You Don’t have to be in the Middle to be in the Middle

Last February 12, my post titled “I’m back in the middle again” appeared on this site.

It was a follow-up to an earlier post, “It’s lonely in the middle.”

A few people still aren’t talking to me, outraged that I dared to suggest that there’s anything wrong with frum Jews dividing themselves up into smaller and smaller enclaves, despite the strain upon already inadequate financial resources, or that fear of different legitimate hashkofos within Yiddishkeit is symptomatic of the very reason why the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed and we remain in galus.

I was delighted and gratified, therefore, when barely a week later the current issue of Jewish Action arrived containing an article by Rav Emanuel Feldman, in which the preeminent author laments the increasing divisiveness within the Torah community. I urge everyone to read it here.

With his characteristic eloquence, Rav Feldman laments a state of affairs wherein many Chareidim look down on Modern Orthodoxy as essentially irreligious while many Modern Orthodox prefer the company of irreligious Jews to that of Chareidim. Instead of looking toward the vast ocean of halacha and hashkofoh we have in common, we pick on the few differences, magnify them beyond proportion, declare they are symptomatic of some profound spiritual contagion, and keep our distance lest we or our children become infected by the ideological illness of the other side.

Frum Jews to the right or the left of us are not our enemies. Perhaps our children could benefit from experiencing the broadening reality of a multifaceted Torah community in which sincere people can recognize that their differences are a source of strength. A single school might have different tracks, with more gemara for some students and more secular studies for others. Weaker or less committed children would grow from association with more serious students, while stronger students would learn to feel a sense of obligation and connectedness to Jews not exactly the same as they are.

Would it not be good thing for the next generation of b’nei Torah to learn to appreciate other Torah Jews without having to “convert” them to their own hashkofic perspective or else invalidate them for being different? Could we not at least try a little harder to emulate the twelve tribes as they were back in the glory days of the Jewish people?

I have heard Rav Noach Orlowek comment more than once that he recommends families to choose smaller communities where frum Jews on the street say hello to people they don’t know, or to people from other shuls. As one who has lived in both types of community, I know the value of a “Good morning” or a “Gut Shabbos,” or even eye contact and a cordial nod. It’s a travesty that there are communities in which these are rare.

But why are we so afraid to show our children that Jews not exactly like us can still be good friends, good neighbors, and good Jews, beyond the five seconds it takes to say “hello”? Maybe, amidst all the different agendas, a little more mesiras nefesh for achdus should find a place at the top of everybody’s agenda.

15 comments on “You Don’t have to be in the Middle to be in the Middle

  1. “Am I concerned about the secular influence on my children because of their more modern friends? Absolutely. But I am equally concerned about the arrogance I find so pervasive on the other side of the spectrum.”

    That’s what parenting is all about.

    There are ways to teach humbleness and respect without diluting our own education. R’ Goldson’s goal is appropriate and shared by many parents; a wise parent will invest the effort needed to achieve this, without compromising ideals.

    No need to pick your poison. We can have, and teach, derech eretz, while limiting influence that we determine as inappropriate for our children’s education.

  2. Neil —

    I’m sorry I don’t remember you. Truthfully, I can’t remember ever having ANY involvement with NCSY Midwest. Can you jog my memory?

    Ron —

    Over the years, I’ve heard people make comments such as: isn’t it better to have good middos than wear a black hat? isn’t it better to do chesed than worry about whether elbows and knees are perfectly covered?

    My answer is always: of course, but what does one have to do with the other?

    But that type of question becomes legitimate when the black hat or long skirt becomes an excuse for the kind of bad behavior that produces all the horrific stereotypes of chareidim. It is equally deplorable when it produces the Modern stereotype, which says: “I keep Shabbos and kashrus; show me where in Shulchan Aruch it says I shouldn’t go to movies or casinos.”

    Am I concerned about the secular influence on my children because of their more modern friends? Absolutely. But I am equally concerned about the arrogance I find so pervasive on the other side of the spectrum.

    So we pick our poison. It’s a dangerous world out there. But there’s also a whole perek titled, “Gadol Shalom.”

  3. Okay, so — I’ve done this before, and now Rabbi Goldson and I are friends so I can risk doing it again — I’ll spoil the party here.

    We’re all in favor of more courtesy, friendliness, tolerance. But what, exactly, is the line-drawing behavior we’re so offended by here?

    I have young children. I am very particular about whom they play with, and they know what the lines are, and they have a pretty good understanding of why they’re there. They know we have standards in kashrus, tzenius, and engagement with the general culture that not all children share. Their eyes also aren’t closed: They can spot the difference between the appearances of those who, generally, do, and those who don’t. We can pretend there’s no difference but our kids know the truth.

    We can’t go around with a clipboard to the homes of every prospective playmate and do our own version of midos inspection. And of course there are plenty of “yeshivish” families whose children are absolutely beastly, and not acceptable playmates.

    But certain kinds of influence, once unleashed, can never be unmade. That’s a reason that people choose to live in ghettos or, put more kindly, enclaves of like-minded co-religionists. We all draw the lines in different places. From my point of view, the way hasidim in Monroe, for example, cloister themselves, they are almost assured a hard fall when they encounter the big bad world and have to depend on a lifetime of isolation to manage. But I can certainly respect their choice in taking that calculated risk and don’t blame them for not mixing with people who will expose their children to influences that are not compatible with their hashkofo (outlook).

    On a daily basis, I admit it: Achdus is not a the top of the list for raising my family. I have spent over two decades building a life for myself and my family that is decidedly different from the “diverse” life I lived before, and now I am investing in not just my own spiritual state but the eternity of my children. Diversity? Been there, done that.

    We must all have derech eretz, and give every Jew the benefit of the doubt, especially if he is by all indications a observant. The message for my kids, though, is that the choices we make are not “lifestyle options.” They are dictated by the Torah and by the standards of a community that holds of Torah and avodas Hashem — however inconsistently, fitfullly, even at time hypocritically — as its highest values. My children must and do know that those who make other “choices” in obvious and public ways, including how they dress, how and where they daven, and to what extent they participate in the gentile culture, are saying something — never “nothing” — about their value systems, and that we strive to say something different.

    Nothing personal! ;-)

  4. Rabbi Goldson,
    What a beautiful posting. Your ending, “a little more mesiras nefesh for achdus should find a place at the top of everybody’s agenda” is an awesome quote.

    One thing we do (besides sending our kids to a day school that represents most of the frum spectrum) is send our kids to local camps that allow them to meet kids that attend different day schools. As a plug for Chicago, I must say that most people either respond or beat me to the punch when I wish them a “Good Shabbos”.

    You probably don’t remember me (or my wife) but we knew each other through Midwest NCSY in the later half of the 90’s. I know that you live everything that you write!!

  5. Thankfully I don’t live in a place with this sort of divisiveness, I hope the blogworld can be more unified and argue without attacking a person.

    It sinat chinam really bothers me.

  6. There’s also quite a bit of positive interaction between the Agudah and Young Israel.

  7. I would be interested to hear the opinion of today’s leadership on these questions.

    On a day-to-day, person-to-person level, I think that stereotyping plays a big role. Getting to know someone in detail can take a lot of time; it’s much easier to make judgements and decisions (for instance how long to continue a conversation, whether to daven at a shul, or whether to accept an invitation) based on superficial quick-to-read things like hair covering, general dress, and shul affiliation. So on an individual basis, I find that I’m more likely to try to get to know someone who, for instance, dresses the way I do, I also find that I have friends who I admire, respect, and learn with, who, for instance, dress differently than I do.

    On a group or national level, I would like to believe that our leadership would see through the superficial differences to determine if there are enough similarities to work together on particular issues. As a particular example, it is my understanding that there are some joint lobbying and legislative efforts of the OU and the Aguda. I’m not aware of other areas of joint action, and I wonder if that’s because it’s not being publicized. If not, the question of why there is not more joint action is a good one.

  8. What you are really asking is whether we are so afraid that any outside exposure will cause our children to deviate from the standards of our particular community, that we don’t allow any exposure at all. Are we educating them properly? Or are we just insulating them in the hopes of keeping them in the fold?

    As for the questioning of the “greater” by the “lesser” – it does get calcified. One wonders if the rishonim would even recognize what passed/passes for debate after them.

    The strain on financial resources – the disdain of the Chareidi for those who are not in Yeshiva full time, but while being perfectly happy to accept their dirty lucre – how much does this contribute to division?

  9. Historically, the “lesser” (as Michael calls them) have been permitted to question (respectfully) the “greater” and, where qualified, choose between them.

    The amoraim, who authored the gemara, could not argue with the tanaaim, who authored the mishna, but could decide which tanaaic opinion to follow.

    Similarly, the rishonim (e.g., Rashi, Ramban, Rambam) could choose between but not argue with amoraim; and acharonim (e.g., the Shach, the Taz, the Bach) could choose between but not argue with rishonim).

    This system preserved the integrity of Torah transmission without allowing it to calcify or devolve into pure dogma. Questioning within the context of respect for established authority and consensus has preserved Torah by keeping it relevant and vibrant.

  10. Michael K. asked,
    “can one be a good, fully frum Jew and intellectually question the Torah opinions and hashkafa of Torah Jews much greater than you in Torah scholarship?”

    The “lesser” should get in the habit of asking the “greater” for clarification, and also of candidly discussing knotty questions with them. Establishing this line of communication makes real learning and resolution of problems possible. Don’t just leave differences hanging in the air.

  11. Mr. Miller’s comment about the “social pressure” is so true. The current “pressure” is to conform to a uniform way of living. There is lip service by some in the YO community (to use Rabbi G’s abbreviation) about accepting hashkafic differences, but the very hashkafa itself very often seems to be to conform to a uniform standard and way of yiddishkeit. Hashkafa is itself viewed (as it often must be) as critical in one’s growth in Yiddishkeit.

    Asking whether those social pressures can be changed or redirected raises some questions, one of which (in my mind) is as follows: can one be a good, fully frum Jew and intellectually question the Torah opinions and hashkafa of Torah Jews much greater than you in Torah scholarship? Is there some “middle” (appropriate) ground between (1) “robotic” Judaism and (2) almost anything goes Judaism so long as I have “a source” and I am permitted to question and deride almost anything Torah related with which I disagree. The social pressure currently seems to be to accept either one of those: (1) “robotic Judaism” or (2) anything goes Judaism (again, with “a source” to support) and complete lack of respect and kavod for Gedolim.

    What I try to remind myself is that my job as a Jew is to grow in Torah and mitzvos, love my fellow Jews and, through these, develop a close relationship with Hashem. Still, the question remains.

    If only Moshiach were here. . .

  12. The challenge is to make social pressure work towards Orthodox unity (not the same as uniformity) and not against it. The harmful forms of social pressure are used to make us do things like:

    1. Shunning or ridiculing other Jews dedicated to Torah and Mitzvos, who dress or speak differently from us, or have a different order of priorities, or live somewhere else.

    2. Taking on improperly motivated halachic leniencies or stringencies.

    3. Acting as if anything not totally ideal according to our view is totally bad.

    4. Spending beyond our means on happy events, to copy the ways of those who really can afford more.

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