(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?