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.

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Sex Before Marriage

Rabbi Maryles wrote an essay on Immorality in Western Culture (12/22/06). In the comments section I took issue with what he said. The following post is a reworking of some of my remarks on the narrower topic of immorality in the liberal Jewish world.

Socially conservative Orthodox Jews often feel that outside their walled city, America is experiencing a serious decline of morals. My feeling is there are many, many reasons why one ought to be Orthodox, but the fear that otherwise one’s children will become drug-addicted, sex-obsessed degenerates is not one of them. There are two reasons why I believe this. I don’t believe America is drug-addicted or sex-obsessed, and I don’t believe that children of liberal Jews end up in a bad way.

We first need a sort of clarifying point. Let’s say it’s true that no Orthodox child ever ended up taking heroin, and let’s say that a tenth of one percent of non-Orthodox children ended up heroin addicts, i.e. 5,000 addicts. Would that be a reason, in and of itself, to be Orthodox? I think not. A certain number of people die every year on a highway, we continue driving. A certain number of people die every year swimming in the ocean, or mountain climbing, or taking an airplane, or living in Chicago. Most people will not run away from these activities, because there is some slight danger. So, the argument from drugs, I think, can be dismissed straight out. The danger is too small, even if it is thousands of times larger than in Orthodoxy.

Let us now turn to the issue of sex. It is not true, in my opinion, that most non-frum kids are promiscuous or sex-obsessed. I believe what happens in general is this… Many if not most non-Orthodox Jewish people have or hope to have premarital sex. That is they meet, they date, they have sex, they move in together and they eventually split or get engaged. The full cycle is from 6 months to five years. The big problem in secular American Jewish life is that both young men and women can’t find suitable partners to begin the cycle. The typical marriage age is in the mid thirties which is a human and a Jewish tragedy.

Young singles may not even enter a relationship with the intent to marry, but they are not 'sleeping around'. They take a wait and see attitude towards marriage, but such behavior cannot be described as casual sex or promiscuous. The point may be something less than obvious to some. I remind everyone the meaning of promiscuous is having casual sexual relations frequently with a number of different partners; or having sex in an indiscriminate way and lacking standards of selection. The liberal Jewish kids are in violation of halacha for multiple reasons, the most serious being the woman are menstruating and are not going to the mikvah. They may not be acting properly according to senses of propriety and baalbatishkeit that were dominant in the past, and are still prevalent in Orthodoxy and other socially conservative Jewish circles. But they do have standards, even if they are newly developed standards, and there is a logic to their behavior. With a 50% divorce rate there is something to be said for people who for independent reasons do not feel bound by halacha, and are still finding themselves as individuals to try things out for a while and see how it goes.

I doubt if there is a serious attempt being made in liberal Jewish life to promote abstinence before marriage. It is accepted as natural part of the dating and marriage ritual. Even where there are intense feelings about abstinence, religion in general seems to have little impact on premarital sex. 80 percent of Americans are Christians, 90 percent believe in God, 70 percent pray regularly, and half attend church at least once a month. Evangelicals are one third of the population or 100 million. Roman Catholics are 60 million. Both preach abstinence and are conservative on social issues. More than 80% of the population has premarital sex. Preaching and teaching against sex without marriage, outside of Orthodoxy, is something of a beracha levatalaw, ( invoking God’s name in vain.)

People who believe the basic rule for sexual encounters in society is casual sex disassociated from feeling do not take into account the very real fears of AIDS and the many types of s.t.d.'s. Jewish kids in general are careful, do not get pregnant and take care of themselves in a responsible way. I can’t prove this, but I can offer anecdotal evidence. I have never, ever heard parents of non religious Jewish college kids voice any serious concerns about the dangers their children are facing in college and after. Having asserted that the dangers are not overwhelming, I acknowledge some young Jewish singles and some not so young singles act out and are promiscuous for a while. Nobody knows the percentages, but it is much, much more than in Orthodox life. Here the danger is not so low that it can be dismissed easily. To put a number on it, say 10-20 % are shall we say partying too intensely. Even here the behavior has to be put into a context. The average American kid has sex while still in high school. Jewish kids marry in their late 20's early 30's. They say the average age in the NYTimes only simchas pages is 32. They are not being promiscuous for 14 years straight. It doesn't go like that. People go through periods, people are different, and most everyone stops. Some don’t. They are for the most part guys, aspiring Don Juans These guys are indeed cads, do a fair amount of damage and frequently end up alone and depressed.

Orthodox Jews when confronted with a 10-20% chance their child might act out even for a short period of time find the possibility so horrendous they feel reconfirmed in their way of life. Liberal Jews, though hoping such an event never comes to pass are more understanding and accepting of the dangers of freedom. They consider the possibility of going off the beaten path, of stumbling and becoming confused part of the process of growing up as an autonomous free person. They feel you can’t both encourage children to think for themselves, develop their own unique personalities and creativity and guarantee there will never be any false steps. I would say the key difference between Orthodoxy and the rest of Jewish society, besides the obvious halacic considerations, is not the attitudes towards risk. Most galuth Jews are not gamblers and buy insurance. I think the main difference lies in the degree of perfectionism. It is less horrendous to a liberal Jew that their child is not firmly on the road to carrying out a coherent life plan. They have a greater tolerance for the false starts that frequently occur, the late adolescence, the lack of clarity or firm purpose, the need to experiment and find oneself throughout the life cycle. As in life, so in sex and marriage. Liberal Jews are more tolerant of grey, Orthodox Jews less so.

IMHO, from the little I know, the current scene isn’t ‘chassidish,’ but it is quite different from the sixties, which was wild and really immature. Political conservatives keep on talking about America as if everyone is today in the middle of Haight Ashberry in the summer of love. Vice and sin are everywhere. (We must keep in mind that liberal Jews are not part of the quasi permanent welfare underclass, where indeed there are many who lead chaotic lives) Why they feel the need to see America as sexually irresponsible and out of control is an interesting question that lends itself to different possible interpretations. For one thing, they might be right and I am the one who refuses to see the world as it really is. A person’s attitude to pre-marital sex is as good a test as any to find out where one stands on the liberal- conservative spectrum. I prefer to see the world as a friendly and safe place, full of opportunities and interesting possibilities for all Jews.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Five Ideas for a More Jewish America

There are many rich Jews in America who would like to engage in a meaningful Jewish charity. At times it is difficult for them to know how to go about doing this. I want to make some suggestions. Since I am not involved in any institution and I’m not asking for any money, I feel I am somewhere on the road to being impartial. I believe that one of the big problems in American Judaism, outside New York, is that there is no place for Jews to meet. I’ll discuss this problem in terms of Chicago. But what is true of Chicago, is true in dozens and dozens of cities all across America.

A Jew who is not religious or does not attend synagogue on a regular basis can not rely on religious services to provide something of a Jewish social life. There are only a few alternatives. One can belong to a Jewish country club or one can belong to the Standard Club downtown. Both are rather expensive and, in the case of country clubs, it only works if you’re interested in golf and having frequent meals at the club. A non-davening Jew who is not interested in golf has a problem. The way the problem is solved is that people and couples meet one-on-one. Here’s the way it goes…you ask your wife, let’s say today, if she would like to go out with the So-and-So’s; she says yes. She calls. Mrs. So-and-so says, “Yes, Let me look in my daybook. I’ll be away for the holidays and then I’m booked for the first two Saturday nights in January. What about the Saturday night after that?” Twenty minutes later, after daybook meets daybook, they have penciled in March 12th.

The problem with young people is even more serious. How does a young man or woman in the city of Chicago meet someone their age that is Jewish? Even if one is willing to go to a bar and try one’s luck, there are, to the best of my knowledge, no Jewish bars on Rush Street or anywhere in the city. The Federations have funded, in a very generous way, the JCCs. As far as I can tell, these community centers are being used by children for swimming and by older women for mahjong and card games. Middle-aged people, between 18 and 78, fall through the rafters. The Federation having funded the JCCs is not about to cough up big bucks to solve this problem.

I propose a five-part solution:

Makor everywhere…Michael Steinhardt was onto something very important when he bought a building in mid-town Manhattan and dedicated the space solely to young people to meet, hang out, watch movies, etc. Makor has become an important part of the social lives of young single Jews in Manhattan. A similar project should be started in Chicago and across the country. It would be a great success. I estimate the cost at around 1-2 million plus annual expenses of around 100 thousand, maybe less depending on location. Some of the events could be self-funding. Creating such spaces nationwide is the single most important thing that can be done to help young Jewish people get married.

Coffee houses…Jews who would like to talk to other Jews have no place to meet. Coffee houses, even pubs are the solution. It is particularly important to have some such space for the western, southern and northwestern suburbs, where Jews are really isolated. The entire city can be covered with six-seven establishments. They would contain Jewish magazines, newspapers, some political and cultural events. There could be debates, discussions, readings, movies, etc. These places might run at a slight deficit but the total amount should not be a big number. If Starbucks can get rich, these places should be able to get close to breaking even.

Develop a Jewish mall… There is no shortage of iffy strip malls. A real estate person who has a penchant for good deeds should buy one and put in 10 Jewish retail spaces. A restaurant, a book store, and stores that are not so obvious, maybe one of the coffee houses mentioned above. Borough Park in a mall. I would get a secular restaurateur of some renown, to develop the restaurant. Let’s face it; Orthodox Jews should not be in the restaurant business. It should be kosher but not visibly so, thus attracting all segments of the population. In Chicago there are many places you can find a Talmud lecture. People love to shop. Try finding a pleasant Jewish shopping experience.

A restaurant downtown …Subsidize if necessary a good kosher business- restaurant downtown. Here again Jews need a space to meet. Jews around the country want to know they can travel to a city and find places to eat. The lack of such confidence keeps Jews close to home. Chicago’s Jewish life would benefit from more Jewish visitors.

Cultural events… Create a serious cultural events program similar to the 92nd street Y, but with a somewhat greater Jewish focus. The emphasis would be on the frequency and quality of events. The goal would be to get Jews out of their easy chairs for something worthwhile that isn’t a simcha or a fundraiser. Different synagogues and organizations sponsor events, but they are infrequent, uncoordinated and all too often uninteresting. One of the main problems with American Judaism is that it has a tendency to boredom. A dynamic cultural series requires planning and funding. If done right it could revitalize the Jewish life in a city.

I see that Skokie is building a Holocaust Museum at a cost of $42 million dollars. In L.A. the Wiesenthal Center raises hundreds of millions of dollars. YIVO, Yad Veshem, the History Museum in NY, the Holocaust Center in Washington all manage to raise large amounts of money to celebrate and remember dead Jews. It is easier to raise money for backward looking charities than for forward looking life affirming strategies. I do not even want to speculate why dead Jews are more popular with big donors than present and future of Jews.

There is so much to do. There is so much money out there. The world and even the Jewish world is awash with cash. Funding Jewish education requires hundreds of millions, maybe billions. ($ 10,000 per child x 12 years x 100,000 children =12 billion.) The projects I mentioned make a noticeable difference for a couple of million.

Why, with so many Jewish apparatchiks is there such an absence of utopian thinking? Why is American Jewish life both complacent and pessimistic? Everyone has their own answer. I attribute this triad of ‘everything is ok, nothing can be done, the future is grim’ to the wholesale abandonment of the utopian left by American Jews. The great grandfather might have been a socialist-anarchist. The grandfather was a FDR Democrat. The father was a Scoop Jackson Democrat. The son is a neo-con Republican. The grandchild dreams of Goldman Sachs.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Hannah and Martin

In my last blog I used an idea from the philosopher Martin Heidegger to explain a feature of Orthodoxy. Heidegger was a full fledged Nazi, and was tried as a war criminal after the war. He was an academic and did not directly kill anyone; but he was a Nazi supporter from the beginning. He never recanted and continued defending the ideals of Nazism though not all the genocidal acts of the Hitler regime. If the reader thinks this use of Heidegger is inappropriate and perverse I can certainly understand such an objection. Nevertheless I ask the reader to consider the following:

Two of the greatest philosophers of Judaism in the last 50 years, by world if not internal Jewish standards are Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida, both French Jews. They both became who they are through trying to understand where they disagree with Heidegger. He is already deeply embedded in contemporary secular Jewish philosophy. I know it is very strange and ironic.

Heidegger has entered Jewish life in an even stranger and more twisted way. Hannah Arendt when she was in her twenties was the lover of her university professor Martin Heidegger. The latter, afraid that his wife would discover the affair eventually broke with his Jewish mistress. Hannah Arendt went on to marry a Jew, got divorced, and then married a non-Jewish German communist. In the 30’s while living in France she worked on behalf of Jewish refugee causes. Arendt spoke on Heideggers behalf at his de-nazification hearings. The non-Jewish philosopher Karl Jaspers and Arendt’s second philosophical mentor spoke against Heidegger at these same hearings, suggesting he would have a detrimental influence on German students because of his powerful teaching.

When the Eichman trial came she was sent by the New Yorker as a correspondent, and her articles were published in book form under the title “Eichman in Jerusalem”. Hanna Arendt went on to have a long and distinguished career as a political philosopher. Besides her work on Eichman, Arendt published two other books on Jewish themes, one on Rachel Vahniger, a Jewish apostate salonieren in the Berlin of the 1790’s, and one on general themes of being a Jewish refugee and other topics.

When the Eichman book came out it caused a literary food fight the likes of which I have never seen before or since. She wrote mean and maybe unfair things about how Jews cooperated with Nazis in organizing the ghettos, how the Nazis would have murdered fewer Jews had the Jews not been so passive, the banality of evil and much more. She drew blood and the carnage was not pretty. In the end it was something of a stalemate. She was not discredited, but she did not score any victories.

What was not known at the time but is widely known today is that during this entire episode Arendt was writing to Heidegger. She visited him and his wife Elfriede throughout her lifetime. We now know that the Heideggers had an ‘open marriage’ with both parties having engaged in multiple affairs. Nevertheless Elfriede remained insanely jealous of Arendt throughout her life. Arendt wrote to Karl Jaspers and others long letters trying to get her hands around the problem of her philosophical indebtedness to a man who would have had her murdered. Most significant were her printed attempts to sanitize her ex lover and make his philosophy acceptable in the liberal democracies. It is fair to say that Hannah Arendt, knowing of her continued and past relationship with Heidegger should never have accepted the Eichman assignment. Had it been known at the time, her opponents would have buried her.

And it becomes even more interesting. An edited subset of the Heidegger- Arendt correspondence is available in German. There must be more important and in all likelihood embarrassing material in the sealed archives which will eventually come out. If you ask me, I am convinced Hanna never stopped loving Martin, and Martin never stopped loving Hannah. As the Valley girls are apt to say “it is so very, very weird”, a lifelong love affair between a beautiful Jewish woman from Koenigsberg and a Catholic Nazi from rural Messkirch. If it hadn’t happened no one could have thought this up.

Hannah Arendt is the most complex and subtle example of Jewish self hatred I have ever encountered.

Postscript…I showed this post to a friend and he wasn’t too happy with it. One point he makes … how do I know that Arendt’s behavior can’t be accounted for simply by her being in love. How do I know it is self hatred? My response it that we know from her other correspondence that she has very harsh comments and much contempt for the many Jews who were beneath her culturally. So we begin with someone who wasn’t exactly an ohaeiv yisroel (a lover of fellow Jews), who having been rejected by her lover who then becomes an active Nazi, spends formidable energy in rehabilitating his reputation. It sure looks to me as similar to the psychopathologies found in Sandor Gillman and Peter Gay.

I’ll close (lekaf zechus) with my friend’s question: Why blog negatively on Arendt's oddness, rather than amaze at it? What if she was the smartest Jewess ever?

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Yekke Man, Galitzianer Man

I have noticed on internet dating sites Orthodox people include in their self representations religious virtues and character traits, whereas secular Jewish people usually list common interests and activities (see my post 6/18). I want to know why this is so? Here’s my thought:

The Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger constructed the valuable abstract concept of dasein, the distinctive way a human being has of being in the world, his way of going through life, his relationship to his future & to his surroundings, the sort of human he is. Dasein is different from what is called a lifestyle. I dislike the term ‘lifestyle’. What is its antonym, a death style? Can you go through life without a lifestyle? Can you lose your lifestyle? I much prefer the term ‘dasein’, because the idea of lifestyle is usually spelled out in terms of activities, and the corresponding consumerism

There is a difference, a major one between the dasein of Orthodoxy and the rest of Judaism. There is no special way of being in the world as a Reform Jew. Whatever way a human is, his style, his sensibility, his personality, how he walks through life, is not in general essentially determined by his reformness. He’s a weasel or a macher, he’s anxious or not, depressed or happy or bipolar. Whatever he is, he is. Going to Temple does not affect how he is, though it might change his identity. The same is true for Conservatives and all the rest, except Ultra Orthodox. Modern Orthodoxy is generally the same as UO, but to the extent it is like all the rest, to that extent the Ultra Orthodox have a problem with it.

It’s easier to explain this concept via a concrete example. Imagine a human being is a movie star, say Humphrey Bogart. Going to temple will not affect his dasein in the world. If he enters as Bogart, sitting in some pew will not turn him into Cary Grant or even Edgar Bronfman. Not so Ultra Orthodoxy. A man starts out as Bogart, becomes a Satmar Chasid, yeshivish, a Breuer yekke, a Belzer chasid, whatever, provided it is Ultra Orthodox, he isn’t coming out as Bogart. He’ll come out as a Satmarer, a yeshiva Torah person, a Torah im derech eretz Orthodox, a Galitzianer chasid. Becoming a stripe of Ultra Orthodoxy changes your being-in-the-world, because in becoming Ultra Orthodox you discover how to be a member of your stripe, and that involves a change in your dasein. There are no special classes, no Reb Yoelish for Dummies, not at all. Nevertheless, hang in Satmar for a year or two, provided you have enough cultural capital to speak the languages and socialize, you’ll end up a Satmarer, you’ll slouch the way they slouch, you’ll talk the way they talk, the hat will be tilted the way they tilt. In time you’ll think the way they think, serve God in their distinctive way and so on. Eventually you’ll say things like ‘’those Zionists y’’ms(may they disappear from the face of the earth).’’ It’s magical. The religion gets to your kishkes; it shapes and informs the very being that you are.

For those familiar with Rabbi Solovetchik’s famous essay Halakhhic Man, I am saying there is not only a phenomenology of being a Brisker lamdan, there is also a distinct way of being a frum yekke , a galitzianer chasid and so on. There is Yekke Man, Galizianer Man, but no Reform Man. A talented and sensitive writer should be able to give a phenomenological account of what it is like to be a representative man of any one of these UO stripes.

Being UO is more like being a Hells Angel or a Chinese peasant or a member of the high British aristocracy, than say being a dentist, or a golfer. The attractiveness of the Orthodox way of life is not just that it is an off the rack set of rules how to act. It is first and foremost a way to be. It’s difficult to put into words, but a dasein, a way of being in the world is deeper, much deeper than a person’s identity, (in the sense of the term popularized by Erikson), or self, (in the Kohut sense of an arc of ambitions and ideals). Being Ultra Orthodox, results in a special way of being alive at a particular place and time. The study of Torah, the performance of rituals and prayer, and the multiple acts of personal charity changes the very way you go through life, and the way you are attached to this world.

I feel Reform and Conservative Judaism would be more successful if they could create and exhibit ideal types that people could internalize and use as an ideal, which in turn would bring about a distinctive way of being Conservative or being Reform. (See my post on Conservative Baseball Cards, 8/10.)

Sunday, December 24, 2006

The Chances of Getting Married

Secular and liberal Jews in America are disappearing for many reasons, one of them being they marry so late in life that there isn’t enough time to have many children. By age 35, 52 percent of Jewish men are unmarried and 36 percent of Jewish women are unmarried. The key is that when the little darlings decide it’s time to get married, they should find someone in a reasonable amount of time. I mean, if a kid doesn’t get serious until their late twenties and it takes them three to five years to find their bashert, plus two to four years of hanging out and living together before they are certain, we’re talking mid-to late-thirties. It is not easy to have twelve kinderlach when you start in your late thirties.

I came across a formidable study from MIT- Sloan that discusses the topic of mate preferences in online dating. You know JDate has arrived if the social scientists are trying to figure out how to game the system. The results are not breathtaking, yet there are some interesting ideas. The study was of 23,000 people spanning a number of dating sites. The authors were allowed access to the clicks, i.e. when one person clicked on some profile, and then were given access to the list of subsequent e-mails. So the statisticians have this large database when a click results in an e-mail. If you make the assumption that e-mails are correlated to marriage, you now have a large statistical sample of what makes somebody an attractive candidate for marriage. I will now list some results with comments.

1.) Men who indicate a preference for a less than serious relationship are contacted less often than men who are serious. Women are not affected by such indications and, in fact, if they’re looking for a casual relationship, they get 17% more first contact e-mails.
2.) Outcomes are strongly impacted by looks, with the results similar both for men and women. Height matters both for men and women but in opposite directions. Women like tall men, preferably in the 6’3-6’4 range, while the ideal height for women is in the 5’3-5’8 range. Taller women experience increasingly worse outcomes.
3.) The optimal BMI for men is 27. Such a BMI is considered slightly overweight. The optimal BMI for women is 17, which is considered underweight and corresponds with the figure of a supermodel. A woman with such a BMI receives 90% more first contact e-mails than a woman with a BMI of 25. The lesson is obvious, though the means of achieving these goals is of course difficult. I’ve already discussed this problem in detail in my “Zlata Wears Prada” post and I’m pleased to see my casual observations confirmed.
4.) Income strongly affects the success of men. Outcomes improve monotonically for income levels above $50,000. The success of women is at most marginally related to their income. Higher incomes do not appear to improve outcomes. (It would be interesting to know if this result is also true for Jews.)
5.) Occupation also influences success for men, but not for women. In fact, professional women have a slightly lower success rate. In the sample used in the study, the improvement in outcomes for men was 62% for lawyers, 45% for firemen, 38% for the military, and 35% for doctors. (Clearly, they were not sampling a predominantly Jewish population. To the best of my knowledge, Jewish women do not have a thing for firemen.)
6.) Women have a preference for men with equivalent education levels. Men with college or graduate degrees do not necessarily prefer women with a similar education level. Both educated men and women are avoided by those with only a high school education. (Since men are willing to marry women with less education, but women are not, the market isn’t going to clear for very educated women.)
7.) Women discriminate more strongly against members of different ethnicities than men. (See my blog of 10/06.)There is abundant ethnic group discrimination online. Blacks and Hispanics receive half as many first contacts from white women relative to white men, while Asian men receive fewer than 25% percent. (I believe the least popular group in America is Asian men.)

I’ll say what I learnt from this study. If you are a guy you should always present yourself as seriously searching for a mate, even if you’re only looking around. A girl should talk of having fun, her interests, etc. even if she is chalishing/dying to marry and have babies (#1).

Since search times are correlated with desirability, tall women, short guys and chubby everybody ought to start looking early. Having a personal trainer and going to a gym is not a luxury when it comes to a shiduch. (#2 & #3).

The real problem comes when a young woman has to decide on going to graduate school and working for an M.A. and/or doctorate. OTOH-OTOH. The world is such that women are discriminated against in the job market, and a masters and more is always helpful in overcoming these barriers. On the other hand, there is evidence that very educated women have a harder time finding mates. I find this fact one of the great injustices that women must endure. It’s outrageous that a woman is penalized for intelligence. I think, bottom line, most intelligent women refuse to accommodate themselves to this injustice, go on to acquire as much education as they want or need and let the shiduchim problem take care of itself. While I admire these women’s courage, I must say it is a cause of the lower than average birth rate of Jews.

Two final thoughts. Internet dating in particular share features of a winner take all phenomena. Imagine a woman who is in the second lowest quartile in terms of desirable features, such as looks, personality, etc. When there are so many desirable women ranked above her, why should she choose a guy in a similar rank and vice versa. There is every incentive to aim much higher, use a scatter gun approach and hope to get lucky. The learning curve is needlessly prolonged. Because of the number of opportunities available, it takes much longer to become realistic about one’s prospects. I think Rebbetzin Jungreis has achieved the success she has by making people in their thirties aware of these biases.

I read in the Sunday NY Times Magazine (12/13/06) that homophily is the new buzzword in social networks. We seem to have an inexorable tendency to link up with others in ways that confirm rather than test our core beliefs. The result is that people’s personal networks are homogeneous. In other words we like someone like ourselves online and off. Besides explaining why MO and UO tend to cluster in non-overlapping groups it is also a useful tool in finding a mate. One can cut down on search times by only looking for mates similar to oneself. There is a way of doubling up on this insight…look for someone who is similar to you in hating the same people. A second article in the magazine claimed we enjoy meeting people who dislike the same people. I don’t think I need to elaborate on this insight after I have written four posts on how austritt holds a community together.

Have I just written Jewish self help column? (See Thursday’s post.) I hope not. I think of it as more of a gaming column, similar to how to win at twenty-one in Las Vegas.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Orthodox Self Help Books

I see there is something of a market in Orthodox Jewish self-help books. I am thinking of getting into the business, as a sideline of course. I wouldn’t give up my night job of writing a blog. First there are the advice books on how to date and find the right match. I’ve already dealt with some of these issues in my discussions of JDate. I could adapt my posts to a more lonely-hearts form. Second there are these books on how to have a good marriage. No problem there. I need some stories of bad marriages that I saved with my sound advice. Maybe I’ll attend a few lectures of Rebbetzin Jungreis. She must be selling some tapes. Rebbetzin Jungreis is for me a model of self help. She was already famous and popular when I was a teenager, and she looks better than ever. Then there are the standard self-help problems…feelings of failure, depression, anxiety, etc. I know how to say, ‘’Yes you can’’, ten different ways, and if necessary I could always use “Be satisfied with your lot.” I guess you need some stories, case histories and such. I can ask around and read some other self-help books. I know a psychiatrist who specializes in post-partum depression. I can always ring her up.

References from the Talmud are always good…I can handle the Torah side, especially since its Torah light. Over the years I’ve made it a point to study the history of musar (traditional pietistic and ethical discourses). There must be some decent quotes from the Alter of Somewhere or Other. I am not fond of Novardik, but Kelm works. I’ve always liked the parables of the Dubno Magid. No question I could get into this line of work.

I am teasing. I would rather eat cardboard than write the sort of stuff that is frequently found in Jewish self help books. Don’t get me wrong. I have an ongoing interest in musar. I hate self-help. I think it is pretty much of a racket. The biggest customers for a new self-help book are those who already bought a self-help book. You would think they were already helped. But noooo…when they finish the first self-help book, they find themselves in need of a booster-shot shortly thereafter. Self- help books are like diet books. The only thing diet books really accomplish is to motivate people to buy a second diet book. There’s something about self-administered medicines or cures that lead to a certain excess. People who take vitamins don’t gobble a few vitamins; they swallow handfuls of the stuff. Vitamins lead to more vitamins. Diets bring on more diets. Self-help books, even Orthodox Jewish ones, generate more self-help books.

In the case of self-help books, the reason is clear enough. I think of musar as having two goals, deepening a Jew’s love and fear of God, and shaping character. I think of self help books as dealing primarily with personality issues. (My criticism doesn’t apply to writers who have some practical knowledge on how to game a system such as useful tricks on how to do this or that; for example, how to fix a faucet or contest a parking ticket.) Character can be dealt with top down, maybe. You can hopefully train yourself to overcome sloth or gluttony. Personality changes generally need to come from the bottom up, where many of the impulses and motives are largely unconscious. A person who is looking to improve his mental/emotional state will find it very difficult to talk himself into the cure. It only occurs if there’s a structural change inside the person, which frequently only occurs if the person understand the aetiology and actually grasps what he is doing in a vivid, moving way. Let’s say a person is guarded and pinched with his emotions. Telling yourself to cut it out and be more expansive and warm frequently leads to a guarded pinched person with a smiley face. You have to know where this trait came from; you have to see how it works in your life. It’s a very slow process. Following a ten-step program frequently just doesn’t work. When psychotherapy is called for, self help acts at most as a palliative, not as a viable substitute.

One more thought on the topic of musar and self-help: I read a while back that some rabbi was talking at a Torah Umesorah Convention. He was trying to explain to teachers, rebees in yeshivas how to inspire their students to be more enthusiastic about learning. He starts on this rant about self-esteem and the importance of confidence…one shouldn’t tell the kid he’s a dummy or a retard no matter how slow the child is, you have to make him feel that he is about to become a chasheva bochur (distinguished student) with just a little more effort. I said to myself, who allowed this idea of self-esteem into Jewish life? Was there an Agudah convention I missed? I recently learnt some late 19th century musar books borrowed the idea of a self improvement ledger from Benjamin Franklin. An idea that comes from outside Jewish thought can be made Jewish if it lasts long enough inside Jewish circles. Self-esteem, however, even in its pop psychology version is borrowed from fairly recent developments in clinical psychology, and the abundant literature on narcissism. If you look in musar seforim (books), there’s all this talk about gaiveh (arrogance) and breaking of the self. Its humility and modesty and unpretentiousness we want. Egotism, pomposity, pretension all big no-no’s. Everyone knows the chassidish punch line: “The “I” (the ha’anochi) stands between you and God.” In self-esteem talk, we try to make the person feel more important and significant. We mirror the person, confirm and strengthen his self image. In musar discourses about humility, the goal is try to make the person feel unimportant and insignificant.

Imagine a rebee who told a kid, “You know what you’re like. You’re like a potsherd that breaks a shadow that passes a dream that flies away. You’re a nothing. You came from dust and you’ll return to dust.” He’d be fired the same day and sent to reebe rehab. Who allowed all this self-esteem talk into Jewish life? Why wasn’t the introduction of a totally new way of talking a halachic rabbinical question? I say the change from humility talk to self-esteem talk is a bigger change than most of the insignificant issues people keep on fighting about. It’s a revolutionary change in how we understand a human being. (See my posts 10/20/06-10/23/06). It came right into charedi life, unannounced, and now has the imprint of Artscroll and Feldheim.

I think the self-esteem case is an example of a new idea that is taken up in Jewish life because it’s the right idea at the right time. It was an idea that worked and was therefore adopted side by side with older more traditional ideas. If you ask a rabbi, what about humility, is that important? He’ll, of course, say yes. Ask him ten minutes later about self-esteem, he’ll also say yes. Is this a crisis? Do we need a Slifkin of musar to reconcile the two? How there can be two parallel contradictory discourses/languages, and whether or not there’s any need for integration is an interesting topic.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Becoming Not Frum

The National Jewish Population Survey of 2001 reported that 20% of adult American Jews were raised Orthodox, but only 10% of adult American Jews currently identified as Orthodox. 17% of current Reform Jews were raised Orthodox. I have no idea exactly how to read these figures and I understand there are statistical problems involved in this study. It also might not be indicative of the situation today going forward. What is clear is that even today, with a much frumer population and with every step being taken to prevent anyone from dropping out, there are still a substantial number of Jews, especially young Jews in late adolescence and in their early twenties, who leave Orthodoxy.

There has been an ongoing discussion in Orthodox circles what to do about kids who don’t fit into the yeshiva system, most recently by Rabbi Maryles (11/26). There is a two lane highway into the walled city called Orthodoxy .The baal teshuvahs (repentants) are moving in; the skeptics and troubled youth are on their way out. Yeshivot are elite institutions with high standards, and are not made for everyone. Some kids are too dumb to excel. Some kids are smart but don’t excel in the topics the yeshivas teach. Some kids are just plain-out rebellious and high-spirited. Some, and I don’t think the numbers are large, were mistreated or molested by parents or someone in the community. Each of these groups requires special attention and special solutions. The common sense answer is to have many different institutions specializing in each of these different types of troubled young people with courses designed to speak to their strengths and, in turn, finding ways to keep them in the fold. Easy to say, hard to do. How to shape the curriculum and how to create such schools is an issue for educators and concerned parents, and not one I am really equipped to talk about.

I do have a few comments on the general issue. I feel that many times the most rebellious kids are amongst the best. Submission to authority is not always a virtue in a teenager, and breaking a kid, so that he toes the line, is not the best way to go. Sex and the very natural eagerness of adolescents to become involved in sexual activities must also be a factor. The philosopher Bertrand Russell, forever the wise guy, advocated allowing 12-13 year olds to have full sexual relations on the grounds that they would have the peace of mind to do mathematics. Teachers and counselors need some direction in how to deal with this issue. Being very strict might cause even greater rebellion. It requires a person who has above average emotional intelligence and some psychological training and aptitude to handle rebellious adolescents.

It might be a prejudice on my part, but I tend to believe that large and very large families have something to do with the problem. I simply don’t see how parents with eleven-thirteen kids can pay adequate attention to each child from birth through adolescence. I have two concerns in this regard. My suspicion is that children are raising children in some of these large families. I suspect some kids just fall between the rafters. I acknowledge I have seen many large and very large families where all the kids turned out great. My question is whether any significant correlation exists between troubled youth and larger families. My other question is whether there are any correlations between I.Q. scores and larger families? Even if a large component of I.Q. is genetic, there has to be some relationship between family environment, and in particular mother-child bonding in the first few years of life, and alertness and other cognitive skills. Does the size of a family make a difference? If the answer is yes, and I don’t know this, then having very large families is not a free lunch. It is not inconceivable that as we go forward, future generations of charedi youth will be less intelligent than their parents and grandparents.

The young people that leave Orthodoxy because of theological questions pose a different problem. In Israel, they call Jews who leave Orthodoxy chozerim be'she'alah (returning to a state of skepticism).Usually they are bright, educated, honest, and full of common sense. Rosh yeshivas and rabbis who have no college education or only a minimal amount are not fully equipped to talk to these people. In a free society, guilt and shame only go so far. I don’t even believe that the people who engage in kiruv (helping secular Jews become Orthodox) are well-equipped to deal with such people. The world looks very different to a potential baal teshuva looking in than to an f.f.b. (frum from birth) looking out. The talk has to be different or so it seems to me. You need people who can handle any theological challenge, and can also find a way to deal with the underlying emotions and feelings behind the challenge.

There is a third problem which interests no one. Suppose somebody actually leaves, walks away from Orthodox life and tries to establish life elsewhere in the Jewish spectrum. Many times such people are troubled both theologically and psychologically. They need a little extra help to get started in their ‘new’ life. They are certainly not going to get any help from the Orthodox group they left. And there is no evangelical kiruv movement on the part of Conservative or Reform Jews which could help these Orthodox refugees to become more integrated into liberal Jewish life. They are on their own. I read that in Israel, there are organizations that help the chozerim be'she'alah, but I know of no such groups in America. The problem is accentuated because, like bad marriages, each Jew who was Orthodox and has left is different. Orthodox tend to be somewhat more homogenous; skeptics are skeptical each in their own way, some more reserved and troubled, some ‘acting out’ like there is no tomorrow. It is difficult to create an apikorsim (heretics) minyan.

Finally, I have had a long standing disagreement with friends whether it is best for an emotionally/religiously troubled young person to go to an Orthodox psychotherapist or a secular psychotherapist. I am on the secular side of the debate, but it’s a long topic and not for today.