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The Price of Enforced Uniformity

By now a critical mass of Charedim has learned and internalized that the evils – which are real – are not the only thing the internet has to offer.
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Photo Credit: Nati Shohat /Flash90

I found Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein’s somewhat lengthy response to Dr. Yoel Finkelman to be eye opening. It validates my own perception of what it’s like to live in the Charedi world. He does it honestly and openly. The following is what I consider a key part of his response:

The greater harm is not in enforced silence, but in enforced uniformity. The latter has some benefits that should not be dismissed. Too many of us are in the thrall of a belief that individual autonomy is the summa bonum of society. This is simply not part of the vision of Chazal, who did provide for censorship, for enforcement of not only Torah law but communal takanos, and instructed us to find spouses, rabbeim and friends who would be there always to reprimand us when wrong, and apply healthy community pressure to do better than we would otherwise do. Community membership has its benefits.

Nonetheless, the pressure will work for some, and be disastrous for others, especially, as you point out, those with more creativity and individuality. There is a superabundance of one-size-fits-all thinking in our world, and it is terribly harmful.

Indeed there is. It is unfortunately true that there is an enforced uniformity of the masses of Charedim. And that prevents an open expression of honest opinion by their public. Rabbi Adlerstein calls it the price of membership. I call it a mentally unhealthy way to live. Even though he says it needn’t be – the problem is that it all too often is. I think that is changing. More on that later.

Although the concept of Daas Torah is taught a bit differently among various Charedi Yeshivos – as Rabbi Adlerstein points out – the “One size fits all” thinking is the Daas Torah for far too many Charedim. And their Gedolim are by definition the ones most qualified tell us what it is on any and every subject. In this interpretation – to defy Daas Torah is to defy the Torah itself. One must adhere to it or they cannot claim to be a member in good standing of authentic Judaism. To the extent that other streams of Orthodoxy do not see it their way is to the extent that they are outside the pale.

Why do they pay that price?

They feel this way because they are Chareid L’Dvar HaShem. They tremble before the word of God. The truly sincere Charedi genuinely wants to serve God in the best possible way he can in every aspect of his life. He dare not make important decisions in his life based on his own limited Torah knowledge when those greater than himself can make better decisions. To the extent that any Charedi does not seek Daas Torah is to the extent he rebels at the word of God, instead of trembling before it. The deference due our elders adds to their aura.

And yet often their instincts tell them otherwise. And often they will follow those instincts.

A great example of that is the internet. Charedi Gedolim tell them that the internet is so evil that it should be avoided at all cost. Many safeguards are built into their world to eliminate it from their lives. They include bans; expulsion of their children from their schools if they have it in their homes; threats of losing your Chelek in Olam Haba… all in the the pursuit of ridding their world of it. It is a forbidden fruit except when necessary for for livelihood purposes. The common man can have no say in the matter because their own Torah knowledge does not match that of the Gedolim.

So even when these views are honored in the breach by a great many Charedim, they still retain the status of Daas Torah. The fact that so many use the internet in non-approved ways is either rationalized – or considered a weakness. The word of God has been expressed. There is no other way to look at it. Daas Torah has spoken.

But this is the kind of thing that has lead to the quiet skepticism that is settling in their world about the value of their Daas Torah. Too much of it is at odds with their natural instinct and their own experiences. Instinct and experiences that have been influenced not only by what they have learned in the classroom, but influenced by what they have learned outside of it.

When there are so many people who go against the strong admonitions of Daas Torah on something like the internet – there arises a critical mass who realize that the dire consequences of ignoring the warnings – will never happen. Instead they see that it actually enhances their lives. How long they will feel forced to promote the party line publicly while privately ignoring it remains to be seen.The image of Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zweibel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel apologetically using his smartphone during his address at last year’s convention right after smartphones were condemned by a previous speaker – illustrates this point.

By now a critical mass of Charedim has learned and internalized that the evils –which are real – are not the only thing the internet has to offer.

In the meantime Daas Torah has taken on a life of its own that supersedes even the Charedi Gedolim who are charged with expressing it.

When a Torah personality feels that his own Daas Torah might go against conventional Charedi wisdom he will not express it. Instead he will ask a surrogate to make his views known.

In the end all of this weakens Daas Torah. It can only erode the devotion that Charedim have to their current leaders. It may very well be that the Charedi world will eventually refuse to pay the price of membership. What about their desire to serve God in the best possible way? Who is going to tell them how to do it?

In matters of Halacha I think they will still look to their leadership. But in many other matters I think they will also begin to think for themselves. Especially if it involves one’s children. As Rabbi Adlerstein himself concedes:

I have no easy solution other than to remind parents in particular that their responsibility is to their child, while the responsibility of the principal or manhig at times is to the majority of the public. When the two do not coincide, the parent must do what is best for his or her child, not for the tzibbur.

They will look to them occasionally for meta-Halachic advice too. But only when they ask – much the same way we in the Centrist camp do. When they don’t ask and advice is offered on public policy, they will treat it with respect and factor it in to their decisions. But no longer will it be seen as a “One size fits all” mentality. Again, much the same way we Centrists do. Charedi uniformity will not be as sociologically enforceable as it is now. That is where the quiet undertone of dissent will eventually lead. In fact this is where the moderate Charedi – like Rabbi Adlerstein – already lives. And that’s a good thing.

Visit Emes Ve-Emunah.

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 hmaryles@yahoo.com.


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