Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Gevalt! The Jerusalem Post!

(This article was published today in The Jerusalem Post)

On November 26th, Agudath Israel of America held its 87th national convention. One of the speakers was Rabbi Shimshon Sherer, son of the late Rabbi Moshe Sherer, the legendary builder of Agudath Israel of America. His address, conveniently posted on YouTube, focused on my first op-ed for The Jerusalem Post, which appeared a few weeks ago, on “The Making of Post-Haredism.” That essay was about the development of Haredi Judaism in the twentieth century, and about how its development of various excesses and problems have caused many people, including myself, to become post-Haredi. The article was picked up by the very popular haredi news-aggregation website Vos Isz Neias (Yiddish for “What’s The News?”) where the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Some very well-known personalities from within the haredi world wrote to tell me how much it resonated with them (making it clear, of course, that I was to keep their identities confidential).

But Rabbi Sherer was not one of those people. He read out extracts from the essay in tones of horror, and was especially appalled at my allegations of certain problems in the Haredi world. “Es reiss de hartz” – “It tears the heart,” he exclaimed in Yiddish, that I could write such things “for the whole world to see in the Jerusalem Post!”

His distress is easy to understand. It’s hideously discomforting for us to see the world media discussing Katsav’s conviction; imagine how much more frustrating publicity is for an Agudah spokesman who believes that the problems that I described do not even exist. Indeed, I myself would much rather have published my essay in a Haredi publication, where it would reach much more of the people who would benefit from it. But, obviously, no Haredi publication would dream of publishing such a piece. And so I published it in the Jerusalem Post, which, in today’s internet age, is also read by many in the haredi community.

There was a great irony in Rabbi Sherer’s dismay at my publishing in the Jerusalem Post. In my essay, I pointed to some positive signs of change in the haredi world, such as new magazines that—albeit very delicately—engage in some criticism of the haredi world. Rabbi Sherer denounced such publications. He thundered, “The first of the bill of rights for the frumme yidden is not freedom of speech. It’s not freedom of religion. It’s not freedom of the press. The first bill of rights for the frumme yid is Anochi Hashem Elokecha! …There is no freedom of speech and freedom to write in our constitution of Anokhi Hashem Elokecha! …Let it be said very clearly: Total subservience to Torah, total subservience to Daas Torah, is not a democratic right: it is Divinely ordained!”

Agudas Yisrael is entitled to insist that there is no freedom to express criticism of haredi policies in the haredi press. But then how can they be shocked at someone discussing these problems in a non-haredi media source?

Orthodoxy in general, and haredi Orthodoxy in particular, is defined by its struggle with modernity. In general, Orthodoxy has been extremely successful, certainly compared to Conservative or Reform. And, at least in terms of sheer numbers, haredi Orthodoxy seems to be the most successful group of all.

But there are always new challenges. As an observant Jew, and as a parent, I am greatly troubled by the influence of modern society. The television shows that I watched in England as a child weren’t so pernicious, but the same can hardly be said for the culture presented today. Anybody who doesn’t believe that the Internet poses a danger to their children is either naïve or is deluding themselves. And in an era of unprecedented personal autonomy, it is hard to maintain and teach respect for parents, elders and tradition.

How is one to react to these new challenges? Do we continue to build the walls ever higher, or do we try to accommodate the new culture? In my view, there is no single “right” way for a religious Jew to deal with modernity; whether one seeks to grapple with its challenges or to build up the walls, each approach has its advantages and disadvantages. For these and other reasons, I have always found it very difficult to claim that haredi Orthodoxy is the wrong approach compared to modern or centrist Orthodoxy.

Yet some battles have clearly been lost, at least as far as most people are concerned. And controlling information is one of them.

The haredi public is not what it is believed to be by both Agudah spokesmen such as Rabbi Sherer and by the non-haredi public—as is clear from the very positive response to my article from within the Haredi world. They are not all mindless masses who will read only what they are told to read and who will faithfully follow whatever they are told to do when no explanation is given.

In the 21st century, even many haredim have the internet. The Agudah itself posts its convention speeches on YouTube—albeit with the option for submitting comments hastily disabled after a link to my blog was posted! If haredim are bothered by a leadership decision, they will not just accept it on trust, as Rabbi Sherer demanded – they will discuss it, and compare it with views of others that are better explained. If they feel that haredi media sources are not presenting accurate or relevant information, they will turn to other media sources. If they feel that their voices are not being heard, they will write blogs.

While all this results in much terrible negativity and irresponsible mud-slinging, it also has its benefits. For example, it is clear that certain problems in the haredi world are only now starting to be solved due to people publicizing them in non-haredi media outlets. As many people in the Haredi world are well aware, the Haredi world needs the non-Haredi media, the blogosphere, and the perspectives that these present.

Those who protest them the loudest may be those who need them most of all – as a punching-bag, an enemy to justify their own existence. Rabbi Sherer spoke about how Agudath Israel was founded in Kattowitz in 1912 in order to counter Reform and secular Zionism, and about how today, there are new movements to fight, such Centrist Orthodoxy, Open Orthodoxy, Post-Haredism, and blogs. What would he have to speak about without us?

39 comments:

  1. Yasher Koach for taking the high road and thereby making R. Sherrer looking even more foolish than he already did! (Which was pretty hard to do.)

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  2. Love your last sentence.

    To be fair, though, don't many of us in the Orthodox world often contrast our religion with popular culture and thought? Is that necessarily a bad thing?

    (By the way, do you have a regular column in The Jerusalm Post now?)

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  3. Is every leader in the Haredi world today in his position by being "the son of..."? Does this R. Sherer have any qualifications of his own?

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  4. R' Slifkin, keep up your great work! While, I am with you on your Agudah article, here is an article I came across that you may find of interest.

    http://matzav.com/the-gid-hanasheh-incongruity

    It shows that how sometimes when we feel that the leaders have erred, we often see that at the end they were 100% correct. Yes, apparently this is not always the case, but there are some historical examples that are not so well known and should be kept in mind.

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  5. the reason for freedom of speech and the press and association were not born of a desire to contradict Torah law. during the middle ages there were people who noticed how religious law was used to oppress people . Even though it says in the Torah not to steal , still rabbis would makes laws that enriched their pockets at the expense of working folks.
    This is the reason the rambam railed at the yeshivot in Iraq in his day and accused the geonim there of lying and abuse of power .
    I.E. people noticed that religious law was given lip service but when it came to practice rabbis just used it to hurt people and they themselves would pay no attention to the actual prohibitions of the Torah. to solve this type of problem the idea of natural law came into being in the mind of Sadia Geon and the Rambam. this in turn was developed into the idea of natural rights. This If orthodox rabbis would be able to be trusted then this would not have been necessary. the problem developed when rabbis showed they were interested in only their own good and power and lives of pleasure

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  6. To r slifkin, i think i agree with you on this, but i clicked on the link from yg (about gid hanasheh - i seem to remember seeing it - and found it on another website as well)

    http://ohr.edu/this_week/insights_into_halacha/4966

    and i think he makes an excellent point based on that thorough article (great footnotes as well).

    according to your shitta where do you draw the line? r eibeshutz was proven correct 150 years posthumously!

    [btw i saw over there in a previous article "fish with legs" - a different take than you on the stincus issue]

    what are your thoughts on this?

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  7. I don't understand your question.

    And in any case, there is a difference between actual piskei halachah and "Daas Torah."

    And so what if, even with "Daas Torah" positions, there were cases when people were later proved correct? What about cases where they were later proved incorrect (e.g. in telling people not to leave Europe)?

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  8. I do not see what the gid hanasheh article has to do with criticizing policies in the charedi world which have no basis anywhere in Torah to be forced on us with no explanation.
    In the article, R. Eibshutz was defending an age old halachah with a known source. The charedi policies in question are new ideas which have no basis in Torah or tradition. And at best were a temporary measure whose time has run out.

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  9. Rabbi Slifkin,

    I have long enjoyed and am sure I will continue to enjoy reading your blog. And most of the time other people criticise the tone of your critique, I feel that if anything you erred too much on the side of restraint. But I must say that while I think you, overall, wrote a great piece here, the last paragraph's implication that the criticism of your article (and of similar pieces in general) is largely driven by Agudah's need to justify its own existence, was quite unfair and uncalled for. Agudah doesn't "need" external critiques as a punching bag. The tireless work that they do on behalf of Klal Yisroel is more than enough to justify their existence.

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  10. Shmulee: you're right that Agudah does do a lot of functionary things besides lambast people, but the Agudah rep himself linked the foundation of Agudah to fighting ideological enemies, which implies that, to some extent, the essence of Agudah is just that: defense of their ideology. Defense against ideological invasion seems to be the theme of haredi exposition; I hear it in my own shul/bais midrash. IMO it makes Judaism and life quite anemic and meaningless.

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  11. You made it to the podium of the Agudah. That is great!

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  12. In Agudah's defense, note that Sherer has not been given a prominent role there -- despite his last name.

    Perhaps his being a featured spaker this year was solely due to his ba'al habayis being the Dinner Chairman.

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  13. "And, at least in terms of sheer numbers, haredi Orthodoxy seems to be the most successful group of all."

    In terms of sheer numbers, no. Haredim remain a distinct minority even among Orthodox Jews, whether in the US or Israel or elsewhere. They stand out more and are more concentrated, but that's it. And that's after three generations of so of eight kids...

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  14. > The first bill of rights for the frumme yid is Anochi Hashem Elokecha! …There is no freedom of speech and freedom to write in our constitution of Anokhi Hashem Elokecha! …Let it be said very clearly: Total subservience to Torah, total subservience to Daas Torah

    First of all, this is bad rhetoric. The aseres hadibros are in no way comparable to the Bill of Rights. Secondly, what of the second of the aseres hadibros, “Lo yihyeh lecha elohim acherim?” Instead of subservience to Hashem, he is advocating, “Total subservience to Torah, total subservience to Daas Torah.” I know, I know, he sees it as the same thing, but it’s not…

    > But then how can they be shocked at someone discussing these problems in a non-haredi media source?

    It’s a sense of betrayal, no? Even after what they did to you, they still regard you as bound by the unspoken rules of the Chareidi world, one of which is, “don’t talk about problems, and certainly not where non-community-members can hear.”

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  15. Very well written. One of your better pieces (among many good ones) for sure.

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  16. "In general, Orthodoxy has been extremely successful, certainly compared to Conservative or Reform. And, at least in terms of sheer numbers, haredi Orthodoxy seems to be the most successful group of all."

    This is a REALLY bizarre comment.

    In terms of sheer numbers, Reform Judaism is the most successful group of all. They have an official membership of 1.1 million members.

    While Charedi Judaism only has 700,000 members, there are 13 million Jews in the world.

    In Israel, according to this article: http://www.jcpa.org/dje/articles2/relinisr-consensus.htm

    Charedi Jews make up 8% of Israel's population, while Religious Zionists make up 17% of Israel's population, 55% of Israel's population label's itself "traditional", and 20% "chiloni"

    Can you explain what you meant by that statement?

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  17. > They are not all mindless masses who will read only what they are told to read and who will faithfully follow whatever they are told to do when no explanation is given.

    Here's the problem: that's exactly what the Agudah want their masses, and us, to be. For them that is the ideal Judaism.

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  18. This is a really interesting survey on Orthodox Judaism in the US, and it strongly suggests that Orthodox Judaism loses more people than it attracts.

    http://www.jewishfederations.org/local_includes/downloads/4983.pdf

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  19. "This is a really interesting survey on Orthodox Judaism in the US, and it strongly suggests that Orthodox Judaism loses more people than it attracts."

    Making babies is chopped liver?

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  20. "And, at least in terms of sheer numbers, haredi Orthodoxy seems to be the most successful group of all."

    I think R Slifkin means in terms of children. Remember Orthodox Judaism is in a recovery mode, from earlier days when everyone thought that it would disappear. Given past numbers, Orthodox and especially Charedim maid a remarkable comeback. And in terms of which jewish group has their children committed to Jewish life, orhtodox and Charedi is second to none. How many reform or conservative kids and teenagers daven everyday or go to Shul on consistent bases?

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  21. "The first bill of rights for the frumme yid is Anochi Hashem Elokecha!"

    So when rabbis make a pronouncement and invoke "daas Torah," are they being God or God's mouthpiece? Is Hashem "our god," or are the rabbis? It's not clear that Rabbi Sherer would distinguish between the two.

    "As an observant Jew, and as a parent, I am greatly troubled by the influence of modern society."

    RNS - While I respect your hesitance regarding modern society, the only reason that you can think what you think, read what you read, blog what you blog, do what you do, and say what you say is thanks to the "modern" secular society that exists in the country in which you live. The only reason you can be observant/Orthodox in the way that you choose is because of "modern society"; no individual, society or government forced you reside in your London community, nor do they force you to live in Ramat Bet Shemesh. It is religious leadership, represented in your post by folks like Rabbi Sherer, who would limit your freedom to be who you are by stating anokhi hashem.

    Again, with respect to the "devolution" (as you might say) of television, I think you are whitewashing the past. The reason why TV was so "pure" in the past was due to stronger censorship; society, culture, and the world itself were no more moral than they are today.

    Enjoyed your opinion piece overall!
    Best,
    Michael Singer

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  22. "forced you reside in your London community"

    My apologies, I meant Manchester, not London!

    Best,
    Michael A. Singer

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  23. Vos Isz Neias means What's News, not What's The News. Es reisst (not reiss) de hartz, is a figurative term. "reisst" here means it hurts, not that it tears. Excellent article otherwise!

    Yitz Newton: "Defense against ideological invasion seems to be the theme of haredi exposition; I hear it in my own shul/bais midrash. IMO it makes Judaism and life quite anemic and meaningless."

    I once heard from a well known personality, on of the קנאים, that the reason there won't be a Yetzer Hora after moshiach comes is that without a treifene ideology to fight it would be very hard to keep yiddishkeit.

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  24. To Michael.
    Look people are not perfect. I do not think R Slifkin, has completely secular views. He does benefit from freedom of secular society, and he does benefit from religious society. Each society has it's flaws and advantages. Freedom in itself is not a good thing. Freedom to do good is a good thing. Look Nazis came to power in Germany more or less democratically. And USA when they defeated Germans, made sure that Nazis never come to power again whether by vote or force. USA congress supported Russian president Yeltsin when he rigged votes to make sure that he and NOT communists come to power.

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  25. RNS: As an observant Jew, and as a parent, I am greatly troubled by the influence of modern society.

    Michael A. Singer: While I respect your hesitance regarding modern society, the only reason that you can think what you think, read what you read, blog what you blog, do what you do, and say what you say is thanks to the "modern" secular society that exists in the country in which you live.
    [...]
    Again, with respect to the "devolution" (as you might say) of television, I think you are whitewashing the past. The reason why TV was so "pure" in the past was due to stronger censorship; society, culture, and the world itself were no more moral than they are today.

    ============

    Both are correct. Modern society enables us - for good and ill. And TV was better in the past, so it was easier to use TV and still filter out the undesirable aspects of society.

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  26. Culture of your (our, we're close in age) youth was more pernicious than you might think. Actually, it goes back a bit further.

    Here's an article about John Cleese and his regrets about how English culture has changed. And how he helped to change that culture for the worse:

    http://pjmedia.com/eddriscoll/2011/04/20/mans-crisis-of-identity-at-the-dawn-of-the-21st-century-2/?singlepage=true

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  27. " Yitznewton: And TV was better in the past, so it was easier to use TV and still filter out the undesirable aspects of society."

    Yitz - by "better," do you mean the quality of the shows or the morality portrayed in them? "Classic" shows like Bonanza and the various other western shows and movies were still pretty violent. Censorship was stricter in the 50s than even in the 20s (pre-Motion Picture Ratings). There were great quality TV programs then, and there are great ones now, even if they include vulgar language, violence, and mild sexuality. Again, these features are also found in the real world.

    What I still don't understand is how the FCC permits so much violence on TV, yet seeing a woman giving birth - which would include full view of her private parts - is still forbidden. This example just goes to show not how "bad" modern TV is, but how the FCC and other censor agencies follow absolutely ridiculous guidelines.

    David Berg - I don't ask or expect Rabbi Slifkin to be "perfect." I just want him to acknowledge the complexities of our "modern" world. He usually does this very nicely in other posts.

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  28. I personally see changes in Media in two different ways. One way is bad, media is showing too much immodest stuff, almost porn. On other way, i see it shows tolerance for different ideas which makes people more tolerant and less hateful of each other. Homosexuality for example - while it is good (i think) that people should not hate other people who have been born with different sexual orientation, still I do not want to see two man making out on screen.

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  29. "Rabbi Sherer spoke about how Agudath Israel was founded in Kattowitz in 1912 in order to counter Reform and secular Zionism"

    A distortion. Agudah was anti-Zionist and even opposed Mizrachi. Did R' Sherer whitewash Agudah's history for the sake of those donors who support both the Agudah and Zionist friendly institutions?

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  30. "The first bill of rights for the frumme yid is Anochi Hashem Elokecha!"

    If R' Sherer bothered to learn the Chizkuni on this posuk he wouldn't have bashed those people who think a little differently than him:

    כל אחד ואחד מישראל אומר "עמי הוא מדבר!” "אנכי ה' א-לקיכם" אין כתיב,
    אלא "א-לקיך”. למה? לפי שהיה מדבר עם כל אחד ואחד... ואל תתמה, שהרי המן כל אחד היה טועמו לפי כחו, ומה המן כך, הדבור על אחת כמה וכמה

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  31. "Making babies is chopped liver?"
    Daddy, making baby is not chopped liver, but it is interesting that 20% of those born orthodox leave orthodoxy, while only 10% of those not born orthodox join orthodoxy.

    Sorry if I implied that it wasn't growing. I just meant that it's "success" is not very clear.

    "How many reform or conservative kids and teenagers daven everyday or go to Shul on consistent bases?"
    David,
    I don't know, but according to the survey, less than 56% of Orthodox Jews daven every day or go to shul once a week.

    Regarding modern television, I shocked myself a year ago when I realized that there is not a single show today that I watch that doesn't at some point talk about or show one of characters on the show having sex. And it doesn't matter what the genre of the show is. The same can not be said for violence, or any other topic (since the shows are so different from each other)

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  32. "What I still don't understand is how the FCC permits so much violence on TV, yet seeing a woman giving birth - which would include full view of her private parts - is still forbidden. This example just goes to show not how "bad" modern TV is, but how the FCC and other censor agencies follow absolutely ridiculous guidelines."

    You are making a false comparison.
    The FCC censors do not allow A real person to be killed on TV. There was a case a while ago, where a news station did not have a delay on a police chase, and when the cops killed (or he killed himself, I can't remember) it was shown on live TV. The News channel was fined for displaying that murder.

    The difference between a birth, and fake violence, is that one is real and the other is fake. Real violence is not allowed, and real nudity is not allowed. Fake versions of the same are allowed. (for example, I saw a sitcom once where the people were wearing skin colored body outfits)

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  33. Harediism as we know it will gradually lose its appeal. Modern Orthodoxy as we know it will also lose its appeal. These movements were born in galut and as Eretz Yisrael continues to replace the galut as the center of Torah a more authentic, Eretz Yisraeli mode of Judaism will increasingly replace them.We desperately need this new paradigm so that frum Jews will not feel that the choice is either the galut-borne movements or abandoning Judaism. Machon Shilo gives powerful expression to this proposition.

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  34. Ameteur "Daddy, making baby is not chopped liver, but it is interesting that 20% of those born orthodox leave orthodoxy, while only 10% of those not born orthodox join orthodoxy."

    Sure it's interesting. But that isn't the only way to measure success. An 80% retention rate seems pretty impressive. Considering many of the challenges that an Orthodox life poses, if 10% of non-Orthodox Jews actually find it attractive enough to join, that's not so bad either. As far as my point about making babies, that Orthodox Jews know how to convince their collective to make enough babies to actually increase their numbers - to more than make up for the infusion of 10% - that's not so bad either. I would not go so far as Rabbi Slifkin that "at least in terms of sheer numbers, haredi Orthodoxy seems to be the most successful group of all" but I don't think the rate of attrition - while it is treated like a dirty little secret within Orthodoxy - is really so bleak.

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  35. Wonderful article. It seems that the main purpose of Daat Torah as people like R' Sherrer use it is nothing more than pure authoritarianism. What those regarded as gedolim say about anything must be believed and abided by -- or else, no discussion.

    If the history of the last century has taught humankind anything, it is that authoritarianism doesn't work. The few places without freedom of speech today -- China being the most prominent example, along with some Muslim countries -- are rife with awful social and environmental problems that are much worse simply because one isn't allowed to criticize authorities and openly discuss social issues.

    Hashem gave us our faculties of reason for a reason -- to use them. Of course, we shouldn't use these faculties for scoffing at sages. But we can certainly use them to discuss the social, political, theological and halachic issues of the day, even if we might disagree with great Torah scholars.

    Social-scientific research convincingly demonstrates that several people deliberating about an issue come to a better result than a single person. Even if the positions of gedolim deserve and are accorded great respect, they can learn from those who disagree with their views, and the public discussions will result in better ideas.

    "Who is wise? He who learns from every person." Avot 4:1. Gedolim, and Charedim, can learn from their critics too. If no one will contradict them, how will they learn from everyone as Chazal says we should do?

    An open marketplace of ideas, with proper limits (stopping at outright heresy, mockery, scoffing), should be a great boon to all Orthodox communities. Even if this results in additional "movements" within Orthodoxy -- new organizations, ideas, haskhafic and halachic schools of thought -- this would be for the good. We need independent-thinking organizations fighting child abuse -- or whatever other social problem you can think of -- in Orthodox communities. That's another thing history has taught us -- the great power of social movements, of groupings of a few brave people who want to go against the grain to improve the world.

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  36. I checked out the video. He is right about one thing we do not have a right to speech... We have an obligation.

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  37. "The first bill of rights for the frumme yid is Anochi Hashem Elokecha! …There is no freedom of speech and freedom to write in our constitution of Anokhi Hashem Elokecha! …Let it be said very clearly: Total subservience to Torah, total subservience to Daas Torah, is not a democratic right: it is Divinely ordained!"

    Surely part of a total subservience to God would obligate one to be honest. These Charedim make me sick. They think they're serving God but the only people they're serving is themselves. Hashem was right when he called us an "am k'shei oref".

    The only thing Charedim care about is learning Torah and respect for the gedolim. It's funny how you'll find it quite hard to find these values in the Tanach. Maybe a bit of Mishlei and Tehillim will speak about learning Torah, a passuk here or there in the Torah. Does the Torah ever speak about the Avot learning? The Avot's respect for the gedolim?

    Charedi Judaism is not Judaism. What about working? Army? They do a bit of chesed here and there, but in general they don't represent any of the values of Judaism. Is a sect in the Jewish world with more sinat chinam for other Jews than the Charedi community?

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  38. "An open marketplace of ideas, with proper limits (stopping at outright heresy..."

    So the marketplace of ideas is good as long as your line isn't crossed?

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  39. "
    So the marketplace of ideas is good as long as your line isn't crossed?"

    Please point to some field or area in the world where that is not the case?

    Everyone has a line that they will not allow into their "open marketplace"

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