Sunday, January 07, 2007

Thank You Dear Readers

Today will be my last post on my blog, at least for now. I will keep my blog up indefinitely, but in time I will block all new comments. I have personal reasons for stopping. The books are piling up. I don’t learn enough. I need to catch up with my life.

When I started the blog, I wanted to see if it was possible to write a blog about Jewish life, using a language that would be secular, humanistic, ironic and progressive. I wanted the subjects of my posts to be able to recognize themselves in what I wrote, and to feel that even if I was critical I had made some effort to look at them deeply and with empathy. My hope was that the experience of being seen and understood at least in part, would have a positive and pleasurable effect.

Another goal I set for myself was to explain the mixture of Hebrew, Yiddish, and English called yinglish/ yeshivish. I didn’t go overboard in stressing this, but I hope I made some contribution that would enable non- Orthodox Jews to feel more comfortable with the language and culture of Orthodox Jewish life.

I also wanted to offer an alternative to Torah U’Madah (Torah and Secular Knowledge). My view is, “I like Torah. I like Madah… Hold the U (and).” I tried to show how in practice one can shift back and forth between Orthodox and secular ideas without going through the compulsion to integrate that is so frequently found in Modern Orthodoxy. In order for me to elaborate on this charedi-secular combo I would now have to talk about Slifkin, (I am anti Slifkin, pro evolution) and the role of Jewish and Bible studies. I tried to work up some of my thoughts on these topics and I sent drafts to The Vaad (Committee) for the Protection of Evanston Jew’s Posterior. The Vaad advised I either bury these essays, ask my doctor for an increase dosage of Prilosec, or write a book and do it right. I have ordered the Prilosec and someday I might try to elaborate on these issues, but not now.

I don’t sense any great Orthodox demand for new philosophical ideas about Judaism, and I’m not sure the internet is the right vehicle, especially when the ideas are anti –Platonist, anti-naïve realist, anti-essentialist (anti-Brisk), historicizing, and naturalist. (Hint: It’s not the historicism that is causing all the problems, it is the naïve realism.)Speaking schematically, I believe it is possible to construct a philosophy of Judaism that would be open to the world but give a leading role to charedi life; a theology that used pragmatist conceptions of rationality and ontology, a sort of Rorty/Putnam hybrid that would hopefully work in a deeper and less painful way with the actual practices of Orthodoxy than the current mix of theologies. It would provide a philosophical basis for Torah and mitzvoth that would at least be comprehensible to non-religious Jews .Unfortunately, a serious presentation of new theological ideas doesn’t lend itself to my chosen style of schmoozing out of my own experience. It is possible I might try another limited series sometime in the future if I can find a way to present such ideas in a reader friendly, experience near way.

My request to remain anonymous remains. Even if someone disagrees with my outlook, it should be apparent I have tried to act in a sincere and constructive way. I very much want to maintain my privacy.

Considering the baggage I was carrying going into this blog, I think it’s to the credit of my readers, especially my Orthodox readers, that they gave me a chance to lay out my tentative ideas without coming down on me too hard. I want to thank all those who wrote comments as well as my readers, especially those who began reading at an early point and stayed with me. I would also like to thank Rabbi Student and Rabbi Maryles for saying nice things about my blog. Special thanks are due to the Vaad mentioned above as well as the Vaad for the Preservation of Tznius in Downtown Evanston. I couldn’t have proceeded with the same confidence without you. Finally, I would like to thank my assistant for learning how to spell charedi, chasidish, and austritt, and for her sound advice in matters of style and syntax.

Thank you dear readers. It has been a joy and a privilege to have this conversation.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Foucault and Charedim

I want to continue seeing what could be done with my Foucault-ish idea that charedi society, in its public space, is devoted to a sort of negation of power, money and secular knowledge. I think charedim carry it even further. If we understand power and money as the sad realities of the way the world really is, we can say that charedim are intent on deconstructing reality while offstage recognizing all too well what the world is really like. I’m reminded of the romantic poet , some say Novalis, who worked himself up into lather because he felt he was oppressed by time. The story goes every day he found he was getting older, no matter what he did, and no one had asked him if it was okay by him. So being the romantic poet that he was, he decided that he wouldn’t stand for this anymore, but would rise in full rebellion against the hegemony of time. He committed suicide thus showing time it was not all powerful. I have a feeling time wasn’t impressed.

Let’s talk about college. Charedim insist kids shouldn’t go to college. Torah, Torah, Torah! Parents tear their hair out, at least they used to in my day. No college, no degree, no skills, no profession, no money, is this a way? This no-college thing is getting worse and worse, year by year. Why are they doing this? Why are they willfully impoverishing an entire generation? I think it is important to notice a small fact about charedi life. They don’t want anyone to go to college, but if someone went to college and became something really impressive, they are awfully happy. No one ever got shunned for being an astrophysicist. I remember when I was young, a man fainted during davening and three guys jumped up, all doctors. Everybody went, “Ooooohh, isn’t this something else? In our little shteibel, three doctors. Nachis.” We must conclude that what charedim don’t want is for anyone to go to college. They’re never against someone having gone to college, even though it is true it is impossible to have gone to college, unless you went to college. The objection is to an attitude which goes, “I study Torah AND I’m trying to be an accountant.” No, no, no. The way to do it is study Torah, and somehow, you end up being an accountant. How? Don’t ask how. Summer school at night, transfer credits from Israel, twist this way and turn that way. Just don’t say Torah and accounting in the same breath. Why, because you are paying respects to the constraints imposed by reality. Charedim like to negate reality.

The whole exercise can be compared to a sort of W.A.S.P way of dealing with money and work. There’s a certain type of W.A.S.P that even if he’s working eighty hours a week and is in a total panic if you ask him how it’s going, he’ll say something about his tennis game. It’s somehow in bad taste to acknowledge that you’re working hard or anxious. Think Cary Grant and Fred Astaire. The ideal is to make it look easy and effortless. Similarly, it’s not nice to talk a great deal about money. If you have money, you sort of make-believe it’s not important. Your house is shabby- chic, Sister Parish style, lived-in, eclectic, god-forbid a decorator. It might cost more money to achieve a hand-me-down look, than to construct a glitzy, bling-bling Architectural Digest interior. It’s not easy to create an appearance that money is irrelevant, when you’re living an expensive lifestyle. In Evanston, they used to joke that if you had two cars, a Toyota and Mercedes, you keep the Toyota up front and the Mercedes hidden in the garage. In Highland Park (Jewish), you keep the Mercedes upfront, and the Toyota in the garage. It was a joke.

Let’s run this idea one more time. Kollelim. Guys don’t work, women work a little, umpteen children. Everybody rings their hands. How’s this going to work? Answer, you’re supposed to make it work. Kolel guys are good at this. A government program here, a little subsidized housing there, a supportive father-in-law somewhere, and fiddler-on the-roof style, they pull it off. Why are they asking people not to face reality? Don’t they recognize how much money it takes to have a large family? Charedim want a front-and-center religious space that doesn’t bow down to the gods of money, reality, and power.

One last example which is too long a story for now but fits here….Most every Israeli lives in the State of Israel. Charedim live in the land of Israel. A state requires an army and a draft and the exercise of military power. Charedim don’t believe in exhibiting secular power, certainly not secular military power. Soldiers, fighters, physical and military strength…not in the charedi lexicon. If no one went to the army how would the state defend itself? Answer, don’t bother us with reality, we don’t do tanks.

I know, I know, I know that the kolel life doesn’t always work. I know, I know, I know that everyone knows many tragedies, and what I have said is far from a justification of this way of life. I am not offering it as a justification. I’m trying to show what the spirit of charedi practices is all about. I feel this is very much needed since so many people do little but criticize charedim, with hardly a kind and understanding word.

We all know the sad reality that money plays an extraordinarily important part in Orthodox Jewish life. We all know that people are measured by how much money they have. It has come to a point where people are seated at weddings according to their estimated wealth. In shiduchim, money is not a sub-text, it’s the text itself. We also know that Orthodox Jewish life, at least in its upper-tier, is very fast lane. It takes big bucks to play. I can go on. What makes charedi life tolerable is that money and power is kept, in some ways, in the background. A person can always take solace that he is of great worth because he is a serious student of Torah and devoted to a life of study and mitzvoth. And he is.

Postscript: People familiar with the post- Foucault academic literature will quickly recognize the charedi package can be given a radical left twist. I believe charedi society is a radical counterculture, and though there are authoritarian elements in its decision making, it is at heart, in its refusal to fully accept modernism, in its dream quality of being outside history, in its commitment to a world where books and ideas are the highest values a radicalism of the left. Chardal (charedi Religious Zionist, yes there is this new mutation), and Religious Zionists that support the settlers programme are a radicalism of the right, even when they wear charedi outfits.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Gedolim and Charedi High Society

I have already mentioned I am an avid reader of charedi publications. They are all so great, it is difficult to choose a favorite; but I try to be a constant reader of Hamodiah or Yated Ne’eman. I like keeping up with the melave malkas and fund raisers, finding out which women’s group Rabbi Dishon will be speaking to next and which bris Rabbi Kutler just attended. My main reason though for buying these papers is the centerfolds. They contain lots of photos of gedolim (the rabbinic leadership). I agree with the charedim in this respect. It is important to have visual images of rabbis in your head. Otherwise it’s Brad Pitt and Brittany Spears and Donald Trump and George Bush. Better the Rachmistrivka Rebbe.

This week was no different….lots of goodies, gedolim aplenty. I’ll mention a few. Rav Don Ungarisher, Rav Shlomo Feivel Schustal, Rav Moshe Heinemann, Rav Shmuel Kaminetsky, Rav Chaim Stein, Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, Rav Aharon Schechter, the Boyaner Rebbe. Now we are not talking little rebbes here, guys with a heimish minyan that exists because the rebbetzin makes a delicious kugel. We are talking heavy hitters, first and foremost, of course being Rav Elyashiv. I chose this sub-group from this week’s Yated for a reason. I have a fairly clear idea who they are. I have, in all sincerity, high opinions of all of them, every single one. Even the baby in the group, Rav Schustal is as solid as they come. If there are such things as gedolim in our time, here is an impressive lineup.

Some are wise….the Boyaner Rebbe is growing in stature because of his sound advice. Some are important poskim (jurists)…Rabbi Heineman and of course Rabbi Elyashiv. Some are lomdim (Talmudic scholars) of utmost seriousness, who have spent a life in holiness and purity, learning day and night, never wavering such as Rav Ungarisher. The rest are important heads of major yeshivot.

I want to make a sort of obvious point. These gedolim were not ‘in the news’ in the past week. They were photographed at simchas, weddings, bar-mitzvas and the like. They didn’t do anything special in virtue of which they were the one’s chosen to be looked at by the charedi world. They were there in the paper not for what they did, but for who they are. These are society photographs similar to the pictures in the New York Times Sunday Style Section. You might call Yated the Town and Country, the W, the HELLO! of charedi society. The fact that Rabbi X made an appearance at the party is the newsworthy event.

Only gedolim and accidentally the bar mitvah boy/chasan and an occasional bystander are ever caught in these photos. Why is this? Even if one accepts the most stringent interpretation of daas torah there is no obligation to show photographs only of gedolim. If you think about it, charedi society has many socialites/stars/celebrities other than these rabbis. Charedi society, as we all know or should know is stratified with a small upper tier and a much larger base. The upper tier consists of rich charedim, very rich charedim and so rich you can’t believe the number being quoted charedim. The rich make this whole society work. There are thousands of professionals, high powered lawyers, doctors, professors, deans, scientists, high tech entrepreneurs, low tech entrepreneurs, hedge fund operators, real estate developers, nursing home owners and rich, lazy and spoiled children of all the above. These people step out; they are famous in their own way. Never a picture. Invisible. Why?

So here is my little hermeneutic, my drashette …Think of these individual rabbis as being parts of a sort of aggregated collective, the gedoli yisrael, the current rabbinic leadership, or the leading most important rabbis. Think of the gedolei yisroel as a single entity, just as a sovereign government is a single entity even if power is divided between different branches of government. The gedoli yisrael , understood now as a unique singular entity is the sovereign, the head, of the charedim. Leave aside the extent of the gedolim’s power, or which rabbis constitute the gedoli yisrael. Let’s say charedi Judaism is an absolute or constitutional monarchy, so they have all or none of the power. Assume your rabbis of choice are part of or the gedolim. Whatever their de jure and de facto powers are and however constituted, the gedolim is the sovereign of the charedi polity, no different than the Emperor of Japan is the head of the Japanese people and Queen Elizabeth is the Queen of Great Britain and the Commonwealth nations. The gedolim are not the kings (pl.) of Israel. No. The collective as a whole is the sovereign of the charedi world.

We can now understand in a way why these rabbis, and no one else, are up front and center in the charedi world. They are the stars, the celebrities, even if they have no real power. Their arrival at a party is like the Queen’s attendance at a royal function. Why? Because the gedolei yisrael embody our traditions; and our religious traditions, our Torah is understood as the will of God. In honoring them, we honor the will of God and thereby honor God. Even if there was no doctrine of daas torah, which attempts to inflate the gedolim’s power beyond their traditional roles, there would still be a point in the charedi way of organizing its society. If we were to celebrate the rich, the aggressive established professionals, the machers and shvitzers in charedi life, we would be honoring and worshipping power and money.

It is to the great credit of charedi society that whatever the sordid reality, they act as if money and power is a nothing, invisible, gurnisht. Charedim also devalue and deflate the knowledge that leads to material power. The only knowledge they publicly value is the knowledge of Torah, especially when the knowledge is acquired by learning Torah for its own sake. We look at, honor, love and obsess about frail, old rabbis who have spent their lives hidden inside the holy books. In doing so, we destroy, at least symbolically, the idols of our time, money, power, and secular knowledge.

To Be Continued…

Monday, January 01, 2007

Is Liberal Judaism Too Liberal?

Jack Wertheimer, the Provost of JTS has been writing for the last twenty years on the theme of the sky is falling. In the June 2006 issue of Commentary, he slugs away once again at his favorite thesis, the oncoming demise of American Jewry. This time his variation is the lack of ethnic cohesiveness and feeling of Jewish peoplehood in the ranks of American Jews. In ritual fashion, he trots out the by now fairly well known statistics. In 1989, 73% of all Jews agreed that caring about Israel is really important. By 2005, we have fallen to 57%, with younger adults exhibiting even weaker attachments to Israel. Today, 75% of those 65 and over believe that Jews all around the world share a common destiny, whereas only 47% of adults under 35 agree.

There are more than enough culprits to account for these changes. Higher rates of intermarriage alone could account for most of it. When that fails, one can always look to such threats as the children of baby boomers, unlike their parents, having mostly non-Jewish friends. Social interactions of younger American Jews are far more likely today to be mainly with non-Jews. There is nothing in American society to promote ethnic separateness. Unlike other countries, ethnicity is a weak form of identification. All this used to be described positively as the melting pot of America bringing about acculturation and assimilation. Now, Wertheimer says it’s the effect of multiculturalism and the requirement to honor diversity, thus offering a political innuendo and a sociological narrative in less than a sentence. I can understand why Jews are against affirmative action since it works directly against our self interest. It’s a stretch to claim the desire for diversity is responsible for young Jews having non-Jewish friends.

I would agree with Wertheimer that liberal Judaism is too far to the left only in one respect. I agree that the Reform movement has had too great an identification with the left wing of the Democratic Party. No religious group should be totally committed to some secular political party no matter how congenial. The lesson I would draw is that each issue ought to be looked at separately and decided on its own merits. In some areas the Reform should end up on the radical anarchist and socialist left, on some they should be on the right. The Reform movement should stop asking "what would Hubert Humphrey and Adlai Stevenson have said?"

What I don’t like about Wertheimer’s views is that he takes the sad facts of assimilation and gives it a right-wing political twist. He concludes American Judaism is too spiritual and private, much too therapeutic and quest-oriented. Rabbis don’t speak enough of the everlasting covenant between God and the Jewish people, and talk much too much about universal moral concerns and the need for personal transcendence. We need more sermons about how the world hates us and Israel is beleaguered by enemies on all sides, and fewer sermons about Darfur and relief for the victims of Katrina. If Jews are to survive, there is no choice but to separate from non-Jewish America, become more tribal and forget about tikun haolam, and spirituality. (See my earlier discussion of austritt.)The entire article is an implicit plug for Conservative and Orthodox right-wing politics. It is an open attack against Reform Judaism and liberal secular Jews and their special ideas about social justice and global charity.

Chicken Little works both ways. There has been no shortage of rabbis for the last fifty years beating the drums on behalf of Zionism. Apparently the endless appeals to the dire situation in Israel are having diminishing marginal returns. If talking up how Jews are a people apart would stop assimilation there has been no shortage of that kind of rhetoric even in Reform temples over the years. It didn’t have the desired effect. Looking at the larger picture, large segments of Jewish life were already substantially secular already in Eastern Europe despite the absence of Reform and Conservatives. Charedim and religious Zionists were in the minority throughout Eastern Europe even before the First World War. The Jewish people were tribal enough in the 30’s 40’s and 50’s. Yet it is correct to say that the bulk of the assimilation that is currently driving intermarriage occurred during those decades. It is the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of people who were perhaps nominally religious but certainly ethnic and tribal that have intermarried. Myron Cohen never stopped anyone from marrying a shiksa.

It’s always tempting to project one’s faults onto the assimilated and the intermarried American Jews. Easy to rally the troops that way, and no one is going to complain. If you want to do something about this problem, you can’t substitute a few statistics and a right-wing political agenda for a detailed understanding of what assimilated Jews are actually feeling. An analysis that goes…if they weren’t liberal, if they were right wing conservative, if they were gush emunim supporters they would feel strongly about Israel, explains nothing. If they wore sheitlach and black hats, if they lived in a walled hermetically sealed ghetto…. but they don’t. What they might have been doesn’t explain why they are the way they are, or how to stop such Jews from continuing on their path.

There is no better way of understanding than asking the Jews who are walking away what they feel and believe. Wertheimer doesn’t care for this internal approach because he would then have to list all the complaints against Israel’s right wing politics and all the contempt for meaningless religious services. Some American Jews have tired of the hundred year tragic war that is being played out in Israel. I don’t think Wertheimer is keen on explaining to secular Peace Now types how Israel has had absolutely no choice but to build settlements for forty tears. Wertheimer knows better than most the quality of rabbis that have been produced by the liberal rabbinical establishment. I doubt if he wants to engage in debates on whether any of the blame is to be attributed to the seminaries and rabbinical organizations including JTS. Better to beat up on the assimilated and re-describe effects as causes than to internalize any responsibility inside the religious core. And what better way to do this than to do an Ann Coulter and make liberal sound Jewishly sinful. It makes no difference that making marginal Jews feel guilty is counterproductive. These ‘scientific’ sociological researches are really a way of reassuring the believers….you see, you sent your kids to Solomon Schecter, and they all married Jews.

I’ll end with an analogy. Make believe Jewland is like Portugal. Assuming no restrictions on immigation, why would people live in Portugal and not in America? There can be only two reasons. The first is life in Portugal is better. The second is that even if life in the United States is more promising, the transportation costs are too high, so that net-net you are no better off moving than staying at home. You cannot do anything at the margins of Jewland to increase the transportation costs. Increasing such costs only works in the space between Orthodoxy and the rest of Jewry. At the margin, people are assimilated already and fit easily into American society. Secession from America or from the world is not a real policy option. The only thing that can be done is to make the Jewish world a more attractive place to live. When it comes to the little puzzle how to make the Jewish space attractive to liberal and secular Jews all the Chicken Little apparatchiks don’t have a clue.

Postscript: Rabbi Maryles has written an essay (12/31/06) criticizing ideas I put out the other day on how to make Jewish life more vibrant in my post ‘Five Ideas for a More Jewish America’ (12/28). This new essay is in addition to and an elaboration of his comments to my original post. Readers interested in the topic will find his new essay stimulating. I have written and posted on his site a longish comment to his new article, and, of course, Rabbi Maryles has responded.