Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Unapologetically Frum But Not Chareidi

It bears saying again: there is a perception that the more machmir a person is, the frummer he is.  Put two people together, one who waits 6.5 hours after meat (just to be safe), learns all day and wears only two colours of clothing - black, white - next to someone who waits 3 hours because that's what his father and grandfather did, learns after work and when time permits, and enjoyed a spectrum of colours when it comes to his clothing and who is perceived to be more religious by the vast majority of onlookers?
Yet this is certainly not true, no matter how mightily some in the "frummer than thou" industry try to create the impression that it is.  The same goes for another misused term, tznius.  Just like frum, people now equate modesty with dress almost exclusively.  How you behave, how you interact publicly with people, how you conduct yourself when others are looking, are all ignored.  The ostentatious woman at the bar mitzvah with the $3000 sheitl and floor length $5000 ball gown talking loudly about how much the mezuzos in her vacation home in Bermuda cost will really believe she is more tznius than the woman sitting opposite her in the knee-length skirt and the tichel that doesn't quite cover the first few centimetres of her hair but who sits politely and takes great pains to great everyone with a friendly smile.  Why not?  She's covering more of her body and hair, Isn't that what tznius is all about?
Now one can understand in a cynical way why this is so.  After all, people are complex, multi-dimensional beings and the observance of Judaism is a complex, multi-dimensional affair.  It's far easier to judge a person on the clothing he or she wears than to get to know him, his beliefs, his worldview and the various opinions in the depth of halacha that define his actions.  Saves a lot of time too.
As an aside, one of the frequent laughs we frummies get at the expense of our non-religious brethren is how they have mangled certain terms and removed their entire original meaning.  Who hasn't chuckled when some Reformer somewhere explains that tikun olam means you have to recycle and invest in green energy?  Stop and think about this thought.  When it comes to the words "frum" and "tznius" are we any different?  Have we not divested those terms of their real meanings and applied superficial new ones to them to satisfy our "holier than thou" egos?
That's what makes Avital Chizik's article in Tablet Mag and the recent Cross Currents retort to it so interesting.  The first thing to note is Ms. Chizik's almost apologetic tone in writing the article:
I don’t want to be that girl: the aspiring writer who has broken free of the tightly knit Orthodox community or school system and then proceeds to write about her love-hate relationship with said background. Because the truth is, I’m not that girl who’s broken away. I pray daily, recite benedictions before and after food, study Torah (but not Talmud). I still feel uncomfortable reading Aramaic texts traditionally limited to men. Friday afternoons find me running around the house, covering bathroom lights with special Shabbat covers, choosing tablecloths, filling the hot-water urn. And if it matters, which I suppose it does these days, I dress the part, too, despite being taught otherwise by secular grandparents: I wear modest skirts that reach my knees, sleeves that cover my elbows, and I refrain from any physical contact with males.
Why would she feel a need to explain that she's not breaking away?  That she's not leaving Orthodoxy?  Is it because of what she writes in the very next paragraph?
But I also wear stilettos. I also study Tennyson, Nabokov, and Joyce; I read the New York Times avidly, attend film screenings and art galleries. In the past few years, after leaving the comforts of my high school, where everything had been carefully dictated and prescribed, I’ve been trying to balance Torah u-Madda, religious studies with science or secular studies.
If these things are seen by some to be a break from a properly observant Torah lifestyle then someone should exhume Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, zt"k and his comrades and explain how wrong they were in their beliefs.  Does almost everyone really believe that a Torah lifestyle excludes appreciation of the world around us, the world that God created?  Is one really frummer if he refuses to see any beauty in secular literature like Shakespeare and Tennyson?  Were the Chazal wrong when they said that there is some wisdom amongst the nations?
And near the end of the article Ms. Chizik rightly notes how wrong the Orthodox approach to frum and tznius is:

I wish I could have shown her the shorter and tighter pencil skirts that I left behind in my closet. Instead I quipped, “Yes, have you seen the Ramat Bet Shemesh women? They’ve taken to wearing burqas. Now, those are really tznius.”
My sarcasm went undetected. “Yes, indeed,” the hostess said, taking her glasses off with a sigh. “Those women are so modest. We can’t judge them, they’re on a much higher level than we are.”
It was just like the world of my high-school days, a world where so much is fueled by guilt—but also by exhibitionism, where it’s fashionable to publicize one’s piety, determined by the denier count of one’s stockings and the looseness of one’s sweater. Mention a restaurant you ate at yesterday, and the girl sitting next to you might raise her eyebrows and say, “Really? You eat there? Because I’m not sure about that kashrus certification. It’s not so reliable.” Your classmate might come into school one day, holding a tube of sewing glue, and whisper in your ear, “It’s for the slit in the back of your skirt. I can see the back of your knee.”

As she notes at the end of her article, true piety is modesty in conduct, including public displays of how frum you are.  I would go even further than her concluding comment.  It's not that no one needs to know how thick your tights are.  Who are you to think thicker tights are an expression of greater religiosity?  It's not that no one needs to know about the hechsher you don't trust.  Who are who to think that believing a Rav somewhere isn't being kosher enough?
Of course, there are those on whom this point is always missed.  Years ago, the infamous Deiah v'Dibur "news" site published a letter by a Beis Yaakov girl who recounted the story of a girl in her class who had been merciless teased by her classmates.  The reason?  The girl's parents had bought her a pair of stylish frames for her eyeglasses.  This "modernish" attire meant that she wasn't really religious and therefore not deserving of being treating with respect.
The rub in all this?  Well in her spare time the girl in question went to the local Jewish nursing home to visit and assist the elderly there and also spent her time working with some local charities to help folks out.  Other than the glass frames she was a model Jew and more because her friends was the only person who knew about her extracurricular activities.  In her modesty she felt no need to retort to her tormentors and tell them about her deeds.
At the end of the letter there was, of course, the editorial comment which demolished the entire letter with one idea: yeah, yeah, she did good things, but those modern frames show a fundamental flaw in her religious behaviour because if she was truly frum she would have gone with those Buddy Holly models everyone else in her class wore.  So who cares about what she did in her spare time when she was so flawed to begin with.
This came to mind as I read Rav Yitzchok Adlerstein's piece on what Ms. Chizik wrote today.
The first thing to note is that the title of the article, "Chumrah Done Wrong" is miildly deceptive.  While the article does note that chumros can be imposed in an oppressive fashion, it spends more time emphasizing that chumros for the sake of being machmir are a good thing and of themselves.  This is, however, wrong.  As Rav Shimon Eider, zt"l, notes in his book on the laws of Niddah, being machmir is relative. You might think you're being strict in a specific situation while really you're being quite lenient when looked at from a different perspective.  Thus saying machmir is always better is an improper statement.  If I hesitate to resuscitate a person in cardiac arrest on Shabbos because I'm not sure which methods of treatment are permitted if at all I might think I'm being machmir in my observance of Shabbos.  In reality I'm being meikel in my observance if pikuach nefesh.
One can tell that this article hit a nerve with Rav Adlerstein by the not-so-subtle ways he begins the article in an attempt to discredit Ms. Chizik's Orthodoxy.  Consider his first two paragraphs:

She’s no Deborah Feldman. That makes her story so much more valuable to us.
Writing in Tablet, the literary cynosure of every young Jewish iconoclast these days, Avital Chizhik lets us know that she is no dropout, and very much an eager participant in halachic life.

What does Deborah Feldman, an OTD with an axe to grind and a zest for defaming Orthodoxy, have in common with Ms. Chizik?  How is Ms. Chizik's article anything like Unorthodox, a book slamming Torah Judaism and filled with lies and misrepresentations?  Yes, he says "She's no..." but the mere mention of Feldman's name is significant and meant to place a thought in our head.  This girl has left that fold.  Maybe more respectfully but she's out. Note that.
He also follows up by mentioning Tablet Mag, not simply as a source but also a location for anti-Judaism writers.  Again, nothing specific but the association is made.  She's writing in a non-religious publication.  Note that.
Not so subtle is his attack on Ms. Chizik's anecdotes.  One thing that never fails to amaze me is the inability of some people to understand that in the internet age nothing goes unreported any longer.  Off the cuff comments are recorded forever on blogs and Facebook(tm).  Controversial "I can't believe he said that" lectures are immortalized on Youtube(tm).  Person after person reports the same beliefs being transmitted and what's the response?

We must hope that something has been lost in the transmission. People often hear things not intended by a speaker; teens are no exception. We cannot rule out the possibility that the actual statements were somewhat different from what was reported. At the same time, it is quite possible that people said something close enough to those statements that they could be confused with the more off-putting version. 
So far, he's questioned if she's really frum, quietly suggested she chose Tablet Mag because of its anti-Orthodox slant, and now we can dispense with her recollections.  They either weren't remembered or reported accurately.  Silly Ms. Chizik and her friends.  Not terribly smart so we don't have to worry.
After a perfunctory admission that sometimes chumros can be implemented in a wrong way that leads to greater damage than good, Rav Adlerstein does admit that those misremembered recollections do point to a flaw in  the system, one in which a single, supposedly stricter viewpoint, becomes the only viewpoint and is presented to impressionable students in a way that makes it sound that the slightest deviation from it is tantamount to eating a pork and cheese sandwich while having riotous intercourse with one's sister, the prostitute, on Yom Kippur.  Yes, he admits, pillorying a married woman for allowing her hair to slightly show  isn't the greatest idea and shouting at someone who shakes hands with the opposite gender isn't the same as having sex with animals.  But again, it's the wording he chooses that betrays his belief.
He/she ought to also explain that such a position is hardly unanimous: that frum, pious German Jews shook hands for hundreds of years; that some major figures in the previous generation held that it was mutar, at least in trying circumstances;
The previous generation?  Has he never heard of Rav Yehuda Herzl Henkin's Bnei Banim or read his comprehensive teshuvah detailing the situations in which handshaking is permitted?  Or is he trying to quietly suggest that this is a once-upon-a-time thing that no one "proper" does today?
Interestingly, this is another of those situations in which being machmir is potentially being meikel.  Given  that a man shaking hands with a woman is not exactly yehareg v'al ya'avor, is the potential for insulting the person of the opposite gender not a consideration when decided whether or not to return an extended hand? 
But here's what I think the ultimate issue is: who is really frummer?  Is it the guy who insists that he shan't shake a woman's hand, no matter how much negative fallout might result from it, or is it the guy who is so concerned with the woman's kavod habriyos that he puts his feelings aside and shakes with the intention of making her feel respected because, as a creation of God, she deserves elementary respect?
For too long, the standard answer has been the former because he is seen to be doing more.  However, that is still just a matter of perspective.  The Orthodox Jews of Deal, New Jersey who were busted a couple of years ago for illegal organ dealing certainly looked frum but were they really?  Was there real fear of Heaven in their hearts or a selective one that told them that God cares about the clothes you wear but not about the people you cheat?
A long time ago I wrote about how we, the Torah observant, mock the Reformatives for picking and choosing which aspects of Judaism they consider sacred and worth of observance.  I noted that we do the same thing but in a more aggressive fashion.  A Reformative who doesn't observe Shabbos or kashrus but makes sure to be polite and honest in his business dealings and also treats people with respect while giving generously to charity is not frum.  The Orthodox Jew in the requisite outfit who cheats on his wife and taxes while being rude to his co-workers who are, in his eyes, just goyim, is frum.  This is bizarre.
Therefore there has to be a pushback.  If Ms. Chizik chose to put her article in Tablet Mag, you can be sure it's because it would never had been published on Cross Currents or in any "reputable" Chareidi magazine.  If she felt a need to criticize certain idiocies which have become the defining features of Orthodoxy in this day and age the response should not be to attack her credibility but to do a cheshbon hanefesh.  
Are we teaching our children properly?  Are we teaching them halacha or dogma?  Are we teaching them tolerance?  Are we teaching them respect?  Are we teaching them real tznius or a superficial version?  And if we're not teaching them properly, how can we expect them to have real yiras Shamayim?


Bob Miller said...

All I can say, Garnel, was that my reading of the Cross-Currents piece didn't prepare me for your blast over here. I thought the article was basically fair to all concerned and the comments there, likewise. Don't be too quick to react based on preconceptions.

MIghty Garnel Ironheart said...

Bob, I've never been terribly enthralled with RYA but ever since his "Let's get a YU beis din together made up of their 'gedolim' and kick YCT out of Orthodoxy" article I've paid a lot more attention to his subtle suggestions. No, you're not supposed to pick up some of these things on a superficial reading of the article but look it over again now and you'll see his underlying agenda is to say "Well yeah, we're not perfect but Chizik is not really that frum anymore either"

Adam Zur said...

People that try to do their best to learn Torah and lead balanced lives are admirable in my eyes.
That woman's seems very good to me.

MIghty Garnel Ironheart said...

And that was my point. RYA's analysis seems to imply that she is a lesser frum Jew for doing this.

Bob Miller said...

I'm not naive and not convinced.

Chana said...


Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

Yeshiva Chovevei Torah, the "Morethodoxy" crowd of Rabbi Avi Weiss.

Friar Yid said...

I feel like the Haredi approach to tzniut can be traced to the central tension between mitzvot ben adam lachvero and ben adam lamakom. On the one hand Judaism is very much concerned with the physical world and its realities, but at the same time there is the unseen world which also needs to be remembered and respected. In some ways it can be easier to put so much emphasis on the counterintuitive mitzvot, the mystical mitzvot, the chokim, that one loses sight of the basic common sense ones, too. So for kashrut, it becomes more important that one purchase your own lettuce inspection light to avoid eating a single bug than worry about the farm worker picking the produce. For tzniut, t's more important that God think you're great for being so pious about what you wear (or don't) or touch (or don't) than about how you treat people.

It's rather sad, because there is great strength and merit in these values, but at a certain point I definitely believe the principles can get lost within the minutiae. I fear my Haredi cousins have lost the plot.

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

Well it's not just that. With ben adam l'Makom there's almost never any negative feedback. You check your lettuce and presto! God is happy. You wear extra-long clothing? Presto! He's happy again!
But with ben adam l'chavero you are dependent on the feedback from the person you are interacting with. Not as predictable, not as guaranteed to be positive. So why wouldn't the emphasis be on the easy ones?

Friar Yid said...

So why wouldn't the emphasis be on the easy ones?

It's ironic, because supposedly the very reason people take on extra chumras is because they emphatically claim NOT to be just doing the easy stuff!

SJ said...

Baruch Gitlin said...

I certainly agree with everything you say here - emphatically. Except, I didn't find the Cross Currents article particularly bad - in fact, I found it very good. Maybe I'm just so gratified whenever a haredi rabbi publicaly recognizes the problems that Rav Adlerstein's article describes that I'm not reading critically enough, but in any event, I totally agree with what you have to say about picking and choosing what gets emphasized, and with what true religiosity is, or should be, about.

SJ said...

Billiam said...

You are reading WAY too much into that Cross-Currents article. He simply did not say the things you say he said.

Jennifer in MamaLand said...

Two things here - yes, it's sad that Avital Chizik has to begin by sounding defensive, and that she feels there's no room for her voice in contemporary frum publications (I know the feeling!).
But the second thing is Adlerstein's article, and in this case, I have to agree that it's not really so bad. Indeed, some of his terms, like "success story" are (guardedly) positive.
I think I have to agree with Baruch Gitlin that anybody these days who recognizes a problem and acknowledges not only the depth of chumrah but the boundaries (upper and lower) of halacha, is to be praised for letting in fresh air where it ventures far too rarely in some circles.
As a "less-than-Kimchis" hair-coverer myself who discusses this issue often with my dd16 (and who must have the same high school teachers he refers to, including one young woman who cautions the girls that their husbands must never be allowed to change a diaper!), I think Adlerstein hit home when he said that when it comes to hair covering, even the minimum is "precious in the eyes of Hashem."
I think we all need to get behind the folks who are telling the biggest, broadest truths, even if we believe they should be saying it bigger or more emphatically.