Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Worldliness, Walls, and the Haredi World: On the Money Interview

I just finished listening to Steve Savitsky's OU Radio interview with Dr Aaron Hirsch Fried, a psychology professor at Stern College who is part of the Chasidic community, and has been involved in education in the Chasidishe community for many years. I also link to the Hakirah article that was the focus of the interview, but I highly recommend that one listens to the OU interview, as there are a number of responses that I found absolutely fascinating and refreshing.

As part of the Charedi community, Dr. Fried certainly appreciates its strengths, achievements, and beauty, in addition to being respectful of its leadership . However for me, his views are a breath of fresh air, and are certainly not what one hears, at least for the most part, in public.

On the positive side, Hamodia and Torah Umesorah have both asked him to share his views with their audience; he has already done so with the latter, and his talk was well received.

The following description by Steve Savitsky(about 16 minutes into the interview) sums up the contrast between the approaches of building firewalls against secular culture, versus dealing with it head-on, and teaching a person to use his or her intelligence to see which aspects of secular society one can accept, and which one needs to reject:

Do you want people to think or not think?... If we create a world where no one thinks-- everything is done by rote, it'd done because this is the way it's done-- then you never have any problems. Once you open that little genie of , " let me get you to think", you start thinking about everything…And what you[Dr. Fried] are really saying is that people who are intelligent-- and we are intelligent people, baruch Hashem-- they are going to think anyway, whether you like it or not.

One should note that there are variations in the Charedi world, and that no society is all or nothing, as far as using either of the two approaches. For example, positive mention should be made of Haredi weekly magazines that have practical and scientific information for both children and adults.

According to Dr. Fried(about twenty minutes into the interview), besides an estimated 15% of children at risk,

there are also a lot of people who are on the "outside", towing the line, living the life, walking the walk, talking the talk, but "inside" have lost it--have lost the values, have lost the beliefs and are a bit cynical.

On page 62, Dr. Fried writes:

There is an unwritten but whispered rule amongst Bais Yaakov girls that, “If youhave some really serious questions, whatever you do, don’t ask yourteacher, not unless you don’t care what it does to your shidduch chances!” This attitude towards thinking and questioning drives away some of our brightest and most honest young people. It also flies in the face of Rishonim like the Mabit who insist that it is imperative that we learn to think and to question and to chase down answers on our own.

I agree with the Mabit(not that he needs my haskamah), because the Rambam and other great figures in our history no doubt made use of the capacity to question and of their rational faculties, as part of the process in their growth and development as Torah personalities(see this post as well). On the other hand, we should also recognize the accomplishments of our Yeshivos and Beis Yaakov's in raising generations of committed Jews.

In the article(pg 47-48), Dr. Fried quotes from Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch zt'l at length:

Finally, it would be most perverse and criminal of us to seek to instill into our children a contempt, based on ignorance and untruth, for everything that is not specifically Jewish, for all other human arts and sciences, in the belief that by inculcating our children with such a negative attitude we could safeguard them from contacts with the scholarly and scientific endeavors of the rest of mankind….

You will then see that your simple-minded calculations were just as criminal as they were perverse. Criminal, because they enlisted the help of untruth supposedly in order to protect the truth, and because you have thus departed from the path upon which your own Sages havepreceded you and beckoned you to follow them. Perverse, because by so doing you have achieved precisely theopposite of what you wanted to accomplish.

For now your child, suspecting you of either deceit or lamentable ignorance, will transfer the blame and the disgrace that should rightly be placed only upon you and your conductto all the Jewish wisdom and knowledge, all the Jewish education and training which he received under your guidance. Your child will consequently begin to doubt all of Judaism which (so, at least, it must seem to him from your behavior) can exist only in the night and darkness of ignorance and which must close its eyes and the minds of its adherents to the light of all knowledge if it is not to perish.

To shift to my own thoughts, which do not represent those of Dr. Fried, I recently heard someone whose opinions I respect, and who has far better Charedi credentials than myself, say that he was(at least initially) "torn asunder by the Slifkin issue".

I, myself, try hard to be positive about the future direction of the Charedi community, but sometimes I find it hard to do so, as I think that the Slifkin issue is just one part of a general approach of bans and of building higher and thicker walls, as an ongoing response to secular society.

On the other hand, perhaps we should be more positive and note the balanced and nuanced aspects of the Haredi world, and continue to fervently hope that it will balance itself out, both in America and in Israel(both two different types of communities). Perhaps there are hopeful aspects in this regard which need to be magnified, and to be brought to public attention.

Listening to the interview with Dr. Fried indeed gives one renewed hope that balanced and moderate voices in the Haredi world will be given a chance to speak. In either case--- as many people wrestle with the uncertainty of the future direction of the Charedi world-- there is room in the different feeling--both positive and negative-- manifested by that struggle, itself, for growth, as the Midrash and Ramban discuss about "nisayon" bringing out latent potential( which we will read in a few weeks on Rosh Hashanah). Indeed, directly facing the strengths and weaknessess of a particular approach, rather than providing full defenses of Haredi positions and policies is, paradoxically, the best answer for some people.

I once had a chavrusah who had a rather demonstrative way of expressing himself upon seeing an explanation in the gemera or rishonim that he particularly enjoyed. He used to kiss the sefer and say from Mishlie(24:26) , sefasayim yishak meshiv devarim nechochim, " [it is fitting for] lips to be kissed[or for one to become silent in the presence of] a person who gives a correct answer"(see Rashi and Tosophos to Gittin 9a).

I am more reserved than he was , and generally do not characterize my feelings in such a way. However, sometimes I am tempted to make an exception, such as when listening to, and reading the analysis linked at the beginning of this post.

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