Thursday, September 02, 2004

Not my best work, but I think the stream of questions at the end deserve some consideration....

I confess: The idea for this entry came from a comment on Barry Katz's daily diatribe. I'd gladly give the poster credit, but he called himself Anonymous. Also, he doesn't sound like a very nice person

Do you find that when people say they've gone back to Judaism, they almost always mean the Judaism practiced by Hasidim? The strange and diverse tapestry that is my neighborhood includes a few Baal Teshuvahs, or returnees to the faith. Aside from the two or three BT women who've married OMJs, all of them have taken on some hasidic customs. A few are fully Lubovitch. Others practice upshurin, or refrain from g'broks on Pesach. Others daven sefard. All of them send their kids to Chunyucki Chaim yeshivos, or Frummah Freidah schools for girls.

I've asked the BTs about this, and, more or less, they all say the same thing: They didn't think the more modern expressions of Judaism were sufficiently scrupulous, and they didn't see enough evidence of pure devotion in the way the modern Jews lived their lives. To them, the Hasidic approach is the authentic approach, and the more they can do to imitate it, the better Jews they will be.

This bothers me on a few levels. First, the leniencies that hasidic Jews enjoy are well known. Does this suggest that Hasidic Jews are unscrupulous? Of course not. All it means is that their rabbis have read the law differently. Like the Hasidim, modern jews have their own Rabbis; relying on the lenienicies of their own Rabbis is no less legitimate. So why is one group thought to be "unscrupulous" and not the other?

Second, well, here I have to quote the commenter I mentioned above. He said:

Why don't you consider going back to the Judaism of the Geonim or the Spanish rishonim. Sure it's not as much fun as wearing black, and singing songs around the tish... sure in order to live like a Spanish rishon you need to actually know a few things about talmud, and science and the outside world... and sure, to be like a Spanish rishon you have to give up the mysticsm mumbo jumbo and the superstions... but still give it a shot, buddy. Unlike haisdut, they represent authentic, genuine unadulterated Judaism. So try it, you might like it.

Important disclaimer: I don't agree that the Hasidim aren't genuine. I don't think their Judaism is "adulterated." I wouldn't attribute all of their unique customs to superstition. I recognize that many Hasidim have a deep and exacting knowledge of Talmud. I think the tone is disgusting.

Still... Still... Still... It put some interesting questions into my mind. Here they are, in no particular order:

When people go back to Judaism, why is it almost always 18th and 19th century Judaism? When people call YU the bastion of "modern" Judaism, why don't they see that YU, in fact, can trace it's heritage to 13th century Spain? If "authentic Judaism" is really code for "old" Judaism, why aren't the Spanish rishonim widely imitated? Why are their books (Kad haKemach is one; the moreh nevuchim, is another) in much narrower circulation than works of Hasidic masters such as the Tanya and the Shem mee Shmuel?

And if the answer is,"The Rishonim are too hard to understand; we prefer Achronim" why do we, largely ignore Shimshon Rephael Hirsch, an achron who, in Horeb and the 19 Letters, announced that his goal was the revitalization of the Spaniards? Where are his discoverers? Where are his immitators?

To put it succinctly, if Judaism values the old-fashioned ways above everything else, why are the Jews of medieval Spain in such disfavor?


I'm not sure how much this comment is relevant, but, from "out here" in liberal Judaism land, the Hasids are seen as the old guard, standing against outside influences to uphold Orthodox Judaism. They are seen as being much more religious than anyone else, and a lot of people put that kind of commitment on a pedestal. Why? Because they know that they could never make that kind of commitment themselves, but they secretly admire those who can and do.

Remember, us liberal Jews are not always well versed in halacha. If we see a modern orthodox Jew without a beard, we may assume that he's taken advantage of a loophole in halacha or simply isn't as observant as the Hasids. Really. How can you beat a beard, peyot, and a black hat for observance?

I can't explain why other orthodox Jews would elevate the Hasids in such a way, especially if they do have leniencies, as you mentioned.


Isn't that superficial?

If the torah doesn't command you to live an insular life, and to grow a beard, why is it admired?

Per the example of the Spanish Rishonim "standing against outside influences to uphold Orthodox Judaism" might not even be necessary. The Spanish Rishnoim (who, incidently predate the hasidim by 500 years) practiced a Judaism that was not nearly so insular as the Judaism of the hasidim. Yet, this older, style of Judaism is considered inauthentic. Why?  

“If the torah doesn't command you to live an insular life, and to grow a beard, why is it admired?”

Golda, I don't think I'm alone among non-Orthodox Jews in thinking that many right-wing Orthodox Jews try to out-Orthodox one another for fear of being seen as, heaven forbid, Conservative. I think that one reason for the increasing rightward turn of the Orthodox world is that it's a backlash against the alternative approaches to Judaism--Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Chavurah, Renewal, etc.--developed in the 19th and 20th centuries.  

Shira, I am an Orthodox Jew, and I think that many Orthodox Jews try, as you said, to “out orthodox” one another for fear of looking less frum than the Christians. I’m not talking about how they dress, or about what they eat. I’m talking about their views on abortion, homosexuality and other social issues. Though the hard line positions are certainly legitimate Judaism, there is room in the tradition – yes the Orthodox tradition – for us to be more lenient than we are.  

Adam, it's a pleasure to read your blog and It's nice to know that there are still plenty of Jews who both follow an Orthodox interpretation of halachah and think for themselves.  


I'm sorry for being intrusive in to your blog. But I am Melissa and I am a mother of two that is just trying to get out of an incredible financial debt. See my hubby is away in Iraq trying to protect this great country that we live in, and I am at home with our two kids telling bill collectors please be patiant. When my husband returns from war we will beable to catch up on our payments. We have already had are 2001 Ford repossessed from the bank, and are now down to a 83 buick that is rusted from front to back and the heater don't work, and tire tax is due in November.

I'm not asking for your pitty because we got our ownselfs into this mess but we would love you and thank you in our prayers if you would just keep this link on your blog for others to view.

God Bless You.

Melissa K. W.
To see my family view this page. My Family

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