Frummer than Thou

As Mark so subtly pointed out in his last email, I haven’t posted here in a while. Part of the reason for that is that I haven’t been feeling especially enthused about the mitzvos lately. The Lebanon war really did propel me to a higher level, particularly in my davening, but then something happened over Sukkos that really got me down.

What happened essentially is this: Person A, whom I respect, said that Person B, who I also respect, has some incorrect hashkafos. The incident upset me on two counts. First, Person A probably would never have said that if not for my own poor choice of words in presenting Person B’s position. But even when I tried to amend my words, Person A cited an entire frum community to justify her statement. For me, that was the hardest part to take.

In my last post, I wrote about davening for strangers on the street as a means to healing the rift between Modern and Chareidi. I now think that’s the easy way out. Loving one’s fellow Yid is easy from that distance. Having a disagreement with someone makes ahavas Yisroel a lot more challenging. And when matters of hashkafa enter the picture, and the other person takes the “more frum” position, I feel an underlying personal criticism.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels put on the defensive by other people’s frumkeit. The regular critics of this blog attest to it. Why would they bother to make a cause of debunking us otherwise? Similarly, when some Satmar chassidim literally ran away from my Modern Orthodox friend’s shul during some Zionist celebration, she called it “sinas chinam.” She later took that back, but she also said the incident made her feel marginalized, which I completely understand.

The problem gained a paradoxical angle for me when I saw it from the point of view of a new BT who visited me for a Shabbos this summer. After hearing the story of how one of my Chareidi neighbors discreetly pointed out a store clerk’s breach of tznius, the new BT said, “A person’s clothes are a reflection of their personality. If you say there’s something wrong with their clothes, you’re saying there’s something wrong with them.” And of course, it applies to more than just clothes. It’s hashkafa. It’s secular studies. It’s boy-girl interaction or lack thereof. It’s Internet vs. no Internet. It’s absolutely everything in our lives.

And herein lies the paradox. If you want to be mekarev someone, you are hoping the Torah will benefit them, but at the same time, doesn’t it mean you’re looking down on them because you see what they are lacking?

In my cynical mood, the only thing I can conclude is that it’s easier for me to love a more modern person than a more frum one because the modern person poses no challenges to my level of observance. Perhaps I even feel superior, though I certainly hope not. The problem comes when someone, in expressing their more frum hashkafa, puts down mine. That can and has put me in a bad mood for weeks. I know I ought to be past this, but I’m not. So perhaps some of you have grown past these sorts of feelings, and I turn to you for advice. May Hashem help that the ensuing discussion contribute to achdus b’klal Yisroel.

19 comments on “Frummer than Thou

  1. Thanks everyone for your comments. Bad first reaction to David’s: “Telushkin! I’d never read Telushkin.” Same old vicious cycle.

    To all the people who said that the way to give criticism is to build a person up, that is absolutely true. When Person A in my story said Person B had bad hashkafos, she wasn’t doing anything more than expressing the opinion she was taught as a good thing. Same goes for the Satmar chassidim who ran away from the Zionist shul. They don’t mean to be insulting at all. They’re not doing an aveirah. But somehow, being on the opposite end of that does make a person feel affronted, and this I would like to learn how to avoid.

  2. Does our Jewish behavior (mitzvah performance, tefilla, Torah study, etc.) have good cosmic effects when we’re total oblivious of these effects, and even when we do the behavior mechanically?

    This has been discussed frequently? Where? What’s the question?! Although a “mitzva without kavana (intent) is like a body without a soul,” a mitzva was done and every mitzva that is done is the carrying out of G-d’s will which has cosmic effects.

    This is why Chabad will put tefillin on with men who know nothing about the significance of tefillin and will do this without first sitting them down for a lecture on the origin, meaning, and requirements of the mitzva of tefillin. Did some rabbis initially oppose this and mock it, asking: what about negel vasser first? what about their going to McDonalds’s afterwards? yes.

    These questions come from not understanding what the performance of a mitzva accomplishes, that “mitzva goreres mitzva” etc.

  3. I have a new post on a blog that I posting to very sporadically. It is very marginally related to the topic at hand, so this mostly shameless self-promotion. Even so, I’d appreciate it if anyone has a moment to take a look and comment.

    Upsherin and a Study in Bias.

    Thank you,


  4. Ivy:
    I agree that no one should approach a stranger and gratuitously tell them how they are failing, in their mode of dress or otherwise, unless they are on the level of Rav Aryeh Levin and can somehow pull it off with incredible ahavas yisroel. It wasn’t clear from the story that she was a perfect stranger.
    And I also agree with you that we are all sensitive to criticism, esp when we are conscious of laws like tznius and we are trying but find it difficult. However, I still disagree with your statement that since clothing is a reflection of someone’s personality criticism of the clothing is a put down of the person. It is a put down of the choice of clothing, full stop, which bad choice can happen to anyone, really. The chochma in telling someone that it may be a breach of tznius is WHO you tell, in what context, and how you say it. Most people are not equipped to give that tochacha and probably shouldn’t, but I don’t think it is a put down of the person, since, as you agreed, you could hear the criticism from your friend Kressel.

  5. Thanks Bob, Avi and Steve for your statements. It is certainly true that we have some “crosscurrents” within our religion, some of which tend to create brotherhood and some of which tend to create divisiveness. I am strongly in favor of the Jewish people as a force for good in the universe. What I hope to reject is the things that divide us from our divine mission.

    It is important not to try and create a theoretical framework for rejecting torah based solely upon the fact that many people do not live up to its potential. Just as Jacob wrestled with God and was transformed, we all are consigned to wrestle with God on our own terms as unique individuals…it cannot be any other way. The big advantage that we have is Chazal and the ongoing care that people for thousands of years have invested in our Torah. The only thing that I would ask is for respect for people at different levels of the journey.

  6. (Wow, I wish we could respond to individual comments like on LJ!)


    I am the new BT friend Kressel is speaking of.

    I hope that all frum women have a personal sense of “style”, though perhaps “style” is the wrong word. Do you go to a frum community and do all the women look exactly the same, wearing exactly the same clothing, shoes, suits etc? Of course not! They may all wear clothing that is tznius, but everyone has differing levels of tznius (though, I’m sure everyone would disagree on what actually defines “tznius”) and everyone likes different things, patters, colors and so on.

    I, as a visitor, did not know the whole story. But if I don’t know sales clerks personally, it would be (in my mind) rude for me to say “Your shirt looks to be rising a little too high, how about you change?” or something similar. Obviously, if you were personal friends with me, I would like to know if I was showing a bit too much skin, but I would never want to hear something from a stranger, whether or not they lived down the street from me or not.

    Maybe, as you say, that is a reflection of me living in secular society, but women (unfortunately) tend to be sensitive to things like that, Jews and Gentiles alike.

    Honestly, when I went to Monsey, my shirt was covering my collarbones but may have stretched a little as I was constantly tugging at my neckline because my neckline was not *quite* as modest as the other women there, and I felt SO self conscious! Had someone told me about it (other than Kressel), I probably would have gotten very upset. Maybe that is a reflection of me being a BT, but maybe I’m not the only one that would have reacted that way.

  7. Here’s my take: All the middos that G-d endowed us with have to have some outlet/application in serving him. This goes for jealousy as well. What is “holy” jealousy? Envying the other persons, davening, learning, tsdoka, chesed etc.

    Unlike the unholy variety where replicating/achieving the jealousy objects level of success is out of our hands, when it comes to serving G-d we have , relatively, near complete autonomy. It’s vital to determine if you really “need” the “frumkeit” that is depressing you. If you think you don’t (and you’re within a recognized Torah derech) you’re probably right and you shouldn’t stress about it. If you think you do, then exercise your free will and the kail gomer ahlay yisborach will help you. America is not the land of opportunity, ruchniyos is!

    As for people using their frumkeit level to intimidate others: Look, wanting to “shine” or even “belong” using a frumkeit certainly bespeaks a more wholesome value system than wanting to “shine” or even “belong” using a BMW, a chinchilla coat or the corner office. Still, human beings are not perfect. There are probably thousands of factors/ levels of motivation that inform each of our particular thoughts, spoken words and deeds. Some of these are pure and l’shem shomayim others are not so noble. If we would wait for all our ignoble motivations to disappear before acting we would never begin to climb the “ladder standing on the ground whose top reaches heaven”. But… A) It is important to be conscious and wary of our own motivations and B) A motivation of lomed al m’nas l’kanter=learning Torah to put down/expose the ignorance of others, is beyond the pale (The Talmud has some harsh, lethal words about those who do).

    There’s nothing wrong with wearing ones Frumkeit as an ornament but once it becomes a trophy or, worse yet, a hammer there’s something awry. Constant vigilance and introspection is required to ascertain if one has slipped into “trophy frumkeit”.

  8. Kressel:

    I thought your post was quite interesting and hit on some ideas that this blog does reveal, and that is the defensiveness of a person when his hashkafot/behavior are criticized by someone “frummer” or more stringent, which is more accurate. I totally disagree with your new BT friend who posited that since a person’s clothes are a reflection of her personality, to criticise the clothes is a put down of that person. That is a conclusion by a person still probably influenced by the fashionista, and it is not Jewish and not what frum people think (I would hope). A person’s clothes *should* reflect that person’s personality — ie her inherent dignity, and, to some extent, a person’s inner essence, (which is what tznius is all about) but, since we are so affected by Paris, Milan and NY, what clothing choices most often reflect are non-Jewish choices and values to a LARGE extent.

    You wrote that your Chareidi friend *discreetly* told someone about a breach of tznius — I gather that she believed more that this woman was NOT reflecting her true higher essence than it was a put down. Why bother trying to correct someone unless you think she is worth it and that you care??!! She was discreet, so it doesn’t seem that her goal was to demean her! Maybe she wasn’t tactful, but that is not the same as putting someone down.

    Discussions about hashkafot –that are idea centered, and not personal– are threatening only if one is insecure about the decisions one has made. For example, we do not keep cholov Yisroel even though in theory we believe it is better to, because, we are BTs and it would create more kashrus problems with non-frum famiy members. So, should I be threatened or feel put down, if someone says, “You know, it is better to keep cholov yisroel..”? Why should I? It is the right decision for me given my situation.

    The defensiveness kicks in, I believe, because we as BTs are frequently unsure of ourselves and have a deep need to feel accepted and having “arrived.” Every new criticism plays on this vulnerability. But ultimately, we can’t be all things to all people, and we just have to consider what Hashem thinks, and stop worrying about what other people might think. Personally, if someone discreetly told me that I was in breach of a halacha, I would thank that person (tho I would feel embarassed and insecure again). We have to get over our insecurities if we want to grow.

  9. David-I would second Bob Miller’s post. When the Neviim expressed impatience with going through the motions, etc. their POV was to strengthen observance as opposed to RL replacing it with a system solely based upon chesed, as opposed to sincerely motivated Shmiras Hamitzvos.One can argue that many rabbinic enactments have their sources in the Neviim as a means of strengthening Torah observance.

  10. Thanks for the thought-provoking post Kressel. I don’t know if this has anything to do with your feelings or not, but women, mothers, go through so many ups and downs, due to busy lifestyles, our children’s stages and issues, our (or our children’s) hormones, any number of things that can distract a woman/mother from growing spiritually. Those times can be frustrating, but they don’t usually last from what I’ve seen in myself and many others.

    I have always been drawn to people seemingly stronger in holiness for my own role models, I just feel it’s contagious. But I also learn all the time from everyone I come into contact with. During times where I felt “something was missing”, it is ALWAYS spiritual in nature. That is when I know I need a shiur or chavrusa, good kodesh music, learning something meaningful with husband or whoever.

    Good luck through this trying time, G-d Willing, it will pass. And after it passes, a lesson in humility will have been learned hopefully that helps us emerge even stronger.

  11. Look at Judaism, not Jews. If some people act inappropriately – whether it be in terms of their Bein Adam L’Chaveiro actions, or otherwise – it is not your problem. I came to learn to stick with what the Torah says and not to take everyone seriously – certainly not as representative of what the Torah wants us to do. Stick with your rebbe or guide, and have conviction that you have no need to defend or be worried about what others do or say so long as you are on the Torah’s path.

  12. David, don’t let historical speculation cloud your view of halacha. Find a recognized posek you can relate to and follow his lead on halachic issues. Poskim will differ, but don’t downgrade poskim (or their followers) who follow other valid paths in halacha.

    The path of truth will seem strict at times and lenient at other times.

  13. Bob makes a very good point on correcting someone tactfully. Lets say that someone is more observant than another. In this case I’m not referring to whether somone is unobservant vs someone who is observent, but rather a situation where one observes a stricter interpretation than another who also lays claim to being observent. Does the more strict interpretation always get to correct the less strict interpretation? Is strictness in fact always a virtue? The debate on this subject is as old as Judaism itself but I would certainly argue that there were well respected advocates amongs first Haniviim and then within Chazal for a Judaism that was more about general chesed and less about the most stringent observance. This is not to imply that observance wasnt important, but it certainly was not the case that Hillel said “Perform all of the 613 mitzvot as required, the rest is just commentary”.

  14. What happens when you, as a parent, are a Baal Teshuvah later in life (mid-40’s), and one of your children is doing something that you used to do as a, shall we say, not totally Frum person? Do you say to your child, no no no, don’t do it? What if the child says “let me go at my own pace, perhaps I will see things your way totally later on..please don’t force me”? I’m talking about eating @ a non-kosher restaurant, but not ordering anything that is forbidden. How does one handle that? I read something recently that one should go at their own pace, which is true, but if you’re someone who just tends to say “No! That’s wrong!” it is tough.


  15. David’s comment above touches on something that has been discussed frequently: Does our Jewish behavior (mitzvah performance, tefilla, Torah study, etc.) have good cosmic effects when we’re total oblivious of these effects, and even when we do the behavior mechanically?

    Whether the answer is yes or no, a better understanding ought to cause better effects.

    On the main topic: If we love other Jews as ourselves, we still correct them (tactfully!) because we want to do good for them, not because we want to pull rank on them.

  16. Your points are very well taken, there is most definitely a trend within the Jewish community at large and in particular the more Orthodox community to judge based upon the degree to which often obscure aspects of ritual observence are practiced. In such cases, it seems that there is always a stricter interpretation that is held out as “more holy”. It seems to me however, that we individual Jews are not put on earth to judge each other harshly, nor is ritual observance the only yardstick or even the most important yardstick of Jewish Observance. I would suggest that you pick up Joseph Telushkins book “You Shall Be Holy – A Code of Jewish Ethics” which posits that the true meaning of Judaism is ethical conduct and that the mitzvot are the method by which we achieve ethical conduct. Such a view certainly informs the works of the Chofetz Chaim as well. One can even argue that its a Talmudic requirement, after all, amongst even the Rishonim there is the archtype of Hillel and Shammai where Shammai was a much more strict interpreter of the law whereas Hillel was more liberal, and yet the Sanhedrin almost invariably inclined towards Hillel.

    So certainly among the more “rational thought” elements of Judaism, there is a tendency to look at ritual observance as a means to an end and not an end in and of itself. I believe that the great dividing line is where the more “mystical thought” elements view ritual observance. If one looks at ritual observence as having some kind of causative metaphyical effect upon the world then of course it is vastly more important to do the rituals and be stricter. In fact, it is often said to Baale Tshuvah that they should do the rituals even if they dont understand them because they create channels with the Sephirot or whatever other metaphyical programming level forces are at work. Clearly this is the great Jewish divide of our times.

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