Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Are Haredim to Blame for the OTD Phenomenon?

Michael Makovi wrote a series of comments that I thought deserved a posting of its own. He offers an eloquent Modern Orthodox challenge (which may make it beside the point) to Rabbi Dovid Schwartz and the Haredi community as to their responsibility in causing people to abandon ritual observance.

Rabbi Schwartz,

As I indicated, what most troubled me about your letter was that while it was quick to defend the secular Zionists and such (which is remarkable - I do sincerely thank you), nevertheless, it was quick to condemn the contemporary OTDs and such. You admit the "broken school system", and you admit that the school systems are unable to impart true religiosity unless they include 8+ years of kollel. Shouldn't this set off alarms in your head? Perhaps the OTDs are responding to these failures of the school system?

I know more about the Modern Orthodox community than the Haredi one, so it is difficult for me to speak of the Haredi one except as an outsider looking in, but what I see, from where I stand, is that the Haredi community forces an outdated and obsolete worldview on its students. The Haredim try to teach their students as if it is still 1800, as if nothing has changed. My rabbi, Rabbi Marc Angel writes an insightful essay "Modern Orthodoxy and Halakhah: An Inquiry" (printed in Seeking Good, Seeking Peace), in which he argues that the difference between Modern Orthodoxy and Haredism is that they mentally live in different times. The Modern Orthodox want to understand the sages of previous times, but they want to themselves live in today's world. The Western-European Sephardim were similar; they were completely observant, but they lived amidst the greater non-Jewish society, and participated fully. When the Haskalah came, the Jews of Holland and Italy were barely affected, because they were already full participants in the Renaissance. Rabbi Menashe ben Israel had his portrait done by his friend Rembrandt! Rabbi Marc Angel, in "Thoughts on Early American Jewry" (in Seeking Good, Seeking Peace) writes about a Reform historian who mistook the American colonial Sephardim for Reformers, because they dressed normally and spoke English. Rabbi Angel responds that for an Orthodox Sephardi, to dress like his non-Jewish neighbors and speak their vernacular did not contradict living a fully Orthodox lifestyle.

Similarly, Rambam would have been "Modern Orthodox" in that he tried to follow the Talmud, but admitted that he lived in 11th-century Spain (and later Egypt) and not 6th-century Babylonia. Thus, the Mishneh Torah will often say, "The law ought to be like this, but back when I was in Spain, we did like this."

The Haredim, by contrast, try to mentally live in a world that no longer exists, and that in any case, is out of sync with the outside world. The Haredim try to pretend they're still in 18th-century Lithuania or Poland.

The more gifted and intelligent children will realize that something is amiss, that something is being hidden from them. Their intellectual perspicacity will not tolerate this. As Rabbi S. R. Hirsch says:
It would be most perverse and criminal of us to seek to instill in our children a contempt, based on ignorance and untruth, for everything that is not specifically Jewish, for all other human arts and sciences, in the belief that by inculcating our children with such a negative attitude ... we could safeguard them from contacts with the scholarly and scientific endeavors of the rest of mankind…You will then see that your simple-minded calculations were just as criminal as they were perverse. Criminal, because they enlisted the help of untruth supposedly in order to protect the truth, and because you have thus departed from the path upon which your own Sages have preceded you and beckoned you to follow them. Perverse, because by so doing you have achieved precisely the opposite of what you wanted to accomplish... Your child will consequently begin to doubt all of Judaism which (so, at least, it must seem to him from your behavior) can exist only in the night and darkness of ignorance and which must close its eyes and the minds of its adherents to the light of all knowledge if it is not to perish (Collected Writings vol 7 pp. 415-6, quoted in
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch—Torah Leadership for Our Times by Rabbi Dr. Yehudah (Leo) Levi).
The brighter students will realize that according to their teachers, Judaism can survive only in darkness and ignorance. Rav A. I. Kook attributes the rise of secular Zionism and the like to the fact that the secularists had more idealism than the religious. As one of my rabbis put it, the secularists were talking about changing the world while the religious talked about meat and milk spoons. The situation is exactly the same today. The OTDs, etc., see the outside world as being more idealistic, more learned, more culturally and intellectually advanced, than the religious community.
And you cannot underestimate the influence of mis-education. I have a friend who became a baal teshuva, but went back to non-observance when he started seeing all the stories of revoking conversions. He said, if the Orthodox have so little humanity, so little morality, if they're so perverse and misanthropic, then what do I need with them? He had Haredi relatives, and he heard disgusting and repulsive remarks from them about converts, saying that no converts are really authentic, etc. He said, if the Orthodox can so reject people who truly want to be Jewish, then he doesn't need the Orthodox.

Hillul hashem is powerful, in case we didn't already know.

(By the way, this friend of mine, I've told people that his violation of mitzvot is greater and more G-dly than the observance of others. Why does he violate the mitzvot? Because he saw the Orthodox abusing converts and refusing to give gittin to their agunot, and burning trash cans in Meah Shearim in order to protect mentally-ill child-abusers. I'm not saying I agree with my friend; in fact, I've tried to convince him to become observant again, and in any case, I've seen all the same disgusting things he has, and yet I've myself remained observant nevertheless. My point, however, is that I respect (though disagree with) his reaction - viz. going "off the derekh" - more than I respect the mitzvah-observance of others. Look at the reasons he doesn't keep mitzvot anymore - his reasons to violate the mitzvot are more G-dly than the reasons others keep them!!)

Rabbi Schwartz, you say, "And even the much maligned hamon ahm should not be underestimated. While it may be true that many received no more than a cheder education ponder for a moment how vastly superior that system must have been to our own elementary chadorim in that it stood it's students in good stead to live ehrlicha upgeheetaneh lives for a lifetime. Is the fact that in our system having 20 plus years of schooling not being enough, such that anyone who didn't spend 8+ years in Kollel after the chasunah is tsorich bedeeka acharov supposed to be a compliment? That the ahava and yirah that we implant is so flimsy that it will fold like a cheap camera in the face of a few college courses or six months in an office environment?"

Maybe what you've just written should give you pause. Perhaps the OTDs of today are not entirely to blame; perhaps they are the products of a "broken school system". Why shouldn't we judge them as favorably as you judged the secular Zionists?

I will admit that in many ways, the religious state of affairs in prewar Europe was superior to what we have today. Professor Menachem Friedman describes in "The Lost Kiddush Cup" how the Haredim today have rejected their families' mesorot, and no longer use their own grandfathers' kiddush cups. Professor Friedman notes that the kiddush cup is a symbol of tradition, and that if the cups of old are no longer considered kosher, then a great break in tradition has occurred.

Rabbi Yom Tov Schwarz's Eyes to See shows at length how the prewar Jews were more concerned with ethics and morality than Orthodox Jews are today. Rabbi Schwarz presents a very ethical and humane Judaism, one that would make Rabbi S. R. Hirsch proud, one that puts less emphasis on technical ritual observance, and more on how one treats his fellow man. Rabbi Schwarz follows the Sifra and says we were brought out of Egypt for the sake of the mitzvot bein adam l'havero. He notes that in Beitzah, and unkind Jew's credentials as a Jew are questioned, a Shabbat-violating Jew's bona fides are not questioned.

Rabbi Yehuda Amital writes (

We live in an era in which educated religious circles like to emphasize the centrality of Halakha, and commitment to it, in Judaism. I can say that in my youth in pre-Holocaust Hungary, I didn't hear people talking all the time about "Halakha." People conducted themselves In the tradition of their forefathers, and where any halakhic problems arose, they consulted a rabbi. Reliance on Halakha and unconditional commitment to it mean, for many people, a stable anchor whose purpose is to maintain the purity of Judaism, even within the modern world. To my mind, this excessive emphasis of Halakha has exacted a high cost. The impression created is that there is nothing in Torah but that which exists in Halakha, and that in any confrontation with the new problems that arise in modern society, answers should be sought exclusively in books of Halakha. Many of the fundamental values of the Torah which are based on the general commandments of "You shall be holy" (Vayikra 19:2) and "You shall do what is upright and good in the eyes of God" (Devarim 6:18), which were not given formal, operative formulation, have not only lost some of their status, but they have also lost their validity in the eyes of a public that regards itself as committed to Halakha. Rabbi Amital, like Rabbi Yom Tov Schwarz, sees an overemphasis on ritual observance and a lack of concern for morality.

Rabbi (Dovid) Schwartz, perhaps this is why the OTDs do what they do? Perhaps prewar Europe was better than today's Orthodoxy? Perhaps this superiority of prewar Judaism is the cause of the OTD phenomenon? Perhaps the existence of OTDs is a result of the inferiority of today's Orthodoxy?

Oh, and see Dr. Yitzchok Levine's very Hirschian piece, Orthodoxy, Then and Now.


Mikewind Dale said...

Thank you for this honor!

Speaking of Modern Orthodoxy, I might repeat a comment of mine (here) to Rabbi Dovid Schwartz's letter here:

Rabbi Schwartz says, "Modern Orthodoxy is a distinctly American post-war phenomenon and had no models in interbellum EE [ = Eastern European] Jewry."

I couldn't possibly agree more. I mean, really, he stole the words out of my mouth. I wrote an entire essay about the fact that Modern Orthodoxy has no Eastern-European antecedents; see my essay On the Turn to the Right in Modern Orthodoxy, And Some Possibilities for Its Solution. In short, I say that Modern Orthodoxy has been Haredizing because it pays homage to Eastern-Europe (wrongly, in my opinion), and I argue that Modern Orthodoxy ought to look to the Sephardim instead.

Izgad said...

I can definitely go for being Sephardi. My thought has been that, since Maimonides represents the only halachick tradition untainted by ideologies that I find questionable if not downright idolatrous, I really should practice a straight Mishnah Torah Judaism like the Yemenites. The problem is that I am not a halachick scholar enough to think this through in practice.

Garnel Ironheart said...

The brief mention to Rav Kook is essential to focus on.
Yes, while secular Zionism was trying to create a new nation, the Chareidim were arguing over the minutiae of kashrus. People wanted a big vision and they got a Rashba on Bava Basra.
This is where Religious Zionism had such promise, which has largely gone unfufilled in recent years. The point of Religious Zionism was to restore the national element of Judaism which had disappeared during 1800 of exile. The Chareidim are, to this day, desperate to reintroduce it to their Jewish model. It is still up to the Dati Leumi to show that Judaism has an approach to modern world "big" problems.

Mikewind Dale said...


I completely agree with you, both regarding the promise and failure of Religious Zionism. See Rabbi Dr. Seth/Avi Kadish's "Normal People in Normal Places: A Plea for Change in Religious Zionism" (Heb and Eng).

Rabbi David bar Hayim in Israel has been trying to change things as well. See HaRav David Bar-Hayim & His Torah-An Introduction.