The Zionist Conspiracy

A clandestine undertaking on behalf of Israel, the Jets and the Jews.

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Tuesday, November 08, 2005
Orthodox Judaism's Cultural Divide: Part I

Lately, both in the blogosphere and in "real life," a number people have been asking me whether I am charedi or modern Orthodox, and also whether my father is charedi or modern Orthodox.

I don't like to speak for other people, but since my father has written that his "affiliation is essentially in the charedi sector," that hopefully settles that issue.

As for me, I do not identify as either charedi or modern Orthodox. Indeed, in charedi settings, I am generally perceived as MO, while the modern think of me as charedi.

Furthermore, I tend to feel that placing observant Jews into different factions is often silly. There are plenty of people who sort of straddle the line and can't be so easily pigeonholed.

When it comes down to it, however, most - rightly or wrongly - do divide the observant Jewish world into modern Orthodox and charedi. Some people add a middle category of centrist Orthodox, which I'm pretty comfortable being identified with. Others, such as Jblogger Godol Hador, divide the frum world into four camps - right-wing charedi, left-wing charedi, right-wing MO, and left-wing MO.

In a post last week, Godol Hador wrote that "there is a HUGE cultural difference between MO and Chareidim (UO), which was really brought into stark relief with the whole Slifkin thing."

That is definitely true. I would further argue, indeed, that the cultural gap between the charedi and non-charedi camps is the primary divide within Orthodox Judaism, much more so than matters relating to religious ideology, which, logically, should be where the main differences appear. This certainly applies to the Slifkin controversy, but it goes way beyond Slifkin.

My upbringing would probably best be described as left-wing charedi. I went to an elementary school with a religious ideology that sort of bordered between charedi and MO. Most of the student body came from MO homes that were clearly to the left of mine, and the school was considered modern by Brooklyn standards. On the other hand, most of the rabbis were charedi and the school made more of an effort (though not much of an effort) to teach Yiddish than Hebrew, and didn't have a pro-Zionist stance. The yeshiva principal came from a pre-Holocaust era which essentially predated any charedi/non-charedi divide in America.

Subsequently, I went to a charedi high school. There, the principal railed against things like television, describing parents who had one as "either shotehs (foolish or stupid) or hypocrites," something that always made me squirm, given that my home had a TV. Advanced secular education was portrayed negatively, with kollel (full-time Talmud study) seen as the ideal. The principal had a particular disdain for fans of sports, which became a real problem for me. There was a strict dress code, and lots of restrictions on where we could go and what we could do. While I don't believe modern Orthodoxy was explicitly denounced, it was taken for granted that it was less than a legitimate alternative to being charedi. Evolution was skipped, even though we had to answer questions about evolution in the Biology Regents examination and had to pass the Regents to graduate. When an unfortunate history teacher made the mistake of mentioning that the universe was a lot more than 5750 years old, not only was he summoned to the principal's office, the principal wondered why more students in class didn't strongly object to such heresy. The State of Israel wasn't discussed very much, basically the bottom line was that Zionism was no good but after Israel's formation, it had to be supported but not religiously celebrated.

I don't think there was ever a time that I bought into the religious ideology of this school. It was always too extreme for me, and it also was always well to the right of what I was taught at home.

On the level of hashkafah - religious ideology - you can say that I was never charedi. Perhaps very left-wing charedi, but centrist Orthodox or right-wing MO were and are probably at least as accurate a description of my ideals.

I sensed that rabbis often went overboard and could be too uncompromising, I had positive sentiments toward the State Israel and Zionism, I knew that I would not learn in kollel but would get an advanced secular education, and I knew that there was more to the Orthodox response to challenges from science than complete dismissiveness. I certainly did not buy into a broad definition of da'as Torah, the notion that rabbis have superior understanding of - and should be consulted regarding - all matters, rather than just questions of Jewish law.

And yet, looking back, even when I had all those sentiments, on a cultural level I was still charedi. Not by choice, to be sure, but because it was all I knew.

I could - as stated in my post last Friday - reject or have a negative attitude toward lots of things in the charedi world. But culturally I was still a part of that world, something which surely added to my cynicism and angst toward everything that bothered me.

The failure of most charedi rabbis to offer a substantive response to the Rabin assassination, and my sense at that time (whether or not it was accurate is another matter) that most charedim didn't care much about what had happened, convinced me that I had to actively reject the aspects of charedi culture that I found objectionable.

Eight years ago - two years after Rabin was killed - I started working for a living instead of going to school, and moved to the Upper West Side. Initially I went to a number of different shuls, but pretty quickly, I found myself going to lectures and to shul more often in charedi settings than in modern Orthodox ones. To be sure, I had plenty of exposure to modern/centrist Orthodoxy during my five years in the UWS and have tried to integrate the positive aspects of that experience into my life. And UWS charedim are a lot less overbearing, a lot more tolerant, and a lot more sophisticated about the world than are most of the ones in Brooklyn, so perhaps my point is only applicable there.

But still, it's fair to say that even after rejecting much of charedi hashkafah, even if I didn't wear a hat to shul, I still never identified culturally as modern Orthodox. I had never gone to any modern Orthodox schools or any modern Orthodox camps.

Today, I am pretty comfortable - both in terms of hashkafah and culturally - with both left-wing charedim and the right-wing modern Orthodox.

On the surface, there isn't really that much of a difference between a left-wing charedi and someone who is right-wing MO. On a day-to-day level, on a social level, and when it comes to religious ideals, individuals in both camps almost certainly have more in common with each other than with either right-wing charedim or the left-wing MO. Marriages between members of a right-wing MO family in Teaneck and a left-wing charedi family in Brooklyn are a lot more common than they used to be.

It is on the communal level, however, where the cultural divide becomes so dominant, as I will explain when I next post about this topic, in Orthodox Judaism's Cultural Divide: Part II.