Monday, February 8, 2010

Rabbi Dovid Schwartz's Letter to the Yated




Rabbi Avrohom Birnbaum's article on the "Der Heim" Myth got a letter by Rabbi Dovid Schwartz of the Jewish Heritage Center published in the Yated. I would like to thank Bray for sending me a copy as it only appeared in the print edition, which I do not have regular access to.

Rabbi Schwartz responds as follows to the article:

Dear Readers Write/Editor,


No one could accuse an eyewitness to the twin births of Esav and Yaakov maintaining that Esav was the bechor of the family. And while this is biologically true it is metaphysically false. I read "The 'Der Heim' Myth" article in your most recent issue in much the same way. While finding it's surface honesty refreshing I feel that it missed the mark in discerning a deeper truth.

I think that most people who've done even a cursory review of interbellum Eastern European history are well aware of the awful place that ‘Der heim” was. Anyone growing up in the home of survivors and or who davened with them in their youth heard about how it was a place where Yidden were slaughtered in cold blood, that the majority of ehrliche Yidden lived in grinding poverty and where hunger and want were everywhere etc..

Nevertheless we are convinced that the heim is a place to idolize and grow nostalgic about and that the incredible nisyonos of poverty and discrimination that those amuhliga yiden were exposed to made spiritual giants out of those strong enough to withstand them.

Is it any accident that although the interbellum Yeshivisha velt was perhaps 5% the size numerically of the current aggregate of Israeli and American Yeshivas, that it's bochurim endured poverty far poorer than the population at large and the gloom of few marriage prospects and that kollelim were nearly nonexistent, that it still managed to produce geonim and lamdonim who were qualitatively light years ahead of today's products?

Is it a coincidence that lacking today's monumental Batei Midrash and the convenience of Chasidim living in close proximity year round the bygone Rebbes still had talmidim and Chasidim who were tzadikim in their own rights and that interbellum Chasidus produced seforim and works of sublime enduring value? Think the yoshvim in Belz, Rav Menachem Ziemba, Chovas haTalmidim, Modzitzer nigunim, The Eretz Tzvi, Rav Ahreleh (Toldos Ahron, Shomer Emunim et al) to name but a few.

And what of the emunah peshuta of those interbellum yidden and yiddenehs who did hang on to their faith? Which of us did not know a "greener" Yid or Yiddeneh who, despite being clean shaven, non-shaiteled and western clothed after the war, didn't have a vaicha Yiddish hartz and an organic fidelity to Torah values that puts the forced, dispassionate and antiseptic Yididshkeit that we practice to shame?

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?

And while to say any different than the author about the hemorrhaging disaffection of the youth in the interbellum period would;d be rank historical revisionism I think that saying ‘ein bayis asher yeish bo chai’ distorts by overstatement. Furthermore even the reaykh boigdov then had a sweeter aroma. Or are we to posit a moral equivalency between those who, spurred by the nearly unendurable nisyonos of poverty and anti-Semitism that we cannot begin to fathom, abandoned Yiddishkeit in order to build more just societies (Bundists, Leninists, Trotskyites) or a safe homeland for their people (Labor and revisionist Zionists) and the OTD kids of today who "drop it all" on account of a broken school system or sheer boredom in favor of vacuous, hedonistic lifestyles for the flimsiest and most narcissistic of motivations?

So while it's good that the younger generation read articles like this to achieve a more mature and nuanced understanding of pre-Holocaust Jewish history the article does a great disservice in processing the information to arrive at the conclusion that compared our elders we are not only better off materially but spiritually as well . One ought not avoid historical revisionism by perpetrating "current events" revisionism.

To put as fine a point as I can on it; How many of our own "Achshir dora" yidden would be ready to assert that they'd have survived 6 weeks, much less 6 years, of Holocaust, with our emunah intact? About how many of us do you think the Satmar Rebbe would say "Give a kvittel to him . He laigs Tefilin over his number tattoo!"?

Rabbi Dovid Schwartz
Associate Director- Jewish Heritage Center of Queens and Long Island

(Note this is the unedited/uncensored version of the letter and not the version published in the Yated.)


Despite all the yeshivish colloquialisms that was a remarkably touching letter. I think it even furthers my point, though. Here we have Rabbi Dovid Schwartz, a clearly historically literate person, who understands what a mess European life was and yet he still bends over backwards to defend that society. Why does he think it is so important that Jews have a positive view of European Judaism? Notice the sort of apologetics that he engages in. All of a sudden it becomes forgivable to wear Western clothing, go clean-shaven and even for women to not cover their hair. Such people would today be classified as Modern Orthodox. (I am reminded of a line that every Satmar Hasid is the grandchild of Modern Orthodox Jews.) These people were in some immeasurable sense "deeply spiritual" Jews. What would happen if we took this standard and applied it not to Eastern European Jews who are no longer living today, but to inconveniently alive and well modern day real life Modern Orthodox Jews? Rabbi Schwartz is willing to wink at the ignorance of regular Jews again by some mystical standard. I must say it is very convenient to go into an argument making claims outside of any objective standard beyond "their self evident truth." How do we score religiosity when we make the point of ignoring objective standards such as ritual observance and knowledge? Of course Rabbi Schwartz has no problem with backtracking and appealing to the learnedness of the rabbinic elites. Again, though, he offers no real standard for evaluating this claim beyond the fact that the Haredi readers of the Yated take it as self evidently so.

In the end I have no idea what it would even mean to say that one generation is better than another just as I would not know what it would mean to say that one person is "better" than another. Different people and different time periods come up against different issues and handle them in different ways. Some of these choices I approve of more than others. I have no wish to preach the greatness of this generation and at the same time I have no wish to create an idealized picture of the past. The past can be very difficult to compete with. People who are dead do not make rude bodily noises or fail to put down the toilet seat. Art Spiegelman, in Maus, talks about the difficulty of growing up under the picture of his dead brother, who perished in the Holocaust and whom he never met. How does a child compete with a sibling who is dead and cannot do any wrong? This sets up the trap of mediocrity. If you know that no matter what you do you will always be second best, why bother to compete? Even worse this becomes an excuse and an apology for one's mediocrity. You can now be comforted in your mediocrity that you are exactly where you would be if you had actually tried, in second place. Part of my job as a historian is to present past societies as having real strengths and real flaws, which are usually connected to each other. This is our generation, we have the benefit of their experience and we are going to try to make better decisions.  

16 comments:

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

We, the product of the television age, do not understand the complexity of other societies.
From Star Trek we learned that all Klingons talk and dress the same. From Star Wars we learned that any given world only contains one kind of alien. And we impose this kind of thinking on our recollection of "Der Heim".
The "old country" was a complex society with both good and bad in it. Sometimes the good came out of the bad, sometimes despite it. We do our ancestors no favours by simplifying their stories.

Mikewind Dale said...

Rabbi Schwartz's piece has very little substance. Essentially, he concedes all of Rabbi Birnbaum's points, but disagrees with them, rejecting them based on subjective personal opinion.

Still, it's touching how Rabbi Schwartz is willing to "forgive" the clean-shaven "Modern Orthodox" and the secular Zionists of Europe. We shouldn't take this lightly; what he has done is really actually quite remarkable.

Nevertheless, it is ironic that he criticizes Rabbi Birnbaum by stating, "One ought not avoid historical revisionism by perpetrating 'current events' revisionism." I think that "'current events revisionism" is exactly what Rabbi Schwartz, not Rabbi Birnbaum, has committed. Rabbi Schwartz is entirely unwilling to criticize contemporary rabbis or educational institutions for any of the contemporary failures of Orthodoxy. This is unacceptable.

Dovid Schwartz said...

They edited (re: censored) my letter.

The original read: 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?

is a pretty strong indictment of contemporary educational institutions.

The Bray of Fundie said...

he concedes all of Rabbi Birnbaum's points,

re-read the article and the letter.

A. Some...not all.
B. As the lead paragraph of the letter should make clear Schwartz didn't dispute Birnbaum's data nearly as much as the interpretation.

Dovid Schwartz said...

All of a sudden it becomes forgivable to wear Western clothing, go clean-shaven and even for women to not cover their hair

Not "all of a sudden". After Auschwitz or the Warsaw Ghetto.

What would happen if we took this standard and applied it not to Eastern European Jews who are no longer living today, but to inconveniently alive and well modern day real life Modern Orthodox Jews?

These real life Jews didn't endure either pre-Holocaust nor Holocaust hardships and , as such, the standard (re: apologetics) are inapplicable.

How do we score religiosity when we make the point of ignoring objective standards such as ritual observance and knowledge

A. A closer reading of my letter will show that I was not comparing and rating religiosity but irreligiosity, again an edited word may have distorted my meaning so here is the original unedited passage:

Furthermore even the reaykh boigdov then had a sweeter aroma. Or are we to posit a moral equivalency between those who, spurred by the nearly unendurable nisyonos of poverty and anti-Semitism that we cannot begin to fathom, abandoned Yiddishkeit in order to build more just societies (Bundists, Leninists, Trotskyites) or a safe homeland for their people (Labor and revisionist Zionists) and the OTD kids of today who "drop it all" on account of a broken school system or sheer boredom in favor of vacuous, hedonistic lifestyles for the flimsiest and most narcissistic of motivations?

B. The method I used was the book learning vs. ritual practice quotient i.e. that the
"Alta Heim" Jews had fewer years of schooling and less textual knowledge and skills but OBSERVED a far greater proportion of what they DID learn than the longer and better educated contemporary American Jew. Often doing so with great tenacity and withstanding tremendous challenges in the process.

The past can be very difficult to compete with. ... Art Spiegelman, in Maus, talks about the difficulty of growing up under the picture of his dead brother, who perished in the Holocaust and whom he never met. How does a child compete with a sibling who is dead and cannot do any wrong? This sets up the trap of mediocrity. If you know that no matter what you do you will always be second best, why bother to compete?

Here, I couldn't agree with you more. I think that to be constructive histories and biographies of pre-war Jewry should not white-wash warts but neither should they suppress grandeur where it existed. In any event it's not healthy to dwell upon it and form a pedagogical standpoint important to instill of "It doesn't get any better than the here and now" in students, which subjectively speaking for the needs of the neshomos present in this time and place, is absolutely true.

Visiting graveyards gives people a sense of histories sweep but only a שוטה is the proverbial לן בבית הקברות obsessively immersing themselves in the lives of their ancestors in bygone eras.

As for competing with the dead brother, that is a pointed and poignant question. But it is surely unethical to compete by rewriting the dead siblings biography to read that he could do no right. This is what angered me about the Yated article and moved me to write my letter in the first place and is, itself, yet another invitation to mediocrity, smugness and hubris.

Anonymous said...

What a load of hogwash Rabbi Schwartz. I hope you're proud that you've managed to offend virtually the entire (growing) population of so called OTD'ers (off the derech)by casting the latter in a very unfavorable light, namely as bums, loafers and neer do well.

Anonymous said...

I just reread your load of crap:

"OTD kids of today who "drop it all" on account of a broken school system or sheer boredom in favor of vacuous, hedonistic lifestyles for the flimsiest and most narcissistic of motivations?"

I don't often say this but you're an insensitive, pretentious putz.

Kids being molested I presume would be a flimsy enough motivation to go off the derech I presume. Hearing the countless scandals that so called gedolim are involved in is not a good enough reason to lose interest in Yiddishkeit I presume. But worst of all, it is your sort of attitude that is pushing countless young Jewish men further and further away from the fold.


And who says that there aren't OTD'ers who are deeply concerned about the wellbeing of our people and doing their own part in their own way to help.

What about the OTD'er who is sitting in a lab as we speak working on a cure for cancer, aids? Is he pursuing a "vacuous hedonistic" lifestyle as well?

Shame on you Schwartz!

Mikewind Dale said...

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."

to be cont.

Mikewind Dale said...

cont. from above

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.

to be cont.

Mikewind Dale said...

cont. from above

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 Schartz, 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?

Mikewind Dale said...

Rabbi Schwartz,

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 (here): "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 (David) 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?

Mikewind Dale said...

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

OTD with a backbone said...

Mikewind thanks for putting it far better than I ever could!


Check out this post and cringe
http://onionsoupmix.livejournal.com/140797.html?view=4967421#t4967421

Talk about a broken educational system.

And I should add that I myself attended Chassidish elementary school as a child and violence in the school was a daily occurence both student on student and rebbe on student.

Mikewind Dale said...

OTD with a backbone,

Thank you for that link. What I read was simply appalling. I went to public school K-12, and I NEVER saw anything like this.

The student gets laughed at by his classmates, and the teacher tells the victim to sit down???!!! "That's just the way boys are"???!!! Any teacher who did such things in a public school would get fired before the week was over.

I myself was the nerdy socially-inept child, but the worst that happened to me was that I had few friends. The other children didn't really "do" anything to me, but instead, they simply didn't befriend me. The teachers of course sympathized with me, but they couldn't force the other children to be my friends against their wills.

I thought my childhood experience in public school was bad, but apparently, if I had gone to a religious school, it would have been a thousand times worse.

Izgad said...

Anonymous

I have no objection to people expressing anti-Orthodox or anti-Haredi opinions on this blog. I will ask you to not engage in personal attacks or use swear words (even Yiddish ones), particularly when done behind the screen of anonymity. Consider yourself warned.

OTD.. said...

I dont think this kind of garbage would fly in a MO school either. The Charedi school system is a hot mess.