Friday, December 14, 2007

Can "Walmart" Destroy the Haredi World? II

(This is the conclusion of my earlier article, “Can Walmart Destroy the Haredi World?”)

The rise of the internet, and in particular the rise of the blogosphere, has created a modern incarnation of many aspects of the Enlightenment. In an earlier post, I discussed how the act of blogging seemed to me to hearken back to the confessional style of autobiography exemplified most famously by Rousseau’s Confessions. A blogger puts forth his “private” thoughts before the public. This creates the persona of a unique self. By doing this the blogger is declaring that he is his own unique individual with his own vision of the world and that as such he has value in of himself without any recourse to any social institution or tradition.

This Enlightenment view of the individual was a direct challenge to traditional views and it can be seen as laying the groundwork for Kant. Once we have created the individual as something possessing its own authority then this individual, which we have now created, can turn around and challenge the traditional authority. The modern internet has repeated this same process. Ultimately the internet can be seen as Kant’s Enlightenment on steroids. The internet gives each individual the power to sit and judge traditional authority based on his own thoughts and understanding. The blogosphere is nothing if not precisely this. Now every Moshe David Jew, with a connection, has an open forum to criticize and judge the gedolim, religious sages, and be heard by people around the world.

Just as the traditional world of European Jewry proved ill-equipped to take on the Haskalah of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; the modern Haredi world is ill-equipped to take on the modern “Haskalah on Steroids.” It is not just that the internet gives people access to opinions that are “heretical” and people might become convinced by them. The very act of confronting a variety of opinions and choosing between them, even if one chooses the “right” one, is a sword to the very heart of the Haredi worldview. For one is no longer submitting to received authority but is placing oneself as the authority before which all traditional authority most bow.

The only traditional European Jewish community that had any real success at confronting the challenges of modernity was the Hirschian community in Germany. While most people, when reading Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, focus on his willingness to incorporate secular learning within the rubric of Judaism, to me what was so crucial about Hirsch was how his vision of Judaism empowered the individual. For Hirsch Judaism was something a person chose out of something within himself. There was nothing in Hirsch about how you must listen to the gedolim, the gedolim are always right and if you do not listen to the gedolim God is going to throw you in Hell. For Hirsch, the important question was how to take ones moral ideals, theoretical beliefs in God, and put them into something concrete. For Hirsch, that vehicle was the performance of the Divine commandments found in the Bible and Jewish law.

Hirschian Judaism could survive the Haskalah, because it did not run counter to Kant’s Enlightenment. On the contrary, Hirschian Judaism was dependent upon it. It too believed in the in authority of the individual. While Kant’s enlightened individual challenged traditional society to justify itself before the authority of reason, Hirsch’s individual Man of Israel challenged the enlightened world to live up to its own ideals and put them in practice.

For all of its faults, Modern Orthodoxy continues in this Hirschian tradition of individual authority. Modern Orthodoxy does not have authority figures which one must submit to without question. It has nothing to fear from the internet or any blogger. On the contrary, the Modern Orthodox world can welcome all bloggers, even those who attack Modern Orthodoxy, as people who are taking up their rightful mantles as individuals. The Haredi world could never accept bloggers, particularly bloggers who criticize the Haredi world. To do so mean accepting the fact that these people have legitimate authority as individuals and do not have to submit to Haredi authority.

In the end, I do not understand how Rabbi Horowitz can speak of the Haredi world accommodating itself to the world of the internet. For the Haredi world to do this would mean that they would have to accept the notion of the individual being able to judge traditional authority instead of meekly submitting oneself to it. That would mean the end of the Haredi world and the triumph of Modern Orthodoxy. So what does Rabbi Horowitz believe? Does he really believe in the authority of individuals? If he does, how can he still call himself part of the Haredi world?


Beisrunner said...

"The very act of confronting a variety of opinions and choosing between them, even if one chooses the “right” one, is a sword to the very heart of the Haredi world view."

This statement seems odd, given the multiplicity of views one is confronted with whenever learning the gemara and rishonim.

Izgad said...

The study of Gemara is actually an excellent example of what I am talking about. Despite the fact that when studying Gemara one is faced with a variety of opinions, these options are kept in the realm of theory and have no actual relation to p’sak. The dominant system of learning Gemara in the Orthodox world does not give one the opportunity to pick amongst the various opinions which one studies; one gets to study ones heart out and then one is given the “correct” answer, in the Mishna Torah and the Shulchan Aruch. There is no sense that by studying you are empowering yourself to make your own halachic decisions.