Maybe We’re Supposed to Have Bad Manners?

I was sitting recently with a BT who mentioned that he noticed how many frum people lack the “manners” of secular Jews. After a few moments discussion he finally said, “But maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Maybe all this stuff about manners isn’t right.”

Although I had heard attitudes like this in Yeshiva many years ago, I was still surprised to hear him say it now. It’s been a long time since I’d heard statements like this.

Some people in kiruv do their best to vilify the secular world and make the frum world look perfect. This is understandable in terms of pointing out the differences between the two lifestyles. But there is a line that is sometimes crossed that causes a shift away from the true Torah perspective.

The observant world may have a handle on the most important things in life but they haven’t cornered the market on correct behavior. There are many things written about Derech Eretz in the Torah that frum people have left by the wayside. (I prefer not to go into specifics here. If you’re unaware of any problems like this, you are either oblivious or with a very special group.)

Maybe the secular world is nothing to compare to the observant world. But there are still, unfortunately, many things the observant world can learn from secular Jews. Not because the secular world came up with a sensitivity that doesn’t exist in the Torah. Maybe it’s even a result of the fact that secular Jews don’t focus and spend time on the myriad of ethical decisions that observant Jews focus on. Regardless, the observant world should always be looking to learn from everyman.

“Who is the wise man, the one who learns from every man.” Pirke Avos

22 comments on “Maybe We’re Supposed to Have Bad Manners?

  1. I am fairly sure I am the guy who made this comment to Rabbi Weiman. I was always raised (in a non-observant Jewish home) not to put your elbows on the table. It thus struck me as “poor manners” that orthodox friends not only did this but also would reach directly in front of a person at a table to get a bottle of soda on the other side of his neighbor. But, as I questioned to R. Weiman, perhaps we who were trained in the ‘proper ways of etiquitte’ had it wrong. In some cultures it is poor manners to hide your hands under the table, in the Far East one must remove their shoes upon entering the house. Torah values endure. R. Weiman would do better to focus on what the Torah world can teach the non-observant Jew, rather than to nit pick on something so ridiculous as an elbow on the table. The wise man learns from all people. This is true, as R. Weiman quotes from the Mishna. Let our distant Jewish brethren learn from our pleasant ways and pass the Diet Coke!

  2. Just sharing personal observation from expereinces in academic world and business world. I have not met many secular people who were highly successful in their fields and did not suffer from extreme case of arrogance. Come to think of it I did not meet many somewhat successful humble people. At the same time, I had encountered many people who had scaled great heights in the Torah world who were so humble, that it was impossible not to notice with admiration. In fact, I wonder if humily has any value in today’s secular world. This is anecdotal, but from my personal experience I would say that truly Torah observant (beyond the dress code) people are far better mannered that nonreligious people (including those who meet frum dress code). It could be that we expect Torah observant individuals to be angels, or that we confuse dress code for Torah observance.
    It could be that we expect religio

  3. Max,

    I appreciate your response yet I’d like to point out two things which could have been worded differently and still retained your theme.

    1] Your title: “Maybe We’re Supposed to Have Bad Manners?”

    Excuse me, but I believe it’s highly innapropriate to decide that we have bad manners and to state that in a public forum? Making a negative statement about the Frum community at large is no simple matter and best left to gedolim who can do so constructively. Please keep in mind that Lashon Harrah includes truthful criticism as well. The very same point could have been with a title along the lines of “Do our secular friends have what to offerus?” It’s not as sensatinal but it avoids negative connotations.

    2] “There are many things written about Derech Eretz in the Torah that frum people have left by the wayside.”

    Again, I believe your out of place making that statement. Here’s how you could have worded it.
    “Although frum people struggle mightily to uphold the words of the Torah, it is no secret that character perfection requires a lifetime of work and we can use all the help we can get etc.”

    What you did instead was cite an oft repeated stereotype of the secular jew that claims that we may keep kosher but we fail mightily in Bein Odom L’Chaveiro, which is patently false and damaging as well because it insinuates that we each have our areas of success and thus there’s no reason for them to assume mitzvah observance since it means that they’ll no longer be mentchen. The reality is that we’re imperfect in both areas but constantly struggling to improve which is the reality of every person dedicated to living a life of Torah.

    Thank you for taking the time to read this. I apologize for being critical but I find that the line between constructive criticism and negative stereotyping is very often blurred especially on forums like these and sometimes it needs to be pointed out.

  4. Eddie,

    Thank you for raising the issues you mentioned. Lashon Hara is a serious offense, and Lashon Hara on a tzibbur multiplies the offense by the number of individuals in the tzibbur.
    I reread my article carefully and am confident that I did not violate a single law of Lashon Hara.

    Chazal mention in many places specific aspects of Derech Eretz like not spitting in front of others, wiping your child’s running nose so others aren’t grossed out, and knocking on a door before entering.

    I agree there are more “fake” manners out there amongst the other nations than there are amongst frum Jews. And we shouldn’t adopt everything Emily Post says just because she says it.

    But we also need to recognize that there are some things non-observant Jews do well, and a BT should be sensitive and aware of what those things are so they can influence the frum world in a positive way. This will be positive and healthy for the BT’s and positive and healthy for the FFB’s.

    Again I thank you for cautioning me with your reminder about the serious aveira of Lashon Hara.

  5. Eddie,

    You seem to have totally misconstrued my point. Nowhere has anyone said that the secular world is the paradigm of virtue. However, just because Emily Post and Miss Manners weren’t ‘frummer yidden’ doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from them.

    As for the programs aluded to, I had in mind more along the lines of the Torah U’Mesorah program institued in my children’s day school – to teach middos and ‘derech eretz’.

  6. Eddie – the article is already posted and constructively discussed (in my opinion).

    As we made clear in an early post, our Rabbinic advisors are not editors and have empowered us to make the calls ourselves with the understanding that we might make mistakes.

    We have asked them on some posts, but not on this one. I have read it a few times and am still confident that it was correct to post it. We’ll have to respectfully disagree on this one.

  7. Mark: I think you meant *prescribe* in this case…otherwise I agree with you.

    Derech Eretz preceding Torah (in this context, of the several that phrase can mean) is, indeed, a sometimes painful issue lacking work/attention.

    I’ve seen two comments from Rav Aharon Lichtenstein that may be appropriate here.

    One notion (I cannot recall *where* he wrote this) is that although “everything is in it (the Torah)”, including all the fine character traits and behaviours that a Jew and Jewish society should portray; the reality is that many refinements, sensibilities, and sophisticated outlook are not achieved by people who are otherwise very committed to their learning. For whatever reason, they don’t achieve this just from their learning. Rav Lichtenstein argues that there is therefore a place for some of the refinements that come about through pursuits outside pure Torah learning-be it from literature or other cultural exposures that are both suitable and bring about a certain sophistication in one’s perceptions and outlook. (I hope I got this right, since I am not able to check and cite the exact source article. Someone *please* correct this if you’re familiar with Rav Lichtenstein’s take on this.)

    Let’s not forget that Chazal do point out how we could learn certain traits and behaviours from other societies, even animals, if we hadn’t (or don’t, in this case) learn them within the context of Torah.

    The other comment that Rav Lichtenstein makes is in The Ideology of Hesder. He makes a remarkable and noteworthy assertion regarding the worth of young men going to a yeshivat hesder and doing their army service. He says that this is obligated as a *chesed* that needs to be done.

    Maybe the same applies here. Do I have to be told that a certain behaviour of good manners is in the Shulchan Aruch? Isn’t it enough that much of those behaviours are a chesed of one sort or another?

    If a kindness, an act of self-evident decency, was learned in a context outside of Torah, it is no less valuable. Here I suspect the Rambam would tell us to accept the truth from whatever source provides it.

    I would suggest that many of our teachers learned from Torah how powerful the obligation to decency is; but the specific behaviours themselves were learned in many ways outside the books.

  8. Chava,

    “I would posit that the mere fact that we need a multitude of organizations to address the issue strengthens the arguement of the author. It appears that many others have recognized a problem and the need for such programs.”

    Are you really serious? Character perfection is something that goes back to the beginning of time. The first sin was one of slander and the Torah admonishes us in any number of ways to perfect ourselves. Is that addressed only to the frum crowd because veryone else is perfect?

    Have you ever spent a day in a secular environment? Do you ever listen to the radio? Have you ever read a newspaper? Indeed, the secular crowd are a veritable bunch of Chafetz Chaim’s. Shame we can’t emulate them.

    Your post is a perfect example of what I mean when I say that this article if not slanderous in its nature, certainly can be misunderstood as such and should be removed.

  9. Mark,

    That point is a good one but it can be made far more clearly without resorting to blatant badmouthing of the frum community. I know it’s theraputic to take that approach but it borders on Lashon Harrah of the tzibbur and requires serious Halachic consideration.

    Rabbi Wein’s point is not that nuanced and can be formulated in ways a whole lot clearer than this article.

    Why not show it to one of your rabbinic moderators and see if he agrees? If not, post it by all means.

  10. Eddie – I don’t believe that that Rabbi Weiman’s article bashes Frum Jews for no good purpose.

    Here’s how I read his post:

    Due to a somewhat idealistic approach to Torah, some BTs are often surprised/disappointed when people don’t live up to the standards the Torah prescribes.

    Rabbi Weiman is repackaging the Rabbi Berel Wein maxim, “Don’t confuse Jews with Judaism”.

    His advice to BTs is to keep the faith, strive for the ideal, recognize the real and make a positive impact wherever you can.

  11. quote “The mere fact that there are multiple organization within the frum community dedicated to helping us in the ardous task of refining our character [remember “man was born a wild ass…”] demonstrates how foolish and slanderous this article is.”

    I would posit that the mere fact that we need a multitude of organizations to address the issue strengthens the arguement of the author. It appears that many others have recognized a problem and the need for such programs.

    That being said, I believe the point of the article is that BT’s often question many of their former lifestyle and values. In this instance, the issue is not ‘do FFB’s have bad manners? – discuss and bash amongst yourself’, but questioning if ‘manners’ are ‘goyish narishkeit’ that we are supposed to distance ourselves from. As BT’s we have to be careful when we decide what to bring along with us from our ‘former lives’ that we don’t ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’. I think that the importance of manners is HUGE issue for us in the area of chinuch bonim (BT’s with FFB kids who aren’t necessarily learning the importance of manners that many of us were raised with) and one worthy of being addressed here.

  12. It depends on where you live. In NY manners are not common b’klal. I live here in Melbourne Australia where believe me, the frum people here are very polite.

  13. IMHO This is a truly objectionable article that has no business on BeyondBT. This forum is meant to be a place for BT’s to come and discuss issues pertaining to their newfound [or old] status and the acclimation process, giving “group hugs” etc. It is not supposed to a forum to bash Frum Jews and that’s exactly what this article does for no good purpose.

    Besides for the fact that the idea that Frum people have worse manners than secular people is patently false and childish [and writing “If you’re unaware of any problems like this, you are either oblivious or with a very special group.” does nothing to make your case], it is also blatant Lashon Harrah against a Tzibbur which is a very serious responsibility.

    Publishing it here for all to see is an even greater responsibility and I strongly doubt any of your Rabbinic advisors would allow it.
    There is a forum for taking frum people to task for lack fo Derech Eretz and this isn’t it.

    Leave that to people better versed in Hilchos Lashon Harrah and more capable of getting the word out to the proper crowd. It’s not an issue that BeyondBT should be dealing with.

    The mere fact that there are multiple organization within the frum community dedicated to helping us in the ardous task of refining our character [remember “man was born a wild ass…”] demonstrates how foolish and slanderous this article is.

    If your site is truly overseen by Rabbinic advisors I’d ask you to consult with them before posting this article because no competent authority would allow it.

  14. IMO, the failure to conduct ourselves with proper manners (obviously, only when those manners don’t contradict Torah) is important even if those manners are only considered proper because of societal norms. This is true if only for the reason that we, especially as BTs, have to do our part to avoid building barriers between ourselves and others.

    At the same time, when manners are contradictory to logic, one has to make a determination as to whether it makes sense to “roll” with them. I’m not sure where I heard this story (it may or may not be true but makes a good point). A yeshiva bocher (YB)had just started dating and was asking his rav for advice:

    YB: Should I open the car door for her and let her in before I go around to the driver’s side?
    Rav: That depends.
    YB: On what?
    Rav: On the weather!
    YB: The weather?!
    Rav: Yes, the weather. If it’s freezing cold out, open the door for her first so she doesn’t get sick. If it’s broiling hot, go to your side first and roll down the windows before letting her in so that she doesn’t faint.

  15. I agree that “if good manners serve as an agreeable mask to lubricate one’s glide through polite society while concealing an ugly lack of middos tovos they become pretty hideous themselves?”

    I also agree that we should emphasize the middos, but I don’t think that is contradictory to trying to have good manners.

  16. Mark- you wrote:

    “Do you agree with Rabbi Weiman’s basic thesis that good manners are in general a good thing?”
    Absolutely. Moreover not only do “sincere Good Middos… result in good manners ” but as a rule the inverse is not only true but the path that Chazal and the Mussar literature regularly counsel us to tread in the pursuit of Middos refinement to wit; SINCERE good manners will result in good Middos. Which is after all, everyone’s goal.

    You also wrote:

    “I’m not sure that humility and good manners are the same thing. And it is hard to believe that Ramchal was suggesting we have bad manners.”

    IMO manners are another word for behaviors that are refined and socially acceptable AKA Derech Eretz. Unquestionably part of being well mannered is behaving humbly. Humility isn’t synonymous with good manners but behaving humbly (the outward expressions of Humility) is among the most vital of good manners. Perhaps I’m reading the Ramchal incorrectly (and in fact there seem to be contradictory statements later in the Mesillas Yeshorim) but IMHO what he is suggesting is the opposite; that (at least in this one instance) GOOD manners are not (always) the outward expression of a refined character and may in fact serve as an impediment to true refinement of Middos. My contention is that good Middos are the ends and Good Manners are merely the means and the outward manifestation and that we ought not to confuse the two nor overemphasize the means to the detriment (occasionally) of achieving the ends.

    I think that Mrs. Newcomb’s experience with a variety of cleaning ladies is anecdotal evidence to this quirk in human behavior.

    The main point of my comments was to respond to the rhetorical question with which this post began and the heavy implication throughout it that frum society is sorely lacking in good manners vis a vis the rest of society. I am not attempting to quibble with the fact I was merely trying to defend and rationalize (OK DK if you’re out there reading this maybe “apologize” on this particular one) why, perhaps, frum society marginalizes etiquette.

    Do YOU agree with one of my basic points that if good manners serve as an agreeable mask to lubricate one’s glide through polite society while concealing an ugly lack of middos tovos they become pretty hideous themselves?

  17. Good middos and good manners should ideally co-exist. Manners vary from culture to culture and country to country, etc. When I first went to Israel, I was shocked at the “directness” for lack of a better word of the Israeli society. I later learned to appreciate it and value it. While they may not all have “American” manners or the policy of “the customer is always right” in business, they are usually straight and say things as they are. I never felt I had to fear them, though I didn’t always like what was being said. I learned to prefer an honest statement than a sugar-coated one which couldn’t be relied on after the fact anyhow.

    I’ve had cleaning helpers from different backgrounds and it was always those who appeared to be quite “polite and courteous” who ended up stealing, not showing up, simply not caring, leaving with no notice, etc.

    Of course those examples have nothing to do with Torah Jews, just some examples of “insincere habitual display of manners”, like the Verizon personnel who say customer service is everything and couldn’t care less about you or whatever you are calling about.

    I’ve been in stores in Williamsburgh where a store clerk may show agitation in my request or make a face, but they will go out of their way to get the job done properly and for me personally, it’s the end result that counts.

    Let’s be sure that our children “catch” us treating everybody respectfully and politely, as this is where I believe these behaviors are contagious, and have seen proof of this repeatedly.

  18. I’m not sure that humility and good manners are the same thing. And it is hard to believe that Ramchal was suggesting we have bad manners.

    Do you agree with Rabbi Wieman’s basic thesis that good manners are in general a good thing, and as representatives of Hashem’s Torah, it probably is something we should be more conscious of?

  19. Here’s an addendum to my previous comment.

    This quote form the Mesillas Yeshorim (Cap.22 Feldheim Edition 1969 [Shraga Silverstein translation] page 283) certainly represents the exception rather than the rule of the path towards Middos refinement but is all the more striking for being so exceptional:

    “Before a man conducts himself in the way of the Humble, he must first be Humble in thought. One who attempts to be Humble in deeds (*i.e. manners YD*) without first having cultivated an attitude of Humility belongs to that class of wicked, deceitful, humble men which we mentioned previously, that class of hypocrites, than which there is nothing more evil in the world”

  20. YD – I don’t think Rabbi Weiman was talking about the extremes.

    But I do think that sincere Good Middos would result in good manners and the fact that this isn’t always the case shows us that we need to work on this collectively and individually.

  21. I have an armchair sociologist’s take on this:

    Manners are all good and well if they serve as an external moral exercise to strengthen internal ethical muscles- i.e. character development from the outside in- or to use the Chinuch’s vernacular “HoOdom nifa’al k’fee peuloisuv-A person becomes affected by their affectations”. Yet they should not be overrated nor automatically equated with middos tovos. Moreover if they serve as a agreeable mask to lubricate one’s glide through polite society while concealing an ugly lack of middos tovos they become pretty hideous themselves.

    I think that Torah Jewry has always had pretty sensitive antennae to this kind of hypocritical, sometimes cynical, pretension and always valued “keepin’ it real”. This sensitivity was raised to a fever pitch in the aftermath of the Holocaust when we (along with much of the rest of the world) stared in shock as the civilization that gave us Goethe, Beethoven, efficiency, punctuality, administrative proffesionalism and precision and, no doubt, fine table manners, bared it’s fangs and soul and gave us the Nuremberg laws, Babi Yar and Treblinka.

    Not that these are the only extremes to choose from but given my druthers I’d rather be the utterly benign yet unkempt, uncouth bare-handed-herring-scooping Chasid than the elegantly attired and coiffed SS man dispatching people to the left with his white gloved finger. Perhaps on a societal level the former is a repudiation of the latter!

Comments are closed.