Sunday, 20 January 2013

In Praise of Anonymity

It began on Cross-Currents as a challenge to those in the Chareidi community who have such a distaste for blogs and the multitude of anonymous personalities that populate them.  The post, submitted by Dr/ Yoel Finkelman tried to explain why anonymity is so important when dealing publicly with issues within the Chareidi community.  In brief, he voiced the well-known concern that the high degree of conformity demanded by the Chareidi lifestyle, combined with the social pressures that conformity brings with it and the small-minded mobs of askanim who are the true rulers of that society.  The piece was relatively short and very accurate.  Naturally it demanded a response so Rav Yitzchok Adlerstein decided to provide one.
Unfortunately after a polite and eloquent introduction, Rav Aderlstein immediately goes to work with his usual style.  First he says:
I am not an apologist, neither professional nor amateur

Then he says:
Very few of us can say and do whatever we want within our professional world. Company policies, social conventions, the exigencies of diplomacy all limit our ability to express ourselves as we may want. We have to be polite to coworkers we may dislike, because the alternative would be horrible. We realize that these restrictions serve a positive purpose, even if we chafe against them.

The charedi world is much the same. People in it may grumble (some more and some less) about their inability to share their opinions and concerns, but they understand that this is the price of membership. The strategy of imposed uniformity may be good, bad, or terrible, but even those rugged individualists who find it most objectionable can understand the fears, insecurities and needs of their neighbors who perpetuate it. This makes it easier to live with. Those who have difficulty with it can also often (but admittedly, not often enough) find ways around the rules.
Which makes him sound like an apologist to me.  He then goes on to (accidentally?) confirm the worst suspicions of those on the outside.  Who's running the Chareidi community?
To the extent that they are being led, who is doing the leading: the most responsible and mature segments of the community or irresponsible and immature kanaim?” This is probably the question asked most often within the community. The answer is nuanced, but simple: it is a mixture of both. The challenge is finding out what is coming from the minds of the leaders, and what is coming from the gatekeepers and the kanaim.
Now one might claim that any religious or social community could have a similar structure.  The problem is that one of the defining features of Chareidism is an absolute loyalty to their "Gedolim" and the magical "Daas Torah" they possess.  How long was it that a certain prominent personality announced at the Agudah annual conference that to even ask the Gedolim for the reasoning behind their rulings was to demonstrate a terrible lack of faith in God and Torah?
To say that dictates to the unwashed masses don't always originate from those Gedolim or that the askanim have perverted the situation to the point that anything other than a direct televised statement from the Gadol in question is suspect leads one to imagine a society in which any trust in the leadership is misplaced.  Why should I care about what Rav Shteinman or Wosner say?  I didn't hear it directly from them so therefore it shouldn't count.  If the leaders are so disconnected then they aren't real leaders.

I don’t think that hypocrisy is the issue, especially given the strong background in Torah texts in the yeshiva world. The gemara is replete with strongly-worded statements, that to the untrained eye seem exaggerated or simplistic. We learn that such statements are part of a style, and we look for – and value – the latent message more than the manifest one. The charedi community understands (at least many people understand) that when they see a sign heaping invective upon some behavior that it may not mean anything more than “this is really not such a good idea.”

What is really frustrating is knowing that this simply isn't true.  Would Rav Adlerstein also have us believe that the rioters in Meah Shearim are  screaming insults at the Israeli police and calling them "Nazi's" because they're trying to be nuanced and they don't really mean it?  A few months ago some of his Chareidi compatriots paraded in Yerushalayim wearing mock concentration camp outfits to protest the Israeli government's plan to draft them.  Were they really trying to pass on a more subtle message?  When Chareidim in Beit Shemesh spit on 7 year old girls who don't pass their uber-tznius expectations are they really saying "Oh child, why cannot you be more pure?"  Please, no one in the Chareidi community really believes this.  When they scream with hatred they are doing just that, not imitating the gemara's style.
In short, the community that defines itself by absolute loyality to its Gedolim is led by Gedolim who can't lead unless they go in the direction the community is always heading.  And in the background are the askanim, always looking for dissent so they can neutralize it and maintain the fiction that all is well.
However, as apologetic as Rav Adlerstein was, his response was far more civilzed than what came next.  As usual, Rav Yaakov Menken proved all the inital assertions raised by Dr Finkleman were correct.
Put succinctly, I think the use of pen names has reduced the overall quality of comments and level of dialogue of this journal. This is not universally true, but I believe that if one weighs the cost and benefit, anonymous comments have done more harm than good.
First of all, Cross Currents is not a journal.  Despite all its aspirations to the contrary it's just a blog.  A popular one, a well-read one but just a blog.  What's more it's a censored blog run by a bunch of rabbonim who are interested in presenting their point of view without the inconvenience of having to defend it.  In this group Rav Avi Shafran is the only really honest one.  He simply refuses to have comments about his pieces posted.  Whereas he has no problem giving the middle finger to his critics, Rav Menken and friends allow comments but limit them to those that either agree with them, congratulate them or raise such weak rebuttals that slapping them down is easy. 
No wonder Rav Menken is against anonymous comments.  His buddy Eytan Kobre, a man whose grip on the truth is sometimes less than firm, was bothered by the negative feedback to his pieces.  Perhaps people were so busy pointing out his mistakes that he began to have self-doubt and wanted to avoid this progressing to actual self-awareness?  I can only imagine the stuff that Menken himself has to read and how many times a day he has to shake his head in disgust at the people who dare to disagree with his "correct" view of things.  DovBear himself also recently brought a very relevant example of why anonymity is so important when commenting on some blogs as he showed how the great Rav Menken, the man so concerned with proper and upright behaviour, slandered a negative commenter on Cross Currents after doing a Google search on him.  The only catch?  The search turned up someone else who had the same name!  And the stuff that Rav Menken excoriated him over?  Hardly controversial.  In short: you disagreed with me, therefore you are stupid.
There is plenty that is positive about the Chareidi community. Unfortunately its PR people are not one of those things and the more they try to defend the fictional perfection of the community the more the opposite impression seems to become cemented in people's minds.

4 comments:

moshe moshel said...

http://moshemoshel72.blogspot.com/2013/01/civil-defense.html?m=1

Has cross currents gotten a blog hetter like amnon yitzchak did for his iphone?

Bob Miller said...

Garnel, when have you yourself written something of substance as a comment to Cross-Currents and been shot down? My only real problem so far has been with authors who rule out all comments.

Friar Yid said...

Bob- It's happened to me repeatedly. It's quite irritating.

Atheodox Jew said...

Wow, the part about pashkevil invective really just meaning friendly suggestion - if that's not apologist-talk, I don't know what is!

I do think he's right that there's a price to be paid for anonymity, since it's much easier to be a total jerk if you have no accountability. And it's online "jerkiness" that I take issue with far more than people's opinions.