Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Elite and the Masses

For a very long time, the concept of the elite and the masses has existed in Judaism.

Why did this concept come into being? At first, because of social/ political/ economical realities. Within a certain social structure, only certain people were literate and possessed the time and/or means in order to engage in serious study of the Written and Oral Law. Other people were involved in earning a living and worked very hard, or perhaps simply were not in contact with those who would have been able to teach them. There is much beauty in these simple people. In all the 'Tales of the Ba'al Shem Tov,' these countrypeople's innocence and sweetness leads to heartbreakingly beautiful stories of the truth with which they serve God. There is the powerful story of The Shepherd and the Silver Coin, for instance.

The shepherd does everything in his power to serve God. He plays his pipe before Him, sings for Him, dances for Him, and finally

    When at last he came back to himself, he got up and said: "Master of the World: I have blown my horn for You; I have sung You songs; I have done handstands in Your honor. But what is any of this worth compared to Your greatness, awesome Father in Heaven? What more can I do to serve You?

    "Last night the squire who owns the flock made a party for all his attendants. At the end he gave everyone a silver coin as a gift. He also gave me one. And this coin I am giving You as a gift -- to You, God, Creator of the World who created the Heavens and the Earth and the mountain and the water and the flock and me, the little shepherd..."

    As he said this, he threw the coin upwards... and at that moment the Baal Shem Tov saw a hand stretched out from the Heaven to accept the coin.

    The Baal Shem Tov said to his students: "This young shepherd has fulfilled the commandment to "love God with all your heart, all your soul and all your might" (Deuteronomy 6:5).


There is something infinitely beautiful about this shepherd's relationship with God. He did not have the talent and skill or time to devote his mind to the house of learning, he was not a member of the elite, but in his own simple and pure way, as one of the masses, he served God.

This relationship is true. It is pure. It is based on the shepherd's knowledge of and love for God.

Another proponent of the divide between the elite and the masses, and perhaps the most famous one, was Maimonides. Indeed, his Codex of Jewish Law as opposed to his Guide for the Perplexed illustrates many times over that there is a necessity for the masses to believe in a certain guiding philosophy, statement or dogma (ostensibly in order to maintain their faith in God) while the members of the elite do not need to ascribe to such a philosophy.

But today? How are such ideas to be implemented today?

Today, we (assuming we live in civilized countries) are all given an education. We are all literate, educated, able to read and write and ostensibly think. We all have that power. So what applies to us- the law of the masses or the law of the elite?

But this question is very intertwined with another question-

What is the purpose of Judaism, and more particularly religious observance? Is it:

    1. To keep the greatest quantity of people frum/ observant/ religious (Service of God and keeping the mitzvos in the Torah are of primary importance; the means to those ends are negligible.)

    2. To allow people to know God, that is, to have people engage in a quest for God in an attempt to know, love and fear Him, and engage in a committed relationship with him?


What is the difference between these two ideas, you may ask? Well, the difference stems from two different viewpoints.

    1. The Chareidi/ Agudah viewpoint which champions the idea of the elite and the masses, most particularly expressed in the form of the elite withholding information from their masses in order to keep the greatest number of Jews ostensibly "religious"

    2. The Modern Orthodox viewpoint which argues the idea that nowadays, the masses have the status of an elite and that we must be upfront, deal with information as it exists, and not dismiss/ hide ideas


To give you practical examples of the ways in which this would be expressed, I offer some potential examples:

In most Chareidi/ Agudah schools, the idea of evolution will not be taught or discussed. This idea will be considered one that could only cause people to have doubts or to leave Judaism, hence not reasonable for the goal of "keeping the most people frum or observant." In a Modern Orthodox school, evolution is considered a legitimate problem/theory, and it probably will be taught (perhaps tempered by Rabbi Slifkin's view or books on the matter.)

In most Chareidi/ Agudah schools, the idea of living a life where one interacts with gentiles and non-Jews is not considered optimal for maintaining one's Judaism, and hence gentiles are derided, or at the very least, relationships with them are not encouraged. In a Modern Orthodox school, while perhaps they do not encourage actively recruiting gentiles as friends, they are seen as people who are muddling their way through life just as we are, not as potential traps of promiscuity, lust and other sorts of sinfulness.

In most Chareidi/ Agudah schools, the idea of biblical criticism and/or the Documentary Hypothesis will not be broached, or if it is discussed, will only be dismissed as utterly laughable. In a Modern Orthodox school, even if the entire idea is not necessarily taught, it is given validity in that it is a logical approach and the people who utilize it are not utter fools. In some schools, it even enhances one's approach to the Torah.

In other words, much of the time the Chareidi/ Agudah approach is to engage in ad hominem attacks or polemics against people, ideas or institutions that don't seem to work with keeping people frum and their Judaism intact. An insular approach is favored. After all, most people will remain frum if they are never exposed to anything outside frumkeit, right? And if they are taught that everything outside of frumkeit are simply the ravings of deluded mad people, right?

The problem with this religiosity is that it is an ignorant religiosity. It is religiosity practiced in a vacuum, religiosity afraid of the world in which we live. It is a religiosity of the masses, even though these masses now have an education that would befit an elite. What good is this religiosity, I would question, when it cannot exist outside of this insular little community? It cannot stand on its own two feet. It is not an understood commitment to God. It is simply the way things are. This is the way I was taught and what I accepted; I am an Orthodox Jew and that is all.

So then, you'll argue, why do I see beauty in the shepherd's approach? Why do I not mind the seemingly ignorant religiosity he practiced?

Because he didn't have the opportunity for more!

Those shepherds, those laypeople, those tavernkeepers- they did not have the time or money to become scholars or to find out the whys and wherefores of their Judaism. They were simple people, but it was not a simplicity caused by deliberate ignorance, a deliberate blinding or refusal to understand certain facts; it was an ignorance caused by their tasks and life-roles. They were the masses simply because they did not have the political/ economic/ social ability or security to become the elite.

But nowadays?

Nowadays, how can anyone dare avow that a religion based wholly on blindness and ignorance is a committed relationship to God? What good is this frumkeit that is cultivated simply by wearing blinders? It falls away at the merest touch of the outside world!

This is why the Modern Orthodox approach- correctly applied, mind you, the philosophical versus the cultural approach- seems to be much healthier, and in the long term, will accomplish the goal that the Chareidi/ Agudah schools seem to be striving for. The Modern Orthodox approach is not to dismiss problems or flaws or contradictions but to embrace them. Ah! There are dilemmas and ethical issues and confusing statements and perhaps a Redactor, and out of all this confusion comes glorious reality. We are dealing with reality, not attempting to delude ourselves into a world that does not exist. The Modern Orthodox approach, which allows and forces the individual to truly explore his commitment to Judaism, should, ideally (and does, in my experience) create very committed Jews.

Personally, I think that the person who has quested and tried and dealt with various issues in an attempt to act as a committed Jew but who ends up non-observant is more authentically religious than the one who maintains his religiosity by avoiding everything that could potentially undermine it.

More simply, in the words of a very wise person I once knew, "There is a heresy that is holier than observance."

I might qualify that statement by stating, "than some types of observance."

How can one commit to knowing God and loving God if he only knows him in a vacuum? The very suggestion adds an element of shakiness to the relationship. The observant person is afraid, because if his ghetto walls fall down, his religiosity falls with it. What a strange relationship! What a shaky relationship!

Is not the relationship cultivated by Modern Orthodoxy, the relationship in which we need be scared by no problem, no contradiction, no irreverency, no scientific revelation- stronger? Will it not persist? For this is the relationship that does not fear! This is the approach where questions are allowed and everything can be discussed! There may not be answers, but the questions are very valid!

If I serve God simply because my parents served Him, what does that make me? A blind follower! Had I been born Christian, I would have served Jesus; had I been born Muslim, I would have served Allah! Is this the kind of observance I want to offer to God?

And if I serve God out of avoidance, what does that make me? Why, a non-believer, someone who thinks that at the merest touch God can be undone! If I believe that I must avoid literature, science and every form of secular studies that ennobles man in order to serve God, then in truth my faith is born of weakness and it rests on nothing; it is fallible!

You want to know what the non-observant Jew had done, the non-observant intellectualite, not the "tinok she-nishba?" He has tried! He has quested! Perhaps he started off observant, but in his desire to know God and to serve him in a holy, committed relationship, he realized it would not be truthful or authentic to do these things, and so he did not, could not. He preferred not to lie, preferred not to engage in rituals and ceremonies that were for him repugnant or held no meaning. He did something authentic and frightening- he was truthful in his commitment by saying, "I cannot."

Is this a bad thing? Does God prefer that man fake religiosity? Would God be happier if man offered up prayers that weren't meant, kept a holiday he didn't believe in, as it were, consummated a marriage to a woman he didn't love? Is this what God wants of man?

From the episode with Saul, we know that God wants obedience.

But what if one cannot obey?

What is better, to be truthful or to be ostensibly "religious?" For what is held against Modern Orthodoxy is the fact that theoretically more people depart from Judaism when they are Modern Orthodox than when they follow the Agudah/ Chareidi path.

Does God want a false religiosity? Does he prefer this to an authentic denial? Does God want man to pretend to believe or to follow when he does not, cannot? Does God want a religiosity borne of lies, or a religiosity borne of avoidance and self-imposed ignorance?

I cannot answer for God. I do not know His answer.

For me, personally, based on my own inner sense of justness and truth, I cannot see God as desiring a false religiosity. God knows it is false, remember, as does the person practicing it. Is it not more authentic to face God, as Job did, and tell the truth? I think that man must be willing to accept the consequences when or if he denies God; he must be willing to accept responsibility for his actions. But I personally find it infinitely preferable to do what is truthful rather than what is false, to deny God if you cannot accept Him rather than engaging in a false and meaningless observance.

Would you wed a woman you did not love and could not treat respectfully simply because your parents had betrothed you to her, perhaps even because you had committed to her? Would you engage in this sham of a relationship?

Not if you had any true respect for the woman and her feelings.

So perhaps I may argue, even though it may seem revolutionary, that the very person who denies God or who becomes non-observant in his own way is actually the person with the deepest, most committed, most authentic relationship to Him.

That is not to say that religious individuals are not committed. No! The religious individual who serves God out of love and truth and whose service is not a falsification is also a deeply committed person living authentically.

Let me also not hesitate to say that some laws are always difficult, and it is not good to simply do away with them. There is a concept, after all, that "from fulfilling the action [for the wrong reasons] one comes to do it [for the right reasons]" or mitoch l'shma ba l'shma. So if one truly believes there is a God but finds some mitzvot difficult, I absolutely do not advocate doing away with those mitzvot or picking and choosing the ones that are meaningful. At this point, as with any task in life, one must simply work on things one finds difficult.

But this is different from someone whose entire observance is a sham or a falsehood.

Hence I would argue that if the goal of Judaism is to form a committed, authentic relationship with the Creator, and having formed that relationship, act on His Will, following the commands of His Torah, this is an approach that can only work if we see people as having more of the elite status than the masses status (although there are always those who are specialists in a particular area and to whom we must turn for guidance) and if we do not see (intellectually caused) non-observance as the ultimate evil, but rather as yet another form of an authentic response to God. If people are seen to have the elite status, then their religion is one that can work beautifully with everything in the world, not with a mere part of it, that can benefit from a free-flow and intake of ideas and concepts, and that results in man's deepest desire, passion and love for his Creator, God.

12 comments:

Ezzie said...

1. To keep the greatest quantity of people frum/ observant/ religious (Service of God and keeping the mitzvos in the Torah are of primary importance; the means to those ends are negligible.)

While I understand what you mean, I wouldn't quite say they're "negligible". There is a fine line drawn by most between deception and withholding difficult information; while the former is viewed as wrong, the latter is viewed as a serious gray area. It is much the same as a doctor not telling a patient everything about their diagnosis, as doing so may increase whatever problems exist.

Elite vs. Masses

In today's times, I don't think most people view it as an elite vs. masses split; in fact, I don't think one truly exists. What *does* exist in today's times is something that is quite different but leads to this same discussion, while affecting how one would view the different sides of the discussion. That split is caring vs. uncaring.

Most people (the "masses") do not care about or have any interest in many of the subjects and debates which you mention in the post. One could argue that for these masses, it may be wiser to simply not broach certain subjects which could lead to them questioning that which until now they could not have cares less about. To some extent, this IS the charedi viewpoint. As a charedi Rosh Yeshiva once said to me, "Those who need to know, know. Most people don't need to know." Most people don't need to know - it does not affect them in the slightest.

For these people, a focus on understanding the mitzvos, the intricacies of Jewish practice, and the like carries far more importance than any recent discussion regarding the Documentary Hypothesis. Being forced to learn these difficult subjects does not add meaning to their service of God; it takes away from the meaning they felt they had.

You will likely argue that people "SHOULD care" - but while that may be true, it simply isn't the case. For whatever reason, most people are simply uninterested in these issues, particularly ones which do not affect their daily life.

ON THE OTHER HAND... much of what you say I strongly agree with.

What is better, to be truthful or to be ostensibly "religious?"

...

Does God want a false religiosity? Does he prefer this to an authentic denial? Does God want man to pretend to believe or to follow when he does not, cannot? Does God want a religiosity borne of lies, or a religiosity borne of avoidance and self-imposed ignorance?


This is essentially the difference between the views you state closer to the beginning. Personally, I believe like you that the answer is no, and I'm guessing that [to some extent] almost everyone agrees with that. The question becomes whether that is true in practice - does mitoch shelo lishma ba lishma mean that even when one has searched and does not understand, he should still practice and hope that eventually he does? Does the strain of this outweigh the obedience factor, the factor of mitoch...?

How can one commit to knowing God and loving God if he only knows him in a vacuum? The very suggestion adds an element of shakiness to the relationship. The observant person is afraid, because if his ghetto walls fall down, his religiosity falls with it. What a strange relationship! What a shaky relationship!

That may be the best bit in this whole essay. :) (And the parts around it, from slightly before to the very end, are excellent as well.) And now, it's time for bed.

Jewish Atheist said...

Great post, Chana. In lieu of trackback.

onionsoupmix said...

Hey Chana,
I agree with your post, but will do the devil's advocate thing, just for the fun of it.

1. Does a woman need to try out many different relationships before committing to one guy or can she just marry her high school sweetheart and be happy ? In the nimshal, does a person need to explore and wrestle with God and religion and alternative viewpoints or can s/he just be happy with an insular lifestyle ?

2. In your view of authentic devotion, should Avraham have refused to sacrifice his son ?

Tzila said...

i would like to understand with onionsoupmix's comment. Avraham did this because he love Hashem more than his son it shows a truest relationship between Hashem and Avarham that's why he did this 3 days after he heard Hashem's commandment, so he could think and do with his pure devout heart for Hashem without yezhar hara to fight against him. It doesn't mean it is fake relationship with Hashem. I am little confused what he/she said.
By the way, amazing essay and yet everybody was arguing about it even me. Just last Friday, I was in pizza store and i was sitting, there was a 10-12 years old girl who looks like bas yaakov, and she was saying a very quick bracha on gum in front of 2 girls but she didn't say it aloud but bc i saw her and knowing what she saying, i said "Amem" outloud she was shocked and looked away without saying "thank you" or smiling... I believed she doesn't know what she saying and she grew with her parents always tell her that she have to make bracha before she eats. She is blind follower but all children under religious parents are. You born by it, it is very scaring to question what u grew up. Once you question, your views on Jusidaim changed, and it is not good feeling and u want to go back to be ingorance. Don't jugde on them who is ingorance too quickly. It is very scaring.
I heard from someone, "You could ask any questions about Hashem just long you act like Jew" I agree with that, because if what happen in end of the results and i accept jusadiam but on my road to that i may be "chillul of Hashem" you'll never could fix that.

jackie said...

Your passion for fulfilling the "purpose of Judaism" is certainly inspiring. But in your search for open-mindedness, you resort to blanket statements that read very closed-mindedly.

I wonder why you think that the chareidi view against evolution, DH, etc. is a ploy from those on top to keep the masses intellectually isolated, while the elites get to deal with the real issues. Do you think that the "elites" of the chareidi model wish to be privy to deeper information? I fail to see how this approach to Judaism is an elite conspiracy to intellectually repress the masses. The masses are given an education which the elites would consider intellectually lechatchila. They don't think that they are hiding anything important. To the Besht or the Rambam, there was a higher level of religious understanding that could only be received with a more comprehensive education. The masses received a compromised, bedieved, education, because they would not be capable of receiving more. I don't see how this is the case in the chareidi world.

I agree with Ezzie in that both the MO and Chareidi worlds have internal splits between the caring and the apathetic. To those who care, the purpose of religious observance in Judaism is basically your second suggestion, that of knowing, loving and serving Hashem in the best way possible. I take issue with your suggestion that the elites of the chareidi world see anything less than this as the purpose of religious observance in Judaism. They merely perceive of a model of "knowing Hashem" that looks different from your own--that the finest way to see undilluted G-dliness is to locate it within the sources of our tradition.

I do not take a side as to whether this approach to finding G-d is stronger or weaker than the approach you describe, so I ask that you neither respond to me offensively to this approach or defensively to your own. I can relate to what you say much more than this reply shows. I just don't see why we can't be open-minded to both approaches, as long as their practitioners are actively "caring" Jews for whom Judaism is all about knowing Hashem well.

[Additionally, I think you've seen a very intellectually open and honest environment in Stern, but it's a misnomer to think that the whole MO world is equally welcoming of academic knowledge that is seems to threaten Torah Judaism.

The Modern Orthodox approach is not to dismiss problems or flaws or contradictions but to embrace them. Ah! There are dilemmas and ethical issues and confusing statements and perhaps a Redactor, and out of all this confusion comes glorious reality.

I walked out of a Bible class at Stern that spent one lecture discussing the DH, and a very large number of my classmates (mostly MO educated) were very surprised with what they heard. They had not heard of this theory before. So, when I read you say that Modern Orthodoxy grapples with "perhaps a redactor," I have to laugh. In my dozen or so years of MO education prior to Stern, the DH was ignored. This made me angry when I found it on my own and then had to wonder if we were ignoring because we were afraid of it.

Perhaps high schools are afraid to bring up the subject, or perhaps the high schools do in fact teach DH, but I just haven't come across them. Maybe they figure that high school is too young an age to confront heresy, and we might as well leave it to college. I don't know. But if the MO world only treats the DH within the confines of the university, isn't that leaving it to the elites, on some level? What about the masses?]

Chana said...

Jackie,

I hope this isn't offensive or defensive...

"They don't think that they are hiding anything important."

This is debatable, and could only be answered by taking a survey of a lot of Chareidi/ Agudah people and asking them whether they are deliberately choosing not to teach certain topics because they are afraid of other people's misunderstanding them, or they simply don't have room for the topics on the curriculum. In my experience, Agudah/ Chareidi actively steers away from problematic issues (even when recognizing they are big/ important issues- like evolution) because they're concerned about their impact upon observant people. I don't think the issue is one where the leaders themselves think evolution is unimportant and therefore don't teach it (and considering the vehemence of the response against R' Slifkin, one would be hard-pressed to argue that.) I think it is one where the leaders are concerned for the welfare of the people, whom they think cannot handle this free-flow of information. Of course, other people's experiences may be different from mine.


"that the finest way to see undilluted G-dliness is to locate it within the sources of our tradition."

This is not a workable model! This is the model that fell prey to the Haskalah, the Enlightenment, the onset of modernity, and living in any world outside of an insular one. The reason I so strongly protest this model is because it is not an enduring, healthy model that will serve us well in the future. I do not treat it open-mindedly because I do not see it as a balanced solution. We are not dealing with two different approaches, both correct in their different forums. We are dealing with a right and a wrong. Hiding from the world and forming an insular community is wrong. Dealing with the world as God made it is right. The idea of finding God "within the tradition" is simply unacceptable in terms of creating a longlasting, enduring religiosity that is unthreatened by the outside.

About the Modern Orthodox approach- 2 things. Various scholarly journals/ magazines I read are Modern Orthodox and deal with such issues- so any school of higher learning in Modern Orthodoxy should deal with this at some time. Otherwise, I'd argue that this is merely a function of age- in high school, perhaps, one is not taught how to deal with the Documentary Hypothesis, in college one is. But again, there is no deliberate hiding of information when one is in high school; it is only that when one is older the topic is considered more appropriate. In a proper MO highschool, had I gone to my teacher and asked for books and reading material on the Documentary Hypothesis, the teacher would have provided me with answers (as opposed to exclaiming aloud in horror.) Hence the difference.

Ezzie said...

Jackie - Though I agree with your comments very much, just a quick note on the Charedi viewpoint which probably fits into Chana's post (which is loosely related to a discussion we'd had where I mentioned this).

[I just wrote a lot of details then realized that much of it shouldn't be public without asking permission - sorry!]

Basically, a Charedi Rosh Yeshiva from Israel who would be of the more "normal" of Charedi RYs came to my aufruf. Before Maariv, another brilliant person spoke about science and Torah. This Charedi RY was clearly not thrilled with it, and I asked him why. He didn't want to answer, but he finally responded "Everything he said is true - but it's not for everyone to know. Not everyone can handle it like he can." I then argued the points, and he responded "Those who need to know - know. Most people do not need to know." (Interestingly, they flew together the next day and discussed it; they both recognize each other's hashkafos and disagree, but respect the other. I would have loved to be the tray table for that one. :) )

There *is* some sense of an "elite" among Charedim. I think, however, that it is more along the lines of a combination of those who are interested and brilliant as opposed to an "elite vs. masses" type deal.

M.R. said...

"In a proper MO highschool, had I gone to my teacher and asked for books and reading material on the Documentary Hypothesis, the teacher would have provided me with answers (as opposed to exclaiming aloud in horror.)"

IMHO, you don't need the MO modifier. In *any* proper learning environment, teachers ought to deal with their students questions in a viable manner. While my HS may not have been a formal Beis Yaakov, it is certainly both charedi (single-sex, with uniform, Judaic studies teachers are culled from the Philly Yeshiva band of the spectrum) and Aguda (Aguda convention was subsitute time). I cannot think of a single teacher who did not respond adequately to any question brought forth. Well, if we were clearly just trying to get off topic so as to have less to study for the test... ;) But seriously, I think that every shabbaton had a "throw any question you want at Reb Shalom Kamentesky" session. And we weren't asking halacha shailas.

****

"'that the finest way to see undilluted G-dliness is to locate it within the sources of our tradition.'

"This is not a workable model! This is the model that fell prey to the Haskalah, the Enlightenment, the onset of modernity, and living in any world outside of an insular one. The reason I so strongly protest this model is because it is not an enduring, healthy model that will serve us well in the future."

Move back in time from the Haskala, and compare the reactions of Jewry Ashkenaz and Sfarad to the crusades and edict of expulsion, respectively. Did Sfarad's open-mindedness really help them respond well to "convert or leave"?

1700s and Middle Ages. Two eras, two seemingly opposite reactions. Which will our own era mimic more? I'd like to hear from Historians/Sociologists on this one.

M.R. said...

...Jewry IN Ashkenaz and Sfarad...
:rolleyes:

Anonymous said...

m.r. said:
"Move back in time from the Haskala, and compare the reactions of Jewry Ashkenaz and Sfarad to the crusades and edict of expulsion, respectively. Did Sfarad's open-mindedness really help them respond well to "convert or leave"?"

I come from a pure Sfardi background(tachor for at least 5 generations) and based on written documents /manuscripts my family owns-I can say that Sfarad's open-mindedness did indeed help them respond well to "convert or leave".

Ezzie said...

Sfarad generally did better in terms of keeping their religiousity than Ashkenaz, as I understand it...

Halfnutcase said...

chana, I want to point out that at least from what I've seen, Ramban heavily supports bothe evolution and an old universe. He bases his arguments off tradition and kaballa.

Most people desire to twist his arguments, but I for one cannot find anyway to spin it other than admiting that this is what he is talking about with out being a seriously offensive appologist, and putting words in his mouth he didn't say. (not to mention rabbi kaplan agrees.)