Posted on | January 24, 2007 | By Ron Coleman | 42 Comments
How do American black-hat “Lithuanian”-style haredim — such as myself, and especially the BTs among us — answer the implied philosophical challenge from the hasidim?
One of the main topics on Jewish blogs concerned at all with religion is the question of “haredism” — a term with very different meanings in Flatbush and in Bnei Brak, but it will do for now — versus “modern orthodox” — also tremendously plastic but, again, let us use what we have. In any event, in the context of baalei teshuva, (talk about troubling terminology!) the question often arises: Why is “haredi” kiruv so dominant? Why can’t there be more kiruv oriented to bringing people to Torah and mitzvos, yes, but without the subcultural accoutrement of the black-hat way of life?
Now because many of those asking the questions are not themselves committed to Torah and mitzvos, I find it a rather disingenuous inquiry, at least from them. But it is not, per se, an unreasonable question. Yet it has been hashed and rehashed in the Jewish blogosphere, and I have no intention of opening yet another thread on it here, but rather to suggest it as a context for the following question: Why aren’t we all hasidim? I think that question is a legitimate one.
I have several answers to the question of why BTs such as myself end up (some faster, some slower) on the “right” of the orthodox spectrum. One of them is that having grown up on a steady and tasteless diet of compromise, we are suspicious of half measures once we decide to make, and understanding the meaning of making, a commitment to being an observant Jew. We also believe that to the extent that modern orthodoxy stands for more engagement with the non-Jewish world, we acknowledge the high likelihood of slippage in our own commitments, considering our previous modes of life. I am asking commenters here not to reopen these issues in the thread that may develop here — my point is a different one, namely: If we claim to eschew compromise, where do we draw the line? Or is the “line’ itself illusory, and are we indeed engaged in perhaps exactly what critics accuse us of — a thoughtless thrust to the right, to the rejection of the old self, to the comfort of the chumra (strict practice) without regard to the merits?
Considering this question, I reflected on what the “Lithuanian” style does for American haredi BTs: It provides us with something of an out. One reason, as petty as it seems, is that the American version of “litvish” or “yeshivish” orthodoxy” tolerates clean-shaven faces. True, this toleration is marginal at best. We beardless ones may not be depicted as Abbas or Tattys in Artscroll or other haredi publications (zeydies are allowed to be clean shaven; still, a R’Moshe-Sherer-style moustache is preferred to complete whiskerlessness). But you will see us getting awards at yeshiva dinners and acting as mohels and presidents of haredi shuls. Combine this assimilation-friendly outcome, now, with the Lithuanian mode of dress — a dark suit and a white shirt — and guess what: Except in those offices where adult dress has been outlawed, an orthodox yeshiva man looks pretty much like a lawyer or an accountant (abstracting from the yarmulke issue, which we will not even touch here), which he is, after all, fairly likely to be. The acceptability of sheitels among haredim in the US extends this flexibility to women as well.
I don’t mean to rewrite my earlier post or the ensuing discussion, on “dress codes” for Jews. Rather, my point is this: Non-hasidic, clean-shaven haredi men and custom-sheitel wearing women can move through the world without that harsh separation from it that hasidim (most of them — and the issue of how Lubavitchers dice and slice these issues is also too complex for this post), with their beards, peyos and usually long coats, effect. Given that the haredi BT has gone from complete assimilation to a philosophical commitment to a distinctly Jewish manner of appearance and a level of separation from the gentile culture, how exactly does he rationalize this rollback of separation, given that to some extent it appears (appears — I am open to suggestion that it is not) to be an accident of history?
This is not merely a matter of clothes, of course, though as I did argue before, the way we present ourselves to the world is always a choice fraught with meaning. I believe that many non-hasidic haredim feel, in their hearts of hearts, that — notwithstanding the difference between what we call hasidim today and the idealized hasidus of the time of the Baal Shem Tov — today’s hasidim demonstrate an undeniably high level of commitment to Yiddishkeit that not all of us can claim we would be prepared to make. Some hasidim say, indeed, they measure the mantel (cover) to the sefer Torah, while others seek to cut down the scroll to their own size Well, we can debate whether their way of life and appearance are more or less relevant today as a matter of service to Hashem than they were in Eastern Europe 250 years ago. But the relative lack of compromise with the host culture and the level of faith in Hashem over one’s life that the hasidic way of life implies cannot be denied. I cannot myself deny that I often feel an implicit rebuke when I am in the presence of hasidim: Why aren’t I at least trying to be “that frum”?
There are two possible answers, each supplied by a different though related haredi philosophy, and neither one entirely satisfactory. One is from the classic Lithuanian — and here I will use the term “misnagdic” — perspective: There’s nothing more orthodox, young man, about hasidim. Truly frum Litvaks, facial hair aside, are virtually indistinguishable from hasidim in religious practice (look at Lakewood), and frankly the outside world can’t tell the difference between us, notwithstanding our short suit coats. A black hat is a black hat, and the hasidim, far from being a “purer” or “truer” form of orthodox Judaism, are merely focused on, some would insist they are even obsessed with, a peculiar mode of lifestyle. It is one that obtained in a certain time and place and which by and large is, for its focus on a central leader in the person of the rebbe or admor, would in the view of a true Misnagid a cop-out, not an improvement, in terms of an individual’s personal obligation to labor on his own in finding the path to service of Hashem.
Another answer comes from Rav Hirsch, whom we discussed here last week. It starts with the Lithuanian answer but takes it a step further: The cultural disengagement by hasidim, which is so extreme that most of them have a great deal of difficulty according what we believe is proper respect to our gentile neighbors as men made in God’s image, is worse than the mere stunting of growth or misguidedness emphasized by the Litvak. It is not at all what Hashem wants from us — as much as we admire the d’veykus, the commitment, the pride, it is nonetheless represents a positive failure to engage the world that God has put us into. It is a guarantee of a permanent level of unsophistication about worldly affairs as well as useful wisdom, and a lifestyle that has many elements that far from raising our status in the eyes of the world, does the opposite.
Two good answers. There are more; it is a mistake to idealize the hasidic way of life. A clean, ebony bekeshe (frock), curly peyos and a shtreimel make a stunning fashion statement, but you still have to wash neigel vasser in the morning.
And yet I am not a Lithuanian, save by intellectual bent; I am a scion, two generations removed, of Gerrer hasidim. And I cannot escape that silent, silken black rebuke.