Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The Upcoming Agudah Convention

I want to talk about the symposium devoted to blogging at the upcoming Agudah convention. Many have expressed concern that they themselves or the Jewish blogosphere will be strongly criticized. (Rabbi Maryles and DovBear, 11/02/06 and comments) I myself look forward to the convention with equanimity. I usually agree with their pronouncements. I know two months later there will be a new issue of Der Yiddisher Vort with tons of photos, which enables me to see what the gedolim look like, how they are aging, as well as the most important question ‘’Who’s a gadol , who’s not.’’

I would not be upset if they singled out my blog for disapproval. I wouldn’t want them to get into a snit, but if perhaps they could say something like, “Evanston Jew, not-so aiy, yai, yai.” When an elephant swats a fly, the fly doesn’t say, “I’m so angry. She should have asked me out for a date.” The fly says, “It’s my lucky day, the elephant noticed me.” It would be a kavod (an honor) to be noticed even legnai (disfavorably). Charedim rarely acknowledge anyone outside their world. Condemnation by an organization like the Agudah would quadruple my charedi readership, which would improve the conversation. In this day and age, and with respect to the Internet, condemnation by political parties and rabbinical establishments would drive traffic to a site. The Agudah realizes that if they say ‘don’t read blog X…X is full of lashon harah ( gossip)’, many will rush to read X. It’s sad but true. Such is life.

I expect the Agudah to say, “Using the internet not for business is forbidden.” It is a waste of time, where one could have been studying Torah. They would be right. The production and consumption of blogs eats up an enormous amount of time.

They will say blogging leads to a depreciation of the gedolim and ultimately the Torah itself. They will disapprove of blogs that do not tow the Agudah line, as they should. The Agudah is a political party with a rabbinic leadership, and like all political parties they are not fond of the competition. Nor should they be. Macy’s doesn’t take out ads for Bloomingdales. Do we blame Republicans for not being crazy about Democrats? When the Agudah invokes Daas Torah, it is, amongst many other things, a way to support the rabbinical leadership’s aspiration for hegemony over the Jewish people. The hegemony can be earned by convincing everyone. In the present context, it would involve stepping into the ring of bloggers and presenting their view point in the intellectual marketplace. I am delighted to see Rabbi Avi Shafran of the Agudah is beginning to do just that. When the option of competing in an open-market is not available, there is the tried and true method of condemning those who are a threat to their hegemony by invoking the sanctity of the Torah. And from the Agudah’s point of view, they are right to do so. They feel the rabbinical leadership that is loyal to their party is worthy of leading the entire Jewish people. Anyone who stands in the way of this goal is a threat to the Torah-true way of life as they understand it.

If the Agudah began inviting critics of its viewpoints to address their convention they would no longer be the Agudah. They would have morphed into a tolerant, liberal organization. Next thing the Conservatives and Reformers will be clamoring to present their points of view, and then what will we have? The League of Women Voters. A pluralist Agudah will lead to their gedolim appearing at RCA conventions. Who knows what will come of that? Help for agunot, kashrut reform, women tefila (prayer) groups. The Agudah of Kattowitz, Marienbard, Wien and the other classic conventions was an organization of fierce ideological infighters. Who could possibly want them to go all soft and liberal? Does Jewish life lack in moderate, pluralist liberal Jews?

I expect special condemnation of those bloggers that are most threatening, even if they raised important and timely issues. UOJ is the leading candidate now that he is no longer posting. It would be a pleasant surprise if they coupled their condemnations with some action on rabbinical sexual predator issues and other areas of rabbinic corruption. The elephant in the room in all the scandals of the last few years is who will control the narratives that shape our evaluation of the rabbinical leadership. Would any political/rabbinical leadership give up control over the story line voluntarily? I think not.

Finally, the Agudah will express concern about young people. They are right. Young teenage yeshiva bocherim don’t belong on the internet blogging sites. They should learn, exercise and hang out. Unsupervised internet use for frum teenagers can lead to no good. My view is that a charedi Jew needs a college education to develop his critical powers so as to discern the quality of the arguments. If that is impossible, he needs some life experience.

As usual, Daas Torah knows what it’s talking about. It is especially astute at knowing what is good for Daas Torah. (Also see my posts of 9/20/06 and 8/13/06)


At 11:10 AM, Blogger Bob Miller said...

What is the point of these asides and predictions? Are you in some sort of betting pool?

Once the Agudah convention has happened, everyone will have access to their output and those who want to will be able to make informed judgments.

If you realy want the straight scoop, go to the event yourself.

At 11:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Macy's doesn't take out ads for Bloomingdales"

True, but then again, they don't tell you that you *can't* shop at Bloomingdales and they don't tell people that Bloomindale's advertising is forbidden to read.

The Wolf

At 12:01 PM, Blogger Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

The impression I get from EJ is that these are happenings in Outer Mongolia. Perhaps they truly are from his perspective. But I think the ideological struggle that seems to be happening and which will inform the present and future of the communities in which so many bloggers live makes them able to be less (objective) dispassionate.

In fact, I often find in myself two reactions to happenings within Orthodoxy. One, I term the sociologist within me and it usually says "Isn't this interesting, because...", regardless of what the issue is.

The other is the Orthodox in me, and I either think "This is good, because..." or "This is bad, because..."

At 1:08 PM, Blogger dilbert said...

Apropos of the first point: years back a relative of mine was mentioned in the Agudah magazine as being a prominent apikoris, in the company of Solomon Schecter, Saul Lieberman, and others. When asked if he objected to the mention, he said that they spelled his name right, put him in good company, and therefore he was not upset.

At 2:59 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

brooklynwolf…I agree with your impression that over the years the Agudah has gone in for a fair amount of condemning, maybe less so today. My view is that it is part of a well thought out ideological plan. I hope to write a post why the Conservatives and Reform don’t condemn enough. My plan for increasing their membership is that they first should condemn each other. I have other such bright and constructive ideas, which I can’t reveal just yet.

Mississipi Fred MacDowell…I have a deep affinity for the Agudah that goes back to early childhood, and I know a fair amount of the history. I recognize what I think are their limitations and faults. Nevertheless I have worked hard to present their views as rational, plausible and generally beneficial for their constituency. I adopt in general a cool outsider tone, but no …I do not view these issues as if they were happening in Outer Mongolia.

Part of my post was written out of a sense of frustration with MO people who both take umbrage at the entire Agudah ideology AND deeply yearn for charedi approval. I cannot understand the logic of the position. I believe ideological bloggers on both sides exaggerate the actual conflicts on the ground. If the Agudah today took a sharp turn to the right, and the evidence is to the contrary, it would have only a small effect on the actual daily lives of most MO Jews. (I do not mean to include articles that are learned and contribute to our knowledge base, such as Dr. L. Kaplan’s contributions. )

At 4:08 PM, Blogger lawrence kaplan said...

Evanston Jew: Thanks for your kind comments. I started reading your blog as a result of Gil Student's post on Hirhurim. I do not alway agree with your posts, but I always find them to be thoughtful and stimulating. I particularly appreciate how you often think "outside the box."

At 7:51 PM, Anonymous daat y said...

And I thought the Agudah as acting leshem shamayim!

At 8:22 PM, Anonymous Steve Brizel said...

In the meantime, one wonders what the leadership of the Agudah and the OU can do to turn the Chillul HaShem in the streets of Ir HaKodesh into a Kiddush HaShem that (1) we are appalled at the gay parade in Ir HaKodesh and (2) that the pictures of burning cars, etc are examples of "lo zu haderech". IMO,a united Asifas Tefilah/Tehilim on these issues is desparately needed, as opposed to preaching to the converted at conventions.

At 8:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you have to be either MO or over age 70 to think the Agudah convention is an event worthy of discussing.

At 10:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you not believe in "daas torah" or do you simply feel that the rabbis who speek at the agudah conventions lack it?

At 1:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was an agudist in the days of the great Mike Tress a man who had great love for every yid much has changed since then including me cancelling my agudah membership

At 7:44 AM, Anonymous Naftali said...

You are right that the Aguda is a political party in religious dress. You are right that the Conservative movement seems to be down and out institutionally. They may have lost in the political, communal arena, but I suggest that in many ways they have won the ideological battle. The victory seems so complete that we Orthodox don't even know what hit us. Not in the sense that the Orthodox accept wissenschaft as the key to understanding Judaism, but in Prof. Solomon Schechter's statement of the core halakhic axiom that halakha is whatever is practiced by "catholic Israel". Viewing Halakha as essentially minhag emphasizes the role of community in preserving and defining Judaism, at the expense of ideology. From within the Conservative camp, Prof. Mordechai Kaplan drew from this the conclusion that Judaism could do very well (thank you) without a God concept, as long as its communal sense was strong, vital and creative; i.e., capable of reconstruction. The Orthodox seem to work with a similar definition of halakhic practice, the dispute with other denominations limited to who is included in "catholic" Israel, the extremes being "whoever identifies as a Jew" to "my particular yeshiva or chassidut". In this world, "learning" is a political weapon to show why my community is better than yours --triumphalism-- not a means of religious understanding This has been my impression for years, but it is reinforced by the blogging scene. Even the (excellent) Hirhurim blog that discusses halakhic matters on the basis of sources quickly resolves matters on the basis of who said what to whom and who did what -- in short how a particular practice sits with a particular community. The names fly so fast and furious that there is a whole new set of acronyms : RYBS, RHS, RAL ... so the reader can understand just where a particular practice or position fits. I think Evanston Jew (also excellent blog) shares the same penchant. The eclipse of the religious/ideological component of halakha manifests itself in the lack of interest in genuine moral issues, I think now particularly of aguna , because of the cancellation of a major conference in Israel due to right wing pressure. Solutions are judged by "who" proposed them, whether they come from "feminist" or other quarters---- in short, which community do they represent. Maybe we are all today reconstructionists of different shades, depending on how seriously we take (or speak of) the God idea.

At 12:37 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

anonymous 8:34 …why over 70?

anonymous 10:31… I have no particular opinion about the rabbis who speak at the Agudah convention. As hard as I try my measuring rod for the relative size of gedolim is imperfect. My views on Daas Torah, though incomplete can be found in my posts of 8/13,8/14 and 8/17.

Naftali…As usual very interesting, but this time much too quick, even for me who has some idea of Kaplan’s theology. You lost me beginning with the sentence ’The Orthodox seem to work…' I pick up your thread again with the sentence ’The eclipse…’. (As an aside I did link to the aguna issue.) In the interest of clarity I’ll ask you 3 questions. Which moral theory would you rely on that is invariant over
denominations, or are you thinking in terms of some common sense of decency? Aren’t the bulk of behavioral questions already decided and embedded both in halacha and in practice, institutions like shabbus and kashruth? What do you mean by the religious ideological components of halacha?

At 12:58 PM, Blogger Harry Maryles said...

UOJ is the leading candidate now that he is no longer posting.

I have heard that. But in my view, UOJ will not be the target of the Agudah. At least not specifically. As you said, UOJ has stopped blogging. And UOJ deserves to be criticized (and lauded as well). I wrote an entire post on it awhile back:


I believe that their condemnation will be more general. It will revolve around the general ban on the internet (except for business and with a special heter which must be sought), and also general issurim of Lashon Hara, Bitul Torah and the like. But if it does focus on details, I am fairly certain it will be about the Slfkin affair and what that has generated. I base this on the letter that NIRC RY, Rav Aharon Feldman wrote. I think that will be their starting point because that issue generated criticism of Gedolim like no other issue.

And if Agudah had a motto it would be “Gedolim-R-Us”. Hence their being so upset. How upset and at whom… remains to be seen. But in my view any criticism at all will be unacceptable to them, even if it done in the most respectful of ways. Their Gedolim represent Daas Torah which equals to the best of human understanding, the will of God and being critical of “Daas Torah” then becomes tantamount to blasphemy. I fully expect the convention to proceed along these lines.

At 2:05 PM, Anonymous Naftali said...

You're right; too quick, too impressionistic and overstated. That's why we blog anonymously.

In response to your last two questions (I don't understand the first): By the religious, ideological components of halakha I mean the conviction that halakhic observance is meant to promote theological and moral purposes, much as Rambam writes that the purpose of mitzvot as a whole is the welfare of the soul and the welfare of the body, including the acquisition by every human individual of necessary moral qualities. I observe that this religious/ideological component is absent from today's halakhic discussion. What takes its place is the exercise of aligning particular observance with particular Orthodox subgroups. The purpose of mitzvot is taken to further communal identity and solidarity, those perhaps being perceived as the highest moral purposes. (This is an extremely dangerous approach as it justifies immoral conduct towards those outside the community or those inside the community who wander, but that is for another discussion). Moral issues such as aguna are not attacked with the full halalkhic arsenal because doing so might upset prevailing communal structures and attitudes.

True, as you say, many behavioral issues are settled, but there are wide divergences with respect to shabbat and especially kashrut whose main purpose seems to be to define subgroups. In Israel at least questions of kashrut and hashgachot define affiliations and accentuate communal differentiations and identities. The same can be said for many other areas of observance.

If your first question inquires as to what I think should be the overriding moral ideology of halakha, then yes common decency is a good start. But my point is not so much to assert what such an ideology should be as to point out that it doesn't seem to exist, and this is where I see how Orthodoxy has eagerly swallowed the Conservative ideology of "catholic" Israel -- halakha as minhag -- , hook, line and sinker, adapting it of course to our own needs. I've always wondered why the great opposition to Conservative Judaism, it's like beating a dead horse -- how many real Conservative Jews are there. But maybe this answers my kasha -- we are opposed to them so as to (subconsciously) hide/deny their tracks in our own thinking. So I've moved from pop socilogy to pop psychology. Thanks for the platform.

At 5:23 PM, Anonymous shaya g said...

I forget the person originally attributed to this quote but "the only bad publicity, is no publicity".. I hope yoopur blog gets noticed and mentioned!

At 6:29 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

Naftali…now I at least understand what you are saying. A few small points. In practice when one observes Halacha as custom it lacks normative punch…the ‘must ‘quality that it certainly has inside Orthodoxy. In fact the ‘must’ quality is frequently treated as irrational .You are implicitly assuming a practice can’t be multifunctional and serve many purposes and reasons. Since it can, its use to foster group solidarity doesn’t preclude other possibilities, though as you observe it sometimes tends to overshadow others. You give 2 examples, the first, agunah is so very complex both halachically as well as moving rabbinical organizations and individual poskim,. The shechitah /badatz/ is a very good example. Suppose eating only badatz helps define a community. It won’t be the first time rules surrounding eating defined a group. Think of the perushim in the Talmud. One last question…on your hypothesis why is Reconstructionism such a failure. People say they are down to 50,000 members.

As for my personal neglect of moral issues on my blog…yes and no. I certainly argued as persuasively as I knew how for greater decency towards the Palestinians, against ethnic cleansing, negotiations,etc. I also pushed a little on some of the feminist and gay issues, rabbinic sexual predators and so on. I feel most comfortable discussing moral questions in the context of liberal Judaism. I hope to devote posts to moral issues involved in Reform charity.

At 9:41 PM, Anonymous yisroel said...

I think what's driving the agudah nuts is not that they are being bashed by the MO. But, they realize that many of the right wing UO is fed up with their elitism and do not agree with them on many issues. And, their total abandonment on issues like child molestation.

Agudah and the gedolim will either become more extreme or they won't change at all.

My prediction is that "Daas Torah" and the agudah will implode and collapse in 5-7 years (if not sooner).

At 6:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To "My prediction is that "Daas Torah" and the agudah will implode and collapse in 5-7 years (if not sooner)".


There's the diehard faithful Agudahists, that run the show, that will never abandon ship.

And in addition there's the phonies, that pretend to like Agudah, as it serves their reputations well, and secretly hate it as much as those that hate it publicly.

At 1:36 PM, Anonymous shmuel said...

I'm with Yisroel.
The Agudah, deep down, has to be realizing that the end is near: they're not offering any leadership, whatsoever, on key crisis-issues of the day (pick your crisis): sky-high tuition; shidduchim; rabbinic child molestation; agunahs; men holding their ex-wives hostage financially before they (thankfully) give a get; off-the-derech kids; Charedi poverty in Israel, the ever-growing Yissochers and the shrinking of Zevuluns, etc. The Agudah is indeed perceived as elitist, cliquish, my-way-or-the-highway with absolutely no answers in solving its own societal problems.

And then, lo and behold, a bunch of nothings begin "blogging" and sending their criticisms of the Agudah around the world, focusing their anger and frustration upon leaders who have until now exhibited a complete inability to solve intractable Orthodox problems.

When you think of yourself as G-d's chosen, appointed holy gadol to lead your people out of bondage, and all you do is fail miserably, year in and out, with no end in sight; when you sit on your thumbs and shrug your shoulders about child molestation in yeshivas and refuse to do ANYTHING to investigate and assist in the prosecution of animals, and you do nothing other than allow yourself to be named as a defendant in a $30 million lawsuit, you're well past the point of irrelevancy. And you know it. But you don't want others to catch on. But there are those damned bloggers doing it. So you condemn them.
Great system. Great religion. Leaders who don't lead, who get embarrassed when the world finds out that they either can't or won't lead, and noone is supposed to know or discuss it.

But this convention, they can take the high road: admit they're failing their constituents on many levels, thank the bloggers for the much-needed mussar, and begin leading.

Or, they'll do what Agudah always does: never look introspectively at their own immense faults; shout down all critics; preach how infallible they are; how wrong everyone else is; how blind other Jews are for not following their appointed "gdolim," and never solve anything.

Thanks to blogs, the jig is up. And the Agudah knows it. Baruch Hashem.

At 12:06 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

shmuel…the Agudah has no answers to many of these problems because Orthodox Judaism has no answers. I must disagree with your prediction. The Agudah is not scared of bloggers. Bloggers are an insignificant nuisance at most. I bet the Kolko yeshiva (Torah Utemiamah?) will have more students this year than last. The Agudah exists because they are an inextricable part of an intricate network of social relations that exists in charedi life. The yeshivas, the extended families via marriage, the graduates of all these yeshivas, the shuls and shteiblechs, the friendships going back to childhood, and so much else tie people together. There’s absolutely no reason to believe charedi society is about to fall apart or undergo a crisis and the same holds true for the Agudah as part of charedi society.

One small prediction, I think, within the next twenty years, charedi life will adopt pre-nups as a solution to the agunah problem. When it happens, I’ll send you an e-mail.


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