Latest update: March 4th, 2014
One of the pitfalls of my observations of and comments about the Charedi world is that it brings out some truly nasty comments from some of the people who comment on my blog. I have in fact been accused (with some justification) of facilitating Charedi bashing even if my posts don’t.
Although there are some people who say that any negative comment about Charedim or their rabbinic leaders is tantamount to bashing them, I do not accept that. Legitimate criticism is not bashing. It is Mussar. And legitimate Mussar should be taken from anyone who is sincere in giving it. But, as I just said, I admit that it can and sometimes does lead to Charedi bashing in the comments. And that is wrong. Even though I try and delete or edit comments like that, it doesn’t always work. In my zeal to be as open as possible I allow a lot of latitude and sometimes I may overlook something I shouldn’t have. I apologize for that and will try to do better.
I therefore thought I would make a clear statement about my actual views about Charedim. Just because I have a Hashkafa that differs from them, that does not mean I do not respect them.
There is no greater devotion by any segment of Orthodox Jewry to Torah study, Mitzvah observance, and Chesed than that of the Charedi world. In terms of Torah study – as much of a fan I am of a Yeshiva like Yeshiva University (YU), there is no question that the focus on ‘Torah only’ in a Yeshiva like Lakewood surpasses that of YU. This does not mean to say that a YU student cannot achieve greatness in Torah. It is very obvious that he can and has. Rav Hershel Shachter is an obvious example of that. But the truth is that when you have tens of thousands of people focusing only on Torah study 24/7 and nothing else… you are going to get a lot more high caliber Lomdei Torah at Lakewood than you will at YU.
As an aside I have always believed – and still do – that if YU and Lakewood were combined, you would have the best of all possible worlds. That’s because I think that a more well rounded education actually enhances Limud haTorah and ultimately greatness. But the fact is that this is not the case and probably never will be.
So the usual breakdown is that those interested in only in advancing their Torah knowledge will usually go to a place like Lakewood. While those who want to have careers and yet still be knowledgeable Baalei Batim (lay people) will usually go to YU. Simple math will tell you that Lakewood will produce more Lomdim. That is to the credit of a Hashkafa which imbues students with a love of Torah study to the point of eschewing all else but that which is necessary to one’s life. One can debate whether this is an overall good idea for everyone. But one cannot debate that this causes a great number of them to study the Torah in great depth and breadth – thereby reaching great heights in pure Torah knowledge to the exclusion of all else.
When it comes to Mitzvah observance there is a reason they are called Charedim. They are Chareid (tremble) at the word of God and therefore (in the ideal) try and perform each Mitzvah in the best way they can. Often at great sacrifice. They rarely will opt for compromise even when it is Halachicly permissible. So they will for example buy Chalav Yisroel products at greater expense even though there is a clear Heter (Halachic permission) to buy non Chalav Yisroel products. They prefer not using the Heter provided even by a Gadol that they (and I) recognize as one of the greatest of his generation.
One cannot not deny the acts of Chesed that this community does. One example (and there are many here in Chicago) is the Chicago Chesed Fund which was founded and is run by Charedim. They are very generous to all Jews in need regardless of their Hashkafos. If someone needs money to pay their bills they can get help there. If they have huge credit card bills with high monthly interest charges the Chesed Fund will pay off the credit card bill in full which is then treated as loan to be paid back to them over time interest free). They also have a huge store like facility where people in need ‘shop’ for free – items of all types including new clothing, food, kitchen utensils, toys for children, and even furniture. This enterprise is supported by people of all Hashkafic stripes.
Chicago also boasts the Center for Torah and Chesed, a Charedi organization that more than lives up to its name with an abundance of free services for the Chicago Jewish community. One of which is their Refoenu Society where (among other things) arrangements have been made with taxicab companies to provide transportation to hospitals on Shabbos and Yom Tov without the need to pay them.
You present the driver with a voucher which he submits to the Center and he is paid (including a tip) after Shabbos. The user is then sent a bill.
The Refoenu Society also provides limited medical services free of charge to the community by volunteer physicians and nurses. They have also distributed defibrillators to every Shul in Chicago. A defibrillator is an electrical device that provides a shock to the heart when there is a life-threatening arrhythmia present.
Another thing I often hear is about how Charedi Gedolim are always on the wrong side of an issue. This is clearly disproved by the views of a man whom many consider to be the Gadol HaDor today, Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman. While one can disagree with him on some issues – even strongly, I think you can agree with him on great number of things. From a guest post on DovBear’s Blog:
During the Indian hair wigs situation, when it was learned that hair was used for idol worship, R’ Shteinman declared that there is no need to worry about this or to change your wig, and about the concern he said, “this is nareshkeit (nonsense)”
R’ Shteinman opines that the nusach of the siddur isn’t exact and therefore when necessary it can be changed. For ‘hataras nedarim’ on New Year’s eve he authored a shorter version so he could save time on that holy day.
R’ Shteinman said, “people make a big deal out of the esrog but it isnt l’shem shamayim, esrog is an acronym (in hebrew) for ‘al tavuni regel gavah’, people search for an esrog for haughtiness and not for the mitzva.
When a young yeshiva student died suddenly, the deceased friends asked R’ Shteinman in what matter they should strengthen themselves as a reaction to the death. R’ Shteinman responded that it is a normal occurrence that sometimes young people pass away.
When the friends asked him about the Rambam who wrote that someone who doesnt mourn death should be worried and investigate what is wrong with himself, R’ Shteinman replied that the Rambam was referring to major disasters.
At a panel discussing education, R’ Shteinman said that not everyone is capable of teaching (referring to people who obtain positions through nepotism), “we see Avroham had a son Yishmael.”
Regarding the custom of kissing a mezuzah, R’ Shteinman asked “what is the purpose of this custom? You think just because you touch a mezuza it makes you holy?”
Regarding the statement in Nefesh Hachayim (by R Chaim of Volozhin) that were there to be a second wherein not a single person in the world was learning Torah the world would immediately be destroyed, R’ Shteinman said that this isnt correct, since fulfilling mitzvos also keeps the world running, even when we eat or sleep it counts since it is done to help in our service of hashem. It’s likely that R Chaim of Volozhin was just exaggerating to make a point.
Regarding what it states in Chovos Halevosos and is quoted in Shmiras Ha’lashon that someone who speaks loshon ha’ra acquires the sins of his victim, R’ Shteinman asked “from where did they get this? there is no source for this idea in tradition and it is very strange and odd to say such a thing.”
R’ Shteinman was asked if it can be repeated in his name that that since all kollel students have cell phones that the phones should be kept off during yeshiva hours. He answered that we cant know why someone has a phone, perhaps his wife needs him to have one….a person can decide for himself how to behave here but under no circumstance should it be to the detriment of his wife.
Someone asked R’ Shteinman whether they should avoid kiruv since they will see immodestly dressed women, he responded by quoting the Talmud: “who is a pious fool? someone who sees a women drowning in a river and says it isnt proper to look at her and to save her”
R’ Shteinman says often that in our time the merit from learning Torah isn’t as great as it used to be since we don’t learn for its own sake. He added at one occasion, “who says our learning is even considered learning? Perhaps our ideas are wrong”
Unlike how most people feel that the world was created for Torah study, R’ Shteinman says that the world was created to perform kindness.
It behooves all of us to be aware of the good in all people even as we recognize the bad that sometimes exists. Because in truth we all have our bad moments and all segments of Orthodoxy have bad people in them. When it comes to Charedim, there is a lot more to admire them for as a community, than there is to criticize them for. And we ought to think about that every time we say anything about them.
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About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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