Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The big lie and the inferiority complex

It is said that if a lie is big enough and repeated often enough it will be accepted as incontrovertible truth, and the liar may even come to believe it himself. Such a lie has been afflicting the Orthodox community for more than a generation. The haredi party line about Jewish life in America is that until their parents and grandparents came to these shores after the Holocaust America was a Jewish desert, a midbar shemama, and the bearded black-hatted Yiddish-speaking newcomers rescued us from certain doom. We who were born here, dress American, speak English without an accent and whose forebears proudly wore the American uniform while others were walking into gas chambers have bought into the lie and, as a result, are reluctant to raise our voices in protest against the abuses and usurpations being perpetrated on our right.

America was not, repeat not, a desert. We had an Orthodox synagogue here in New York when it was still New Amsterdam. Shearith Israel still thrives on Central Park West and W. 70 St. My daughter taught in its religious school. B'nei Jeshurun was founded in 1825 to serve New York's burgeoning Ashkenazi community and it still thrives. At the turn of the previous century the majestic Eldridge Street Synagogue was founded on the Lower East Side to serve the new arrivals from Eastern Europe. It is now undergoing extensive renovation ( http://www.eldridgestreet.org/ ). It is far from the only synagogue to spring up in New York at that time. Neighborhoods like Crown Heights and Brownsville were teeming with Jewish life. My alma mater, Yeshivah of Flatbush, was founded in 1927 to educate boys and girls who would be both Jewish and American. Its educational philosophy has not changed much since. And this was in New York alone.

My mother was born and raised in McKeesport, Pennsylvania. Her father a"h arrived from Hungary as a prisoner of war in World War I (like many Jews of the time, he fought on the wrong side). Eventually he moved his family to Crown Heights to improve his daughters' marriage prospects (to my sorrow, he had no sons). The fact that he was willing to uproot himself in precarious economic times speaks to the viability of Torah in America long before the Holocaust.

Yes, there has been a flowering of Torah life in this country brought about by arrivals from Europe after World War II. So why am I complaining? Because we have lost our collective voice, and are too deferential to the newcomers and their rabbinic establishment. Because haredi triumphalism brought with it smugness and intolerance of other ways of living a Torah life. Because today if a boy wears a kippa seruga or if a girl wears pants, or we carry on Shabbat in our neighborhood eruv, or we identify ourselves as Zionist, or we pursue higher education, we are somehow not Jewish enough. We look for halakhic guidance to authority figures on our right who are not attuned to American culture, who might not speak English or even Hebrew. After Slifkingate, this position has become untenable. We cannot afford to defer to Torah authorities whose vision of Torah cannot accommodate external reality. We cannot accept the authority of people who counsel tearing pages out of books (Igrot Moshe Yoreh Deah 3:73). If we do, more and more of our best and brightest will give up on Torah life altogether. It is high time that we, through the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America, stand up and proclaim that we are just as Jewish as the haredim, that our Torah scholars are every bit as good as theirs, nay better because they speak our language, are educated and understand where we are culturally. We cannot afford to maintain our inferiority complex, or Torah in the coming generations will be relegated to the status of a living fossil.

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Blogger DrMike said...

Although I agree with most of what you've posted, I'll play devil's advocate for the first part of my comment:

Yes, New York was teeming with Jewish life. I know from my learnin' of history that Toronto was also teeming with Jewish life before WW2. There were shuls on every corner, schools nearby, etc. But if one looks a little deeper, there are sometimes forgotten things that disturb this picture.
For example, downtown Toronto's Kensington Market was known in the 20's and 30's as the Jewish market before it was almost 100% owned and run. Its busiest day was Shabbos. Most local shuls held early minyanim on Shabbos morning so the folks in the market and the businesses on adjacent Spadina Ave could make it to work on time. When Rav Langner, one of the senior rabbonim in Toronto of the day, once went to the market to protest the chillul Shabbos, he was pelted with tomatoes by the Jews shopping there and I'm willing to bet most of them had gone to cheder in their youth. So a burgeoning number of Jewish institutions isn't always an indicator of a Torah observant community.

Having said that...

I agree wholeheartedly that an alternative to the chareidi leadership has to develop but there are certain things that must happen. First of all, when you create a movement, it must have some kind of defintion. "We're all inclusive" or "We accept and don't judge" are nice concepts that take a group of people nowhere. The chareidim are strong because they have an ideology and an approach to Torah that you must observe if you want to be in the group. Otherwise, you're out.
For the RCA and OU to compete (and I don't get the sense they want to), they would have to clamp down on their membership. Wanna be MO? You must wear a kippah, or a skirt, or cover your hair if married, you must observe kashrus at least according to the minimum standards we set as well as taharas mishpachah. If you don't, you can't call yourself MO.

And you know what would happen if they did that. By even trying to attempt a dialogue with the Rabbanut over the recent conversion process they were accused of moving too far to the right. Too many MO members are happy being just to the right of Conservatism and don't want to move into stricter territory, even if it means a loss of legitimacy in the eyes of the Chareidim. They simply don't see the bigger picture.
Changing their minds will be the key.

Wed Jul 04, 10:49:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Zev Stern said...

Of course many newcomers dropped out of Jewish observance when they came here in the beginning of the previous century and the end of the 19th. They saw no other way to survive economically, and they had the option, unavailable in Europe, of dropping out without converting to another religion. However, my son is studying Jewish cultural transformation as an anthropology grad student, and he tells me of pictures from Vilna and similar places showing clean-shaven Jews before electric shavers were invented, so what gives? Once a generation or two passed and we had some observant lawyers, legislation and court cases protected our rights and it became a lot easier to keep Shabbat.

As for standards, we need them but what should they be and are we willing to pay the price? Wear a kippa? Many of our young men are still afraid of being attacked on the street. Are yeshivot ready to train Jewish fists to be peacekeepers? We will (I hope) never be comfortable with the language of Eisav but sometimes we have to speak it because Eisav won't learn ours. A skirt? That was okay in Europe two centuries ago, but today in America pants are perfectly acceptable women's attire; you see it in the most conservative (small "c") workplaces. And they're even more tzniusdik than a skirt; the whole leg is covered and the wind can't blow it up. Taharat hamishpaha? Last time I checked that was private. We don't put surveillance cameras in peoples' bedrooms to verify that no hanky-panky is going on at the wrong time of the month, nor do mikva'ot keep records of who shows up and when. Are we ready to find a way to reliably certify vegetarian (e.g. Indian) and dairy restaurants that are open on Shabbat so that people who want or need to eat out in a place that cannot support a gazillion Jewish eateries can do so? The haredim have an easy but, for many, unappealing answer; don't live in or visit such places. For us life is harder.

Wed Jul 04, 01:46:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

So there are actually answers to lots of your points:
1) clean shaving is a very old practice. Men used depilatory powders and wooden scrapers to avoid the prohibition of using a metal razor. Nothing innovate there. Even today, there are certain shavers that are not a problem while others are. Just know your brand and there's no issue to shaving. Philosophically, check out Rav Hirsch's rationale for wearing a beard. It makes for a good read and a nice justification to have one without saying "Well, you have to if you want to look Jewish".

head coverings? Wear a hat. Doesn't have to be a black fedora. I wear a Tilly (do they have those in the US?) which is quite comfy, stays cool in the sun and absorbs the sweat on my forehead nicely. I can accomodate the religious obligation to cover the head and not be a target at the same time.

Training our kids to fight? Why not? First of all, there's an Israeli martial art, Krav maga (as I'm sure you know). Just because Eizav's bracha is the sword doesn't mean we're not allowed to defend ourselves. David HaMelech didn't pray his way across the battlefield in his wars. It also encourages physical fitness and self-confidence. No problem there.

Women's clothes - the concern is not just the issur of wearin "men's garments" because, as you noted, women can wear feminine pants we wouldn't be caught dead in. The other issue is form fitting or outlining certain parts of their body, for example, the crotch area. There are some MO authorities in Israel that permit big, flowing pants that look like skirts unless the woman really splits her legs apart. Might be a nice compromise there. And if someone has a problem, remind them that men didn't always wear pants either. What, our ancestors didn't wear flowing robes?

Taharas mishapachah - that's between a couple and God although one might make the argument that in public there should be a certain standard of propriety so that others are not unduly offended. Mind you, some people are always looking to be offended but lets assume the normal standard.

Finally, the Indian restaurants. This problem has been looked at. I recall asking this very question because down the street from where I went to university was a very, very strictly vegetarian Chinese restaurant where NO meat, eggs or milk products were served. Even the oyster sauce (for the fake oysters) had a hechsher. The problem comes with checking vegetables for bugs and the use of dishes and utensils that have not been toivelled. But a good talk with the management might sort that out. Where I live there's a yogurt place where the manager, in an effort to get Jewish business, has a specific area for kosher flavours and toppings and has trained all her staff to only offer those to identifiably religious Jews. So it is possible with a little good will and without an intent to compromise.

Sun Jul 08, 03:31:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This whole exchange reflects something that (from the standpoint of anyplace and any time other than America in the past half century) is a little bizarre: the assumption (shared by all commenters so far) that OF COURSE, people should segment themselves into denominations based on piety, so that the most stringent people are Orthodox, the least stringent people are Reform, etc.

I don't deny that that's the way things have turned out, and the denominational polarization seems to be increasing rather than decreasing. But I don't see why people who claim to be the most traditional Jews (i.e. Orthodox Jews, modern or otherwise) should endorse this.

Why not? Because in almost every country outside the United States (except maybe Germany), the overwhelming majority of Jews go to Orthodox shuls, regardless of their level of observance. You don't have split after split after split.

And even in the United States, there isn't this sort of denominational polarization among Sephardim.

So do you really prefer the status quo in one country over the historic pattern of Jews the world over?

Wed Jul 25, 12:15:00 AM EDT  

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