Challenge to All Anonymous Voices


By Yoel Finkelman

[Editor’s Note: As mentioned a few days ago, Dr. Yoel Finkelman submitted a thoughtful but challenging reaction to an earlier piece that spoke of an anonymous Torah Voice. Others will certainly disagree, but I firmly believe that we fail in our mission if we cannot listen to tough criticism couched respectfully. We need either to refute it, or to concede and change when problems are pointed out to us. The best criticism often comes from people outside our arba amos. I hope to find the time in a few days, BEH, to pen a response, unless readers beat me to making whatever points I plan to make.]

Dear Rabbi Adlerstein,

Once again, I find myself impressed with your writing and with your recent post about the significant Torah personality who took his community to task. A young observant man, an amateur boxer and Israeli champion, refused to take part in a Shabbat weigh-in and was disqualified from an international tournament. Rather than appreciate the mesirut nefesh, some lambasted him for ever getting involved in boxing. That Torah personality challenged the community’s small-mindedness and lack of bein adam lechaveiro. He boldly insisted that God has granted people different skills, that not everybody must follow the same path, and that the contemporary Orthodox community must be broader and more accepting. ”How could they believe in a one-size-fits all Yiddishkeit that left no room at all for individuality of expression?”

With all my genuine appreciation of the willingness to raise this issue, I feel compelled to respond to one aspect of the piece, namely that the Torah personality in question chose to remain anonymous. Why the need for anonymity?

The answer to that question, as you suggested to me in as more private forum, is bit of an open secret but I will try to spell it out briefly. Kanaim (zealots) can make life difficult even for leading rabbis who show signs of moderation. Leaders and laypeople are both afraid of the conformity and groupthink. It is more of a headache that it is worth to rock the boat. Frum people feel pressure to say that they think things different from what they actually think.

In trying to make sense of this, I begin with a few assumptions. First, this individual leader’s anonymity is not an isolated example, but typifies a broader phenomenon. Fear of kanaim or what the community will think push people not to say what they really think, to say it anonymously, or even to say that they believe things that they do not believe.

Second, this phenomenon is more widespread in the yeshivish and Haredi communities than it is elsewhere, in part because the communal solidarity which encourages strict observance of Torah and mitzvot comes bundled with at least some signs of enforced conformity. One could quibble about whether this is endemic to the community or merely common, but it certainly exists more broadly than the community should be comfortable with.

Third, the phenomenon is not confined exclusively to leaders and rabbis, but extends to laypeople as well. Simple balebatim also prefer to keep some of their criticism of their own community to themselves rather than risk social censure. I believe that there is adequate evidence for these assumptions, but due to space considerations, perhaps we should leave them for another time. Still, this raises a series of questions, questions which I think critical for the yeshivish and Haredi communities to address.

• What are the religious and social consequences of a community in which people think one thing and say in public that they think another? How does that affect communal health, individual piety, and personal psychological well-being?

• What is the actual role of the rabbinic leadership? How much are they leading and how much are they being led? To the extent that they are being led, who is doing the leading: the most responsible and mature segments of the community or irresponsible and immature kanaim?

• How does this affect education and parenting? Young people are bloodhounds for hypocrisy, and they will pick up the slightest gap between what we say and what we believe or how we act.
• How does that affect the concept of mesorah? We tell our students and children that we believe in and follow the Torah, given from God on Sinai and passed along lovingly, with utmost care for its truthfulness and honesty, from generation to generation. Then, we do not pass along to those very students what we believe the Torah says and wants.

• To what extent do these limitations on public discourse effect social change? At a top-down level, how often do leaders have a clear vision for where they want to the community to go but silence themselves? At a bottom-up level, which lay leaders and potential institution builders have decided that new and potentially valuable initiatives are not worth the price?

• What does one do with the gap between the da’as Torah ideology, according to which, Jews must listen to the great rabbis and a reality in which those rabbis cannot speak freely? Rumors abound about highly politicized askanim who influence what the gedolim hear, who they meet, and what public statements they put their names on. These rumors may be true or false, spot on or exaggerated, but in either case, public trust — if not in the gedolim themselves then at least in their public statements — can only erode.

I’m not in a position to answer these questions, in large part because I am not a member of the yeshivish and Haredi communities in which they are more acute. (My own Modern Orthodox and religious Zionist communities suffer from many problems of their own, but less from public pressure not to say what you think.) Still, I hope that my own place as a concerned outsider can articulate those questions clearly and encourage those communities to think about them broadly and deeply.

Still, I want to end with one sobering thought. The gap between what people think and what they say certainly contributes to young people who leave the community, whether for more liberal Jewish communities or for complete nonobservance. To borrow a theme from Rav Kook, I would venture a guess that the people most likely to become alienated from the community for these reasons may be the most sensitive, visionary, and idealistic of our youth, the ones who demand from themselves the highest truths, the loftiest attainments, and the deepest honesty. They make the same demands of their community, and they may be the ones most quickly to see through the gaps between theory and practice. And they are the ones whom Orthodoxy can least afford to lose.

With respect and appreciation,

Yoel Finkelman

Dr. Yoel Finkelman is a lecturer in the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Contemporary Jewry at Bar Ilan University and teaches Gemara and Jewish Philosophy at Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem. He is author of Strictly Kosher Reading: Popular Literature and the Condition of Contemporary Orthodoxy.

You may also like...

2 years 8 months ago

“This is a slippery slope if I have ever seen one. If we are led to believe that our Rabbonon are afraid to speak their minds because of kannaus, how do I know where to draw the line? Maybe they also admire Rabbi Slifkin?”
The irony of this line… oy. The roshei yeshiva in America were forced by the same kanoim Rabbi Finkelman is talking about to toe the Slifkin line. There are three or four American roshei yeshiva that were totally into the ban, but at least three real gedolei Torah that I know about signed or wrote letters against Slifkin solely due to kanoi-ist pressure. It’s no secret that Rav Shmuel doesn’t think it’s kefira, and I won’t reveal the other names I know about. IN FACT IT WAS THE VERY REVELATION OF THESE FACTS TO ME BY A VERY TRUSTED FRIEND (who has impeccable sources) that led to the EROSION of my own commitment to the charedi party line and ideologies. I hope I can still be counted among those with yiras shomayim. But I’m fed up with our community. Sorry. Look at the historical evidence and use your own brain: most of what Slifkin said was said by many great Rishonim and Acharonim. Yes, I too once believed that there were only 2 or 3 controversial sources, and that they were probably ‘mezuyaf,’ and they are a ‘daas yochid.’ Guess what: Not True.

Dovid Teitelbaum
2 years 8 months ago

I would like to elaborate a bit on what Dovid Goldman was addressing as this is another part of the puzzle. Whether this is a good thing or not is up for debate but as far as I know Aguda was created to unify the power of orthodox Jewry more than anything else. What this meant was that there should be one voice to the outside world as to our needs. Politically this makes a lot of sense. How large of a variation was possible to join becomes very difficult because you would always have the extremes on both sides that would pull out if the other end is a part of the coalition. To think that everyone on the moeztes agrees on hashkafa is ridiculous.

Throughout my childhood, every Shabbos I sat next to Rav Moshe Sherrer, who I think many would say was the last real leader orthodox Jewry had. I overheard many conversations he had with my father of the frustration Rav Sherrer had trying to make peace within the moeztes. I think he felt it was vital that a uniformed statement was given out.

IMHO the reason today you barely hear anything from the Moeztes is because there is no one powerful enough to bring them together. The idea that the “gedolim” agree on everything is the furthest from truth, although its very possible that they won’t speak up so as not to cause a machlokes within. 2 Jews, 3 opinions, is an understatement when it comes to Rabbinical authorities.

Dr. E
2 years 8 months ago

In this discussion, any mention of Kannaim and Rabbanim being fearful, has to be defined.  In Eretz Yisrael (and to a much lesser extent in America) , Kanaim conjure up a certain image.  Radicals throwing bricks and burning dumpsters.   Sure, that might exist in some places.  But, there are more subtle and pervasive forms of radicalism which exist in the Chareidi world.  And this is ironically propagated by the very Internet which they have yet to openly come to terms with.

I think Dovid Goldman makes a valiant try to be melamed zechus.  While there is some degree of merit to the unanimity theory, it plays only a small role in this phenomenon.  His alternative explanation may also play out more so in some out of town communities than in the big city.

It really boils one’s sources of validation and dependencies on a system.  Without getting too conspiratorial, many Rabbanim are dependent on the system.  Their children and grandchildren are educationally, socially, and financially dependent on the system. [“System” can be broadly defined as wherever the wind is blowing within the balance of power in the Chareidi world.  In Israel, the power centers are Bnei Brak and Yerushalayim; in America, it is in Lakewood.]  No one wants to be shunned or put into (Internet) cherem.  After all, kids need to get into the “right” schools and find the “right” shidduchim.  Wives still need a good sheitelmacher and help with carpool after she has a baby.  So, there is a lot at stake.  And savvy Askanim know how to manipulate this reality.  So, for an insider to publicly render a disappointing opinion about the Chareidi community, when it is about some previously unknown Dati Leumi boxer is simply not worth it.  Participating at an event beyond what is sanctioned by the system (as one of the comments mentioned) regardless of the substance of the cause, is also not worth it.  While the DL and Centrist communities are not without their issues, the relative independence from their systems allows for greater critical freedom of speech.

Ironically and perhaps not coincidentally, Dovid Goldman chooses the highly  improbable scenario of someone on the Moetzes calling out the Chareidi community for its perpetuation of the unsustainability of Kollel–the elephant in the room within any intellectually honest analysis of community viability.  That reference sort of proves my point.  Beneath what has been built up as an apparently  powerful facade of quantitative triumphalism, is a very fragile underbelly of financial dependence and social interdependence.  The first casualties of this crumbling infrastructure (which generates much discussion) have been both adults and kids who want out.  A percentage among the disillusioned might become Chareidi Lite, with some combination of Yeshivish externality and cynicism (but in some measure still dependent on validation that will get their kids into school or find a shidduch).  A small number end up as Centrist or MO.  Others opt out altogether.   The Chareidi world needs to come to grips with the fact that while Halacha is a Jewish value, conformity is not.

Being a confident free agent without living an existence perpetually tethered to the prevalent source of validation definitely allows one to speak his or her mind.  However, it can be a lonely place where few want to be.

2 years 8 months ago

food for thought—

i saw on another site a commentor who brought up , the whole modus operandi of official haredi-dom is daas tora .
this sheds light that daas tora is limited to a certain size square box , that minority opinion automatically becomes off-the-derech.

lehavdil, dissents in supreme Court cases are recorded , and some become at some point majority opinion.

for those who are skeptical about the whole daas tora concept , this raises the question as to whether daas tora a priori can only select from certain socially acceptable options.

[one recalls that even the gadol hador , rav steinman , when opining on the Tal law , was forced to withdraw this type of daas tora for precisely the life-and-limb risks referred to by other commentors. so who makes daas tora – the gdolim, or the thugs?]

Crazy Kanoiy
2 years 8 months ago

People are speaking up. Not everyone remains annoynomous. Read any number of thought provoking or challenging articles in Klal Perspectives or Cross Currents. The great divide of American Chareidi Judaism has already begun. One segment trends towards greater radicalization and the other towards moderation and discourse. The zealots currently have the upper hand but their push towards further unheard of chumrahs will only further the alienation that many feel from them.