Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Judaic Madness

Rav Dovid Landesman, in his latest piece for Cross Currents, adds his voice to those in the Chareidi community who have started to admit that maybe, just maybe, there may be some problems with the behaviour some of their members are exhibiting.

The Netziv, in his commentary to Shir ha-Shirim, offers a fascinating insight which I think will be helpful. He raises an interesting question. In parashas Vaeschanan, the Torah delineates a dual prohibition; bal tosif – adding laws to the Torah – and bal tigra – subtracting laws from the Torah. One can readily understand the natural drive to omit obligations and make life that much easier which is the basis for the Torah’s prohibition of bal tigra. But why would we suspect that man would seek to create more complex obligations – bal tosif? Why would the Torah need to legislate against a psychological phenomenon that would seem to be exceedingly rare; i.e., those who are not content with the Torah’s expectations but add their own in the name of the Torah. Remember, self-imposed stringencies – chumros – are not necessarily considered bal tosif!

Netziv answers that man can become so enamored of engaging in the service of God that he becomes swept away and convinces himself that his God service is so important that it supersedes his obligation to perform other, more mundane mitzvot. In adding to a mitzvah that is theocentric, man stands a good chance of violating laws that are homeocentric. In other words, bal tosif in a bein adam lamakom can easily cause ba’al tigra in a bein adam lechaveiro. Netziv adds that it was for this reason that the tzitzit were not completely fashioned from techeles which served to remind man of the heavens and thereby make him God cognizant. By adding white threads, indeed by making those threads predominant, man is reminded that Judaism is also concerned about man’s relationship to his fellow man and to the world itself. [I’ve always thought that if television ever comes to Bnei Brak, I could make a fortune producing a show called "Extreme Chumrah"]

Perhaps the most obvious of the UO deviates are the famed Burkha ladies of Ramat Beit Shemesh. In the name of tznist, they have adapted a lifestyle that is the embodiment of what the Netziv meant when he said that over obsession with one mitzvah inevitably leads to under performance in other areas. Do we need any further proof than the repeated reports of abuse and neglect emanating from this community?

Or take the stone throwers and garbage burners of Jerusalem. You can dismiss them as a fringe element, but I fear that they are a growing gang of young men who have discovered that force is an effective means of acquiring one’s ends. Can any of us be sure that the violence that they employ against the police will not translate itself into violence within their families and communities? Is it possible that the apparent increase in reports of abuse within the UO community are the result of the increased levels of violence that this community uses to accomplish their goals? Is there not a co-relation between the Va’adei ha-Tznist and the tactics that they use and the ever increasing numbers of kids who are off the derech inside these communities?

In my opinion, there are two reasons for the rise of this phenomenon.

1) Pretty much everyone who goes into medical school does so because of a desire to help people. However, by the time we hit the wards, things have changed. Long nights, endless studying, constant pressure change our focus from the original altruistic one to a simpler objective: survival. Our exams have everything to do with medical minutiae and little to do with interacting with the human beings that are our patients. As a result, it seems almost inevitable that people lose their humanity and become their diagnosis. Mrs. Jones isn't a frail old lady who fell last week. She's the broken hip in room 314. Mr. Smith isn't the grandfather of six who used to be a successful accountant. He's the lung cancer in 612. It doesn't stop with patients either. The senior resident isn't an overworked mom of 2 trying to balance her family and career. She's the b--ch who won't stop grilling you on that congestive heart failure you saw at 3 am between coffees. Part of becoming a good doctor, rather than a competent one, is the ability to catch youself doing this and overcoming it.

Both Chareidism and Intellectual Modern Orthodoxy have gone down this road, to a large extent. For the former, halachic minutiae, not accepting the presence of God into one's life, is the point of observance. Yes, we all know the story of the shepherd boy who whistled loudly and had his prayer accepted into Heaven because he was the most sincere guy in shul, but no one actually believes in that. It's considered better to mumble away for 4 hours non-stop, barely understanding or paying attention to the words, and making sure you sway for the entire time a bit more than the guy next to you, than to spend ten minutes in honeset self-reflection and present one's petition in a heartfelt manner before God. (I'm not saying we shouldn't pray as our Chazal have instructed us, but the prayer should be a conversation with God, not the last obstacle before breakfast).

As a result, these Chareidim see nothing wrong with rioting on the street or committing physical violence against others. In their Shulchan Aruch, there's nothing about God, just about who can be the most self-righteous. Like the medical example above, they have removed the original reason for being Jewish - serving God with love and pleasantness - and replaced it with "who can be the most self-righteous?"

The latter group, Intellectual Modern Orthodoxy, has taken a completely opposite approach to Judaism and also lost direction. Whereas some Chareidim are swept up by their passion into their extremism (and we should remember that this is a small part of the community, not the vast majority), the IMO's do the exact opposite. Judaism ceases to become the word of the Living God, full of energy and holiness, and becomes an intellectual discipline. Yes, some of them have tremendous learning but for them Judaism is like physics for those geeks who proctored my exams in undergrad. It may be their life but it's only a science to them.

2) The current concept of Daas Torah is the other reason. The article hints at this although Rav Landesman cannot come out and say it:

The Chazon Ish was once asked to point out the section of Shulchan Aruch that listed forced conscription of girls into the IDF as constituting a yahoreg v’al ya’avor – a mitzvah that one is required to give up one’s life rather than violate. In response, he pointed to his heart. I accept this but would only add that one must be of the status of the Chazon Ish to make this kind of pronouncement.

I've often criticized Modern Orthodoxy, along with Conservatism, for wanting to choose their answers to important questions and then come up with support for those answers, instead of engaging in honest searches for the truth. However, I would also notice that today's Daas Torah is the exact same thing in the Chareidi community. Want to forbid something? Look for a strict opinion in Shulchan Aruch. Can't find it? Daas Torah! Although it takes Jewish practice to the right instead of left, it is conceptually the same thing because it makes the actual halachic literature irrelevant.

These two reasons would explain why some parts of the Chareidi community have veered away from anything resembling functional Judaism and continue to give a black eye to the rest of the observant community.


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David said...

"I've often criticized Modern Orthodoxy, along with Conservatism, for wanting to choose their answers to important questions and then come up with support for those answers, instead of engaging in honest searches for the truth. However, I would also notice that today's Daas Torah is the exact same thing in the Chareidi community. Want to forbid something? Look for a strict opinion in Shulchan Aruch. Can't find it? Daas Torah!"

It's also the reason that your level of observance will never make you acceptable to the Chareidim. You have, in the past, tried to argue that you could demonstrate, by use of the Shulchan Aruch, that your views were just as acceptable as theirs (thus, presumably, the reason that your judaism is "authentic," while Conservative/Reform are not).

In the end, from a Daas Torah perspective, you, the Conservatives, and the Reform are all pretty much on the same continuum. Which is to say that everybody's somebody's goy.

Not Brisk said...


i don't think the 'handler argument' is related to Daas Torah, per se.

Interesting, when the handlers where from their other camp, that crowd was silent.