Sunday, January 31, 2010
The Yated Gets Its Jewish History Right (For Once)
The Yated Ne'eman, run in the States by Pinchos Lipshutz (who, I am informed, I may actually be related to), is usually one of the best representatives of what is wrong with the Haredi world. I do not deem fit to call it a newspaper. It is a propaganda reel that uses a newspaper format. I mean this quite seriously. They allow organizations to write articles about themselves and then publish them as news articles. They used to not have an official website. There was the Dei'ah veDibur site, which posted Yated articles. Now, I am informed there is an official site. How this works with the newest round of bans specifically for Haredi sites is anyone's guess. Recently I came across an article in this paper that took my breath away for being both well written, correct, and about Jewish history. The article was by Avrohom Birnbaum and titled "The 'Der Heim' Myth."
Birnbaum sets out to refute the common Haredi belief, preached by all the major Haredi news outlets and "history" books (with the Yated taking a leading role), that Eastern European Jewish life was some sort of religious utopia, full of pious learned Jews, untroubled by the temptations of modernity. Birnbaum quotes a Holocaust survivor as saying:
This view [of Eastern European Jewish life] is an outright lie. They are romanticizing one of the most terrible periods in our history. From what I remember, in addition to the terrible poverty, there was great spiritual poverty. People were leaving Yiddishkeit [Judaism]; falling like flies. One could almost say that 'ein bayis asher ein shom meis' [there was no house (in Egypt) in which there was no dead] – no house was without a meis, a spiritual causality, and in some homes it was 'ein bayis asher yeish bo chai' [there was no house in which there was life] – every one of the children was lost to Yiddishkei. Youth were rebelling against the old order, attracted by virtually every new ideology except Torah.
Birnbaum, himself, points out: "The greatest talmidei chachomim [Torah scholars] in the Mirrer Yeshiva of Poland … could not find shidduchim [marriage partners]. At the outbreak of the war, many were well into their thirties and still not married" because there was no supply of educated religious girls to marry.
This was such a wonderful article that I expect that by next week the editorial staff will print a retraction and Birnbaum will apologize for the article. The hordes of angry Haredi readers will be assured that no religious Jew would ever dare imply that Eastern European Jewry was anything less than a bastion of religious observance.
The reason for this is that the "Der Heim" myth is at the foundation of Haredi self understanding. Haredim see themselves as defending and continuing the legacy of Eastern Europe. Regardless of whether this is true or not, there is the issue of should we be trying to perpetuate Eastern Europe. The moment we turn Eastern Europe from a Haredi version of Fiddler on the Roof to a hellhole of assimilation then the answer would appear to be negative. Why should I try to maintain the Orthodoxy of bubbe and zeidy if I am not certain that bubbe and zeidy were all that Orthodox to begin with? (I often like to ask people who they think their bubbies were sleeping with that they have such European features.) More importantly there is the issue of leadership. How do we continue to look up to rabbis like Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan (the Chofetz Chaim) or Rav Chaim of Brisk once we recognize that they stood host to a spiritual holocaust and proved incapable of stopping it? The only person and system that was in any meaningful way successful at turning out religious Jews from one generation to the next was the Torah im Derech Eretz of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. Therefore the only Jewish tradition that should have any credibility today among Ashkenazic Jews today should by Hirschian Torah im Derech Eretz. The rabbis of Eastern Europe would be left somewhere between Nero fiddling while Fiddler on the Roof burned and hapless King Lear. (Rabbi Kagan, to his credit, did help create the Bais Yaakov girls school system. This was, in essence, a Hirschian project, designed precisely to create educated religious brides for the thirty year old rabbinical students in the Mir.)