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.