Dear Reb Yoel,
You should take great satisfaction in the discussion generated by your cogent and respectful submission. What ever else divides us, we both love Torah Judaism and the Jewish people. We both agree that an essential part of dealing with the problems that beset any sizable community is open and frank discussion. I hope that good things will come from the challenging questions that you posed, and from some of the ideas that they will spawn.
The very fact that you were able to reach across the divide between our subgroups (what an awful thing, to have to talk about divisions between Torah Jews!) is empowering and positive. I hope that I can return the favor, and you can help me publish some of the observations I have about standards and phenomena in your hashkafic neighborhood that are perplexing to me. Perhaps we can take this process to the next step, and converse publicly in real time in the same spirit of brotherly concern, absent the usual admixture of one-upmanship common to such dialogue.
I will try to address your questions serially, to the best of my ability. In some cases, the question will be better than the answer. I am not an apologist, neither professional nor amateur. But my roots are much closer to the charedi and yeshiva communities that yours, and perhaps can add some insight. What I fail to bring to the table will hopefully be filled in by others joining in. Quite a few good points have already been contributed by astute readers in the comments to your piece.
You asked, “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?” The question, no doubt, was rhetorical. You know that the results can be devastating, and sometimes are. What you may not realize is that they don’t have to be. People who are aware of the reason for the enforced uniformity in the charedi world and respect its goals are better equipped to handle the stifling of free expression.
Very few of us can say and do whatever we want within our professional world. Company policies, social conventions, the exigencies of diplomacy all limit our ability to express ourselves as we may want. We have to be polite to coworkers we may dislike, because the alternative would be horrible. We realize that these restrictions serve a positive purpose, even if we chafe against them.
The charedi world is much the same. People in it may grumble (some more and some less) about their inability to share their opinions and concerns, but they understand that this is the price of membership. The strategy of imposed uniformity may be good, bad, or terrible, but even those rugged individualists who find it most objectionable can understand the fears, insecurities and needs of their neighbors who perpetuate it. This makes it easier to live with. Those who have difficulty with it can also often (but admittedly, not often enough) find ways around the rules.
“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?” This is probably the question asked most often within the community. The answer is nuanced, but simple: it is a mixture of both. The challenge is finding out what is coming from the minds of the leaders, and what is coming from the gatekeepers and the kanaim. It is difficult, but not impossible, to find out. Rav Elyashiv zt”l used to tell people never to believe anything said in his name unless they heard it from him. He was not the first to offer this advice. I never accept anything I see in a published proclamation without securing confirmation from parties I respect and trust. Again, if you understand the reason for the rules of the in-group, they are easier to navigate.
“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.” I don’t think that hypocrisy is the issue, especially given the strong background in Torah texts in the yeshiva world. The gemara is replete with strongly-worded statements, that to the untrained eye seem exaggerated or simplistic. We learn that such statements are part of a style, and we look for – and value – the latent message more than the manifest one. The charedi community understands (at least many people understand) that when they see a sign heaping invective upon some behavior that it may not mean anything more than “this is really not such a good idea.” To people not used to such a style, it is exasperating; to others, it is just another one of the rules of the game. Behind every Torah she-b’chsav in the charedi world is a Torah she-b’al peh. Those who realize that the former is best appreciated through the lenses of the latter don’t have as hard a time as disgruntled literalists.
The greater harm is not in enforced silence, but in enforced uniformity. The latter has some benefits that should not be dismissed. Too many of us are in the thrall of a belief that individual autonomy is the summa bonum of society. This is simply not part of the vision of Chazal, who did provide for censorship, for enforcement of not only Torah law but communal takanos, and instructed us to find spouses, rabbeim and friends who would be there always to reprimand us when wrong, and apply healthy community pressure to do better than we would otherwise do. Community membership has its benefits.
Nonetheless, the pressure will work for some, and be disastrous for others, especially, as you point out, those with more creativity and individuality. There is a superabundance of one-size-fits-all thinking in our world, and it is terribly harmful. I have no easy solution other than to remind parents in particular that their responsibility is to their child, while the responsibility of the principal or manhig at times is to the majority of the public. When the two do not coincide, the parent must do what is best for his or her child, not for the tzibbur.
“How does that affect the concept of mesorah? We tell our students and children that we believe in and follow the Torah, given from G-d 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.” I don’t think this is true. We do pass it along. It just takes a skill set to be able to read between the lines, rather than at the lines themselves. Good rabbeim will be able to do that. People who spend a large part of their lives parsing difficult text and looking for deeper meaning have an easier time learning how to do that. If we have a problem, it might be that we don’t have enough good rabbeim.
“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?” People see this as a crisis in leadership. It is, but not the way they mean it. Leaders can’t impose on their flock more than the followers are willing to accept. For all of what seems to the outsider as slavish and robotic obeisance to orders from on high, it really isn’t so. I remember Rav Moshe zt”l a generation ago complaining that he could not speak his mind regarding certain issues, because people would not listen, and it was more damaging to have manhigim speak and be ignored than for them to remain silent. Our leaders may not be perfect, but they never were and didn’t have to be. Much of our problem is with followers who are only willing to listen to certain messages, but have no ability to process others. But yes, you are right. The state of the community is such that the hands of authentic Torah leaders are often tied.
The bottom-up process also suffers, but not as much as people think. Usually there are people who defy some of the rules and make themselves heard. The outlook for the future, I believe, is rosier than some think. All the campaigning against the internet and blogs is not working. The digital revolution will force greater democratization of communal life as more people can make their voices heard. This very exchange between us is a small example. The success of Klal Perspectives to open up discussion (full disclosure: I’m on the Board) also augurs well for the possibility of bottom-up sharing with Gedolei Torah.
Even though you did not make a bullet point of this, I should probably address at this point the very phenomenon of The Voice that launched this exchange. We have indeed spoken about the chilling effect of kanaim and communal opprobrium on the expression of novel positions. (I know it well myself. I know that I share less than half of what I would like to say with the public, in fear of the consequences. Even so, whatever I have said always comes at a price. It can be confusing, finding out what people are saying about me. I don’t know which I am expected to burn first – my diploma, or my black hat, depending on whether the character assassination is coming from the left or the right.)
Yet for the harm and repression caused by kanaim is not the main reason why Torah personalities have to keep silent where they might want to speak up. They would bear the consequences; making that sacrifice is part of their chinuch. The greater reason for silence is that Torah personalities understand their obligation to multiple groups and to multiple roles. There is so much uncritical thinking around, that a person easily can lose his effectiveness with large parts of the population he must serve with a single statement or position. Most of the time, it is not worth it. Taking a stand on one position is seldom worth the price of then becoming irrelevant regarding a host of future issues, or in paskening halacha, or in diffusing communal disputes – all roles in which the Gadol serves. It would simply be wrong for a person who knows that his help is needed in different kinds of situations to completely sacrifice his effectiveness and utility because some people lack the sophistication to deal with nuance.
“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.” Public trust indeed is eroded, and that is tragic. Those who are more astute, as mentioned before, go the extra mile, and find out what Gedolim truly said, and what is said in their name. Those people are not devastated by this unfortunate state of affairs. Once again, they understand the rules of the game, and therefore have an easier time of things.
A different, and perhaps better, answer to your question is another question: which brand of da’as Torah? There are probably as many definitions of it as there are authors who have written about it. I’ve offered my own understanding of it on these pages in the past, as I received it in my yeshiva years. You are probably referring to what I would term “hard” da’as Torah. Any manipulation of Gedolim would be catastrophic to this view; those who believe in this version therefore deny all such manipulation. Many of us, however, had a different chinuch. We firmly believe that Gedolei Torah are the einei ha-edah to whom we turn for both halachic and meta-halachic guidance. But this has more to do with a consensus of gedolim on major issues, rather than on securing permission to start a new Tuesday evening Tehillim group. It also does not imply infallibility or see it as a replacement for familiarity with the facts.
A final thought. Some four centuries ago, the Maharal reported that he was asked some very difficult questions about Jewish infighting by a local cleric. Maharal in Netzach Yisrael tells us about the answers he provided – and how they didn’t work. Maharal at one point offers an intriguing apology for divisiveness and worse in our own ranks. He says that although such behavior is unacceptable and truly inexcusable, it is nonetheless important for people to know that it comes from a good place, rather than a sign of essential lowliness. The bickering and backstabbing are terrible perversions of something good within us, rather than demonstrations of debased souls.
I cannot help but feel that the same thing is going on here, Reb Yoel. You have pointed to problems – serious problems. It would be a mistake, I think, not to realize at the same time that the backstory to these problems is a fierce loyalty of the yeshiva community to the Dvar Hashem, to wanting to assure ourselves that we are walking in step with the myriad and complex dictates of halacha and our willingness to live with many impositions in serving Hashem. Sometimes – oftentimes – we get it wrong. The bikush of the Dvar Hashem, b’lev v’nefesh, however, is still a thing of beauty.