Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Monday, 21 November 2011

Everything New Is Forbidden (Unless We Pretend It's Not New) !

We all have this romantic image of the shtetl, that mythical place in eastern Europe where for centuries our ancestors lived and worked while random violinists sat on their roofs and played songs that would make Shlomo Carlebach's estate green with envy.  The food may have been bad, the schnorrers insistent and yes, there was always the threat of those Cossacks in the next valley over launching a pogrom but on Shabbos everyone put on his shtreiml and davened like Moshiach was on his way while on Pesach you couldn't find a bite of chometz for miles around.
Reality, of course, was quite different.  The shtetl, along with much of Jewish life in eastern Europe, was quite miserable.  People did what they had to in order to survive.  They clung to the faith of our ancestors with a passion we cannot understand but the waysthey expressed this passion were quite diverse. Their culture was rich and deep but it occured in the shadow of hatred and darkness.  No Virginia, we don't all come from people who look like the denizens of Meah Shearim.  They were never the gold standard.
Yet for some folks there is value in rewriting history to pretend that this was in fact the case, that a religious Jew has always been identified by specific garb, practices and mannerism virtually indistinguishable from what the Chareidi community today claims is the only authentic expression of Orthodoxy.  They would have you believe that if you were to go back in time 100, 200 or 1500 years you would find observant Jews wearing black clothing, black hats and black striped tallis kotons.  They would be speaking Yiddish, working only a little if at all and be consumed with their learning almost to the exclusion of all else.  And, of course, there would be a separation between men and women in all spheres of life that we could only dream of today.
All this would be a lie.
In truth, Jewish life is and has been more complex than we could ever truly comprehend.  Recollections of life in Europe focus on those aspects we want to remember or are distinctly Jewish, jettisoning those parts that are inconvenient.  Roman Vishniac's famous work, A Vanished World has been criticized (unjustly in my opinion) for presented a slanted view of Polish Jew life just before the war yet it is clear that he could only photograph a small part of that gigantic culture.  How many Chasidim have read the works of Isaac Bashevis Singer and seen how he, as a former member of their community, portrays his memories of that world?
The odd thing about this is how this innovation of rewriting history, intentional or not, is juxtaposed with a stated commitment to avoid change at all costs.  The people who want you to believe that what they're doing nowadays is exactly what their ancestors in the Pale of Settlement did centuries ago are changing history.  they are innovating to hide innovation.
Every so often I point out that Modern Orthodoxy has an opportunity to grab some area of Judaism and make a meaningful contribution to it.  I believe this is another such area.
Consider: it is quite clear that there is tremendous continuity between ourselves and our ancestors.  In many ways it can be easily demonstrated that we are following in the direction they led and upholding the banner of God they uplifted at Sinai.  Yet if we were to go back in time 500, 1500 or 2500 years we would find them practicing a very different form of Judaism than we do today.  Acknowledging this is stating the truth, not kefirah
Consider one of the few nigh-universal rituals that Jews of all backgrounds engage in: the Pesach seder.  Reading historical accounts, heck, reading the Talmud's account of how a seder went one sees that what we do is highly different from what they did.  Yet across history Jews have, from time immemorial, sat down to remember the events of Yetzias Mitzrayim and praise God for taking us out of Egypt on the 14th of Nissan. 
Understanding how the seder has changed over time is crucial for two reasons.  One is that we can learn a great deal about the thinking of our ancestors over the ages as we investigate the changes.  Another is that we can understand how to counter the changes of those who say that the seder must change nowadays to reflect modern sensitivities.  If we know how and why change is mandated, we can better understand how to ensure it is done correctly.  Standing back and saying "It can't change and it's always been this way" is not truth and therefore not compatible with Torah which is truth.
As some in the Chareidi community continue, in their fervent Taliban-envy, to rewrite the requirements of traditional Torah Judaism and then pretend that it's always been this way it is essential that an opposing force demands honesty in understanding and respecting our history and presenting that history in an enriching way that helps us understand Torah better.


JRKmommy said...


One of the biggest changes, of course, is that those in the shtetl weren't really CHOOSING to live an insular life based in another time and culture. They were living day by day. When opportunities came along to change the conditions of their lives (by being either revolutionaries or by leaving the country), many did so.

In other words - while my great-grandparents came from the shtetl, I am not descended from people who were surrounded by opportunities but voluntary chose not to work or forego all secular education even though it was available.

Friar Yid (not Shlita) said...

It takes courage to tell the truth, particularly when it can be used against you. It is easier for MO to shrug and follow the Haredi trend of downplaying facts and trumpeting a general "Torah-true" narrative-- whether the subject is history, science, or theology.

But if MO values truth, then it seems to me it would be far better to shout from wherever they can, that, yes, Judaism has changed, and yes, it will continue to change, and that change and innovation are not inherently bad! In this dimension of Jewish life I see the MO community's natural place alongside their heterodox brothers and sisters. I only hope they have the courage to stop worrying about what the Haredim will think or say about them or their children and have the confidence to stand proudly with those whose practice may differ from theirs, but whose value for the truth is the same.

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

To be fair to MO, there is a good, if unspoken reason why they fear what the Chareidim think of them.
There is still a great deal of reliance amongst the MO on the Chareidim. How many MO kids spend their year in Israel in a Chareidi yeshivah? How many of them date Chareidi kids later on? Imagine MO taking a stand against standard Chareidi ideology. Suddenly their kids won't be Jewish enough to take advantage of all these Chareidi resources and this would cause tremendous resentment.

SJ said...

What's your reward for being a practicing jew? Hmmmmm lets see, if you follow da rules you get ...... rules, more rules, maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaybe a hot babe. If you think that orthodox rabbis in women's bodies are hot, that is. And guess what, instead of enjoying life, you get to spend tousands upon ttttttttousands of dollas on yeshivas where they teach bull shit made up mishna and talmud and they teach crappy watered down secular studies. Also, as an added bonus you get to learn how to control yourself while you riot against shabbaaaaaaaaaaaaaas violAAAAAAAAAAATOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOS!!!!!!!!! XD RAAAAAAAAAAAAAGE AGAINST THE MACHINEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer said...

Off topic - did you see the scholars page at the Pesach hotel website? Of the 4 rabbonim listed, 2 live in Hamilton and one did for a while and maintains ties with it. And then there's 1 who doesn't but wants to start a yeshiva but doesn't have a building yet.
Might that be a hint as to where to relocate?

On that off-topic: The powers that be at the Pesach hotel have not contacted me (or, the real boss, my mother in law) to contract for my services this year. Wanna drop them a hint that they shouldn't take it for granted (and that they should get on the case!), as the boss is as of yet undecided? Thanks!

Friar Yid said...

There is still a great deal of reliance amongst the MO on the Chareidim. How many MO kids spend their year in Israel in a Chareidi yeshivah? How many of them date Chareidi kids later on? Imagine MO taking a stand against standard Chareidi ideology. Suddenly their kids won't be Jewish enough to take advantage of all these Chareidi resources and this would cause tremendous resentment.

Correct; they cannot stand on both sides of the fence. At some point they will need to choose between principles of truth and open-ness, and parochialism and isolationism. The Haredim claim that their methods are the only way to safeguard and perpetuate Torah. I'm obviously biased, but I'd love to see MO spend more time proving them wrong than toadying up to them for fear of becoming their next targets.

MO should be acting as bridges to and role models for the rest of Klal Yisrael, not actively participating in (or silently assisting with) their delegitimization by the Haredim.

The MO have a great opportunity here-- to be ambassadors between two drastically different cultures and points of view. But they sacrifice this power when they throw their lot in with the most extreme and isolationist camp of the bunch.

The irony is that I suspect among many segments of the Haredi community, the MO are already viewed as suspect and little better than Reform or Conservative, in which case the idea that by being machmir the MO somehow can retain their standing is deeply flawed. If the Haredim are going to lump you in with the rest of us anyway, you're better off accepting it and working to strengthen yourselves and build relationships with the majority of the Jewish people.

Once the Haredim have finally kicked everyone out of the Jewish pool, then they can proudly be the single legitimate heirs to "Yiddishkeit," and their secession will finally be complete. The sooner it happens and the definite break occurs, the better off everyone will be. Let them become the anachronistic fossil they seem so intent on being. The rest of us will be off building a living Judaism that believes Torah is about more than the thickness of a woman's stockings or the length of her skirt.

Mr. Cohen said...

Garnel, I would like to exchange links with you. You link to my Jewish web site (which has over 800 Jewish members) and I link you your Jewish web site.

Garnel Ironheart said...

Mr. Cohen, what's the link?