The Zionist Conspiracy

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Thursday, November 10, 2005
Orthodox Judaism's Cultural Divide: Part II

On the individual level, there is often little difference between someone who identifies as a moderate charedi (I agree with the comment that "moderate charedi" is a term preferable to "left-wing charedi") and a person who identifies as right-wing modern Orthodox. Both likely have an advanced education, neither is likely to accept a maximalist construction of the concept of da'as Torah, both probably read a secular newspaper, have a TV in their home and go to some movies, both probably try to set aside some time for Torah study, etc.

In terms of their level of observance and their ideology, it's true that they may have come to where they are from different starting points. But ultimately, they really aren't much different on either a religious or a social level.

It's on the communal level that things become more complex.

Someone who is moderate charedi is much more likely to daven in a charedi shul led by a charedi rabbi, send his children to a charedi yeshiva, be an alum of a charedi yeshiva, and live in a mostly charedi neighborhood.

He may privately reject some or much of what goes on in the charedi world. He may find bans on books to be offensive, bans on things like certain wigs to be ridiculous, he may feel that the charedi rabbinical leadership has become too extreme, and that the shidduch system is crazy.

But that's private, something he'll discuss among his family and friends, but not in a completely public setting.

Because if you daven in a charedi shul, your rabbi is charedi, your kids are in charedi schools, your rosh yeshiva was charedi, and your neighbors are charedi too - and yet you are a moderate charedi, one of your goals is to get through life without getting into trouble for doing or saying the wrong thing.

Maybe you think that most young men should go to college and work for a living, instead of everyone studying Talmud in kollel for an indefinite period of time. Odds are, however, that one of your kids is a bit more to the right than you are. Your son might himself want to learn forever, or your daughter might - after returning home from her charedi seminary - want to marry a boy who will.

The last thing you are going to do is jeopardize your child's shidduch prospects by saying something negative about your community's stated ideals.

Nor do you want your neighbors or fellow shul congregants thinking that you're a rebel. That's not going to lead to anything good in your life.

There isn't much of a divide between public and private behavior in the charedi world. If you allow your private behavior to become public knowledge, you may have a problem.

Most moderate charedim would oppose and even sometimes privately ridicule bans on books, and all the decrees relating to how people should dress, whether the Internet is acceptable, etc. But they are not going to express themselves too loudly, because as they quite rationally see it, there is nothing for them to gain in doing so. Why offend your rabbi, your neighbor, or your old rosh yeshiva?

When I was a little kid, there was a guy in shul who wrote a scholarly book about Jesus. Guess what: There was a ruckus, at the end of which he was no longer welcome to daven in that shul.

Conformity - at least in public - is therefore essential in the charedi world.

I don't think the person who is right-wing modern Orthodox has to deal with any of these things. Sure, there's conformity in the MO world too, but a non-conformist who perhaps is a bit too "frum" is not going to get into any trouble. A little friendly ridicule at worst for being seen as a bit eccentric. And sure, there are kids from MO homes who "flip" and become charedi, but their right-wing MO parents are certainly not going to respond by changing their own lifestyle or practice. And if a MO shul's charedi rabbi has a problem with a congregant based on a religious issue, if the matter is not something easily resolveable and the congregant is an important community member, the rabbi may be at as much or more risk of being booted from the shul than the congregant.

The conformity is not only on the lay level. Many moderate charedi rabbis also believe the extremism of a few charedi rabbinical leaders has gone way too far. Most will say this privately. Some will say so publicly, in their shul. But very few are going to go out on a real limb and express their views for mass consumption. They know that if they would do so, they would be taking the risk of becoming the next Slifkin.

Indeed, in the case of Slifkin, even some charedi rabbis who are fairly close to him were quite hesitant in expressing their public support, and when they did, paid lip service to "the gedolim."

This leaves a vacuum in the charedi world, in which the zealots have a practical monopoly on the issuance of "kol korehs," and extremist proclamations are thereby taken as the standard charedi line for lack of any public expression of an alternative position.

That's one aspect of the cultural difference between the charedi and the non-charedi worlds. There is another. Living among other charedim, having gone to charedi yeshivas, sending your children to charedi schools, and going to a charedi shul with a charedi rabbi, you have been indoctrinated with charedi hashkafah (ideology). Even if as a moderate charedi your own private sentiments and practices differ somewhat from that hashkafah, going to charedi yeshivas your entire life will cause you to have certain instincts that may be at odds with the way you live your own life and even your own core beliefs and values. You've heard that Norman Lamm hates charedim, that Yeshiva University is no good, that women who want to study Torah care only about feminism, that modern Orthodoxy and college are at best to be tolerated but that neither is a fully legitimate alternative to being charedi, and that secular society and culture must be avoided as much as possible.

All of this has an effect. Taking the Slifkin ban again as an example, one of the criticisms of Slifkin was that his "tone" was offensive and disrespectful.

In July, Rabbi Slifkin was in New York and spoke at a number of venues. I attended one of his lectures, and left with great respect for his knowledge and his passion on the subject of science and Torah. I also left thinking that Slifkin would have to change his attitude if acceptance in the charedi world was what he wanted. He was too quick, it was clear to me, to dismiss arguments made by those he disagreed with, such as arguments by Gerald Schroder, as well as the Gosse Theory, that God created a world that appeared to be - but really wasn't - billions of years old. Too quick not necessarily in terms of whether he is right or wrong, but of appearing to be disrespectful to others, especially since he is but a mere 30 years old or so.

When I mentioned to another person who attended a Slifkin lecture that, for his own benefit, Slifkin should change his tone, that perhaps had no idea what I was talking about. Maybe Slifkin sounded a little dismissive, was the response, but what's wrong with him expressing his position? Obviously that will entail disagreeing with others, but isn't that all part of the debate? And what matter does it make how old he is, didn't you hear all the rabbinical sources that he cited?

Unlike me, who grew up in a charedi neighborhood and went mostly to charedi schools, that person's background is mainly right-wing MO. What I heard as likely being offensive to charedim sounds just fine to those in the MO world.

Someone who is right-wing MO has no clue what Slifkin did or said to offend anyone. Nothing wrong with his tone, and his hashkafah is fine too.

In contrast, the person still living in the charedi world will leave with the gnawing sense that perhaps Slifkin is wrong. After all, the notion of the world being billions of years old, is that really okay? It's not as though most people are really that interested or knowledgeable about science, so until Slifkin came along, they may never had any reason to give much thought to what they were taught (or not taught) about the age of the universe and evolution. And even if they're persuaded that Slifkin is probably not a heretic - the acceptance of which means that at least to some extent they are rejecting what they were taught and what their children are probably being taught as either too simplistic or as completely wrong - they will likely feel that just as they are extremely careful in what they say publicly to avoid getting into their own trouble, Slifkin should also be cautious in what he says if he wants to be accepted by charedi rabbis.

In charedi culture, privately rejecting hashkafah and privately living a life that is in some ways divergent with the charedi line probably won't get you into trouble. But once the perception is that you are trying to challenge the norms of that culture, you'll have a problem. And the result is that the many - probably a majority - of moderate charedi laypersons and of moderate charedi rabbis accept living in a world that they find stifling, thinking that there is nothing they can do to change the situation.

All this is something that a moderate charedi must contend with, but is hardly applicable to someone who is right-wing modern Orthodox.