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Lamrot Hakol (Despite Everything)

Musings and kvetchings and Torah thoughts from an unconventional Orthodox Jew.

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"I blog, therefore I am". Clearly not true, or I wouldn't exist except every now and then.

Friday, August 06, 2010

The Intellectual Implosion in Haredism

Caveat: this may come across as Haredi-bashing. All I can say is that it's intended as constructive criticism. If even one Haredi Jew reads this and starts to realize that there's a problem, I'll consider this post a success.

I live in a house that was previously owned by a Lubavitch family. They had a lot of kids, and it was pretty clear that they have no intention of those kids ever going to college. This, despite the fact that both parents were college educated, one at an Ivy League institution. And that bothers me.

The Sages say, "If someone tells you there's wisdom among the nations, believe them. If someone tells you there's Torah among the nations, don't believe them." We know there's wisdom in the world that can't be gotten from the Torah alone. The Vilna Gaon was a mathematician. Rambam was a physician, and studied Aristotelian philosophy. Ignorance is not a value in Judaism.

Some of this has come about because of the toxic atmosphere in so many universities. Let me tell you about that. A girl who was a year behind me in high school went to the same college I went to. She was raised frum, and I most emphatically was not. She came out non-religious, at least to some degree, while I came out frum. Go figure. There are always anecdotes, but even if every university were toxic, the solution isn't to remain ignorant. The solution isn't to learn Torah all day, every day, and leave it to wives to bring in the money. That's never been a Jewish ideal. Never.

Here's another college related story. When I was living in New York, I got invited for a Rosh Hashana meal to the home of the daughter of the rabbi of the shul I davened at. It was a Young Israel shul, but it was very much on the Agudah side of Young Israel. Lot's of black hats and long beards. "Not that there's anything wrong with that", as they say, but I'm trying to give you a general impression of the place. Still and all, they weren't really Haredi. The rabbi's daughter had gone to Stern College, just as an example.

Now... Stern is a women's only, religious college. Though the Haredim generally wouldn't waste their spit on it. After all, girls can learn Gemara there.

Anyway, at lunch, she asked me some stuff about what I did. And I mentioned some of my studies in the field of ancient history. She seemed a little taken aback, so I tried to explain to her why it was important for frum Jews to address the issues that come up in the study of the ancient near east. I thought I'd give her a simple example. I told her to consider Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan's translation of the Torah, The Living Torah. In this book, Kaplan includes many notes on history and botany. When plants are mentioned, he tells us what the plant is, giving the Latin name and some stuff about it. When a Pharaoh is mentioned, he tells us which Pharaoh it is. Here's the catch: he's wrong.

Okay, say it's a matter of opinion. The bottom line is, Aryeh Kaplan was not an Egyptologist. He was a talmid chacham with a degree in physics. When he wrote that thus and such a Pharaoh was Amenemhet II, he was simply basing himself on accepted reference books. He didn't use ruach hakodesh to determine that the reference books were correct; he did what any non-specialist does in such a case.

When I said that, my hostess' eyes got wide with shock, and she said, "You can't say that." And trying desperately to figure out what on earth she'd learned at Stern, I tried to explain to her what I explained above. But it didn't work. Her husband chimed in at that point, and tried to explain to her that I was right. That got her to stop arguing (because you don't argue with the husband ), but it was clear that she wasn't convinced.

I hate this. I hate the way huge sections of the Orthodox Jewish world are devolving into anti-intellectual piety, using one chumra after another to feel safe in a world they're receding from faster and faster.

I know that everyone sees themselves as being centrist, but I watch the Haredi world entering a dark age on one side, while the YCT/Edah/JOFA left left left wing Orthodox is eroding everything Jewish about Judaism. And I think of the famous line from Yeats: "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold." Is that always how it has to be?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Aryeh Kaplan has become infallible now? That's hard to believe

9:31 AM  
Blogger Lisa said...

Well, she certainly felt so. And I was telling this story to someone at my shul last week (Modern Orthodox), and she got a little bit of a worried look on her face and said, "Well... but can't you assume that he checked it out before putting it in there?"

11:08 AM  
Blogger Ben-Yehudah said...

Not sure how this could be anti Haredi.

I believe that the theory behind this mentality is to insulate ones community from negative influences (duh). However, it is a far from perfect situation.

Those college educated parents had a great opportunity to be a bridge (& sieve) between the Torah and secular worlds.

The [mostly Litvish] mentality of learning all day, and staying away from work is not the answer either, far from it.

Riddle: What do you call a doctor in Lakevood?

Answer: A ba'al tshuvah.

Speaking of the Ramba"m, he said that a Talmid Hacham who learns 9 hrs. a day (for example), works 3 hrs. a day. (So, what does that mean about a regular Joe?)

But, of course, WE don't hold by the Ramba"m, right?


1:42 AM  
Blogger Moshe said...

When you say "he's wrong", do you mean *everything* he says is wrong? Could you put a percentage on it?

11:11 PM  
Blogger Dana Friedman said...

I think in the case you mentioned (about the Young Israel rabbi), the wife was deferring to her husband's greater base of knowledge on this point. No?

5:31 AM  
Blogger Lisa said...

Moshe, are you referring to my saying that R' Kaplan was wrong about his identification of the Pharaohs mentioned in the Torah? If so, the number is 100%. But no blame attaches to that. He used accepted reference works.

The issue is that when a non-expert uses accepted reference works, and accepted wisdom changes, you find yourself in a situation where the non-expert is wrong. Take the Rambam's astronomy, for example. Shells revolving around the Earth. That's factually wrong. But that doesn't mean the Rambam messed up; it just means that we need to recognize that even the greatest rabbi isn't an expert in everything.

8:44 AM  
Blogger Lisa said...

Dana, she did sort of defer to him in the end. Even though he was only saying that I had a point. It wasn't like he knew anything about the subject himself.

But even so, I could see from her face that she wasn't convinced. She just wasn't going to argue with hubby. Particularly not in front of a guest.

8:46 AM  
Blogger Batya said...

lisa, I think that every type of "life-style" follower is rather closed to other ideas, the secular as well as the chareidi. Openness is a different dimension of the mind.

11:10 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

"I know that everyone sees themselves as being centrist, but I watch the Haredi world entering a dark age on one side, while the YCT/Edah/JOFA left left left wing Orthodox is eroding everything Jewish about Judaism. And I think of the famous line from Yeats: "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold." Is that always how it has to be?"

This is my wife's fear. We're converts, and she fears that our children will either feel shoe-horned into accepting fanatical chareidi hashkafos, at the price of reduced marriage prospects, versus having to find a spouse amongst orthoprax folks, who secretly laugh at those who believe in Judaism.

I'm more optimistic, by nature, but I at times question whether it is more rational in this case to be optimistic. I am strengthened, however, by the fact that there are individuals who write on blogs such as this of this phenomenon. Makes me think that this is the tip of the iceberg.

2:15 PM  

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