Friday, August 06, 2004

Those tests are finally behind me (average grade 69.2, failure rate 33% after a curve, or what is known here as a 'factor'). So, as advertised, let's ramble a bit about more and less meaningful social distinctions. It is told over in the name of the (--Choose One--) Maggid that once there was a rich man who had two sons-in-law, one of whom ate only milchig and the other of whom ate only fleishig. He'd alternately eat in the milchig dining room with one and in the fleishig dining room with other. When he ultimately went bankrupt (as every heimishe gvir must, unless he dies before his time), he'd continue hopping from dining room to dining room even though both sons-in-law were now eating nothing but potatoes. The story originally referred to chassidim and misnagdim but the point is a general one: various institutionalized rifts endure long after the essential divisive issues have become irrelevant. Perhaps this is now the case with the supposed divide between "Modern Orthodox" and "Haredi" (two labels I really don't like at all).

Labels are useful to the extent that they identify a class of objects or people that share a whole cluster of correlated properties. Thus mammals, metals, or Jews are interesting categories but stuff that starts with the letter 'T' isn't. It is precisely in this sense that I think the notions of MO and Haredi are becoming less and less useful.

For a relatively short period of time (say, from the 1950's onward, but not before), one could point to two distinct Orthodox groups that divided up roughly as follows:

There were happy boppers who believed in Progress, the keys to which could be found in the civilizing impact of a college education or in the liberating effect of political Zionism, and in the name of which certain halachic marginalia could be finessed.

There were angry cynics who believed in Frumkeit, the key threats to which could be found in the civilizing impact of a college education or in the liberating effect of political Zionism, and in the name of which certain halachic marginalia could be glorified.

(I love these kind of symmetric formulations, even if I have to kick a few bulges to make them work.) Anyway, once the mass-production plants of Jewish education swung into high gear, if you knew where someone studied or davened, you had a fair idea of what they ate, what they wore, what they thought about the Big Issues, etc etc. Labeling them as such was a convenient short-hand.

This is increasingly not the case for two reasons. First, maturation has driven extreme positions to the center. Both Israel and college are now viewed as having instrumental value -- no more than that and no less. Haredim come on aliyah in as high proportions as MO's and only a fringe of Religious Zionists still believe in what the Kookniks call
mam lach' tiut. Observers on both sides of the tracks are prepared to acknowledge both the necessity of higher education for functioning in society as well as the moral decadence of the increasingly nihilistic atmosphere on college campuses. (William Kolbrener's article on this is well worth reading.)

Second, there is no longer much correlation between issues. There's surely a higher percentage of anal, shva-na/shva-nach, halachah technonerds in YU than there are in Satmar. (I'm warming to my own rhetoric here; bear with me.) The Lakewooders are up on Madonna and more than a few are Americanized happy boppers. A kid with ten siblings and payos could as easily be wearing a kipah srugah in Yitzhar as a kapelush in Bnei Brak. The across-the-board stereotypes sketched above have become anachronisms. So... now that I've had the last word on this topic, let's have no more discussion of it again. Ever.

Besides, like some other bloggers, I personally don't like being pigeon-holed.


Blogger Adam Ragil said...

You wrote: Observers on both sides of the tracks are prepared to acknowledge both the necessity of higher education...

The Hasidim aren't there yet, but perhaps they aren't included in your Haredim?

For Hasidim secular education still ends - if it ever gets started - before Bar Mitzvah. And higher education is out of the question. The average hard-core hasid's language and job skills are too weak for most forms of employment.

But change is on the horizen. The week I spoke to the Rabbi of my own shteeble, a hard-core Hassid himself, and he confessed that his own community is almost ready to change, ie to offer wide support to secular education and job training. It's a decade or two away, he said, but our generation (ie the set aged 25-35) sees they can't support their families on the "jobs and the tricks" the older generations used. The cost of living has gone up. Salaries, at least the salaries at the sort of jobs hasidim take, have not kept up. Section 8 has been abolished, and other loopholes have been closed. "The 25-35 year olds are struggling," he said. "And the poverty is extreme."

5:35 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

Of course, I don't underestimate the degree of institutional resistance to college in both chassidish and yeshivish circles. The point is, though, that this no longer represents a profound difference with the MOs. Once, when frum Jews of all stripes didn't feel fully American, college was the ticket to becoming more integrated into the American mainstream. Some wanted precisely that, while others wanted to establish more segregated lives. (In Israel, the army played an exactly analagous role.) That represented a profound difference in self-peception and ambition.
Nowadays, it is astounding how American, American Haredim have become and it is no less astounding how segregated American MOs have become. (I've been in Israel over twenty years, so for me this evolution is more jarring than it might be for somebody for who sees it every day like watching an hour hand on a clock. You've probably noticed a similar phenomenon in Israel.) The question of college is still there and there are still widely divergent views but it is no longer fraught with deep identity issues (at least not as much as it once was). Perhaps that's why your local Rebbe can consider alternatives so dispassionately.

9:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Twenty-thirty years back, a higher proportion of (non-chassidische) charedim went to university than do today! The charedim were not uniformly anti-secular. There were pockets of antisecularism, but the distinction between MO and charedi was more a matter of prioritization of torah vs mada than antisecular vs prosecular. Charedi families were much more likely to send their girls to college than their sons. Many of the guys went to college, even if they attended yeshivos that were officially "anti-college"; it was an open secret that many of the "Better guys" at some of the larger anti-college yeshivos got degrees, going to classes bein hasedorim, bein hazmanim etc. Everyone winked at that, because the issue was more about prioritizing talmud torah than antisecularity for its own sake.

The rise of the antisecularists necessitated a lot of revisionism, particularly for the views of the real litvische - witness the censorship of the making of a godol and my uncle the netziv. everyone is convinced that antisecularism was deeply rooted, but it really wasn't -- even the antisecularism that existed in prewar lite was more aimed at governments and movements perceived at trying to uproot yiddishkeit than antisecularism for its own sake.

The current trend to an instrumental view of education, and rise in numbers who attend college, just mirrors a general trend in the US for people to view education as necessary for jobs, rather than hold it as a value for its own sake.

It's true that charedim are going to college (again), but charedi society is still *much* more antisecular and separatist than it was as late as twenty years back. I don't know anyone who grew up in charedi society in my age group and older (mid 30s and up) who doesn't perceive US charedi society as vastly more antisecular than it was in the good old days.

6:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Even when charedim do go to college nowadays, they go to Touro - the attitude is still very separatist. The separatism is justified by the ..increasing nihilism on the university campuses (as you put it) or increasing lack of tznius (the way it's usually put). Still, I don't think that college campuses are much more radical places than they were in the 60s & 70s when charedim were very nicely represented in Brooklyn College, NYU, etc. The militant separatism is really a new phenomenon.

I don't see the rise in numbers with college degrees as representing much of a conscious change, because the issue was really segregation from society at large, more than anything else. They still achieve that at least in university (perhaps not once they leave university and enter the job market).

6:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought this was a very funny piece. There was lots to laugh about, though I don't think the writer meant the piece to be funny so much as rueful. But I think these items are hilarious.

Some people are honestly upset by all the pettiness and infighting amongst frum people, who will use any excuse and any hairs-breadth of difference between two people's external dress, actions or behavior to label them as different and thus wrong. These people expend much energy pointing fingers and building walls amongst other frum Jews, and not seeing the problems all around us and that affect us all, no matter how the size, color or materials of our yarmulkas.

But I know that all the talking in the world won't bring these different universes together; it is human nature to make groups and exclude people, and we frum Jews are experts at this. It takes persecution, wars, blood libels, ghettoes, attacking Arab armies, to bring us together.

That is of course no laughing matter, but I am entertained by people who are so good-intentioned and big-hearted that they are genuinely puzzled and befuddled by our community's amazing knack to beat each other up and exclude.

The writer seems to me to fall into the mega-serious, navel-gazing, Rodney King "can't we all get along?", goodness-of-mankind head-in-the-clouds liberal-puke crowd. I was laughing at him as much as with him.

Or maybe he was only affecting that tone to make his point; I can't be sure, having now re-read his piece.

In any case, it was very entertaining.

6:49 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

To the first two anonymous comments (signing with an alias would make life simpler):
Everything you say is true. Indeed in the good old days there were famous Roshei Yeshiva who went to the opera and danced with their wives and went to college bare-headed and there were various soon-to-be quasi-Rebbes, pseudo-Rebbes and wannabe-Rebbes who engaged in all manner of questionable activity. As they say, I have the pictures. There were many yeshiva leit doing advanced degrees etc. They were and are my friends. My point, however, is that while institutional segregation has drastically increased since then (as you correctly point out), actual alienation is disappearing. Most of today's so-called charedim are so hopeless they barely know whom to revile. (If you'll permit me a way-over-the-top nasty vort -- think of it as a mere metaphor -- there are people who stole out of spite whose kids are stealing only out of habit.)

To the third anonymous comment:
As a pie-in-the-sky liberal, I'm very pleased to have brought a few moments of joy into your life. Smile on your brother.

11:06 PM  
Blogger MoChassid said...

The Kohlbrenner article is brilliant. I don't know why it hasn't gotten more attention from the usual suspects.

1:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"My point, however, is that while institutional segregation has drastically increased since then (as you correctly point out), actual alienation is disappearing."

Well, that's the reason for the rigid rules, the uniform, and so on. Without that, what identity would they have based on behavior?

I think you're correct that the line between MO and charedi is increasingly blurry - this despite the fact that charedim have become ever more rigid and antisecular. It's like the old saw about academia; the reason that academic disputes are so bitter is that so little is at stake.

Re posting with a handle - I tried but it is refusing to recognize me. More alienation.

8:47 AM  
Blogger Adam Ragil said...

As readers of my blog know (self serving plug alert I agree with Ben: there's no real difference between the black hatters and the modern orthodox. Both sides have their masmidim. Both sides have their frauds. I circulated Ben's essay to a few people on both sides of the track, and the response was interesting. The 4 or 5 MOs agreed with Ben's premise. The 5 or 6 BHs rejected it. Not a scientific survey, to be sure, but is it possible the BHs define themselves negativly (ie: I am not this thing) and not postivly (ie: I am this thing) and, therfore, they find threatening the idea that they are not all that different from their "negative other?"

6:06 PM  

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