The Herd Mentality

letter-447577_1280

by Rabbi Harvey Belovski

The astonishing capacity of Judaism to welcome disagreement, tolerate and even validate a range of views (albeit within the system) on almost every issue is, in my opinion, one of its greatest strengths. Yet it is, perhaps, the most sophisticated aspect of real Torah thought; the Talmud (Chagigah 3b) acknowledges that it takes tremendous wisdom and effort to think this way, yet it is vital to learn to do so.

It is fascinating to note then when an outstanding attribute is native to the Jewish people, even outsiders can recognise it. A year ago, I read a fascinating book called ‘The trouble with Islam today’, by the controversial author Irshad Manji, which contains a number of really thought-provoking observations. In a chapter provocatively called ‘Seventy virgins?’ she considers the subject of herd mentality:

What I knew was that believers in the historically ‘reformed’ religions don’t operate on a herd mentality nearly as much as Muslims do. Christian leaders are aware of the intellectual diversity within their ranks. While each can deny the validity of other interpretations – and many do – none can deny that a plethora of interpretations exists. As for Jews, they’re way ahead of the crowd. Jews actually publicise disagreements by surrounding their scriptures with commentaries and incorporating debates into Talmud itself. By contrast, most Muslims treat the Quran as a document to imitate rather than interpret, suffocating our capacity to think for ourselves.

Now, Manji is hardly an expert on Judaism, but her comments really set me thinking about the parameters of tolerance and disagreement within Jewish thought. That more than one view in halachah (Jewish law) can be tolerated within the system is apparent from the proverbial ‘elu v’elu’ (a statement acknowledging that more than one view can be the ‘words of the living God’) but the imperative to accord respect to other views is less well known. In summarising three years of disagreement between Beis Hillel and Beis Shammai (the schools of Hillel and Shammai), the Talmud (Eruvin 13b) comments:

As both (the views of Beis Hillel and Beis Shammai) are the ‘words of the living God’, why did Beis Hillel merit that the halachah (Jewish law) be fixed according to their view? They were gentle and tolerant and they taught their own views and those of Beis Shammai and even expressed the views of Beis Shammai before their own view.

In his introduction to BeReishis (Genesis) the Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, pre-eminent 19th century European sage) suggests that lack of tolerance for Torah viewpoints other than one’s own is the very cause of destruction. Writing about the religious leadership of the Second Temple era, he observes:

They were righteous, pious and toiled in Torah, but they were not diplomatic. Because of the hatred in their hearts for one another, they suspected anyone who conducted his religious life not in accordance with their view of being a Sadducee or a heretic. As a result, they came to horrible bloodshed and every known evil, until the Temple was destroyed. This vindicated what happened to them (the destruction of the Temple). Since God is upright he does not tolerate such ‘righteous’ people unless they are also diplomatic, not crooked, even if they act for the sake of heaven, for this causes the destruction of creation and the ruin of society.

I realised why I was thinking about Irshad Manji this week: her observations were dredged from the depths of my mind by my sadness at the monochromatic nature of much of the contemporary Jewish world. Her comments depict the Judaism I know and love, the one I see in the Talmud and classic Jewish sources, the one taught me by my own rabbis and role-models, the one I try to practice and teach my children and students. They don’t, however, describe the Jewish world I see around me, one in which authoritarian pronouncements have become common, strongly-worded decrees seem to limit thought and practice, and variant opinions and their exponents are trashed, not discussed. We have reached the stage at which there is only one ‘acceptable’ view on most topics, the opinions of previously-well-respected Jewish thinkers are no longer considered party line; we have our own censored publications to ensure that no-one finds out about them anyway. Suggesting that this impacts only on a small part of Israeli society is to bury our heads in the sands of a global Jewish reality.

Hardly a week goes by without another decree: a few weeks ago it was the banning of higher-education courses for Israeli women, last week, the emphasis on policing ‘kosher’ clothes shops in religious districts. Is Manji right? Are we really ‘way ahead of the crowd’? Only just, I fear.

Rabbi Harvey Belovski, a musmach of Gateshead Yeshiva and graduate of Oxford University, is the rabbi of the Golders Green Synagogue in London, a lecturer, author and counsellor.

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14 Responses

  1. Baruch Horowitz says:

    Bob,

    I agree that dress is not an absolute indicator of thought and deed, as well as with your point regarding the media. While we shouldn’t overstate the trend for conformity in dress, thought and deed, on the other hand, neither should we minimize it.

    Part of Rabbi Belovski’s point is that the Center, which previously existed in the Yeshiva world, is now in danger of disappearing, if it has not already done so. One may disagree to what extent the trend for conformity exists, or even if the phenomenon is a good or a bad one, but I think most will concede what today’s observable sociological facts are, in contrast to those of previous decades.

    People may disagree with Rabbi Belovski, and make strong arguments in support of hechsherim on clothings shops or about the virtues of a monolithic charedi press and publishing houses. However, I do not see how one can do so without simultaneously acknowledging the roles that these positions play in decreasing or limiting diversity within the Yeshiva world.

    We need a “Center for the Future of the Center” in the Yeshivah world, but I am not sure that the infrastructure exists to create and maintain it. :)

    Chaim,

    The TIDE legacy has left Upper Manhattan and Frankfurt am Main, and now belongs to Klal Yisrael. It is up to the non-German Torah communities to preserve this legacy, lest future generations say that the mesorah of TIDE has died out, as some opinions indeed maintain concerning Rav Hirsch’s opinions on Torah and science issues.

  2. L.Oberstein says:

    I erred in my posting.When I said Rabbi Slanger is a talmid of the Hazon Ish, I should have written, Rav Schach.

  3. Chaim says:

    Baruch

    As for the “how to,” I do not know if there is any easy answer. But I for one find much value and support by reading blogs such as this one.

    As for the TIDE not succeeding… this comment is twenty years late.

    Having learned in the Breuer’s kehilla and seeing my many friends from the kehilla gravitate farther to “the right,” there is one factor that still sticks out in my mind from many years ago, the remarks of two great tzaddikim of the last two generations.

    We were told these comments (most often when we learned in yeshivos outside the kehilla before returning to go to college) by those opposed to Rav Hirsch and it had the effect of deflating the enthusiasm many of us grew up and respected TIDE.

    One is the written comment by Rav Baruch Ber, z”l… that Rav Hirsch’s method was only meant as a hora’as sha’a.

    I am certain he did not read Rav Hirch’s writings in German or that he knew of Rav Hirshc’s written mandate that his school maintain the philosophy into the forseeable future. Rav Baruch Ber, no doubt may have still disagreed with Rav Hirsch. But I do not know if he would have placed in our “yekkishe” minds the serious doubt of TIDE as a long term mehalech for Am Yisroel. We who came to appreciate Rav Baruch Ber’s geonus were shaken by this remark as well as by a second one; the famous letter of Rav Dessler that German Orthodoxy was well and fine producing baalei batim but did not produce gedolim.

    Aside from the question of whether or not that is a legitimate historical critique (Rav Schwab did not readily agree) it did do its damage in shaking the hope many of us had for this philosophy to survive into the future. I cannot estimate how many German Orthodox of the second generation were made to feel second rate.

    Rav Schwab argued into his later years that it ought to be a valued alternative to the Torah only approach.

  4. Bob Miller says:

    We seem to be assuming that a more uniform dress code means a more uniform everything else (thought, action…). While this is plausible, can this be demonstrated convincingly? Keep in mind that the Orthodox media may or may not be portraying the lives of the Orthodox rank and file accurately.

  5. L.Oberstein says:

    “And if nevertheless the Gedolim placed a limit on women’s education, it is clear that they have done so out of their expertise and higher level of understanding Torah vs the masses.” Comment by Ed.
    There is no one set of people called THE GEDOLIM. If all gedolim agreed on limiting women’s education, we wouldn’t have the extensive range of higher education institutions for women. For example, Seminaries that are accredited as colleges where heimishe girls from the best homes are given the degrees that enable them to then get a higher degree e.g. a Masters and earn a better living. This is found in the most right wing segment of American orthodoxy, like Bina Seminary under the guidance of Rabbi Tzvi Dov Slanger, a talmid of the Hazon Ish and Mrs Slanger whose teachers include Rav Aharon Feldman’s wife.
    My point,Ed, is that not all gedolim have identical ideas on all issues.

  6. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “…we must stick together, and give each other strength.”

    Any ideas how to do this, other than by blogging and through e-mail? I think that this sub-group(which itself probably consists of different groups) needs Rabbinic guidance, for one thing.

    Note that Rav Hirsch’s TIDE was not able to survive on a communal level. One may also argue that a community based on the Rambam’s philosophy has never been created, because in the latter case, emunah al pi chakirah and the like does not have the same track record as the other type of Avodas Hashem. Only what works survives, and people gravitate towards the poles based on their backgrounds and natures.

    In contemporary times, left-wing Modern Orthodoxy feared that they would become extinct, with members joining Conservative Judaisim or (lo o’leinu) “sliding to the Right”. So Eidah(now defunct), and YCT were formed to maintain a niche called “Open Orthodoxy”. More to the right, YU formed the Center for the Jewish Future, apparently to preserve the future of Modern/Centrist Orthodoxy. Not that the situations are the same, but they illustrate how groups react to avoid disappearing or being swallowed up.

    David Mandel of Ohel writes in the 2/8/06 Jewish Press (“Black Hat, Gray Hat, No Hat Reflections on Orthodox Factionalism”):

    “Or take a look at photographs of the early Agudah conventions. They reflect a more heterogeneous grouping of Jews joined by one unifying purpose. There, too, one sees many gray hats in the crowd…The slow but perceptible loss of the Center within Orthodoxy has had far-reaching ramifications on our community. It has had a profound effect on our finances, on shidduchim, on housing, on employment, on shuls and yeshivas, on our very social strata”

    Depending upon your view, the loss of the Center(or Centers) is either welcomed as a sign of a maturing Torah community, or lamented as factionalism.

  7. Shmuel says:

    Rabbi Belovski

    Thank you for being courageous enough to address an issue that is felt across a large section of the Yeshiva community. The late Rav Bulman,z”l, once told me (when I addressed this issue from a different perspective)that “we must stick together,” and give each other strength.

  8. SephardiLady says:

    Rabbi Harvey Belovski, An excellent post indeed. Thank you.

  9. Ori Pomerantz says:

    What is the definition of a decree that most of the public can’t stand (Gzera she’Ein haTzikur Yecholim La’amod Ba)? I tried to look it up ( http://he.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D7%A8%D7%91%D7%99_%D7%99%D7%94%D7%95%D7%93%D7%94_%D7%A0%D7%A9%D7%99%D7%90%D7%94#_note-16 ), and it seems that it’s not only life and death matters. For example, in Avoda Zarah 35b-37a, it applies to being able to buy oil from gentiles.

    It seems that large parts of the public see the decree on academic studies as such a decree.

  10. Binyamin says:

    Rabbi S.R. Hirsch writes (Selected Writings, Vol. Vi, p.23):

    “Judaism has no ‘hierarchal authority’ that can impose regulations on the community, or appoint religious functionaries, against the communities will, or even without consulting the community….
    “Even the supreme authorities of religious law, men like Daniel and his council, Shammai and Hillel and their assembly, made the binding, legal authority of thier own religious ordinances dependant on their acceptance by the majority of the Jewish community.”

    He clearly believes that the raw authority of Daas Torah is not enough to force people to accept the decisions of the Gedolim, and the decisions are only binding if the community accepts them.

    We can also ask what makes a gadol into a gadol? We can acknowlegde that they are all respectable Rabbi’s, but there are many respectable people who are not considered Gedolim (sometimes because they disagree with those who are). Who decides who’s on top? Is it not the strong promotion and admiration of some unidentified group of people, whom have no authority at all?

    There is also reason to believe that the Gedolim do pay attention to what people want. Would they publicly announce they believe people should work, or would they realize that such an opinion will cost them their position? They are not paying attention to the posters on internet forums, but they are apparently constrained by a different crowd, which cannot claim any authority.

    The idea that people are committed to their own Rabbi (or the town Rabbi) is not new, but the demand to be committed to a small group of Rabbis whom we do not know and did not choose (with all due respect to them) is completely new (as far as we can tell), and Chodosh asur min hatorah!

  11. Steven says:

    I think Ed has missed the point.

    Rabbi Belovski is not saying that we should not listen to the Gedolim(Torah sages). Nor has he asserted that the Gedolim should consult us. I think his point is that the notion that all the Gedolim always agree with each other is in many cases illusory. This is surely healthy. For some the idea that there is only one right way to think is comforting. For many, it hits at the very foundation of what it means to be Jewish.

    Athough there are issues on which all agree (e.g:television)the idea that they do or indeed should agree on everything is as ridiculous as suggesting Rashi (Medieval commentator, France) and Tosefos (grandchildren of Rashi) should agree on everything.

    Hashkofo is not a line where you are either on it or off it. It is a multi-lane highway. As long as one is within the boundaries of that highway, the concept of eilu v’eilu can and should apply.

    A big problem is actually knowing exactly what a Godol has or has not said. One Godol – now no longer with us – is known to have commented: “If my name appears on a pronouncement that appears on a wall in Yerushalyim, you can be reasonably sure I never signed it – and that I may even hold the opposite!”

    Then there is the issue of who is a Godol. I once asked a talmud chochom this question and his answer was: “Klall Yisroel know who the Gedolim are.” This is both true and false. There are certainly some on whom everyone would agree, but there will be differences of opinion on some too. How do we deal with this? Not, in my view, by using the phrase “the Gedolim” as a stick to beat opponents.

    This is the challenge of our generation.

  12. Baruch Horowitz says:

    Rabbi Belovski’s comments reflect the pain of people caught in between two different world. Ed’s comments that “we have always turned to the Torah greats of each generation for their advice and guidance”, are true, but will not help many people in the above group.

    We should first honestly admit that there is shifting of policy in the charedi world and the effect that this has had on some people; otherwise we are talking to each other, without even describing the same situation. The above requires seeing the situation from another perspective, and Moshe Rabbeinu did this when he assited his brethren in Mitzrayim, according to one explanation.

    Once we agree how to describe the facts on the ground, the nect step becomes, what, if anything, can be done? Perhaps nothing should be done, and we should trust that things will fall into place for this group, and that the American Moetzes is trying not to alienate them, as much as is feasible (I believe the latter to be true based on my analysis of events).

    Someone recently wrote that “ I’ve been told by various people that a lot of Yeshivish people have been downloading a [Rosh Yeshivah from RIETS] shiurim, some because they have become big fans…” Assuming that this is accurate, I think that it is a very good thing that people from one segment of Klal Yisrael can listen to divrei torah from a Rosh Yeshivah from another segment. But I wonder if this shows that these people feel unsatisfied in the Yeshivah world?

    If I was a leader, I would take note of this, and try to work with these people. In any event, I have a selfish interest in a strong, self-confident, and very-Frum, RIETS community existing, because I think it will add healthy balance in the Orthodox world, even to sections outside that community. The situation would then be similar, to had there still existed a Torah im Derech Eretz commununity as it did under Rav Hirsch.

  13. ed says:

    Where in our history do we find that when nearly all the Gedolei Hatorah come together in an agreement to issue decrees L’maan Kedushas Yisroel, they would first consult with every Tom, Dick and Harvey?

    When slits in skirts became the latest fad, from R’ Schneur Kotler to R SZ Auerbach, from R’ Moshe Feinstein to R’ Elyashiv, all the Gedolim wrote in agreement to Assur it.

    In our entire glorious history, we have always turned to the Torah greats of each generation for their advice and guidance they derive from their vast knowledge of Torah.

    Are the Gedolim, the men who have spent their lifetimes steeped in the Yam Hatalmud unaware of the consequences of limiting womens education???

    Only a fool can entertain such a thought. We need only to check our mailboxes to read the unending amount of Tzedaka letters which show us the various Tzedaka organizations which the Gedolim are personaly involved in, some dealing with over a 1,000 families.

    To think that the Gedolim are unaware of the need for Klal Yisroel to have Parnassa is sheer ignorance.

    And if nevertheless the Gedolim placed a limit on women’s education, it is clear that they have done so out of their expertise and higher level of understanding Torah vs the masses.

    Instead of pointing fingers at the Gedolei Hatorah, why doesn’t Rabbi Belovski point fingers at our apparent lack of Bitachon? Do we not believe that it is God who sustains us? Are the Rabbi Belovski’s of the world questioning if “Baruch Ata Hashem, Hazon Es Hakol” should still be said during Birchas Hamozon? Yes, we must make Hishtadlus. And the Gedolim have not said that women must stay entirely home either.

  14. Ahron says:

    The totalitarian strain in human psychology is very strong. I think our community has been infected by it, and our desire to ascribe every new and more extreme trend and pronouncement to “zerizus” or “l’shem shomayim” or “Eis la’asos laShem” etc. etc. (as I’m sure we’ll see on this very message board…) means that things are necessarily poised to get substantially worse in a self-fueled engine of isolation and radicalism; it is a kind of mechanistic extremism that parades as “zeal”, “kedusha” and “spirituality”.

    Golus Yishmael, anyone?