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.


At 8:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let's assume that the Charedi opinion leaders you discuss here truly believe that the final, complete redemption is just around the corner. You could then explain all the described phenomena very rationally: keeping as many Jews as possible as Torahdik as possible would trump all other considerations. Those who persevered would be able to stand up to judgment when the Mashiach arrived---a very important thing!.

At 9:20 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Along the lines of your last paragraph, my brother, who has been in kollel for the last 28(!) years, always says that without the 60's counter-culture making it acceptable to do your own thing, the kollel movement would never have taken off.

I well remember the fights he had with my parents when he told them he would not be going to college.

At 11:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

thank you for sticking up for us beleagured haredim!

At 11:57 AM, Blogger avakesh said...

Jews are resourceful. Thye made Czarist economic laws work and they can make Kollel work as well.

Granted, there are many problems. There are still many advantages to Chareidi communal structure. Not the least of them is that it keeps the human animal focused to some degree on the spiritual goals, as misuderstood and subverted by self interest and psychological/spiritual ignorance as they often are. This makes it possible to educate toward a meaningful goal and provides cover for the occasional true and properly equipped spiritual seeker to achive all that the seforim promise.

At 12:05 PM, Blogger Harry Maryles said...

We all know that people are measured by how much money they have. ...What makes charedi life tolerable is that money and power is kept, in some ways, in the background.

I believe that you are right about that. But I take exception that this solely or primarily a Charedi concern. Indeed does not the "New" testament, quote Jesus as saying, "The root of all evil is the love of money"?

Not worshipping money... or not being judged by one's wealth is not only a Jewish value but a Christian one... one that is espoused by any ethicist one might encounter, Christian or Jewish, Charedi or Modern Orthodox.

Of course Charedi leaders preach learning Torah and doing Chesed and do not preach achieving wealth as the loftiest of goals. But neither do they ethically oppose financial success either. The same can be said by rabbinic leaders that are not Charedi. Do you think Rabbis Joseph or Aaron Soloveichik had… or taught values any different that the Charedi rabbinic leadership? …or even LWMO Rabbis Saul Berman and Avi Weiss? I don't think so. Nor do I think the Pope or Billy Graham teaches that financial success was the way in which man should be judged.

If you a re trying to say that the images of Charedim exude Torah and Kedusha more-so than Modern Orthodox, there too I don’t agree. Long beards and Peyos… a Shtreimel and Bekishe… or a Hamburg and Kapote tell me no more than a suit and tie and a clean shaven face about the persons values. In fact some of the “Royal courts” of Chasidic Rebbes … often on display at the weddings of their children with their 20,000 invited guests suggest nothing but… great wealth and power. And in many Chasidic dynasties such as Satmar and Lubavitch, the wealth Chasidic Rebbes control is quite real measuring in the multi millions of dollars.

I think it is more about the “eye of the beholder”. Each person takes that which he wants from that which he sees. And that’s what I think you do when you look at those pictures in the Yated.

At 1:06 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

Rabbi’s the test. Daven in a Lakewood minyan or in a Vishnitz bais-medrash etc., and then go to a Modern Orthodox shul of your choice...Lincoln Center, Riverdale, Upper East Side in Manhattan, Lawrence, Skokie,...ok: Are you saying that on average the relative valuations Torah study and deep frumkeit versus money, power, and education are equal in both types of shuls? I would think that you can’t get an aliyah in Vishnitz without living a chassidishe life. In the Young Israel of Brookline, you can’t get an aliyah unless you have a Ph.D., so to speak. Tell me I’m wrong.

Two more points: my post specifically acknowledges money is an important value even in charedi culture. I say, however, that it is kept out of sight in this sense: a person can be poor uneducated and charedi frum and still feel like a mensch, much harder in Modern Orthodox societies. Shabbus in Williamsburg, you see poor Jews with income levels under $35,000 with families of twelve strutting around like peacocks, masters of the universe. Charedi bnei Torah, who divide an egg in three to feed their children stand tall and proud.Put these guys in some Modern Orthodox place and they are just poor.

Christianity might preach against money, but America has become a capitalist country on steroids. Inequality in wealth and income has become obscene and there is very little that Christianity is doing to change this.

At 1:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Full of overgeneralizations and lack of nuance. The overwhelming majority of chasidim in Israel, so what you wrote about Israeli charedim applies only to the yeshiva world. This is just one example from many.

At 3:13 PM, Anonymous david g. said...

I think you cannot lump together chassidim with yeshiva leit. Chassidim eventually go to work after one year in kolel. They are unprepared and get menial jobs as a starter but if they are fast on their feet they eventually make it on their own. How else would they maintain all these Mosdot?

Yeshivah leit are in a much bigger quandary. By them es past nit to be in kolel less than 10 years and up. There is the real problem where you have a bunch of talmidei chachomim who know the stuff but have no idea how to apply it in real life. Hence all the crazy chumrot. boycotts etc...

At 3:15 PM, Anonymous Ariella said...

I remember seeing the term "limousine chareidi" on a blog. Many people today identify themselves as living a chareidi lifestyle, but they do so in luxury. Many people who have never earned a college degree succeed in earning far more money than I do with a PhD. And some have even attended college, though they may do so "on the side" much as many yungeleit do things "on the side" to make money.

As to the chareidi view on education, it reminds me of the definition of a classic attributed to Twain: "a book everyone wants to have read but nobody wants to read." they are happy to have the degree in hand but not to actually take classes.

At 4:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If the Charedi looked out on the greater world, they might be shocked to find that other than the study of torah, their way of life is no different from the taliban, the Hare Krishna or any other garden variety of fanatic who lives as a parasite, off the support of others. That shock might get them to be more rational.

At 5:29 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

ariella... I agree.Even in my day there were many who thought all they needed was a degree. Today I sense many more care only about degrees or knowledge for the sake of parnassa. The idea of entering deeply into Western culture is foreign. The emphasis on exclusive Torah study provides a cover for avoiding serious reading in the humanities and the sciences as well as for the endless pursuit of money.It also provides a cover for the endless study of Torah.

At 7:37 PM, Blogger Harry Maryles said...

Rabbi’s the test. Daven in a Lakewood minyan or in a Vishnitz bais-medrash etc., and then go to a Modern Orthodox shul of your choice...Lincoln Center, Riverdale, Upper East Side in Manhattan, Lawrence, Skokie,...ok: Are you saying that on average the relative valuations Torah study and deep frumkeit versus money, power, and education are equal in both types of shuls? I would think that you can’t get an aliyah in Vishnitz without living a chassidishe life. In the Young Israel of Brookline, you can’t get an aliyah unless you have a Ph.D., so to speak. Tell me I’m wrong.

I don't think you are necessarily wrong about this. But I don't think "the look" of the Rabbis in those pictures has anything to do with it. Nor is it the fault of the Hashkaofos practiced or preached of any of the non Charedi streams of Orthodoxy, that their adherents who are more sociologically tied to the culture reflects more the values of that culture.

OTOH, the more insular life one leads the better the message of the superiority of Torah values over material values is recieved.

If that's what you mean, then I agree with you.

At 7:54 AM, Anonymous tafkaa said...

"I remember seeing the term "limousine chareidi" on a blog."

I'm the one who used the term, but I was not using it to refer to material achievements. I was referring to the phenomenon of exMO who move right and identify as haredi, and defend haredi policies vigorously, but do not seem to me to have to fully pay the price for some of the policies they defend as they are not fully entrenched in the society and can always move back left, as needed.

I actually regret coining the term since the person I was talking to and called a limousine charedi, who I didn't know well enough, actually does seem quite committed to haredi life, though at the time I had concluded that he was partly MO ideologically based on some of his comments.

He initially understood the term as you, Ariella, did, but I meant limousine haredi like limousine liberal.

(though again, if anyone is reading this who remembers the original conversation. I think the charge was unfair and regret it)

EJ - you are right about the change in focus, but it's happened in the secular world too.

For the frumme, part of the resistance to education for its own sake (to the extent that it's not just vie s'kristelt zich azoiy yidelt zich) is that there isn't the old separation between "high" or middlebrow culture and pop culture; pop culture has colonized the upper levels too.

At 10:26 AM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

tafkaa...I agree...Pop culture is the default culture in charedi society, and is not totaaly unwanted consequence since its so easy to put down as garbage.I am not sure if u would agree with me when I say pop culture can be interesting and suprising, but you need a serious education in the humanities; otherwise you are never into pop culture, more like 20 years behind pop culture. If I am right, the 'vit it' charedi guy might have a tape of Sade hidden somewhere in his car. LOL.

At 3:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dirge to the Working Woman by Leah Meisel

(A translation of poem that appeared in the Hebrew Mishpacha this week. Pg 33 of the newspaper section. Fascinating that they printed it.)

If I aspire to go out to work
What will they say? Bat Melech Pnima
If I stay modestly at home
They say because of you he left Koillel

If I choose to teach
The salary is awful
I'll be working
Entirely to pay the baby sitter

Get an advanced teacher diploma
Pity on every penny
As this is the only choice
To improve the take home pay

But woe to my luck
Advanced Diploma are now forbidden from the Torah
And the rebukers repeatedly reply
For money you're willing to give up your principles?

Don't get me wrong
You must work,
and worry about the finances
But Chalila, do not learn!

And if I'd abandon teaching
And find another job
they disdain me - you're a traitor
Stam a career you're choosing!

So I said I'd take on extra work
Giving extra lessons in the afternoons
But who will educate the kids?
they wonder with surprised eyes
So maybe I'll realise the vision
to be an exemplary housewife
But from where will you get food?
If you slack off and become lazy?

For if you poor husband
Will run from Gmach to Gmach
Tell me, pray, from where
Will a Torah home grow?

It's bad for me as a teacher
I don;t have a penny
Woe to the sorry one
Born without a job

If I'd sell candles
The sun wouldn't set before I died
If I'd take a permanent job
as wings of a plane
El Al would make the entire week
A Shabbat Shabbaton

If I'd start dealing in sheitels
They'll say "probably Avoda Zara"
And if I'd sell quantities of snoods
The Indians would start bowing to cotton

If I'd sell mobile phones
Kids would be start to be born with antennas
And if I decide to teach teachers
There's be no more Hishtalmuyot (courses)

At 3:52 PM, Blogger Ben Bayit said...

I agree with you that Charedi life is a counterculture movement. The settlers may or may not be a counterculture - that's still an open book.

Why do you see Chardal/Settlers as a counterculture on the right and the charedim as a leftist counterculture? I just don't see it that way.

BTW, you'll be missed.

At 11:16 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I am not sure if u would agree with me when I say pop culture can be interesting and suprising, but you need a serious education in the humanities; otherwise you are never into pop culture, more like 20 years behind pop culture."

I wonder if you are interested in Jungian thought and personality theories. Are you at all interested in MyersBriggs (pop culture Jung?). Have you ever "typed" various historical rabbinic figures
and are you an INFJ. (I have other reasons for this last guess, but I think your comment on the depths of pop culture is a classic INJ conclusion for some reason that escapes me. I have yet to meet an NP who agrees.)


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