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,
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.