In Praise of Fiction

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Last week I wrote about the strain of poverty on chareidi society. Don’t feel bad if you forgot, I often can’t remember what I wrote about a week ago. I only remember in this case because over Shabbos I happened to read A. Amitz’s story in the same issue of Mishpacha on the identical theme: how perpetual financial pressures can lead to a draining obsession with money no less than the pursuit of riches.

The “hero” of her story drops dead shortly after the wedding of his third daughter from the pressure of revolving loans from one gemach to another. But, in a reprise of a grim joke I heard many years ago from a father in the process of marrying off his children, the fathers’ death proves to be the solution to marrying off the remaining children – glossy pamphlets can now be printed for a fund for the orphans.

Amitz details shekel by shekel how even someone living without luxuries, and who has a decent job, finds himself falling inexorably into debt as the children grow. That struck me as far more powerful than my column.

Chareidi fiction has become one of the best venues for the discussion of pressing communal problems. (At risk of revealing all the family secrets, I confess that not only do I read many A. Amitz stories, I always turn first to anything written by Dov Haller, and for precisely the same reason.) Somehow the fact that the stories are in a fictional form, even if they are “true”, makes them less threatening, less subject to the charge of washing dirty linen in public.

Good fiction offers many other benefits as well. Through good fiction, we learn that people are much more complex than we think – an inevitable mixture of positive and less positive traits. It also teaches us that there are a multiplicity of ways of viewing any event, of which our own is only one.

The ability to enter imaginatively into another’s perspective helps us master the ability to judge others favorably, and to find the mitigating factors in behavior that initially arouses our negative judgment. Developing the quality of empathy, of being able to see matters from another’s point of view, is one of the keys to successful living.

NOW I’D LIKE TO RETURN to the subject of poverty. As I wrote last weeks column, I could almost hear readers complaining: Why worry about poverty? Jews were much poorer in Europe.

For one thing, that earlier poverty provides little cause for nostalgia. The father of one of my closest friends was born after his parents lost twelve siblings in one epidemic. Fires regularly burned down much of the shtetl. In one particularly harsh winter, dozens of bochurim passed away of starvation or disease in the main Novordhok Yeshiva.

Nor should we imagine that extreme poverty did not take a spiritual toll. Formal chinuch ended for almost all boys before they even reached bar mitzvah age, and at that point they were apprenticed out to learn a trade or start working. Torah education was an unaffordable luxury for all but the very brightest or wealthiest.

An old Lithuanian rav interviewed for the biography of Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky could not stop talking about the hunger that was widespread in the inter-War period. When a bochur applied for admission to yeshiva, there was always a suspicion that he was really looking for a place where he might count on a few slices of bread. All those familiar with Eastern European Jewry between the wars attribute at least part of the widespread flight from religious observance to the prevailing poverty.

It is ialso mportant to remember that poverty is partly a social construct dependent on the general standards of the surrounding society. On the one hand, indoor plumbing means that even the poorest person in Israel lives a more dignified life than emperors of old. And anyone with heating and an air conditioner has more ability to control the heat around him than Louis XIV. But that does not make him feel like a king.

If society has determined that a hat like that worn by Chazon Ish for more than fifty years is unacceptable; or that a bar mitzvah celebration of a few pieces of fish after a weekday aliyah l’Torah will not do, even though that was the standard in Eastern Europe; or that a formal vort is de riguer, despite the fact that such “simchas” were unknown 25 years ago, then the absence of such things will be experienced as humiliating.

Bottom line, there is no comparing our society to that of Eastern Europe a hundred years ago. By the same token, one cannot cite the fact that the rate of defection of youth from affluent communities in America or from the national religious community in Israel may be higher than in the chareidi community, to disprove my point that widespread poverty is a contributing factor to chareidi drop-outs.

The “at risk” phenomena in these different communities bear little relationship to one another. Here is one quick proof. Chareidi kids who leave the fold tend to sink very fast, and bringing them back usually involves first returning them to the status of mentsch. A modern Orthodox young man who takes off his yarmulke as soon as he goes off to college, may otherwise not change in any discernible fashion, including his major life goals or his relationship to Hashem for that matter.

Of course, the necessary condition for our children following in the path of Torah u’mitzvos is that they feel a deep sense of connection to Hashem. And that is hard to nurture in a community in which great stress is placed on the pursuit of material opulence or in which children are raised to believe that there is no tension between secular culture and being a frum Jew.

The latter are not the challenges of Israeli chareidi society. Ours are different, and the impact of poverty described last week is certainly one of those.

This article appeared in the Mishpacha on September 3, 2008

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19 Responses

  1. Ori says:

    We pay doctors to inject our children with diseases in a weakened state, so that their bodies will recognize the diseases and be able to fight them off should they encounter those diseases in their natural, powerful form. Learning about evil temptations in literature is similar. You learn about an evil that is not personally attractive to you, so that when you are tempted to do evil that is attractive you will be able to recognize it and fight it off.

  2. Moshe Schorr says:

    The comments here have gone in several different directions. I want to comment about the “value” of “good” fiction.

    Bruce summed it up with:
    “Reading good fiction of this sort is like being a virtual moral tourist. You can take a trip (safely) into the minds and lives of fictional characters who have other moral ideas, but then safely return home at the end without having harmed anyone”

    I disagree. I fear you have harmed _yourself_ by letting the mind wander, however fleetingly, along the paths of evil. Is that really a place I want my mind to be?

  3. LOberstein says:

    Ori, I re-read the article by Kobre and my comments to that article.The leadership of Orthodoxy has a much different dilemma than the Conservative leadership. Many orthodox Jews are learned and highly involved in observing Jewish practices in every facet of their lives. They want ever higher standards and ,in my opinion, are sometimes intolerant of diversity and those who don’t embrace every newly articulated stringency. For example, the fact that in Detroit, I am told, the entire Yeshiva and Kollel community does not use the eruv. This is so even though one of their own supervises it. They demand a “higher” standard , higher even than halacha.
    The Conservative laity just isn’t there. Who keeps kosher any more? Who learns Torah seriously? Who believes that G-d took us out of Egypt? The whole house of cards is falling down and everyone knows it. The rabbis have my sympathy trying to prop up a “movement” with members but few adherents In other words, it is apples and oranges.
    I am not happy with either group’s extremes, but that’s the way it is.

  4. Ori says:

    LOberstein: In other words, many of our leaders feel that they don’t have the authority to say and do what needs to be done because the masses won’t stand for diversity.

    Ori: Isn’t this the mirror image of what Rabbi Eytan Kobre accused Conservative Rabbis of doing? Or is driving away people who would be good Jews better than accepting the actions of those who are not?

  5. Ellen says:

    >> I find it insulting to mechanchim to dictate to them what they may or may not desire, and very insulting that having mechanchim is so taken for granted that people can’t allow them to make a vort.
    > I didn’t get that impression…I believe what he meant to say was: Live within your means…

    So let’s call it a gross oversimplification – DF wrote up sincere mechanchim, and sincere kollel members for that matter, as if they’re all in some 10-4 +2 hr lunch Lazy Kollel program. It’s poisonous falsehood to all of klal Yisrael to paint with such a brush.

    It is a good point that people should live within their means, but perhaps an even more important point that everyone should make an effort to live modestly. I’m not in the US anymore, but I’ve heard that the Novominsker’s guidelines for weddings have fallen into neglect.

    Sometimes I think about the story of the Chafetz Chaim, who when questioned why he only had benches in his home, no chairs with backs. The Chafext Chaim asked the visitor, “Where are your chairs?”

    The visitor replied that he was traveling and couldn’t possibly carry along a chair.

    “I am also traveling,” replied the Chafetz Chaim. “This is only a temporary place for me.”

  6. DF says:

    Thank you, Garnel, that is indeed exactly what I meant. But I would add that anyone who compares the burden of chinuch to real world pressures is fooling himself, and badly. I could easily elaborate, but for many reasons, this particular website is not the place to do so.

  7. The Contarian says:

    Both DF and his detractors have forgotten abour basic good old fashioned economics.

    David Ricaro’s Labor Theory of Value went out of style over 100 years ago.

    If mechanchim cannot afford to have lavish simchas, etc, it is becasue at the level of wages necessary to allow them to do so, the supply of mechanchim is too high and the demand for their services too low to come to equilibrium. The so called “spiritual” perks, if there are any, only “exacerbate” the issue acting as a subsidy to increase the supply of mechanchim at any give level of wages.

    Now for Right Wing Economic apikorsus.

    Ceteris paribus, only measures designed to increase demand for mechanchim services or a reduction of supply of such services will allow Menchanchim to catch up with the Jonesteins.

  8. Bruce says:

    Lawrence – yes, there is a lot to learn from the nihilism and Nietzscheism (and subsequent repentance) of Raskolnikov. And fiction is one good vehicle for presenting this. In fact, midrash uses a similar literary form for presenting important ideas.

    I was actually thinking of something slightly different. I would love to know what it would be feel like to be a murderer. It would give me some important insights into my own reaction to evil, and more specifically to my participation in such evil. However, I have absolutely no interest whatsoever in murdering anyone, or even anything even remotely close.

    I am not talking about drawing lessons. I am talking about introspection while committing an immoral act. And fiction allows us to vicariously participate in something that we would never do ourselves. C&P does a remarkable job in carrying us into the subjective thoughts and feelings of Raskolnikov as he commits this murder and then tries to live with it afterwards. Madame Bovary is an adulteress. I will not commit adultery, but reading the book game me some sense of the conflicting feelings, and her shutting them out, that must accompany such an act.

    Reading good fiction of this sort is like being a virtual moral tourist. You can take a trip (safely) into the minds and lives of fictional characters who have other moral ideas, but then safely return home at the end without having harmed anyone.

    Note that this takes a certain amount of sophistication, groundedness, and maturity. I’m not sure that teenagers should read Crime and Punishment.

  9. LOberstein says:

    In private conversatons, many of our rabbonim say things that they are afraid to say from the pulpit. I recently heard several, one that our society is too rigid and that it is wrong to make everything asur-forbidden Another comment by the most yeshivish and black hat rabbonim in town is that we are far too judgemental, who made it so bad to wear a blue shirt, why does that pasul a bochur for a shiduch. Other comments I have heard include why is tzniyus the only “yardstick” for judgeing a girl or why is a working boy not good enough for a “ggod” girl. The most telling was by a hospital chaplain on how many frum young people are brought in for alcohol related problems such as alcohol poisoning. The most telling was in the name of Rabbi Hershel Schaechter by one of his talmidim. He said that in former times, great rabbis decided great questions, but nowadays every local rabbi is required to follow the views of a few rabbis in Israel on many issues that are not of world wide ramificatons. Rabbi Dovid Cohen once told me years ago that he daily faces the reality that people feel that no posek in America is worthy enough and that all questions must go to the same few rabbis in Israel. In other words, many of our leaders feel that they don’t have the authority to say and do what needs to be done because the masses won’t stand for diversity.
    Several of our Lakewood ordained rabbis were quite critical of a thrend in Lakewood to have schools that will not accept a child whose father works only one who learns. Bnai Brak rules Lakewood and Lakewood sets the trend for America. At the same time, we are loosing so many of our own children. Oy vey!

  10. Garnel Ironheart says:

    I’m probably the best qualified of the bunch to comment here since I’m already a character in a fantasy fiction novel.

    > I find it insulting to mechanchim to dictate to them what they may or may not desire, and very insulting that having mechanchim is so taken for granted that people can’t allow them to make a vort.

    I didn’t get that impression from the posting at all. I believe what he meant to say was: Live within your means, not the means of the real estate developer down the street. All too often we are pressured to keep up with the Jonesteins despite the financial consequences. Yes, those who have could be giving more instead of supporting Saudi terror through their SUV gas tanks. But until that happy change of mind occurs, one must deal with reality as it is.

  11. huh? says:

    “or that a formal vort is de riguer, despite the fact that such “simchas” were unknown 25 years ago”

    I’ve seen this claim on other blogs, and I think it’s false. At least in the US, they were common from the 70s on. Sometimes at home, but often enough in some type of hall or shul.

  12. cvmay says:

    “”Good fiction offers many other benefits as well. Through good fiction, we learn that people are much more complex than we think – an inevitable mixture of positive and less positive traits. It also teaches us that there are a multiplicity of ways of viewing any event, of which our own is only one””.
    This can be learnt and experienced more efficiently if the Torah World would publish honest/accurate/truthful/real-life biographies of Gadolim and Manhigim. The growth and development of man is a work in progress, an inevitable mixture of positive and less positive traits. Forget about fiction, this is much more apparent in real-life (non fiction)how beneficial for readers to be allowed entry into the decision making & difficulties that a Rav confronts and might even fall or fail with. Stop the rewriting of history into a lily white, sparkling, shining fantasy of tzidkis from birth – this is true FICTION.

  13. Max says:

    “There is a lot of perks with being in chinuch or kollel – spiritual perks, to be sure, but also the absence of deadlines, long hours, client pressures, yomtov season difficulties, student loans, etc. It is not only unreasonable for such Jews to desire the same lifestyle as their working brethern, but it is insulting to hard working bnei-Torah as well.”

    I find it insulting to mechanchim to dictate to them what they may or may not desire, and very insulting that having mechanchim is so taken for granted that people can’t allow them to make a vort. Mechanchim very much do have deadlines – they do have to have a class or Shiur prepared, long hours spent preparing them well, and principal and parental pressures. Do public school teachers and University professors have a right to celebrate their child’s bar mitzvah? Do the self-employed who have no Yom Tov pressures and no student loans have a right to expect to celebrate their daughter’s engagement?

    Maybe you’re ready to dispose of mechanchim altogether because those involved in bringing your children to olam habo should not expect to be able to celebrate their own child’s bar mitzvah. Maybe if some people were not taking chinuch so for granted, they might actually put paying full tuition toward the top of their priority spending list instead of financing oversized cars, homes, and lifestyles, leaving no money for the Yeshiva to pay their staff.

  14. LAWRENCE KAPLAN says:

    Bruce: It is interesting that both of us thought of Crime and Punishment. (I metioned Dostoevsky and did not single out any of his novels, but I had CaP in mind, having reread it last summer.) If I may greatly oversimplify, one of the key points of the novel is that the murderer Raskolnikov is basically a warm and kindhearted person, but is, however, corrupted by his nihilistic philosophy. Moreover, he thniks he can safely flirt with the idea of murder as long as he does not commit himelf to it, but ends up making his decision to murder the pawnbrokerand her daughter without realizing he has made it. While one cannot reduce this marvelous and absolutely riveting book to these points, they are more relevant today than ever.

  15. ast613 says:

    DF:

    On behalf of my wife, mother, mother-in-law, brother, 2 brothers-in-law, sister and a sister-in-law all of whom are educators, I apologize on their behalf for insulting hard working Bnei Torah such as yourself. (I don’t think I will tell them that they dont work for a living.) It’s a good thing our Mechanchim dont view chinuch as you do.

  16. DF says:

    Your point that poverty is partly dependent on the general standards of the surrounding society is true. However, many of the Charedi poor are not part of the surounding society. If one does not want to work for a living, he should accept the fact that things like bar mitzvah celebrations and vorts are beyond his reach. There is a lot of perks with being in chinuch or kollel – spiritual perks, to be sure, but also the absence of deadlines, long hours, client pressures, yomtov season difficulties, student loans, etc. It is not only unreasonable for such Jews to desire the same lifestyle as their working brethern, but it is insulting to hard working bnei-Torah as well.

  17. Bruce says:

    Fiction also lets us vicariously — and thus safely — participate in evil. For example, when I read “Crime and Punishment,” I felt the horror and excitement and strangeness of participating in a premeditated, senseless, and soulless murder. Thankfully, I never have done (or would do) that (or anything near that) in real life. But I learned a little bit about evil, and was able to do so safely and without harming anyone.

    Of course, there is a risk that someone may become a worse person because of reading such a book. But if one is mature and sophisticated and grounded, I think that is quite unlikely.

  18. LAWRENCE KAPLAN says:

    I appreciated very much the comment by Jonathan Rosenblum on the benefits of good fiction. While the comment was made in the context of Chareidi fiction, it of course applies, as I am sure Jonathan Rosenblum realizes, to all good fiction, whether written by charedim or by Jane Austen, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chaim Grade, etc. –just to mention some of my favorites.

  19. Dave says:

    Am I reading this correctly? I always assumed that the Amitz stories were actual stories written over in an interesting way, like the Rabbi Walder stories of People Speak fame. Is Rabbi Rosenblum saying otherwise?