Sunday, December 30, 2007

SB's Response to Haredi Generation Gap

SB, who was one of the people I talked about in my post, Haredi Generation Gap, responded to me via email, which he was kind enough to allow me to publish here. I think it demonstrates my point wonderfully. Last I checked Yeshiva Torah Vodaath has no interest in producing graduates who have read Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.

First, the nomenclature … of the word “haredi.” I don’t believe I heard the word until my late adolescence. The word is an Israeli term and indicates Israeli influence. We referred to ourselves as “yeshivish” or “litvish.” There was no term encompassing Chasidim and yeshivish people. This is not just a nitpicking point, since arguably yeshivish people moved to the right because it became de rigueur for guys to learn in Israel after high school.

When you stayed with us, I tried to expose you to the ideas of Rodney Stark regarding the sociology of religion. (I know that he has written several bad books recently, but that doesn’t negate the quality of his good works.) I believe that Stark has dealt only briefly with changes in Jewish life and not at all with changes in the orthodox community, but I believe that you have to take an “economic approach,” i.e., thinking about changes by looking at the alternatives available at the time. For instance, the orthodox world was much smaller then. Yeshivos were more tolerant because they were expected to take everyone. In contrast, in the current world, yeshivas can exclude anyone who has a tv at home.

Another change involves the economic concept of making tradeoffs. In my day, people went to Brooklyn College; now they go to Touro. I cannot comment much about the education at Touro, but I had several professors who were radical Marxists; I don’t think a Touro student is likely to have that exposure. Assume that a parent who went to Brooklyn is choosing a college for his son. He is very likely to be aware of the advantages of sending the son to Brooklyn, yet choose Touro because it will be easier for him to learn in yeshiva while going to Touro.

I don’t want to go through many examples, but in each case we can look at individual choices based on the “market,” i.e., the options available. In any case, what I want to stress is that rather than blaming my generation, you might want to consider how we got from the situation, say in 1969, when I started Torah Vodaath high school. You may not agree with my economic approach. That is ok. You may want to use Toqueville’s concept of the Unlimited Power of the Majority. But the point is, as an aspiring historian, you should try to understand historical changes, not bemoan them. While I threw out a few ideas, I cannot give you a complete explanation of the changes. That would require a book length treatment that I have no desire to complete, but I certainly would appreciate reading if you were to do so.
Lastly, the Unlimited Power of the Majority usually is not manifested by tarring and feathering, but by simple disapproval. The only negative consequence that I have experienced personally is that my daughter Dasi was rejected by Bais Yaakov of Brooklyn. However, that probably was the result of her behavior, not mine.

I hope that this email does not offend you, but encourages you to study contemporary Judaism as a historian. After all, Haym Soloveitchik did write a seminal article about contemporary orthodoxy, although as you know, I disagree with his interpretation.

My response: I use the world Haredi because unlike ultra-orthodox it has no negative connotations. I admit that, as with all human categories, it is flawed.I don't think we are disagreeing here. I was describing the situation that we have gotten ourselves into. You deal with how we have gotten there. Your economic explanation makes a lot of sense. I would love to hear you elaborate on it. (I guess I have to come visit you next time I am in New York.) Personally, I tend to look at history more through the lens of intellectual history but that is just my personal taste. If I had to explain how we got here I would focus on 60's multiculturalism. Something for a future post, I guess.


Daughter of Snowball said...

I have a longer response in the works, but just to note that SB (are we no longer the Snowballs?)did indeed come up against this when applying to Bais Yaakov of Boro Park for my sister (not BY of Brooklyn).

Apparently when informed of the rule that families are not allowed to take their daughters to Florida for breaks, he goes "nu, so I'll take her to California". This "permissive" attitude did not go over well and likely contributed to my sister being rejected from the school. That my sister is who she is probably didn't help.

And, as a response to my father, I can propose a bit of economic analysis:

When confronted with great risk, people tend to act with extreme conservatism. As shidduchim became more and more mainstream (possibly because of the influx of Chasidim, possibly because the Haredi world had moved to the right for reasons that are only marginally related) people had more to fear from the "simple disapproval" you describe.

If a person did not fit a mold precisely, they would have trouble getting themselves and/or their children married. When a prospective in-law investigated and found that a plastic tablecloth was used on Shabbat, or that the father of the girl only wore a black hat some of the time, an entire shidduch could go down the drain!

Given this risk, people are more likely to follow the more stringent factions of the community and thereby become more homogenous, so that they maximize their chances of marrying off themselves and their children.

Now that you have an explanation - which plays nicely into the way education is viewed in the haredi world, as advanced education will indeed make you different from other people, and less "heimish"... and advanced degrees or "too much" education can indeed render you unacceptable to certain segments.

And I do indeed bemoan this development. My father finds it easy to deal with this, because after all, he doesn't have to worry about marrying off his children in the near future, now that he got rid of me! =)

But what about the people our age, BZ, who are going to have to look for a community and who are going to have to look for schools for our children in a radicalized world that wouldn't want them to read all the wonderful heresy you and I have been exposed to?

We're the ones that will suffer.

A former Columbus resident said...

I was sorry to see your recent and rather negative posts about Charedim and your follow up posts which attribute Charedi behavior to banal (if not cynical) economic motives.
You define Charedi, by what this group doesn’t do, which is generally a poor way to define anything. I would define Charedi/Yeshivish as the following: The belief that the Torah is a complete and perfect worldview in-and-of-itself.
The outcome of this view, but not the actual definition, is that the Torah does not need or benefit from some form of supplementing from outside sources of knowledge, behavior, or morals. There is no need to make a philosophy which includes the “best of both worlds” as modern people like to say, as the other world has nothing to offer. Rather we take what we must out of necessity and because we are not at a level that we can leverage the Torah’s perfection for all of our needs. Also as a result of our low level we will often take things we don’t strictly need, but which appeal to us and that our yetzer hara craves. However, in no way does this infringe on the theoretical perfection of the Torah and really, if we were stronger, we would jettison everything non-Torah so that we could be closer to perfecting ourselves as images of G-d.
This desire to fulfill our roles as “Tzelem Elokim” explains the slow move to what you view as the right, not economic factors. All outside influences reduce our ability to reach this level of fulfillment as Tzelem Elokim and prevent us from growing in our service to Hashem. The fact that your Father (may he be well and live a long life) and his generation were more willing to accept outside influences came from a number of factors, including (but certainly not limited to) the fact that some of the outside factors, like TV, music and movies were of much more benign content and that their impact was not fully understood. In fact, how anyone can claim that modern entertainment helps them be a better servant of Hashem is rather puzzling to me.
As an important sidenote, your friend Snowball is quite correct in his statement that Charedi is an Israeli term. In America, even today, very few people would use the term Charedi to describe themselves just as very few modern people in American would use the Israeli term “National Religious” to describe themselves. In the United States the terms used to describe the two main Orthodox communities are “Yeshivish” and “Modern”. The use of different terms in Israel and the US is more than just an accident of nomenclature and could fill up a large essay on its own. Suffice it to say that the gap between American Yeshivish and Israeli Charedim (with the key exception of Chasidim) is very large. Since I believe you are referring to Americans in your post, you are actually referring to American Yeshivish people, not Charedim. From your viewpoint, you would unfortunately have even more issues with true Israeli Charedim. However, both groups would ascribe to the positive definition of the service of Hashem that I have described above.
One outcome of this is the critical belief in Emunas Chachamim. Since our goal is to work towards being a Tzelem Elokim, and free ourselves from the yetzer hara which clouds our ability to see clearly, it is only natural that we consider our leaders to be those who have achieved this goal to the greatest extent, the Gedolai Yisorel. Although they are not perfect, they have made the greatest progress towards perfection and see the world most clearly since they are less in the sway of the yetzer hara. In the Modern world, on the other hand, everyone is an expert, even those whose credentials (Ph.D) come from non-Jewish sources because the yetzer hara for fulfillment outside of Torah is fully sanctioned.
To answer one the original question of your first post on this topic, individuals like Rabbi Horowitz and the last time I spoke to him (many years ago) your father would consider themselves Yeshivish/Charedi is that they believe in the principals outlined above and not in the need for the fusion of Torah with some outside source. All of the failings of individuals (as outlined in detail in blogs) in achieving this goal are irrelevant to them. Our loyalty is always directly to the Torah.

Izgad said...

Yes, you are correct that I chose to define the Haredi/Yeshiva world in negative terms. Mine is not the only way to look at things and you offer a perfectly legitimate alternative.
I do not see my defining the Haredi/Yeshiva world in terms of what it is not as an attack. Rather it highlights the role that the outside does play in this community. Imagine that the entire Haredi/Yeshiva world was transported to their own private island and no longer had to worry about outside threats. How would the Yated be different?
Ultimately the major difference between us is that I assume that, no matter what, one are going to be influenced by the outside world, so I embrace it. I admit that I am not the Children of Israel; I am not the Sages of the Talmud nor am I the Shtetal of Eastern Europe. I am the product of an ongoing dialogue between the Jewish tradition and modern day America. It would seem that you still hold out to this idea that you can have a pure, untouched Judaism that is not influence by any outside forces. I would respond that the very act of trying to stay uninfluenced demonstrates how the outside world does influence you.