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…

25 Comments:

At 12:10 PM, Anonymous Phil Goode said...

EJ:
This is a little off topic but it does relate tangentially to what you are discussing and it’s an issue that’s been bothering me for quite a while – to wit, what makes a gadol a gadol?

That is, how does one get selected? Is it Talmudic knowledge, personality, yichus, connections? Is the selection process inclusive and comprehensive? If not, wouldn’t that reduce any halachic authority (or daas Torah authority) ascribed to this group?

You write:

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 don’t read any of these publications and I’m unfamiliar with most of the names you mentioned. How did you arrive at your high opinion? Do you these people personally or are there some seminal actions well known to all that they have performed?

And how do I relate to these people? Not knowing them personally am I to take the word of others – or should I just reserve judgment? How does it work?

PG

 
At 12:47 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

phil Goode…Your question is not at all off topic and deserves not one but a few posts. Very briefly some thoughts, recognizing Ihave not answered your questions… Charedi society is or was face to face.Everyone knew everyone. People hear about, talk about , personally meet these rabbis. It is not mechanical, like an electoral college. It is a combination of a consensus of popular opinion, P.R. by the Agudah , the heads of the major yeshivoth( which require a separate discussion how they get chosen) and recognition by the ongoing rabbinical establishment. Remember the leadership never starts afresh, but is ongoing while old leaders pass away and new ones rise in the ranks. Take the case of Rav Shustel, the man I called the baby in the group. He is around 60, the son of a well known and revered scholar, head of a yeshiva in Stamford. The son is one of the heads of the most famous and largest college/graduate school type academies, nicknamed Lakewood, with around 2000 students. He is in intellectual and social contact with these students plus older graduates who themselves have opened up yeshivos. It is not an exaggeration to say that 20000 people have had contact with him and have had a chance to take a measure of who he is. People talk ’in learning’ in these yeshivot , constant intellectual debate as part of their intellectual training.

In principle there is equal opportunity; anyone can rise to the top. In practice it is a merit society with some corrupt aspects, like children of scholars sometimes having an unfair advantage. The corrupt part is the least of the problems for the reason I mentioned. People really do have a sense of who knows what. The chassidic side is more hereditary, but there the chassidic rebbes have much more of an iconic function along the lines of my post.

 
At 4:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

ej:

I very much enjoyed this post. I will certainly have to head over to my sisters house to sit down this shabbos and review the current issues (and past!) pictures again.

Somehow I always imagined that the pictures included both the religious figures as well as the power figures in the chareidi community. Maybe I was completely wrong... I wonder if chassidic papers like Machane hachareidi aren the same.

Certainly the lauditory ads in these magazines at the occasion of simachos of families of rabbanim and askanim are quite similar...

"In doing so, we destroy, at least symbolically, the idols of our time, money, power, and secular knowledge."

Interesting.

Are you making a programatic comment? is this an argument that the reason that the chareidi world fights the idea of "torah umadah" - is it views the pursuit of scientific knowledge as avodah zarah? I never thought of it that way.

 
At 5:18 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

anonymous...'idols' is in quotes. I am providing an explanation though not in the end a full justification for the anti -Torah U'Madah ideology. I am implicitly referring to ideas current in academia, originating with Foucault that relate knowledge to power and capitalism/money. I feel charedi life is best understood as a counter culture than instantiates a radical left ideology. Some more of this tomorrow.

 
At 6:21 PM, Anonymous lolich said...

"Take the case of Rav Shustel, the man I called the baby in the group. He is around 60, the son of a well known and revered scholar, head of a yeshiva in Stamford. The son is one of the heads of the most famous and largest college/graduate school type academies, nicknamed Lakewood, with around 2000 students."

EJ you are confusing Rabbi S F Schustal a magid shiur in Torah Temimah with his brother Rabbi Dovid Schustal a rosh yeshiva in BMG. For WIW yode'i davar say that rsfs is the superior lamdan.

 
At 6:31 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

lolich...you are right come to think of it.I copied the name from the paper ,but it looked to me like the Lakewood Rosh Yeshivah , and I gave it no further thought. Your last sentence is noted without comment.

Had I thought he wasn't the Lakewood brother I wouldn't have used him as an example because YTT is not high on my list of tourist attractions in Flatbush

 
At 8:07 PM, Blogger Baalabus said...

This post best characterizes your benign view of Daas Torah. You speak with the detachment and saftey that only a resident of Evanston can know. The Taliban too seemed authentic, and steadfast opposers of "money, power, and secular knowledge" but I'd be rather wary of romanticising them.

I think you'd sing a different tune had you, or your children gone to, say a Passiac yeshiva, Torah Temima, or to pick a place closer to your home, a Telshe. The fact is, Daas Torah and Gedolim adulation, which absolves people from thinking on their own and taking responsibility for their own actions, is what leads to the exclusively-Haredi pathologies that we are witness to.

Adolescent hero worship is not the stuff of a mature responsible society, and that plain fact cannot be sugar coated by even the most gifted and erudite wordsmith, sequestered as he is in an ivy-lined college town, no offense intended.

 
At 8:08 PM, Blogger Baalabus said...

For a different take, much more in line with my own, please see:

http://benchorin.blogspot.com/2006/12/discussions-of-daas-torah-generally.html

 
At 8:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"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."

Ok, that's a positive look at the gedolim picture fetish and you may be right that they intend it to serve this purpose. But these pictures weren't there even twenty years back - I didn't grow up with them - and I think they're a revolting development:

"In doing so, we destroy, at least symbolically, the idols of our time, money, power, and secular knowledge."

but they do have this avoda zara with the pictures! I don't think copying the celebrity society Maimonidean style was or is necessary. It is reflective of a dumbing down of the society and giving up their own values. The culture is much, much dumber than it was even a generation back, the gedolim worship much less nuanced and in a way less sincere (it has become less about torah and more about authority), and the pictures are part of it.

 
At 10:20 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

baalabus...Hi.Happy to hear from u. We here and somewhat less so in charedi Israel live in a free Jewish society. You don't want to hang with these rabbis go down the block to the MO shul. The Taliban imposed their rule by force on everyone,and are mainly opposed to knowledge.Charedim live in major cities and incorporate the modern world into their life, especially in business. The Taliban live in Afghanistan, which believe it or not is even more remote from civilization and culture than Lakewood and Monsey.

What you call charedi pathologies and adolescent hero worship I describe as an idealizing transferrence to people who embody ideals that I believe you accept. Assuming you accept the ideals, the issue is whether a mature society needs external exemplifications of these ideals. I would say yes though I acknowledge the Chaim Soloveitchik pt. that the rosh yeshivas have supplanted the parents to an unacceptable extent. As the parents become more yeshivish it might straighten out a bit.

You keep on telling me I live in Evanston, which I believe I have acknowledged somewhere or other.There are so few bloggers who have said a nice word about charedim.If there weren't charedim around to bash, the Jewish internet would lose it's main topic.I am explaining,not really justifying. If you re-read my post,it has its share of irony, and critique of charedi society. I am saying over a musar idea in secular language in I hope a sweet way. If I were condescending,
angry and sarcastic you'd be ok. I say it is a good thing to love and respect holy and learned Jews, because it saves us from worshipping money 24x7 and you are all upset.Charedim hatred makes people lose a sense of proportion.

 
At 10:39 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

anonymous 8:57...there were Agudah post cards of gedolim fifty years ago. There was I believe a magazine called Panim el Panim full of gedolim pictures. The Alg. Journal has been around at least 25 years. We were into this in a moderate way from day 1 after the war. I agree it has mushroomed.

The dumbing down part...I don't know, I guess ...so many more people, so little secular education, such large families, there are obviously going to be more yahoos and thugs.

I, the naive optimist 'sequestered in the ivy lined college town' as baalabus keeps on insisting, spin it differently. If you know your Freud ,Darwin and Marx charedim should have disappeared long ago. They deny reality, live in a chulem world, make believe they are in a different century...if there was ever a group that does not adapt to reality these guys are it. They flourish.Why? How?

I would welcome a comment from u why you believe charedim today are much less nuanced and sincere than twenty years ago.

 
At 11:20 PM, Blogger SephardiLady said...

Looking forward to part II.

 
At 11:21 PM, Blogger Baalabus said...

I say it is a good thing to love and respect holy and learned Jews, because it saves us from worshipping money 24x7 and you are all upset.Charedim hatred makes people lose a sense of proportion.

I'd like to think that I don't hate Charedim, much less any group of yidden, religious or otherwise (I concur with your advocacy on behalf of all factions). However, I do hate certain damaging beliefs (daas torah), that happen to be espoused by Charedim.

[As a thought experiment, can you picture the Charedi world as it is now, sans daas torah? Would such a world be a better place for individual Charedim? Better still, can the notion of Daas Torah exist in the Modern Orthodox world? The YU world? Some would say it already does exist in YU. ]

I note the verbal sleight of hand in your words: "... I say it is a good thing to love and respect holy and learned Jews... " A non-sequitor, that.

When one speaks of Daas Torah as practiced by living breathing Charedim (and as experienced by former Charedim), one refers to much more than the innocuous "love and respect" that you speak of. Love and respect is not Daas Torah my friend. If that's all it was, then yes, your well-intentioned mussar has a place. Daas Torah is about the concentation of power in the hands of the few, witness how Daas Torah handled Slifkin, Nathan Kamenstky, Kolko, etc. Daas Torah is what consigns Charedim to poverty, as men and women heed the Daas Torah edicts that assur education until too late if ever. History -- or more importantly, the next generation of Charedim -- will not judge the decisions associated with Daas Torah favorably.

Choosing worshipping g'dolim versus worshipping money, I'd choose g'dolim. But I would rather worship neither.

 
At 12:12 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

the algemeiner is a merging of the morgen journal with the algemeiner tzeitung, but it's a newspaper, not full of gedolim pictures. I do remember postcards, I dont know panim el panim. But come on, they didnt have pictures at every bris, or of them shaking a lulav or whatever. Look at the way they follow around R Elyashiv, he looks miserable in these pictures, he's not a young man why are they tormenting him!!!

they flourish because they really are idealistic and have a basic cultural self-confidence that others have lost.

I think the mass education system has not worked well - it's worked in the sense of keeping people committed. It's not worked as well at keeping the ideals of the culture implemented at a high level.

 
At 12:22 AM, Anonymous greg said...

I hate to say it, but the ubiquitious pictures have begun to have a dear leader quality.

It wasn't this way in the past. Don't know why.

 
At 12:26 AM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

baalabus...whoa,wait a minute. I went out of my way to differentiate beween the idea of a sovreign, which could be as innocuous as the emperor of Japan, from the doctrine of daas torah. I specifically said daas torah might be false,yet there is a virtue in rabbis being idealized. Idealization doesn't force anyone to listen to any extra halachic views.

Do u honestly believed any charedi in America who wanted to read either book didn't?I doubt it.BTW listening to MO would lead to one believing there is now an obligation to think hard and long about the age of the redwoods or whether anyone in Slabodka read Ann Karenina and that failure to do so would lead to the end of civilization as we know it.Talk about lack of perspective.

Daas Torah doesn't make charedim poor. Kollelim and large families and no college do. The charedim who learn in kollelim are charedim ...they deny reality because that is what charedim do, and for love of learning something that is basically useless for making a living outside kli kodesh work.Ditto for college and families. In Israel there is the added incentive of not wanting to fight. They don't need daas torah...they themselves don't want to go, daas torah provides an additional cover.

Halacha itself sans daas torah creates heternomous individuals. Someone who only wants to be a free thinking autonomous individualist become a Reconstructionist or a chusid of Ralph Waldo Emerson.Beating up on charedim doesn't increase anyone's freedom or autonomy...it simply externalizes the natural friction between the obligation to keep halacha and a desire for freedom onto a convenient enemy.

 
At 10:17 AM, Anonymous Reish Lakish said...

"Halacha itself sans daas torah creates heternomous individuals. Someone who only wants to be a free thinking autonomous individualist become a Reconstructionist or a chusid of Ralph Waldo Emerson."

Do you really believe that "anyone accepting halacha as normative and perscriptive" is "subject to external or foreign laws or domination, not autonomous".

I would have thought from your previous writings that you only feel that heteronomosity is characteristic of followers of Daat Torah - being under the hegemony of the intepretations of 'the posek hador' or perhaps the writers of many Kol Korehs.

Even though I am a follower of Halach I don't think of myself as heteronomous ...

Are you heteronomous for following american law in your daily economic life and business dealings?

The torah and halacha has quite a diverse set of opinions... As anyone who learns gemarah, rishonim, poskim knows immediately. Readers of the walls of meah shearim and williamsburg and some charedi papers would perhaps assume most tanaim and amoraim belong in cheirum. It is only
the halachickly uneducated who are not accustomed to diversity.

Surely you don't mean this bald negative statement against Halacha. It is not consistent with what your general writings.

 
At 11:24 AM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

Reish lakish…I certainly do believe my following particular American laws is heteronomous. I would not choose this tax system and the current inequality. But since the system as a whole is pretty just and the laws are the outcome of a democracy I am willing to accept rules I believe are unfair. Is it therefore autonomous? Yes, no…hard to say.

Autonomy means a bunch of things…the simplest and least interesting meaning is to do whatever one wants. Someone who follows halacha is clearly not autonomous in this sense. He might have a desire to X but refrains because it’s forbidden. Baalabus was using this narrow sense of not choosing for yourself,and hence my response. The Kantian sense of autonomy is that an action is in accordance with rules that are in accordance with rational principles. The latter is spelt out in terms of a social contract under a veil of ignorance. If you have not familiar with these ideas Google it or study Rawls. The upshot is that one can generate much of the mitzvoth bein adam lechaveiro as autonomous. The details even of these mitzvas are something of a given. As for whether chukim can be worked out on this programme you tell me …I am sure you are familiar with taamei hamitzvot literature. Most broadly , can the entire way of life, mitvot, social world, culture be given some broad based justification so that a person can say I want this whole way of life warts and all even if I can’t prove it to any one else…that’s the goal, what everyone is aiming for. The system as a whole would then be said to be what we want though we might prefer different details.

I am not sure you find my response satisfactory.

 
At 11:50 AM, Blogger avakesh said...

Point 1. Did you ever notice whose weddings and barmitzvah's get profiled. The rich and powerful, that's whose! Wealth and position cannot be supressed and they will make their way back into spotlight, somehow.

Point2. I believe that the model along which the Chareidi society is structuring itself is the mid 20th century model and the model of leadrship which its leaders are following is the mid 20th century model. Strong leaders, who know and understand everything, cult of personality, moving the masses - onward to a glorious future. Perhaps it is the last gasp of idealism in a rapidly atomizing aspiritual world but, how long can it withstand the forces that batter it form the outside. We see the seams, we hear the creaking of the planks coming apart. I think that the inicipient failure of the model is only being partially disguised by the demographic revolution that s taking place concurrently. I think that other models are quitely also being established on the fringes, in the Chassidic world, in America and we will soon see them arise, gain prominence and flourish.

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

avakesh…I guess where I differ from most is that I don’t think the authoritarian strain is the most important. American charedim, as I’ve argued in the past, have a branch that are not naïve children and know how to pick and choose. Ultimately, I think everyone will become this way. Rabbis will say X, people will do Y. Sometimes X=Y, sometimes not. There’s never a shortage of people willing to tell others how to live. For the authoritarian argument to succeed, you have to say the bulk of charedim are being brain-washed and incapable of mature decisions. I think charedim are volunteers not victims, and many are selective volunteers. When the Indian sheitelech issue came up the women stayed cool, there were no bonfires. For every guy who tore up his El-Al ticket, two didn’t.

The most important strain that I see in charedi life is a holiness and purity and organizational strength that can maintain for many generations an adversarial counterculture in the heart of capitalism, something that no hippie or radical commune could ever accomplish. I don’t understand why they don’t get credit for this.

 
At 2:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I don’t understand why they don’t get credit for this."

insecurity makes people beat up on their flaws and downplay the strengths.

That, and the recent affair in which the MO were basically all called kofrim didn't help matters much. :-) The MO really just want a bit of respect IMO. We need a blog explaining the MO to the haredim too.

 
At 6:42 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

anonymous 2:29...are you sure charedim don't understand MO. I think they are uninterested, couldn't care less and as a secondary consequence might be misinformed somewhat.A site about MO for charedim would first have to interest them in the topic.

It is this way all along the spectrum...no one is very interested in the stripe to the left that is less frum. Do RW MO find not so frum Orthodox fascinating. I don't think so.

I'll go one step further...solid older bnei Torah hang with other lomdim and are not very interested in the charedi am haratzim.

 
At 8:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"anonymous 2:29...are you sure charedim don't understand MO. I think they are uninterested, couldn't care less and as a secondary consequence might be misinformed somewhat.A site about MO for charedim would first have to interest them in the topic."

yes i agree (and this is at root of matters s.a. the slifkin ban)

I meant the haredim on blogs who are shocked by the "haredi bashing." It seems like all that happens is fire for fire, we could do with a bit of peace. I could anyhow, it wears me down!

"I'll go one step further...solid older bnei Torah hang with other lomdim and are not very interested in the charedi am haratzim."

Yeah...I am beginning to think this is also a source of problems. A society taking simplistic statements literally grew up together with the more solid types and were ignored (at most people dismissed it with "it's good for them")...this is the problem we were discussing in the gedolim card thread, mass education has not allowed the distinctions between the elites and the masses to continue and the lines are becoming blurred, with the effect that in the younger generation they are not producing as many solid types who ignore the mass culture.

 
At 4:13 PM, Anonymous Tovia Hirsch said...

It's funny, I'm a cousin of haRav haGadol Shlomo-Feival Schustal; due to that accident of birth, I often sit near G'dolim at Chassunah's, etc. One time I was sitting next haRav Ya'akov Bender at a Chassunah, in order to ask him about a woman I was serious about. He was speaking with haRav Wachtfogel when somebody took our picture.

A couple of weeks later, I was in the centerfold of haModia, looking like a deer in the headlights. Then, much to my surprise, I was on Rebbe card #114, same stupid expression on my face :=).

It was really very embarrassing.

 
At 7:15 AM, Anonymous Mirabelle said...

Well written article.

 

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