(Parodied shamelessly from here)
What will the rabbinic leadership of the Ultraorthodox (UO) world do? A wave of provocations from the Far Right challenges the very definition of Orthodoxy. Should Yidden in other parts of the community who are far from the battle lines care? It would take a navi to answer the first question. Responsibility for Klal Yisrael and caring for other Jews demands a resounding “yes” to the second.
Lots of things are happening in the Ultraorthodox world – some good, some not so good, and some astonishingly terrible. The far right of Ultraorthodoxy seems to be intent on continuing an unrelenting drive to push the envelope and driving people away from leading an Orthodox life. Rabbi Dovid Kohn of the Toldos Aharon community of Meah Shearim who in many other ways is a model of selfless commitment to ahavas Yisrael, has unfortunately become the charismatic leader of what is now a movement. His followers routinely hold violent demonstrations and organize outright riots, attacking passersby and police. Then there are the Sikrikin, another Ultraorthodox group that uses mafiesque tactics to destroy the lives of those it sees as intruding on its pure Torah environment. Ultraorthodox Jews like these see themselves fully committed to love of all Jews but limit the definition of Jew to those who look and think exactly like them while excluding everyone else as
Toldos Aharon and the Sikrikin are not the only groups flexing Far Right power. When the Agudat Israel, the rabbinic umbrella group of Ultraorthodoxy was confronted with the widespread problem of pedophile yeshiva teachers some rabbis on the right were upset by what they saw as `mesirah`if state criminal law demanding mandatory reporting was followed. They came up with a ridiculous position that one is allowed to report but only with the permission of a rabbi, something they gleaned from certain teshuvos, ignoring the vast majority of poskim who disagree, and who have disagreed for a very long time. The children being abused are being sentenced to lives of difficulty and self-torment and of the silence the Agudah demands– whether valid or not – is already being questioned since it rejects the standards of the majority of poskim.
The Far Right does not rely on notoriety alone to capture attention. It makes steady and good use of the media, as well as direct mail, pashkevils and advertising, all aimed at the rest of the Orthodox community, and well beyond. One of its more effective tools is a blog called Matzav which, in their words, is the "online voice of Torah Jewry" already looking at the sight it is only a segment of Torah Jewry that seems to be represented. (The Matzav blog has a mirror site called Yeshivah World News which is read almost exclusively by the part of the Orthodox community it caters to.)
Maintaining public visibility as guardians of the faith and protectors of the purity of Torah observance produces much thunder and attracts significant media attention outside the Orthodox world. This is designed to increase pressure on non-ultraorthodox rabbis, and move the majority of the community to view its changes as the only legitimate Torah position. People who lack the background in learning to analyze the arguments on both sides see a group of “conservative” rabbis willing to define Judaism definitively which seems like a good thing to them. Then they note a different group of “progressive" rabbis who insist on changing everything to assuage their liberal consciences. This generates enormous pressure on the progressives to make concessions so as not to alienate growing numbers of their congregants. Years ago, the Far Right sought innovations like insisting all women wear socks in public or complete bans on kol ishah even where permitted. (Women were advised that they could get around the “problem” of the being silenced in public by attending shiurim and publicly asking questions of the speakers). Those changes are so commonplace that they have lost their cachet. Today the push is for burkas, bans on driving and the complete separation of men and women even in the home.
The latest skirmish in the battle between extreme innovation and tradition came a few weeks ago, when a group of ultraorthodox fanatics decided that they would not tolerate a religious but non-ultraorthodox school near their neighbourhood in Beit Shemesh. Using "civilized" tactics like threats of physical violence, shouting "prutza" and "shiksa at 8 year old girls and bombarding opponents with rotten food. All this in the name of protecting the dome of "purity" they believe they have established around themselves.
Reacting to a firestorm of criticism within the UO world- oh wait, there wasn't any - the barbarians continued their daily intimidation tactics. They also organized a demonstration at which prominent local rabbonim were present to give words of support as if there was any justification for their vile actions. Rabbi Chaim Malinowitz was asked to condemn the protesters and openly refused.
More provocations followed on the heels of the abandoned beracha. Riots continue at a Jerusalem parking lot open on Shabbos despite attempts by the municipality to avoid any chilul Shabbosi in its operation. Women clad in burkas multiple daily setting a new perverted standard for tznius that will likely become the new Chareidi standard within 1-2 generations. And always the reminders from the Ultraorthodox leadership that they are the real representatives of Torah Judaism and that only their leaders are authentic Jewish leaders. For them there is one way to practice Orthodoxy - their way and no eother.
The ongoing conflicts between Ultraorthodoxy and the rest of the Orthodox world continues to degenerate. It is clear that the Agudah and its allies look at halacha in a manner fundamentally different than the authentic method used for centuries by genuine Torah giants. They choose something to forbid, selectively research those poskim who agree with that position and then present their negative answer as a universal answer agreed to by all halachic decisors - but without discussing why ignored permitting opinions were not considered or refuted. Only those approved authorities can be quoted. A teshuvah from the Rav, ztÈl or Rav Kook, ztÈl, might as well never have been written as far as they are concerned. It is the embodiment of the Dubno Maggid’s famous response as to how he always has the perfect mashal (“you shoot the arrow, and then paint the target around it”) applied to halacha. Absent is the sense of looking for an objective truth. That quest permeates hundreds of years of halachic literature: weighing all the views available, and only relying on those best supported by the evidence of the words of the gemara and rishonim.
Critics of Far Right halacha point to two other elements that differentiate it from traditional halacha:
• Very few on the right know anything about halacha outside a relatively narrow range of authorities. It just doesn’t have such knowledge because of the closed-minded attitudes in their institutions.
• In traditional halacha, there is a strong emphasis on keeping issues local, on the authority of the town Rav or another local counterpart. The idea that every question, however mediocre, has to be run by a Gadol for his approval because he has a mystical superpower called ÈDaas TorahÈ is a new concept invented by the Ultraorthodox in order to justify why their Gedolim should be listened to by all Torah Jews while they can safely ignore the leading scholars of non-Ultraorthodoxy. The right balks at consulting non-Ultraorthodox sources seeing this as an affront to the Daas Torah of their Gedolim. Then there is the role of the Askanim, community leaders who openly manipulate the insulated Gedolim into issuing psak and bans whenever they feel like it. Such a model, where the leader is led by ideologically-driven underlings, is patently ridiculous to those on the outside.
Where does this leave the rest of the Ultraorthodox community? People who reside entirely in the more modern Orthodox world are often clueless about the nature of Ultraorthodoxy. They are sometimes aware – correctly – of hashkafic differences between the Chasidim, Litvaks and Chabad, especially in regard to the State of Israel and how much there is an emphasis on "chumrah of the week". Other images of Ultraorthodoxy could benefit from a bit of updating. The last decades produced, in many ways, a good deal of achshara dara – a more ignorant and violent generation in the UO community. To be sure, it is beset by major problems, just as the modern community is. Some of these problems are the same; some are different. For the most part, though, the stereotype of Yiddish-speaking peddlers checking their tzitzis for the 30th time that day and rebbetzins who look like they come right out of a Sholom Aleichem story is no longer valid. There is less Torah learning going on in many UO shuls, probably because its members are too busy attacking others on the street to open a page of Gemara. Children often have received an education completely devoid of any secular material, even basic math and language and have spent more time in Israel where many have increased their fanaticism through immersion in high-octane learning. Ultraorthodoxy has produced large numbers of men and women who have become public apologists for all that is wrong with their community, working on the concept that "a good offense is the best defense" and trying to create the impression that any problems that must inevitably be admitted to are the fault of the outside world anyway.
Many in the modern community would be surprised by the makeup of the “heimish” rabbinate in particular. The conformity is enormous. Many of the younger rabbis in particular have learned in a manner devoid of critical thinking and know only how to be "machmir" for the sake of playing it safe. Any intellectual challenge is dealt with either by covering the ears or going to the local "Gadol" for advice. In their ranks you will find bnei Torah with good learning skills, a real love for limud Torah, and an enviable grasp of serious, nuanced halacha – besides excellent training in speaking, writing, and counseling. Unfortunately, you will find others who display woeful ignorance of gemara and halacha which is ignored by the highers-up in the name of expediency.
What should the Ultraorthodox rabbinate do about Toldos AharonéSikrikinÉ The question is studiously avoided by the Agudah and its allies. One can scan the Chareidi newsservices with utter futility in the search of condemnation of the rioters in Beit Shemesh. Yet if the leadership ignores this trend towards primitive and barbaric behaviour in the name of `Torah Purity` where will this all lead? Given enough time (and enough headlines), will there be anyone cilivized left in their community to talk to? Even if no further changes are contemplated, doesn’t the approach suggest a complete misunderstanding of how a Torah Jew is supposed to aporach difficulties and handle the need to compromise with othersÉ
The Agudan has not changed much in recent years. As always it is almost exclusively the province of UO Gedolim and Roshei Yeshivah from the Chareidi sector. Any authority that diverges from its established groupthink is automatically excluded so as to present the front that there is a uniform Torah Judaism and these are its only legitimate leaders. The incessant Talibanization of our mesorah by the Far Right has rattled the more mainstream. They believe that if these fanatics are not accomodated then the Augdah and its allies will come to be seen as too left and lose its leadership position amongst the rank and file. This includes many Gedolim who keep coming up with new ways to say `no`in order not to be considered ``progressive`.
The Agudah``s leadership, for the most part, has taken a principled position that it has always tried to keep out as many Orthodox rabbis as possible, where the minority can at least demand of the majority to accept their standards unilaterally.
Many of the Agudah rank and file might consider posing a counterargument. Maverick stingent positions in the past were just that arguments put forth by individuals. They could not go any further. The Toldos AharonéSikrikin, on the other hand, are on a crusade – with values and protocols that the majority cannot in good conscience share or be party to but who will eventually adopt them anyway.
The essential question might be how the Agudah and its allies should see itself. Some regard it as more or less a fraternal organization for rabbis who need a place where they can share some cholent with colleagues. For many years, the Agudah was just that. In such an organization, there is no for people who disagree completely with each other since that precludes engaging one other with admirable collegiality and personal respect.
Others, however, look to the Agudah as the face of a good part of the Orthodox community to the external world. Orthodoxy has finally arrived in the American mainstream; so many Jews and non-Jews are curious about what we have to say about questions and issues that arise in a world changing at a dizzying pace. The Ultraorthodox world, which believes in a very limited engagement in general society and wants to have a large role in articulating Torah positions in a wide variety of areas. It is an organization that can speak forcefully because its members agree to a set of common principles. An organization that stands for too many things ultimately stands for nothing. Many UO members feel that the divide between Toldos AharonéSikrikin and the rest of the UO world is not that large and that keeping all members under one roof is not so hard if the Agudah and its allies just become a little more ÈfrumÈ. If the Toldos Aharon/Sikrikin stay then the Agudah is a figleaf apologist for their violent and primitive behaviour. If they leaves, the Agudah can show it cares about keeping Ultraorthodoxy from degeneratin into a violent cult. It is as simple as that.
It is difficult not to think of the dispute between Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, zt`l, and Rav Yosef Chaim Sonenfeld, z`l. When Jews both religious and not began to return in significant numbers to our ancentral homeland, Rav Sonenfelt immediately developed a position opposing the Zionist movement. Better a small, impoverish but Torah pure community than a large one full of pritzus and chilul HaShem Rav Kook saw that God was changing history and beginning the unfolding of the Final Redemption and that the secular Zionists were, despite their irreligiosity, the implementers of His Divine plan. No one can say who was objectively “correct” in that dispute (Rav Kook was, by the way), although the last generations have looked favorably upon Rav Kookès bold position. Some argue that today’s agonizing choice is different. In British-occupied Israel the lines of demarcation between Zionist and Ultraorthodox Judaism were clear. Today, many fear, those lines are no longer clear enough. To avoid erosion of Torah values and practice, the rest of the community must define the approach of the Far Right as so different, that it can no longer be called Orthodox as the rest of us know it.
Who will decide which of these opinions should be applied to contemporary times? Who has the qualifications to address such a weighty issue – dealing not with heretics, chas v’shalom, but nonetheless about defining other Jews as outliers?
At least insofar as UO membership, there have been few who have spoken out against the Far Right. Fearful of a violent backlash from people who know nothing of decent behaviour the Ultraorthodox response so far has either been ÈHey, theyère just a bunch of fringe lunaticsÈ or ÈWell you canèt expect other Chareidim to have to apologize for them!È With the stakes so high, only one recourse suggests itself. The question of keeping Toldos AharonéSikrikin or defining it out of contemporary Orthodoxy should be put to the three talmidei chachamim within the ultraOrthodox world that are most respected for their halachic ability: Rabbis Sholom Eliashiv, Shmuel Wosner and Aharon Shteinman. The Agudah should be prepared to abide by whatever decision these three come up with. We should watch to see if this solution gains in popularity.
Why should the more sane part of the community care about issues completely off its radar? The problems with which the Ultraorthodox world is grappling are just not relevant to communities much further to the left. In fact, we should be able to identify several reasons.
Firstly, the impact upon areas of Orthodox cooperation will be enormous. If the Far Right grows stronger in untethering itself from both traditional hashkafos and accepted protocols of determining halacha, there will almost certainly be a reaction in the rest of the Orthodox world. Lemegdar milsa, to draw clear lines of differentiation, the sane community split. Some will move in the opposite direction to oppose changes it sees as dangerous and illegitimate while others will, through their insecurity, be absorbed into the lunatic fringe. We will drift even further apart. Cooperation in many areas – education, kashrus, kiruv, gerus, political advocacy – will be jeopardized or eliminated. Much of the right will argue that if Ultraorthodoxy can tolerate such aberrations in its midst rather than expelling it, than they cannot trust or continue to deal with the Ultraorthodox – especially if a Toldos Aharon/Sikrikin presence becomes mingled with the Ultraorthodox mainstream in common enterprises. Cooperation that took decades to accomplish may quickly unravel.
Other frum Jews simply cannot be unconcerned about the future of hundreds of thousands of Ultraorthodox brethren, many of whom are in danger of embracing a treif ideology. We must be concerned for their well being; all members of our spiritual family deserve our love. (Those on the Far Right also deserve our love, but at the moment it may have to be tough love! Sometimes, as a last resort, an errant child needs to be rebuffed before he or she can fully participate with the rest of the family. The gemara speaks of rebuking by distancing with the left hand, while drawing closer with the (stronger) right hand – and allows for reversing the hands at times!)
Minimally, HaKadosh Baruch Hu expects our deep concern about wide-scale counterfeiting of Torah, even if it does not impact upon us directly. We should be prepared to show it. Are there any UO rabbis showing extraordinary mesiras nefesh in refusing to compromise on what they received from their rabbeim? If you learn of an UO mara de-asra in your community who is valiantly holding a line against incursions from the Far Righft, consider offering some chizuk. Heaven knows he'll need it! Let the rov know that you will give him the money that you normally give to the shnorrers who come to your door. Let him know that while some people think that people’s Yiddishkeit is defined by what they wear on their heads, you believe that what they carry in their heads is far more important. And in that regard, we are much closer to each other than they can ever be to the Far Right.