Thursday, June 26, 2008

Jonathan Rosenblum’s Non Haredi Defense of Haredism

Jonathan Rosenblum is a highly gifted speaker and writer and is without question one of the most effective apologists the Haredi community possesses. There is a certain irony to this when considering Rosenblum’s background and mode of thinking. This is made all the more poignant in light of his recent speech at KAJ. As I will demonstrate, the fact that the Haredi community relies on someone like Rosenblum highlights a fundamental weakness within Haredi ideology.

In many respects Rosenblum’s case parallels that of R’ Yakov Horowitz of Project YES, a Haredi organization that works with at risk teenagers. As I have already discussed, in earlier posts, R’ Horowitz’s analysis of the problems in the Haredi community and his recommended solutions are insightful and to be admired. The problem is that, in practice, they go against the very basic fundamentals of the Haredi worldview; if the Haredi community was to seriously implement what R’ Horowitz suggests they would be finished. Rosenblum is, if anything, a more extreme example.

Rosenblum is effective as a Haredi advocate precisely because he is not a product of the Haredi world and is someone who, by definition, could never have been produced by that world. He did not grow up Haredi, in fact he did not grow up Orthodox at all, but only became religious as an adult. Rosenblum is not a product of Mir or Lakewood but of the University of Chicago and Yale. Rosenblum’s background is important to understanding his work. If Rosenblum had grown up Haredi and had gone onto the University of Chicago and Yale he would have been cast out. More importantly, when reading Rosenblum’s work you find an American conservative, not all that different from William Kristol or David Brooks. Like them he is a product of American academia, who rebelled against its liberal culture. While Rosenblum is not a secular Jew and has made common cause with Haredim, his mode of doing so is a product not of the Haredi community but of American conservatism.

Because Rosenblum’s mode of thinking is distinctively non Haredi it should not surprise anyone that his beliefs are somewhat different from what one would expect to find in the Haredi community. His speech at KAJ is an excellent example of this. Judging from his speech, Rosenblum is a Hirschian; he assumes that Hirsch’s methodology is legitimate in of itself and not simply as a tool to hook people into Judaism. This is not a position acceptable to the Haredi community in terms of what matters most, as a position to be accepted internally within the community. I would love to see him try to give the same speech at an Agudath Yisroel convention.

Rosenblum, because of the situation that he is in, seems to twist himself into all sorts of interesting positions. For example, during his speech, he talked about his teacher, the late R’ Nachman Bulman, how Rabbi Bulman, a Gerrer Hasid, was a supporter of R’ Hirsch. After the speech, R’ Yosef Blau pointed out to me that Rosenblum was being somewhat disingenuous when he referred to Rabbi Bulman as being a Gerrer Hasid. Rabbi Bulman might have come from a Gerrer family and maintained contacts with Gerrer all his life but he also went to Yeshiva University and, unlike many others, he never denied it. So while Rabbi Bulman might have been a devoted follower of R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch, he was hardly a representative figure of the Haredi community and he did not pick up his Hirschian ideals from them.

As a final example of the incongruity of Rosenblum’s position I would point to a comment he was kind enough to write about my earlier post in which he defends Rabbi Mantel:

In any event, the central point that Rabbi Mantel made is, in my opinion, incontestable: no one should think that the Hirschian derech is one easily followed and unless one is vaccinated with Rav Hirsch's pure yiras shomayim [fear of heaven], it is fraught with danger. I felt that he offered a necessary corrective, or Hegelian antithesis, if you will, to some of my remarks.

First of all, Rabbi Mantel went much further than simply saying that to be a Hirschian one needs to truly be motivated by a fear of heaven; doctors, lawyers and professors can also fear heaven. Secondly, I would like to call attention to nature of the defense that Rosenblum uses, that there is a need for a Hegelian antithesis. Officially, in the Haredi community, one is not supposed be familiar with the thought of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) beyond what you need to pass the Regents exams in high school. My guess is that Rosenblum did not pick up his knowledge of Hegel in a Haredi yeshiva. More importantly the notion that a society needs to be balanced by contradictory viewpoints is a distinctively non Haredi idea. A Hirschian or a Modern Orthodox worldview can grant a legitimate place to its opponents, even to Haredim, but if you are going to be Haredi you have to assume that all other positions are inherently illegitimate; there is the opinion of the Gedolim and everything else must be rejected.

Ironically enough, while the Haredi community may reject Hirsch they need him, possibly even more than Modern Orthodox Jews do. Hirsch provides essential loin-cloth for Haredi outreach, because he can appeal to people outside the community. So, as with the theory of evolution, it is okay to accept Hirsch when you are trying to make people religious as long as you do not make the mistake of taking him too seriously and become a personal believer. Similarly the Haredi community requires people like Jonathan Rosenblum to defend them. Rosenblum is very effective at presenting a Haredi world that irreligious people can respect and appreciate. The problem, though, is that Rosenblum’s Haredi community has little to do with the Haredi community as it actually exists; if they were they would cease to be Haredim and become Hirschians instead.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

You say that Rosenblum is a Hirschian. It's hard to think so when he was speaking in admiration of the circle of the Chazon Ish and how much Bnei Brak has grown since then. I think Rav Hirsch would say that locking up the Torah in Bnei Brak defeats Hashem's purpose. That being said, most of his speech (I'd say 85% or so) was good, albeit a little too long.

Izgad said...

I understood Rosenblum's comments as: the Chazan Ish and Bnei Brak did a lot of great things for Judaism now we have to take things a step foward. This is sort of the reverse of how Haredim deal with Hirsch when they say: Hirsch was a great tzadik living in a really difficult situation so he had to do certain things that were less than ideal, but today Torah is in a better situation so we can do things differently.
At the end of the day Rosenblum is clearly not willing to follow through with what he says. I see him as a Hirschian who lacks the nerve to go up against the Haredi system. Which is, as I see it, has been the cardinal flaw of the Hirschian movement all along. What we saw go on last Shabbos is ample proof of that.

Anonymous said...

"For example, during his speech, he talked about his teacher, the late R’ Nachman Bulman, how Rabbi Bulman, a Gerrer Hasid, was a supporter of R’ Hirsch. After the speech, R’ Yosef Blau pointed out to me that Rosenblum was being somewhat disingenuous when he referred to Rabbi Bulman as being a Gerrer Hasid. Rabbi Bulman might have come from a Gerrer family and maintained contacts with Gerrer all his life but he also went to Yeshiva University and, unlike many others, he never denied it."

Very good point.

It's like certain people I have seen, that are clean-shaven and don't live a Hassidic lifestyle (e.g. eat chalav stam and other things Hassidim wouldn't consume and indulge in leisure activities they prohibit), but claim to be Hassidim when it's convenient or fashionable.

Did R. Bulman go around saying he was a Gerrer Hassid fifty years ago when it was not in style? Or just toward the end of his life when it was more acceptable ?

Izgad said...

From the little that I know about R' Bulman, he was not the sort of person who did things because they were in style. He was a Gerrer Hasid more than fifty years ago when it was not in style.
On the flip side, even though he operated within the Haredi world he did not hide the fact that he went to YU even though that was hardly the stylish thing to do.

Anonymous said...

What does it mean to be a 'Gerrer Hassid' ? Did he ask the Gerrer Rebbe for approval when he was involved in NCSY ? Or was it just invoked when convenient ?

Anonymous said...

" He was a Gerrer Hasid more than fifty years ago when it was not in style."

You sure about that? He wore the same Hassidic garb then that he wore toward the end of his life and referred to himself the same way then as in his later years ? I don't think so.