Thursday, May 14, 2020

Who Are "Torah Jews"?

Labels for communities are useful. Sure, labels are generalizations, but there's nothing wrong with generalizations, as long as everyone knows that they are generalizations. So, we have labels such as "Religious Zionists" and "Modern Orthodox" and "Charedi" and they are all very useful labels.

Now, the term "charedi" is sometimes interpreted incorrectly. Last week Rav Gershon Edelstein, the most prominent Torah leader in the Litvishe charedi world, was in the news for his explanation of why charedim suffered the most from coronavirus. Rav Edelstein claimed that this was because God punishes charedim for their sins more strictly than Jews who are "tinokos shenishbu," who sin out of ignorance. Yet this begs the question: where do Religious Zionists fit into this?

I asked some people what they thought. One person told me that Rav Edelstein was using the term "charedi" simply to mean Orthodox Jews. Of course, the problem with this is that non-charedi Orthodox Jews did not suffer from such a high rate of coronavirus infections. But another person, a charedi rabbi, told me that Rav Edelstein meant exactly what he said: non-charedim, including dati-leumi people and rabbis, are tinokos shenishbu. Amazing! He is saying that they didn't suffer so much from coronavirus because, although they are shomrei mitzvos, even though they might live in communities that are seriously focused on Torah and mitzvos, their Zionist perspective so fundamentally perverts their religious outlook that they are rated as tinokos shenishbu for all the sins that they do. Still, while offensive, this presumably is what Rav Edelstein meant (since religious Zionist communities were not hit hard by coronavirus). Some people are just uncomfortable with it, and therefore try to distort the meaning of the term "charedi."

Nevertheless, by and large, the term "charedi" is usually used and understood correctly. But there's one label that's become increasingly popular, yet which is often used problematically. That label is "Torah Jews," and its associated term "Torah community."

There are two problems with this label. One is that its intended definition is at best ambiguous and at worst deeply problematic. Does "Torah Jews" refer to Jews who are particularly passionate about learning Torah or about living Torah? After all, we wouldn't describe a non-Jewish scholar of Talmud as being a "Torah" person. By the same token, if you have people who are obsessed with learning Torah, but don't live up to the basic ideals of Torah in terms of creating a high-functioning society of people who fulfill their responsibilities to their families and their nation, perhaps they should not be described as "Torah Jews."

The second problem with the label "Torah Jews" is that it's ambiguous in terms of which Jews it is intended to refer to. Does "Torah Jews" refer to religious Jews or specifically to charedi Jews? If you look at the writings of someone like Jonathan Rosenblum, you'll see both usages (see, for example, how he uses the term in this article and this one - sometimes changing the meaning of the term from one paragraph to the next).

I have noticed that "Torah Jews" is sometimes used in a way that superficially appears to mean all committed shomrei mitzvos, but which is actually being used to mean specifically charedim. This deceptive usage is done (sometimes subconsciously) in order to manipulate a point.

A few years ago I received an unfortunate letter from a neighbor and former friend, Rabbi X, who  has a fairly influential role in Jewish education. He wrote to try and convince me of the error of my ways in writing all the "lashon hara" on this blog:
"I think that you need to be aware of how the Torah world views you and what you are doing..."
The "Torah" world?! Of course, what he really means is the charedi world. Among Religious Zionists and American non-charedim, pretty much everything that I write is normative and largely obvious.

Rabbi X proceeded to warn me about how by constantly criticizing charedi society, I risk my children leaving Orthodoxy:
"I certainly don't wish anything bad for your family, G-d forbid, but I am worried about what will happen with your kids if you continue your single-minded bashing of the Charedi/Yeshiva world at every opportunity... Is there some community that your kids feel they are a part of? They can't merely be bombarded with the problems in the Torah world, they need to see the enormous good there as well."
Well, yes, there is a community that my kids feel they are a part of. It's the religious Zionist community. My children davven in a religious Zionist shul and go to religious Zionist schools (with religious Zionist rebbeim) and will go to religious Zionist yeshivah gedolah and maybe even religious Zionist community kollel. And my children are fully aware of the problems with the charedi world, partly because they live in Ramat Beit Shemesh and see the worst of it. Since they don't identify as being part of the charedi world in the least bit, it's not a problem for them to be aware of its flaws - just as Rabbi X doesn't feel that his children being educated in charedi yeshivos about the problems of Zionist society is going to harm their religious identity.

The terms "Torah Jews" and "Torah community" are often used as an attempt to sideline and negate non-charedi communities such as religious Zionists and centrist/modern Orthodoxy. (Or sometimes people explicitly say, as Rabbi Shafran did a few weeks ago, that the charedi world is the "mainstream Orthodox world.") In fact, many people within the charedi world don't even really grasp that non-charedi frum communities exist! They simply don't consider that there are communities of religious Jews and yeshivos and kollelim and rabbis and Torah scholars that are not charedi. But such communities of people do exist - and as far as I'm concerned, they are the real "Torah Jews."

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28 comments:

  1. Interesting. If I hear someone is defined as "Torani", I would imagine that they are on the right-end of the Religious-Zionist spectrum, as opposed to someone defined as "Dati Lite", which would be the left wing of the spectrum.

    I would never refer to a Charedi individual or institution as "Torani".

    And when I hear the expression "Torah World", the meaning is based on the person using the term. Normally it means "Everyone who agrees with me", in which case your Charedi ex-friend was using it accurately, as your children would be if they do not regard him as part of the "Torah World".

    Kol tov

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  2. I agree with you entirely. Although I think the “modern” Orthodox, which is the type of Orthodoxy I identify with, is the real and most "authentic" "Torah Jews." With that said, I respect the charedi society.

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  3. "In fact, many people within the charedi world don't even really grasp that non-charedi frum communities exist! They simply don't consider that there are communities of religious Jews and yeshivos and kollelim and rabbis and Torah scholars that are not charedi".

    Rav Edelstein of course knows this other world exists but it is very possible that when he said what he said he completely forgot about them. Lav davka he regards them as a 'Tinok Shenishbu'.

    Having studied under many Haredi Rabbis and lived in that society, I noticed this obliviousness the whole time. Sometimes Haredim intentionally exclude religious Zionists/Sefardim/frum MO from the 'Torah world', but quite often they literally forget these other frum Jews exist. This latter group, if you were to ask them straight out though they would acknowledge that there are non-Haredi Torah Jews. Rav Edelstein could fall into this category.

    This forgetfulness is only to be expected when you live such a secluded life. The intentions though are not necessarily malicious though.

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  4. The explanation for much of what you describe is your own statement, "Many people within the charedi world don't even really grasp that non-charedi frum communities exist." It's perfectly sensible to speak of the Haredi community as the "Torah world" or "Torah community" if it doesn't occur to you that there are communities who are Torah-observant but not Haredi. If you've never (or almost never) encountered such people and such places, then it's not surprising they aren't on your radar screen. I suspect this is the true explanation of what R. Edelstein did (and did not) mean. He was neither including nor excluding religious Zionists. He wasn't thinking about them at all. (When did he last speak to an orthodox but non-Haredi Jew?)

    An analogous anecdote: Someone from Los Angeles, who had also lived in New York and Israel, once told me that in order to get away from the materialism of American Jewish communities, one must leave the country (and go to Israel). While applauding his desire to make aliyah, I argued that there are Jewish communities in the United States that are not nearly so materialistic, which he hadn't encountered because he had lived only in New York and L.A. (which have reputations for materialism). Was he really saying that the communities in Chicago, Baltimore, Cleveland, Cincinnati, etc. are all materialistic? No; they were outside the realm of his experience and he therefore wasn't thinking or commenting about them at all.

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    1. You're probably correct about Rav Edelstein. But Rabbi X lives in a neighborhood where there is a strong Dati Leumi community.

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  5. RGE was obviously just saying that the more observant a person is, the harsher he is judged by hashem. Presumably DL would fall somewhere in between chareidim and chilonim and he didn't fell the need to speak about them explicitly. I'm not sure why RNS feels the need to be מדייק in every word to find an alleged anti DL bias...

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    1. You literally just proved his point! Your comment presumes chareidim are more observant than DL. RNS is arguing (correctly) that this oversimplified spectrum is ridiculous.

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    2. I learned in Ponovez and I know RGE very well. He was merely trying to point out that one should concentrate on self criticism rather than blame everyone for the punishment. There are ppl who like to "bang al chet" on other ppl hearts.

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  6. The Hebrew name of the OU is (or maybe was, I haven't seen it used in dacades): Igud haKehillot haChareidiot d'America. Whenever they made the logo on the banners I recall from 1970s NCSY, "chareidi" was synonymous with "Orthodox", not limited to a subset of it.

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    1. "Charedi" was never used in America, and it still isn't used today. (That an organization might have it in its banner means nothing, its like a shul calling itself Kehila Kedosha or Adas Yeshurun.) Its a Hebrew word with a ח in it that sounds fine in Israel, but not here. The American Torah community doesn't have to use that term just because the Israelis do.

      I would note also that the Torah community probably also objects to the term Modern Orthodox, implying that people who affiliate with, say, the Agudah or a Chassidus are either not modern or orthodox or both.

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    2. of course , if one reads haredi hasbara of about 30 years ago, namely the aguda's Jewish Observer , there is constant bashing of the use of the term Ultra-orthodox , because it implied being off the edge of the cliff. in refusing to let the haredi intelligencia use terms like authentic jews , tora jews etc the rest of the world consented to their use of haredim as a self-admitted non-pejorative appellation...

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    3. I have good DF: I didn't mean to say it was in common use. Although it is likely that when the OU picked it's name most of its target audience were at home with Yoddosh and the \ח\ sound.

      I meant to give evidence that when they picked the name, the word was not yet associated only with those who didn't join an OU. Evidence that the word just have changed meaning over the decades.

      In other words, if you see the word "חרדי" in a teshuvah from before 1970, translated to "Orthodox". Because we see the few times it was used, that is how people would use it.

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    4. USwest - That came to my mind too. It was part of their obsession with secular news sources that some of their former employees still have today. And the campaign was spectacularly unsuccessful. Google the term under "news" for current items, and you'll see it everywhere.

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  7. "Tinokos shenishbu" can even be in one aspect of life according to Chazon Ish in his sefer emunah ubitachon. He talks about someone frum/rabbi but not empathising halocho enough but rather concentrating on mussar too much. he says he is a oines as his father was the same

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    1. Yes, someone could grow up in a commnity that is very meticulous in bein adam laMaqom and still be a tinoq shenishba when it comes to bein adam lachaveiro. Some poor zhlub was raised thinking that Hashem cares more about minyan than increasing the risk to human lives. It's his upbringing, and Hashem will judge him accordingly.

      Also, "tinoq shenisha" wasn't coined by chazal to be its own halachic category. It appears in Mes' Shabbos as an example of someone whose ignorance or ingrained values makes them even less than a violator beshogeig.

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  8. A torah jew is whoever a torah jew wants to be. Whatever. All of the labels are meaningless.

    The most important thing is that everyone is always FACING RIGHT: The charedi is going to look only to the right and not see anyone modern; they won't be machshiv anyone on their left. The torani (or whatever) will look right and acknowledge them, but are still looking right. You can't win it. The core will always be the most radical but survivable charedi culture, and the MO world is there to catch those who can't stand staying in it, but still want to be jewish.

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    1. There are ideological reasons for assymetry between how one views those to the right and those to the left. It's not just about sociology and who to be makhrshiv.

      To a chareidi, fealty to Torah means fealty to Torah. Not Torah-and-... synthesis or dialectic like Torah im Derekh Eretz or Torah uMada. By the chareidi definition of "Torah Jew", the Mod-O or RZ ideology is compromised religion. As a dispassionate, objective, assessment.

      That said, there are plenty of Religious Zionist Jews who believe that someone who violates the obligation in Yevamos of "even a groom or bride" has to join the army when drafted for a milkhemes mitzvah, and fighting off Arab attack qualifies, that they consider chareidim lesser Jews.

      There are Mod-O Jews too who believe that someone who doesn't get a job isn't a whole Jew. But it is rare to find one who believes it to the core, so that it shows up even in unconscious responses. Unlike the RZ Jew who really believes the State and defending it are no less "keneged kulam" as learning. There you really do get an equal and opposite reflection of chareidi attitudes toward them.

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  9. I can still hear Rabbi Frand (Baltimore, USA) screaming about "Talmud Jews" when he was speaking at the 90,000-strong Daf Yomi siyum. Does any of this really matter? People only want to marry others who are like them. This is all really just about survival.

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    1. Not sure if you are aware, but "Talmud Jews" is merely a translation into English of the Yiddish term "shas Yidden." It means Jews who are familiar with/conversant in the content of the Talmud.

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    2. No.
      Rav Frand was referring to (supposed) Nazis being particular about exterminating Talmud Jews, cause in his charedi agenda, the Nazis targeted his type of charedim, and it makes good speech (so the audience doesn't realize he gave the same speech 7-1/2 years prior.

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  10. What about what David hamelech said: "keep mitzvah and fear god for that is all of man" These labels are utterly stupid in all applications and are just destraction from worshiping god.

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    1. Shlomo…

      but I suppose the point stands. In both directions. But that's just it: chareidim don't believe that MO/DL people are keeping mitzvos and certainly not fearing God.

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    2. Yes, Shlomo my bad.

      Who cares what haredim think! DL/MO don't care. Its just Charedi turned DL that have a grudge that think this is important

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  11. Your problem is that you identified with Charedim, and then you did an about-face. Thus you are a little too concerned with what your former community does. But that's just you. Most MO Jews in America or national-religious Jews in Israel aren't really aware, and certainly don't care, what the Charedi world does. Far from it bothering them, they wouldn't even *want* to be called "Torah Jews" in the first place. Problem Solved.



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  12. naive suggestion - Someone ask Rav Gershon Edelstein what he meant?
    KT

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  13. Rabbi Slifkin, you have not defined the term Heredi which is essential to your discussion. You leave a Jew like me perplexed. Without such a definition, your whole discussion is meaningless

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    1. Umm... That is the very topic under discussion. What did R Edelstein mean by "Chareidi"? Is he including Shabbos observant religious Zionists?

      How could you ask RNS to impose his own definition on that conversation?

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  14. Rav Gershon Edelstein grew up in Ramat Hasharon which is mostly not frum Yidden, and there are dati leumi Yidden there as well. His father was the Rav there, his brother-Rav Yaakov-was the Rav until he was niftar, and his nephew is presently the rav. He has had plenty of exposure to non-chareidi Jews.
    He is one of the kindest and warmest Yidden I have been zoche to meet. He truly loves all Jews.
    What did he mean?
    When this situation ends, go see him. He is extremely easy to talk to and very accessible.

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