Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Gedolim Are Losing Their Grip

The internet blogs are becoming a subversive element in the Orthodox world. For the first time ordinary people, guys who went to yeshiva for a while and went on to lead non-rabbinical lives are having a chance to talk publicly, bitch, vent and say what’s on their minds. The results are extraordinary.

I read not so long ago the comments on the blog called chatzpem concerning physical violence in yeshivas. Over a hundred people wrote in, furious about being beaten by their teachers in elementary school in the 50’s and 60’s. Everyone is agreed it is not happening today, but apparently back then there was a fair amount of frasking (slapping), paatching and knuckle rapping. Most everyone agreed that horrible as it was, they did grow up, remained in the community and are getting on with their lives.

The significance of all this brouhaha is that now the victims have a voice. They can write for the whole world to see that their 4th grade teacher, Rabbi X that no good such- and- such was an s.o.b, a rashaw, (very, very bad), a- this and a- that. And the sadist if he’s alive, and his family and children, will learn soon enough of the pain he inflicted on young and innocent children. Until now the victims were marginalized and silent. The teachers continued to strut in front of their classrooms while the victims were nursing their wounds in private.

The same thing is happening with pulpit rabbis who beat up on women, and school rabbis who molest their students, the Tendler and Kolko cases being the most spectacular. The public reality is no longer a monopoly of the rabbis with their old boy network and tendency to protect their own. The internet and blogosphere in general, and not just the Jewish section is much less deferential to celebrities than the culture as a whole. The rabbis function to a large extent as the religious version of celebrities.

There is also a shift in power away from the newspapers. The big six, The Jewish Press, Jewish Week, The Forward, Yated, Hamodiah and Der Yid, can no longer control the conversation. As an example, The Jewish Press with it’s over the top inflammatory editorials, (come to think of it, the entire paper is an editorial), was discredited, I’d say demolished by the blogs when the newspaper came to the defense of Tendler and Kolko.

A final example: When Rabbi Eliyashav and Co. banned the Slifkin books on the grounds that evolution is heresy and obviously false, that didn’t end the conversation. It started it. A couple of thousand pages later and they are still talking about Slifkin and the age of the world. (My theory is that bloggers will keep on talking about Slifkin until Jews will become so bored with the topic, there will be a takanah ( a new rule ) that everyone will accept, forbidding anyone ever to mention the name Slifkin ever again.) Twenty years ago when the charedi rabbinical leadership, the gedolim, said X that was it. The conversation was over. Now The Jewish Press is talking about Slifkin. The Rabbis are to some extent losing their stranglehold, in the area of haskafah, (outlook, ideology, dogmatics) and in other areas as well.

We are witnessing a sort of decentralization of power away from the traditional shtetl oligarchy of the important rabbis and the influential rich people. What I think will evolve is more of a triangular distribution of power, the third center being the bloggers and the many people, in principal everyone, who send in their comments or follow the conversation. In any society when there is a movement toward greater democracy, political life becomes messier. A famous argument against true participatory democracy is that attending all the meetings and listening to everyone have their say can drive anyone to drink. Living near Chicago I can certainly see the advantages of machine style efficiency, at least at the local level. In the shtetl called Orthodoxy, life has certainly become more interesting, messier, and louder because of the din and buzz of the internet.

Even though the internet is changing Orthodox political life, the gedolim are too insular and rigid to provide a creative response. They are beginning to wake up to the new realities, and they don’t like what they see. The internet is working for the benefit of Modern Orthodoxy (MO) in their ongoing battle with their Ultra brethren The MO is dominating the internet, with many content filled websites. The same is true for the blogosphere. Most bloggers are MO / YU guys having a conversation with themselves. The first impulse of the UO rabbinate was to ban the internet. It won’t work. Rabbi Matthisyahu and Rabbi Avraham Schorr can talk until they are green; there is no chance to put the genie back into the bottle, even in Lakewood or Flatbush. The internet with its cheekiness, gossip and high spirits is here to stay. If I were Rabbi Schorr, a man who has a deep and powerful Torah outlook but is hysterically opposed to the internet, I would allow someone to transcribe my thoughts to a blog, and try to push the internet conversation towards greater depth and seriousness. I think the future is on the internet and the charedim are missing a huge opportunity.


At 10:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We agree with your perspective on the gedolim and look forward to future articles on your blog.

At 8:56 AM, Anonymous jblogger said...

but notice how the Jewish Press is reaching out to bloggers and publishing them in print. Gil Student on Slifkin and Harry Maryles a few times.

They're trying to keep up with the changing times.

At 10:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well stated jblogger. The press is now playing catch-up to the bloggers!


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