The recent passing of Rav Nosson Tzi Finkel, z"l, has left a large hole in the heart of the Torah world. A genuine gadol and a wonderful teacher, his ascent to Gan Eden will be felt by many.
However, there is one aspect of the ongoing tributes across the Torah observant community that is troubling me. It is no secret that Rav Finkel came from a Modern Orthodox background but wound up the Rosh Yeshivah of the very Chareidi Mir Yeshivah system. The MO blogs seem to be emphasizing his origins, many of them posting his graduating yearbook picture in which he appears as a clean-cut, all-American young man. They emphasize the "one of us done good!" angle and "See? A guy from a Modern Orthodox background can become a great Jewish leader".
On the other hand, the Chareidi websites seem to be ignoring or erasing his "humble beginnings". One does not find statements like "Rav Finkel came from a family dedicated to Torah and determined to provide him with a good education in it" but rather something along the lines of "And isn't it amazing that a guy who came from nothing rose so far?". It seems that for them one can be raised in a strictly observant home but if that home wasn't one of "ours" it might as well have been Reformative.
But in both these approaches there is something missing: the role of family and community minhag.
Minhag is something that gets mentioned a lot but its true ramifications are never really explored. Joe waits three hours between meat and milk because that's what his father does. Sheldon won't eat cabbage on Pesach because his family comes from that village in eastern Europe where the local rebbe outlawed it.
People make a big deal of how long they wait after meat to have milk, or whether or not they eat gebrokhts. Family minhag isn't just limited to small issues like this but also reaches areas of hashkafah. A person who grows up in a specific type of home and then goes and chooses another hashkafah and set of minhagim is stating that his family origins are not good enough for him, that he feels no allegiance to him, that he's evolved beyond them, else why would he have changed?
Imagine a boy who comes home to his 3 hour father and announces that he now waits 6 hours like his rosh yeshivah. Is that respectful? Heck, is it even permitted? How about the boy who comes from a Modern Orthodox home and announces that YU's leading authorities aren't anything compared to "the gedolim"? Or one who announces he's no longer a Zionist to his Dati Leumi family?
Here's the rub: We're not talking about a case where the boy comes from a non-religious home and has to acquire some standard but one who comes from a standard and then discards it. Imagine a Lubavitcher coming home and announcing that he doesn't see the Rebbe, a"h, as the Moshiach or that the Tanya isn't the most important book ever written.
Is Modern Orthodoxy a standard or just a place marker? Is the boy who grows up in the home where the MO father does X and Y free to change his minhag because they're not real minhagim like a Chosid or Litvak father might have? Is it not okay for a Chareidi to discover the works of the Rav and choose to learn under his talmidim at YU but it's fine for a MO high school graduate to accept Mir's hashkafah despite its conflict with his familiy's ideology? And if this is the case, is this not a tacit admission by Modern Orthodoxy that they aren't a different ideology than Chareidism but rather that they're simply religiously inferior?
By becoming Chareidi, was Rav Finkel rejecting his family origins and announcing that they're not frum enough?
One might answer this in the negative. Rav Finkel had a burning desire to learn and disseminate as much Torah as he could. He therefore wound up at Mir where those goals could be achieved.
And the next question right back would be: couldn't he have found something like this in a hashkafah closer to "home"? Are there no giants at YU to learn under? Is the Dati Leumi world bereft of high level rabbonim and yeshivos?
Thus the two approaches to eulogizing Rav Finkel dovetail nicely. From the MO perspective he is seen with the same pride as a junior team watching its star player get promoted to the big leagues. From the Chareidi perspective they are the big leagues and the existence of any junior team is inconsequential and irrelevant.
Modern Orthodoxy might be asking itself a question: why did Rav Finkel have to go to Mir to get what he wanted? And when the next future gadol graduates from a MO high school somewhere, will he also see going Chareidi as the only way to reach the top of the Torah world?