Wiki-Orthodoxy and the Undervaluing of Torah

Blogs were a bold step forward for many in the Orthodox world, an experiment in transparency that held great promise. For the first time, there was an open, collaborative forum (the principle behind Wikipedia) in which issues could be explored, and concerns shared in a serious, respectful manner – at least on a small number of blogs.

Looking at some of reader comments to recent postings, I wonder if the experiment worked. I very much hope that readers will still prove me wrong, but I detect an undervaluing of Torah in some of what has appeared on these pages.

When we started up Cross-Currents, we sought the advice of major figures within the Torah community regarding what to publish and what not to publish. Basically, we were told that publishing critical remarks was fine, as long as the substantive part of the criticism would be effectively answered within the blog. Usually, this has worked well. As long as comments did not use attack language or directly assault key principles of faith, we allowed them, and sat back and watched as other readers did a good job at least presenting another point of view. Many of our readers never look at the comments; those who do would see an Orthodoxy that is not afraid to ask hard questions about itself, and open to the challenge of providing answers.

In some recent postings, commentors have outdone themselves in exposing some of the fault lines within the haredi world. They have pointed to all sorts of problems associated with a society that offers few employment options, relies on handouts, etc. Reasonable readers can either agree or disagree. I, for one, will admit to sharing some of the apprehensions voiced. What disturbs me is that few people rose in defense of those who were criticized. Some, it is true, wrote that the haredi community will simply not bend its principles, and everyone else should stop tilting at windmills. This may be true, but it is hardly a cogent defense. Something more is called for – a defense that even the critics ought to be offering.

One of my rabbeim often spoke of what is reputed to be one of the most famous shmuessen (mussar discourses) of the Alter of Slabodka, whose 80th yahrzeit was marked recently. Chazal tell us that Yaakov had to suffer the abduction of Dinah because, in preparing for his encounter with his murderous brother Esav, he hid her in a box so that Esav would not notice her and seize her for himself. In doing so, he denied his brother an opportunity to have been positively influenced by a more spiritually elevated spouse.

Is this reasonable? Would the Torah expect any father to act differently? Was Yaakov supposed to sacrifice the well-being of his daughter by marrying her off to a world-class evildoer in the hope of turning him around? The Alter proposed a solution. (I record it with some trepidation. A different rebbi of mine detests the vort, and doesn’t believe that the Alter could have said it. He thinks it unfairly accuses Yaakov of behavior that we have no right to accuse him of. So as they say in the NFL, there is a flag down on the play.) The Alter taught that indeed Yaakov was not expected to act any differently. Rather, he was faulted for not feeling the pain as he hammered shut the box in which he had sequestered Dinah. With each blow of the hammer, he should have winced and said, “Oy, that I have to conduct myself this way to my own brother!” For failing to feel the pain, he was punished.

Sometimes, we have to act in a given way, but still feel pain for what we are doing.

There may be problems – huge problems – in the haredi community in Israel. But we cannot afford to be oblivious to the pain of what would be involved in changing the status quo.

After two millennia, we returned to the Land. Like Yaakov, one of the first steps we took was to establish a place for Torah. And how successful that step was! From the ashes of the Holocaust, we created a Torah revolution in the length and breadth of the Land, creating an entire subculture around the central pillar of the primacy of Torah. Tens of thousands of people live lives in which Torah study is put on its proper pedestal. The gem of Torah is restored to its luster. An explosion in Torah publication produces many mediocre works – but also works that will be appreciated for generations. America is a poor also-ran compared with the productivity of Israeli Torah. Thousands of families live with a deep, penetrating, unstinting faith in Hashem and His Torah. We send our children to Israel to breath in the atmosphere they created, beyond the natural kedushah (holiness) of the Land itself. We visit ourselves, to remind ourselves of how many non-Torah values have been foisted upon us by our tarrying in exile too long.

True, it took what the Chazon Ish himself conceded was an artificial emphasis on Torah to the exclusion of all else (even gainful employment) to bring about this revolution, and the artificiality was not designed to last forever. But can any of us blame Torah leaders who are unwilling to burst the bubble, to pull the plug? The problems facing the haredi lifestyle are prodigious, but who wants to take responsibility of ending the dream?

Accommodating “reality” means killing the golden goose. To be sure, it is a high-maintenance goose. But it is still laying golden eggs.

How many of us can remember the last day of summer vacations gone by, when those last hours meant so much, when closing the door on the vacation condo was so difficult, because it meant the inexorable return to a dreary reality we did not want to return to? It is hard to close doors to spiritual reverie as well.

“Enlightened” critics may be on target with their criticism, but they should not be deaf to the beauty of the music coming from Israel, even if they do not like much of the behavior of some of the musicians. If we criticize, we must take pains to insure that we do not undervalue, under-appreciate, the power and beauty of the Torah of Israel.

Berachos 17A speaks disparagingly of the non-Jews of Masa Mechasya, where the semi-annual Kallah (month long Torah study) was held. How could they listen to the sweet voices of thousands studying Torah, and not convert to Judaism?

How can we listen to the sounds of sixty years of learning and not be transfixed by its power and beauty? If we criticize, it cannot be byfailing to appreciate its accomplishment.

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59 Responses

  1. dovid says:

    Gary Shulman: “… gvir in shul who did not think it was proper to make a mshebairach for the Israeli soldiers.”

    GS, what was the fellow’s argument? How about mshebairach for the soldiers held prisoners by Hitzballah and Hamas? No go? How about J. Pollard? CC requested us some time ago to notify them of interesting topics or articles we came across. I called their attention to two articles on Pollard, one in the Jerusalem Post, the other in Jewish Observer. I wonder whether CC felt J. Pollard and his fate are not newsworthy, or that it is not “American” to show sympathy for him.

  2. Binyamin says:

    Gary, you almost made me want to sign up and go have a good time with the girls in the army. Unfortuantely, your argument is wrong.

    The law of a Yifas Toar is only during the fighting, its not a general exemption given for joinging the army. Any other heterim are also undoubtedly according to the need – the army cannot serve non-kosher just because its cheaper or easier. I am also not sure that there is a mitzva to join when the army has enough manpower. (Keep in mind that we no longer have general conscription, and I would imagine that in a professional army there is no demand for every able-bodied man to join.) If you thought it was a milchemes mitzva, you would sign up regardless of your citizenship, and you would serve beyond the standard three years.

    The IDF clearly does not need any more manpower, so the issue comes down to a question of social fairness – why should the chareidim not fight. On this point it is entirely legitimate for them to say that as long as the army will not accomodate them where it can, they do not have to serve. Their social responsibility does not mean that the secular army can dictate the conditions under which they serve.

    That being said, I think that the chareidim would be better off to arrange units that allowed them to serve without presenting any needless religious challenges.

  3. Gary Shulman says:

    Thank you S,Bob Miller Baruch Horowitz and Johnathan Rosenblum for answering my questions.

    Gedolei Yisrael on Bein Hazmanim


    August 2, 2006
    Gedolei Yisrael on Bein Hazmanim
    Filed by Jonathan Rosenblum @ 6:27 am
    A Call to Bnei Hayeshivos from Rav Y. S. Elyashiv, Rav A. L. Steinman and Rav M. Y. Lefkowitz
    Ain bais Medresh Blei Chidush, There is no House of Torah Study without learning something new. Tizku Lmitzvot, Merit doing mitzvot

  4. Gary Shulman says:

    Mr Gary Shulman is not getting special treatment, a defferment from the IDF for learning Torah because Mr. GS is not an Israeli citizen. I davened both at a minyan and silently as I watched CNN and FOX NEWS report on Achaynu kol bais Yisrael hansunim btzara obshevya. Oh by the way I had a fight (verbal) with a gvir in shul who did not think it was proper to make a mshebairach for the Israeli soldiers.

  5. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “Gary Shulman will now offer documentation of his own actions during the same period”

    I was on CC during the period in question, so I can provide the following:

    Gedolei Yisrael on Bein Hazmanim

  6. Bob Miller says:

    “Please provide documentation of both the possible Kol Koreh and the alleged en masse return of vacationing yeshiva bochrim to their battle stations in the bataei medresh during the Melchemet Mitzvah Lebanon Summer 2006.

    Comment by Gary Shulman — March 9, 2007 @ 3:15 am”

    I sense some skepticism here. Surely, Gary Shulman will now offer documentation of his own actions during the same period.

  7. Gary Shulman says:

    With respect to Dr. E who I know generally agrees with my premise interestingly writes and I quote “We are all aware that the arguments in favor of exemptions boil down to two: (1) the environment of the IDF not being conducive to those who are Shomrei Torah U’Mitzvos”
    This argument is correct if one perceives the army as some large social club for secular Jews. However in reality it is the worldly embodiment of G-d’s will of Hini lo yanom vlo yeshan Shomer Yisrael. Here the Watchman of Israel(G-d) will not slumber or sleep. G-d’s messenger, the security guard of the Jewish people in Israel is the IDF. Of course its success is dependent on G-d’s will. For peace in Israel we pray the amidah’s last brocha three times a day, Hameveraych es amo Yisrael Bshalom. He blesses his people Israel with peace. In talking about
    ” the environment of the IDF not being conducive to those who are Shomrei Torah U’Mitzvos” I take issue with that premise. Reality in my view is the opposite because a person involved in a Milchemet Mitzvah (Torah mandated war)is allowed many temporary exemptions from halacha like eating nonkosher food and having sex with a Yifas Torah a non Jewish captive of war. A Torah commandment is to fight a Milchemet Mitzva. Therefore those who are sitting around and not learning the proper quota but using the learning exemption during a Torah mandated Milchemet Mitzvah are being mvatel a Mitzvahs Asay(shirking from a Torah commandment) . Its kind of like a Jew dressed in frum clothes not laying tefillin or not saying Shema at the proper time or not learning Torah. Food for thought

  8. Gary Shulman says:

    Regarding comment by S.>Did the Gadolim and Roshei Yeshiva issue a Kol Koreh, an emergency proclamation calling EVERY YESHIVA BOCHUR WHO WAS DEFFERED BACK TO THE FRONT LINE IN THE BAIS HAMEDRESH?

    Yes, actually. R. Elyashiv and R. Steinman did indeed call for cancellation of ben ha-zemanim. I know this, because I know some boys whose yeshivos did just that.

    Comment by S.

    Assuming this is true S, Please provide documentation of the above eg. date text and where reported in the media.
    Question What Pecentage of army deferred Yeshiva Bochrim listened to this Kol Koreh. 1% 5% 10% 50% or upwards of 90%. In todays wired world of instantaneous communications an event like this should have been covered if an overwhelming majority of army deffered yeshiva bochrim returned during bain hazmanim to the front lines of the bais hamedrish.
    Please provide documentation of both the possible Kol Koreh and the alleged en masse return of vacationing yeshiva bochrim to their battle stations in the bataei medresh during the Melchemet Mitzvah Lebanon Summer 2006.

  9. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “It is clear that we have all lost our way by buying into particular Shitot Hachayim which don’t really work for many of us, but which we feel obligated to endoirse, whether because we feel that they are the least of all evils…”

    Some feel that their derech(path) only has only strengths; this, I think, is often the public posture taken(although privately some will be more open to discussing these topics frankly). Whether that is correct or not , this strategy has the benefit of “ein simcha k’hatoras hasefiekos”(there is no joy like the resolution of doubt).

    Others see both strengths and weaknesses in their particular path in Yiddishkiet, but see the weaknesses as a trade-off for a lifestyle and hashkafa that they feel is overall correct, and they are therefore willing to live with any weaknesses. Still others may hold that the weaknesses are not actually weaknesses, but they at least can perceive why others may see weaknesses in their chosen path. The fact that one thinks in these terms, should make one able to understand why another person made a different choice in derech hachayim.