The Zionist Conspiracy
Sunday, August 09, 2009
What Happens In Lakewood Doesn't Stay In Lakewood; Why Lakewood Matters
I come from what is probably best described as a moderate charedi background. I grew up in Brooklyn, where I attended "black-hat" yeshivas. When I moved to the Upper West Side in 1997, I gravitated toward shteibels and learned several nights a week at the local kollel.
Today, my hashkafos are more centrist. I have disagreements with the charedi approach on a number of issues. But I am not a rebel. I don't hate where I come from, nor the people from those places. I have no tolerance at all for charedi bashing. I particularly deplore certain ultra-modern Orthodox Jews who have tolerance and respect for everything and everyone - with the sole exception of charedim, for whom they muster only disdain and contempt.
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Around eight years ago, the rabbis of Lakewood unanimously came out with a harsh edict banning the attendance of Lakewood BlueClaws baseball games. The edict did not suffice with a mere articulation of the standards of Lakewood's rabbinical leadership. It made clear that the children and siblings of anyone who attended a game would not be welcome in any yeshiva in Lakewood.
There have been a number of other disturbing developments in Lakewood in recent years. Emanating from Lakewood have been bans of all kinds of books; even a respected resident of Lakewood could not escape the decree as against his own fine and important work. Then the Internet ban. Then a ban of anyone with a television. Then the music ban. And of course the annual fiasco in which some people cannot get their children into yeshiva.
Yes, we are assured, eventually everyone gets into a school. At what price? The clear message is sent: Not every Jew in Lakewood is equal. Some schools are reserved for kollel families. Other schools aren't going to be for you if you don't conform with the dress code - and by dress code, I'm not referring to wearing yarmulkas, skirts and sheitels. If children don't conform, then they are bad boys and girls and can be expected to be expelled, perhaps to be sent somewhere out of town to be set straight, or perhaps to hang out in Lakewood.
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I recall a shabbos around ten years ago when an old friend of mine, by then living in Lakewood for a number of years, was visiting the Upper West Side. To my objections about the Lakewood approach, he responded, essentially, that living in Lakewood is a privilege, not a right. If you want to live in Lakewood, you have to accept all of its rules.
If Lakewood were a self-contained cocoon, my friend's position might have merit. But Lakewood ultimately affects the entire observant Jewish world.
Whether banning concerts and sporting events as leisure activities, or students from the classroom, or books and the Internet from homes, Lakewood's stringency has carried over to the entire charedi world.
The result has not been more piety. Rather, it is an unprecedented amount of cynicism - including among many people who consider themselves charedi - toward the charedi rabbinical leadership.
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L'chol z'man v'eis, l'chol chaifetz tachas ha'shamyim. (For everything there is a season; there is a time for everything under the heaven.)
Lakewood has provided us with an ideal of intense Torah study and Torah observance. Without Lakewood, it is questionable whether I would have had a kollel in Manhattan at which to learn. It is questionable whether Yeshiva University would also have become a place of widespread serious learning. It is questionable whether the Orthodox Jewish world - charedi, centrist, modern, whatever - would have bucked conventional expectations and flourished as it has.
Nobody should demand that Lakewood drop its own ideals. But Lakewood must realize that while there may have been a time for absolute zealotry, today's challenges are not the same as those of the 1950's. Our children are not tempted by the Conservative movement, by moving to the suburbs and having a nice car and house.
We face different sorts of serious challenges, for which there are no easy solutions. For some, bans may work, but not for most. Those who cannot or will not conform cannot be kicked to the curb. Even if it were otherwise consistent with the Torah path, there aren't enough of us around to afford writing off any parts of the frum community.
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Thinking back to my five years on the Upper West Side, if I were to distinguish its charedi community's approach with the Lakewood approach, I would sum it up in three words:
Diracheha Darchei Noam. (The ways of the Torah are pleasant.)
The Upper West Side has its share of disagreements. The eruv is most prominent. The longtime charedi residents are not fans of the mostly modern Orthodox singles scene.
But the UWS is a place where a young woman who uses the eruv and wears short sleeves will be welcomed at the shabbos table of a yeshivish or chasidic family. Not tolerated as an act of chesed, welcomed.
And so another message is sent: Yes, we have our disagreements. We don't all dress alike, we don't all think alike. But much more importantly, let's daven together. Come to our shiurim. Join us at our shabbos table.
In navigating the challenges of the 21st century, the entire observant Jewish world - without abandoning its own hashkafos - must adopt this approach.