Monday, August 15, 2011

Trembling in Fear

During the great Torah-Science controversy of 2004-6, one of the primary factors involved in my decisions regarding my books, and indeed in my consciously deciding to leave the charedi community, was the role of fear in the charedi community.

There is much talk in the charedi community about Yiras Shamayim. That community labels itself charedi, "trembling" at the word of God. And there are indeed many people in that community who excel at this attribute.

But the dominant fear in that community, the one that operates at all levels and out of all proportion, is fear that others will criticize you for not being frum enough.

I had wanted to write about this for a while, but I refrained, since I knew that many would just dismiss my words as lacking credibility. However, people with more credibility than myself are now saying the same thing - albeit anonymously. Rabbi Daniel Eidensohn reported a conversation that he had with an establishment charedi Rav, close with the Gedolim, who stated that the Charedi rabbonim's requirements regarding reporting abuse is contrary to halachah, and explained bluntly that they are "afraid" about "being labeled a shaygetz." And Jonathan Rosenblum, the Gedolim's PR man and hagiographer, reports that one of the members of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of the United States told him that "the gedolim cannot even discuss questions surrounding poverty because if they did the 'street' would just label them fake gedolim."

This is exactly what I saw in the controversy over my books, in a variety of ways too numerous to list in their entirety. But here are some examples:

  • One Torah website, which had formerly distributed a number of my essays, frantically sent out a mass e-mail to all their subscribers assuring them that they would never do so again and that all my essays (none of which were remotely controversial) had been deleted from their site. They were clearly driven by fear.
  • Rav Aharon Feldman, while no fan of the rationalist approach, was sickened (literally - and I mean that literally) by the ban. Yet he switched sides after spending time in Israel and being criticized for not being adequately supportive of the Gedolim. (He told me words to this effect personally!) My impression was that he was afraid of being labelled disloyal.
  • One of the younger rabbonim who had guided me in much of my writings sent me a proposed revised version of The Camel, The Hare And The Hyrax. It was edited beyond recognition - and to my mind, the edits were aimed not at making the book better from a Torah-True (TM) perspective, but rather at avoiding criticism from the right.

This last point was most significant to me. I do not believe that one should write everything that one wants to write - one has to consider the greater good of the community. But in the charedi world, such considerations were clearly going to be outweighed by the fear of being criticized for not being frum enough. I could not continue my writing career while operating in fear of attacks from the right. With books such as mine, which deal with important and sensitive subject matter, there are many difficult editorial decisions to be made; I did not want to also have to deal with concerns by me, by those who write approbations, and by my distributor about fears as to what people on the right will say. I had to be able to publish that which needed to be published - and thus to take my publishing out of the charedi world.

Now, for all those who would smugly condemn people who act out of fear - remember Chazal's dictum that one should not judge a person until you are in their place. People who are embedded in that community really do have good reason to be afraid! Their careers, their social standing, their children's education and shidduchim, really could be on the line. (However, it should be pointed out that such fear does seem to contradict the notion of bitachon.)

In fact, for me to leave the charedi community and continue to publish my books was not an act of bravery. It was an act of leaving a situation of fear, at a time in my life when it was relatively easy to do so. But it was the right thing to do. It's very harmful to be in a community in which decisions are based upon of fear of man rather than fear of God.

(Please note that fascinating comments on the previous post are still coming in. Don't miss them!)

26 comments:

  1. So let me see if I get this straight:
    A good Chareidi listens to his Godol because the Godol has Daas Torah.
    However, the Godol's Daas Torah is limited because only that Daas Torah that the militant askanim want to hear is every disseminated.
    This happens in every established group. First there's a revolution in which leaders who are visionaries present a model and create the "ideal" community. Then shortly after they become hostage to those ideals at the hands of their former enthusiastic followers who shan't brook any changes to the "ideal" vision.

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  2. No offense, but this is what people have been saying about the Charedi community as far as I've been alive.

    True, when I was younger I thought they were making generalizations, and I think for the average charedi it is a generalization, but still. I'm surprised you found this something that you had to 'sit on'.

    It IS their self appointed label.

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  3. Even though I agree with the position of the Gedolim on the age of the universe (it's 5771 years old), I am with you in spirit on this issue.

    The hysteria that resulted from the publication of your books demonstrates clearly to me that the issue was never about fear of Hashem but fear of men.

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  4. I'm afraid to comment on this one, even anonymously.

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  5. An article on precisely this point appeared in the "Shabbat" Torah & literary supplement to the Makor Rishon newspaper this past Shabbat.

    The crucial quote is:
    כל התשתית של השיטה מבוססת על פחד ואיומים, הפחד מהשכנים ולא מהשכינה.

    "הפחד מהשכנים ולא מהשכינה" - there can't possibly be a better phrase to describe that reality!

    The discussion of the article is interesting too. The article itself here:
    http://musaf-shabbat.com/2011/08/11/%D7%94%D7%A4%D7%97%D7%93-%D7%A9%D7%9C-%D7%9B%D7%95%D7%9C%D7%9D-%D7%9E%D7%9B%D7%95%D7%9C%D7%9D-%D7%99%D7%A9%D7%A8%D7%90%D7%9C-%D7%9C%D7%91%D7%A7%D7%95%D7%91%D7%99%D7%A5/

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  6. Judaism is a religion and nation of laws, and legal rulings that are arrived at through an accepted process. Banning a book, and by extension a rabbi, is a big deal -- it nearly amounts to excommunication. Surely such a decision requires a trial in which both sides are allowed to present their cases! Yet this is not what happened: based on second-hand information by people making (often false) accusations, and without a fair hearing of both sides, the gedolim decided to ban your books. Such a ban should have no validity. And many of these accusers have gone on to be revealed as dishonest and immoral -- some of them even receiving prison sentences. Yet the ban still holds, and a fair hearing has still not been done. This strikes a nearly fatal blow to the legitimacy of the gedolim. If they want to be respected as gedolim, they should get over their fear of criticism and do the right thing. To paraphrase the Besht, you should not fear anything in the world except for God -- and certainly not those who look up to you almost as if you were a God.

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  7. I find it disturbing we have to take these bans seriously for the following reasons.

    As Yishai said and many agree these bans are not legal bans of Torah law by a true court but bans by a small radical groups of Jews living outside the bounds of normative Torah.

    If anything certain Godolim and their followers should be banned because they have branched far from the normal path.

    Living Torah can't exist in such narrow constraints of thought and is therefore is not true Judaism.

    Rabbi Simon

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  8. I find it disturbing we have to take these bans seriously for the following reasons.

    As Yishai said and many agree these bans are not legal bans of Torah law by a true court but bans by a small radical groups of Jews living outside the bounds of normative Torah.

    If anything certain Godolim and their followers should be banned because they have branched far from the normal path.

    Living Torah can't exist in such narrow constraints of thought and is therefore is not true Judaism.

    Rabbi Simon

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  9. A Chasidishe Rav (who, of course, asked me not to quote him on this) once told me: Imagine how normal we would've been if not for having to do shidduchim.

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  10. I remember hearing R. Rakeffet quoting the Rav (from the 70's, but even more applicable now) that went something like this: People have a fear of G-d's word, but where is the fear of G-d? I found this to be an extremely insightful comment.

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  11. aaa, old saying has it that the difference between Misnagdim and Chassidim is that the former fear the Shulchan Aruch while the latter fear God. Seems that in today's days they both share the fear of the neighborhood zealots.
    As a wise man once said: הלואי שיהא מורא שמים עליכם כמורא רבכם.

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  12. Here's a thought question people can ask themselves: "If I had lived 2000 years ago, would I have left the Pharisee community because I wanted to leave a situation of fear?"

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  13. I'm glad you posted this. From my own experience in the charedi community, I felt the same way about fear of people overstepping fear of Hashem. For that and other reasons I chose to leave and join a more centrist community. But I think because the majority of my Jewish education occurred within the charedi framework, I was always taught that the charedi Gedolim are the highest on the hierarchy of da'as Torah, and now, not being in that world, I haven't been able to find another outlet for learning how other communities view and interpret who the Gedolim are and what their role is within the overall Jewish world (for example, when I mentioned to someone more on the right that I was reading and enjoying R' Soloveitchik's books, he responded with "He was a talmid chacham but his views were outnumbered by the 'majority' held by the Gedolim." And I didn't think that made sense but I just didn't know how to explain.) Maybe this could be the topic of a future post on your blog? It would be really helpful, and perhaps also for other readers.

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  14. "Here's a thought question people can ask themselves: "If I had lived 2000 years ago, would I have left the Pharisee community because I wanted to leave a situation of fear?""

    Erm, no, for two reasons:

    1. Very often, it was the Tzedukim who were in power, and if you wanted to be "in," you went with them. The non-Pharisee groups (Saduccees, Essenes, etc.) were actually much "frummer" than the Pharisees.

    2. Most people were neither.

    Miriam, for starters, a "majority" means nothing for non-halakhic matters, and even for halakhic matters if they are wrong. We don't have a Sanhedrin today.

    Moreoever, a "majority" of who? Who chooses? YU has thirty-plus Roshei Yeshiva, all of whom are huge talmidei chachamim. Who decided that the dozen or so people on the Moetzet are greater than them? Israel has hundreds of dati-leumi Roshei Yeshiva, many huge talmidei chachamim. Because they don't wear a black hat, they're worth nothing?

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  15. Yeedle, the source (at least a source) for your point is Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai's blessing to his students on his deathbed, Brachot 28b:

    אמרו לו רבינו ברכנו אמר להם יהי רצון שתהא מורא שמים עליכם כמורא בשר ודם אמרו לו תלמידיו עד כאן אמר להם ולואי תדעו כשאדם עובר עבירה אומר שלא יראני אדם.‏

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  16. Like usual, Rabbi Slifkin, I think you've hit the nail right on the head. Of course, for many people, there's a real reason to fear - rabbis and roshei yeshiva have legitimate reason to fear for their jobs, their parnasa, or the future of their institutions. Ordinary people fear for their children's education and marriage prospects. To use another example, when a well-respected rabbi takes action against an hesed organization because of the publicly stated views of one of that organization's leaders, it causes anyone affiliated with any organization dependent on public support to fear to express his or her private opinions because it might rebound against the organization. I think the worst thing about the fear you write about in the charedi world is that, in my opionion, it causes everything that comes out of that world - books, articles, lectures, etc. - to lose credibility, on the chance that the views or distorted or lacking full expression because of the fear of saying something - lets call it "hashkafically incorrect." I, too, left the charedi world, largely because of this "fear" factor. As such, I think you have performed, and continue to perform, a tremendous public service by your fearless approach to controversial issues, as expressed in your books and in this blog.

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  17. Nachum, wrote

    "Moreoever, a "majority" of who? Who chooses? YU has thirty-plus Roshei Yeshiva, all of whom are huge talmidei chachamim. Who decided that the dozen or so people on the Moetzet are greater than them? Israel has hundreds of dati-leumi Roshei Yeshiva, many huge talmidei chachamim. Because they don't wear a black hat, they're worth nothing?"

    I would go further-- who decided that our leaders are those who can best make hullukim in a Reb Chaim?

    As a wise man lamented long ago: "Nowadays we only know tanakh through the Gemara and the Gemara through the Ketzos Hachoshen."

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  18. Nachum, I wasn't implying that as /my/ belief. To clarify: I'm asking for a rationalist explanation/perspective of how all the different communities within Judaism fit together (maybe this is a sort of related to the 'Grand Vision' question, even.) Obviously dati-leumi and YU, etc., each have their talmidei chachamim. I was just asking for clarificiation on how to understand how to respond to someone from the charedi world who says (which I do hear often and assume is a widespread belief within that community) that charedi Gedolim are THE leaders, as opposed to just within that community. The reason why I think it's an important topic is because that belief held within the charedi world (and is directly linked to, as previously stated, fear of not appearing 'frum enough') is at the root of diviseness and the lack of constructive dialogue between that & communities of differing hashkafot.

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  19. Nachum writes: "2. Most people were neither (Pharisees or Sadducees).

    How does that square with what Josephus writes: "…the Sadducees are able to persuade none but the rich, and have not the populace obsequious to them, but the Pharisees have the majority on their side…"
    (Antiquities 13:10:6)

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  20. Sorry, but I have to disagree with your characterization of R' Feldman's reactions. R' Feldman considers himself a close and devoted talmid of R' Elyashiv. It is far more likely that he changed his mind due to his tremendous respect for his rebbe's opinion.

    There is additionally a broader point which you failed to notice in your post. It is one thing to remain silent out of "fear", as described by R' Rosenblum (although that is more pragmatism than fear); it is quite another to tell a lie. I don't think R' Feldman, or any Chareidi gadol, would lie out of fear, R' Eidensohn's report notwithstanding. (No offense intended, but he has his agenda just like everybody else.)

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  21. I do see things coming to their breaking point -- in a positive way.

    Many people are slowly coming to realize that what's termed "kollel life" is not halachically/practically appropriate or viable.

    The same thing is happening with schools and shidduchim.

    It's human nature to grasp wildly onto something as it's breaking away, to convulse in death throes, which is what we've been seeing.

    The RNS ban was a breaking point, as was the later Lipa ban. More than the actual act of banning was the WAY the bans were decided and carried out; the manner was completely irresponsible and halachically incorrect. Even people who don't agree with RNS's conclusions or Lipa's music style object to the way it was all done.

    The issue with fear is well-known and widely acknowledged among chareidim themselves. A lot of people ARE thinking differently. And even people who don't want to change their thinking are facing situations, mostly via their children, which force them to re-examine their hashkafahs and get on the road back to what Judaism is truly supposed to do for us.

    Other than that, I can only second what Yishai wrote. And I think Miriam and others brings up some good points for discussion.

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  22. > I don't think R' Feldman, or any Chareidi gadol, would lie out of fear, R' Eidensohn's report notwithstanding.

    We know that not everyone says publicly what they are thinking, or even willing to say privately. We know this first of all because we are humans and we know that this is what humans do. But we also know this because of the letters of the Seridei Esh to Samuel Atlas. The sentiments in those letters were not revealed elsewhere, but he sure was thinking them. So why is it such a stretch to say that other gedolim will also obscure what they are really thinking out of fear?

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  23. I'm confused. Rabbi Feldman himself told you he sympathized with your book? Did you read "Eye of the Storm" in which he bashes you and your opinions very strongly? It's very hard to believe ANYONE can write something with so much conviction if they didn't believe it.

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  24. I'm also curious as to what your answer is to the above comment.

    Yo Joe

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  25. > So why is it such a stretch to say that other gedolim will also obscure what they are really thinking out of fear?

    That was exactly the point of my post. It is one thing to remain silent; it is quite another to tell an outright lie. R' Slifkin is not suggesting that R' Feldman obscured his true views. He is suggesting that R' Feldman publicly and consistently lied about his true views to avoid being labeled "disloyal". That is quite a stretch indeed.

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