Sunday, June 30, 2013

First They Came for Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and then for Rabbi Nathan Kamenetsky and Rabbi Yitchok Adlerstein

This past Shabbos, my wife and I were privileged to stay by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, a man who represents the best in the Haredi world today. He was remarkably gracious to me considering that I have been critical of him in the past. A large part, I think, of what makes him a force for sanity is that he is part of an earlier generation in which Orthodox Judaism was not a self-contained community, but a collection of individuals struggling to pass their Judaism on to the next generation. Because of Orthodoxy's small numbers, one needed to take the outside world into account in terms of considering what sort image they might form of Judaism instead of being lulled into placing the non-Orthodox world into a realm of non-existence. Furthermore, small numbers meant that everyone counted. One could not afford to push people away because of their style of clothing or if they attended college. I was blessed to receive this brand of Judaism from growing up in the shadow of Columbus, OH, and McKeesport, PA. Rabbi Adlerstein lives in Los Angeles and works for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which helps one care more about making a Kiddush Hashem to the outside world than being attacked in the Haredi press.

Over Shabbos, I managed to read a book not widely available by another Haredi figure that I respect, Rabbi Nathan Kamenetsky's Anatomy of a Ban. It contains a series of letters written to a student outlining the unfolding of the ban against his Making of a Godol biography as it played out over the fall of 2002 through the beginning of 2003. I found it quite inspiring considering my own recent troubles as I have been forced to abandon a project that I have spent years on without even being allowed to defend myself.

I found it interesting, though, that Rabbi Kamenetsky refers to the parallel attacks against Rabbi Jonathan Sack's Dignity of Difference, but attempts to distance himself from Rabbi Sacks without considering the deeper relationship. As far as Rabbi Kamenetsky is concerned, Rabbi Sacks was being charged with heresy for implying that other religions were equals as opposed to himself, who at worst might have said disrespectful things about past Torah scholars. I find this attitude startlingly naïve. I should not have to remind readers of the Martin Niemoller quote of "first they came for the communists." It goes deeper than this and for that I turn to another non-Jewish opponent of Nazism, Friedrich Hayek.

One of the major points of Hayek's Road to Serfdom is that there are unforeseen consequences for even innocent looking laws created with all the good intentions of promoting the public welfare. One of the most important of these is the creation and empowerment of a bureaucracy. By their nature bureaucracies will not allow themselves to be disbanded when their original task is accomplished, but will always seek to expand their sphere of influence into realms never dreamed of by the original lawmakers. Furthermore, bureaucracies will attract precisely the worst sorts of people, who will be motivated by power for its own sake and abuse it.

The ban on Rabbi Sacks was the product of a particular religious bureaucracy of community activists that operates by picking targets and gathering signatures. In general, people are remarkably willing to attach their names to good sounding causes (consider how easy it is to convince people to ban dihydrogen monoxide). In our case, there was an added motive, as rabbis have an interest in advancing their reputations by signing on to bans in order to demonstrate that they are precisely the sort of rabbis who are important enough to be asked to sign bans. The legitimacy of the ban is irrelevant. The institutional framework to ban books was able to come together and get away with banning a book by a Modern Orthodox chief rabbi of England. They then moved on to other targets like Rabbi Kamenetsky and later Rabbi Nathan Slifkin. Rabbi Kamenetsky was cutting his own throat the moment he was willing to acknowledge the legitimacy of organized attempts to ban books even supposedly "heretical" ones.

This is something that I hope Rabbi Adlerstein takes to heart. While laughing at his critics, perhaps he should ask himself whether he has empowered them by using their tactic of questioning the motives of his opponents. Things that we say or even tacitly acknowledge have a way of coming back to haunt us.    


Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

Interestingly, Rabbi Kamenetsky is fond of quoting Heine, First they will burn books and then they will burn people. (Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen.)

Congregation Toras Emes said...

its a big jump to assume that the rabbies signing bans are doing so in order to show the world that they are prestigious enough to be asked to sign ???

Adam Zur said...

There is a problem in the Orthodox world of having to show that you are frum. Without that one is considered not part of the group.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

Congregation Toras Emes: he said there is an additional motive to sign such bans. Is it really a big leap? Despite the discontent and confusion these bans sow, despite the flouting of the bans by so many, despite the mechanism in which they are produced - so and so circulates the idea that there is a problem in need of a ban and circulates a letter and the rabbis sign when they see the other names - despite the occasional retreats from some of the signers (e.g., R. Shmuel Kamenetsky after banning the Lipa Schmelzer concert and admitting it was a mistake) - despite this, they sign. So you tell me if signing to keep themselves part of the group isn't an additional motive?

Agav, in the Anatomy of a Ban book Kamenetsky writes that basically only two people in America who were asked to sign refused. One was R. Zelig Epstein who read the book and thought there was nothing wrong with it. The other was R. Don Ungarischer - it's unclear if he read it, but probably not - who refused to sign because of hakaras ha-tov to R. Yaakov, and said that even if it was worth banning he could not do that to a son of R. Yaakov. And one of the 'villains' in the book is R. Wolbe whom Kamenetsky takes to task for signing despite owing hakaras ha-tov to R. Yaakov for, among other things, making his shidduch.

PMEM said...

One of the old Hollywood moguls once said, "Pay no attention to your critics. Don't even ignore them."

Time to ignore the charedi world. They are off the derech. They need to prove to me that they are Torah observant for I think they have created a new religion.