Charedi Judaism at a Crossroads
(Part Two of my review of Professor Kellner's book will be posted at a later date. Meanwhile, here is an essay inspired by this article by my beloved mentor, Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein. It is NOT meant to mock or dispute what he wrote; rather, it is intended to show that it should be applied in other areas, too. And on the other hand, it is also intended to challenge those who considered his article to be too intolerant to consider whether they feel the same way about this article.)
What will the rabbinic leadership of the Charedi world do? A wave of provocations from the Far Right challenges the very definition of Judaism. Should Yidden in other parts of the community who are far from the battle lines care? It would take a navi to answer the first question. Responsibility for Klal Yisrael and caring for other Jews demands a resounding “yes” to the second.
Lots of things are happening in the Charedi world – some good, some not so good, and some astonishingly terrible. The far right of Charedi Orthodoxy seems to be intent on continuing an unrelenting drive to push the envelope and change the way people lead an Orthodox life. The Charedi Gedolim, who in many other ways are models of selfless commitment to ahavas Yisrael, have unfortunately become the charismatic leaders of what is now a movement. They led the campaign to brand a mainstream view amongst Rishonim and Acharonim as kefirah. They have also renounced the Gemara's obligation on a man to teach his son a trade, and on a person to take a lowly occupation rather than to insist that the community supports him, claiming that there is no halachic objection, since Eis La'Asos l'Hashem Heferu Torasecha. They have founded a new system of kollel for the masses without a time limit, which has been perpetuating this derech for a number of years. Charedi graduates have quietly slipped into pulpits around the country. It also sports a sister program for teaching girls that they need to support their husbands - in contrast to the traditional model described in the kesuvah.
The Charedim are not the only group flexing Far Right power. When the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), the rabbinic umbrella group of Modern Orthodoxy worked to standardize giyur procedures for the benefit of future converts, some rabbis on the right were upset by what they saw as a “modernization” of the process, denying them the right to insist upon whatever stringencies they see as appropriate. They founded their own conversion organization, Eternal Jewish Family, which will promote its own competing batei din for giyur, relying on more “authentic” and strict standards they believe are found in certain teshuvos (such as that women must dress according to charedi standards, that one is required to believe that there was no age of dinosaurs, and that Dayanim may not wear colored shirts), ignoring the vast majority of poskim who disagree, and who have disagreed for a century. The children of many geirim are now being sentenced to lives of uncertainty, since the conversions of their parents – whether valid or not – could be questioned years from now, when all that is remembered is that the dayanim who presided over them rejected the standards of the Gedolim.
The Far Right does not rely on notoriety alone to capture attention. It makes steady and good use of the pashkevil, as well as the mainstream Jewish press, all aimed at the rest of the Orthodox community, and well beyond. One of its more effective tools is a newspaper called Yated Ne'eman, written by those who insist that nobody may argue with "the Gedolim," while another, The Jewish Observer, has been resurrected under the ironic name of "Dialogue."
Maintaining public visibility as denouncing many traditional Jewish attitudes produces much thunder and attracts significant media attention outside the Orthodox world. This is designed to increase pressure on mainstream rabbis, and move the majority of the community to view its changes as acceptable. People who lack the background in learning to analyze the arguments on both sides see a group of “authentic” rabbis making a strong stand, which seems like a good thing to them. Then they note a different group of “reactionary” rabbis who insist on scholarship and reasoned arguments. This generates enormous pressure on the center Orthodox to make concessions so as not to alienate growing numbers of their congregants. Years ago, the Far Right sought innovations like making chumras into the norm, and making it a bedieved to work for a living. Those changes are so commonplace that they have lost their cachet. Today the push is for even acknowledged non-halachic views of Rishonim and Acharonim to be "paskened" no longer permissible to be taught, and for traditional family models, whereby the husband works and supports his family, to be looked upon as bedi'eved.
To many, the Charedi axis looks at halacha in so many of its published psakim and communally dictated standards in a manner fundamentally different than the rest of us. It senses where it wants to go, and then looks for any vague aggadic statement within rabbinic tradition to justify it – but without having to offer any arguments for why their shitah is preferable or even defensible. Any shitos can be rejected on an as-needed basis. Absent is the sense of looking for an objective truth. That quest permeates hundreds of years of halachic literature: weighing all the views available, and only relying on those best supported by the evidence of the words of the gemara and rishonim.
Critics of Far Right halacha point to three other elements that differentiate it from traditional halacha:
• Very few on the far right can show any competence with theology, with the broad range of views in the Rishonim and Acharonim, or familiarity with wider society beyond the beis hamidrash.
• In traditional halacha, very serious questions are ruled upon in teshuvos, which provide the rationale for the answer. The right balks at this, seeing this as an affront to the untouchable status of the Gedolim, and prefers to issue decisions without justifications. It also believes that no views of anyone who is not part of the "Charedi Gedolim club," should have any status.
• In traditional halacha, the views of Rishonim are accorded great respect. In Far Right halachah, these are freely dismissed and condemned on the bizarre grounds that "they can say it, we cannot."
What should the Orthodox rabbinate do about the Charedi far-right? The question threatened to split the Orthodox world after the bans on Kamenetzky, Slifkin and Lipa, the silence on Tropper, the neglect of the abuse issue, and the economic collapse of the Charedi world. If even the gemara can be rejected in the name of a claim of it being "emergency times," where will this all lead? Given enough time (and enough headlines), can any shittah be paskened away? Even if no further changes are contemplated, doesn’t the approach suggest an understanding of mesorah fundamentally at odds with the rest of the Orthodox world, whereby mesorah means "what we do" as opposed to "what was traditionally done"?
It is difficult not to think of the dispute between the Wurzburger Rav and R. Samson Raphael Hirsch. When Orthodox Jews were given the right by law in 1876 to withdraw from the community structure dominated by Reform, Rav Seligman Ber Bamberger strongly that they should not. Jewish unity should be maintained, so long as the observant did not have to compromise with their observance of halacha. Rav Hirsch, however, felt that it was imperative to do so. No one can say who was objectively “correct” in that dispute, although the last generations have looked favorably upon Rav Hirsch’s bold decision. Some argue that today’s agonizing choice is different. In Germany, the lines of demarcation between Reform and Torah Judaism were clear. Today, many fear, those lines have to be drawn. To avoid erosion of Torah values and practice, the rest of the community must define the approach of the Far Right as so different, that it can no longer be called traditional Judaism as the rest of us know it.
Why should the more traditional part of the community care about issues completely off its radar? The problems with which the Charedi world is grappling are just not relevant to communities much further to the left. In fact, we should be able to identify several reasons.
Firstly, the impact upon areas of Orthodox cooperation will be enormous. If the Far Right grows stronger in untethering itself from both traditional hashkafos and accepted protocols of determining halacha, there will almost certainly be a reaction in the rest of the Orthodox world. Lemegdar milsa, to draw clear lines of differentiation, the traditional community will move in the opposite direction to oppose changes it sees as dangerous and illegitimate. We will drift even further apart. Cooperation in many areas – education, kashrus, kiruv, gerus, political advocacy – will be jeopardized or eliminated. Much of the left will argue that if Charedi Judaism can tolerate such aberrations in its midst rather than expelling it, than they cannot trust or continue to deal with the Charedim – especially if a Charedi presence becomes mingled with the Modern Orthodox representation in common enterprises. Cooperation that took decades to accomplish may quickly unravel.
The best reason to care is that the Torah demands it of us. Other frum Jews simply cannot be unconcerned about the future of hundreds of thousands of charedi brethren, many of whom are in danger of embracing a treif ideology. We must be concerned for their well being; all members of our spiritual family deserve our love. (Those on the Far Right also deserve our love, but at the moment it may have to be tough love! Sometimes, as a last resort, an errant child needs to be rebuffed before he or she can fully participate with the rest of the family. The gemara speaks of rebuking by distancing with the left hand, while drawing closer with the (stronger) right hand – and allows for reversing the hands at times!)
Minimally, HaKadosh Baruch Hu expects our deep concern about wide-scale counterfeiting of Torah, even if it does not impact upon us directly. We should be prepared to show it. Many charedi rabbis are showing extraordinary mesiras nefesh in refusing to compromise on what they received from their rabbeim. If you learn of a charedi mara de-asra in your community who is valiantly holding a line against incursions from the Far Right, consider offering some chizuk. Let the rov know that you generally daven elsewhere, but admire his tenacity in standing by the Torah while it is under assault. Let him know that while some people think that people’s Yiddishkeit is defined by what they wear on their heads, you believe that what they carry in their heads is far more important. And in that regard, we are much closer to each other than they can ever be to the Far Right.