their field is Torah-based morality and it is those areas that we should consult their opinions.

Again, I am not advocating bringing the Chareidi model into MO but as my latest post notes, there needs to be a change in how MO relate to their rabbonim.

micha said...

I aree with R' Hecht's that his treatment of L'Affaire Slifkin is more accurate -- one side was arguing about getting truth from first principles, the other side was arguing about authority.

Similarly here, MO is encouraging the search for truth among its members. Chareidim delegated that to the gedolim, and the members are expected to accept the authority. Less room for plurality.

MO's own interests are served by not entering the mud-slinging festival because then it would cease being MO. The deduction of truth from the givens of the universe and the mesorah requires keeping our minds open, not using polemics.

On the other (left) side of me is this post on Morethodoxy in which the poster alleges to be supporting a wider range of doxologies but in truth displays the same narrowmindedness he's berating.

We don't need to become that.

-micha