Tuesday, May 15, 2007

When I Can't Put My Ideals Into Practice

I met someone very interesting over the past couple days, and it is clear that I need to reevaluate or at least modify my opinion about cultural Modern Orthodoxy.

I was very harsh at the time that I wrote that post. I pretended that I understood cultural Modern Orthodox teenagers; I see that I did not.

My post still stands for those who truly do know better, those who know halakha and choose not to practice it. These are people who know their religion pretty thoroughly and simply choose not to follow it.

But I met this person. And I talked to her for a while and I saw that the view she had been given of Modern Orthodoxy was very skewed. But it wasn't her fault that it was skewed; it was simply what she had been taught. For example, the words she kept on repeating, "These are new days." She seemed to believe that religion changes with the times (an approach that R' Hirsch discusses at great length and disavows.) She spoke very passionately about certain people she respects, Rabbis for instance, and she explained what they had taught her. It is clear that they have decided to teach a kind of halakha that the kids can practice rather than a halakha they know will have no impact at all. For example, with the ever-pressing topic of shomer negiah. So this girl felt very bad about not being shomer, for instance. So the Rabbi of the class gave a lecture where he explained shomer negiah on a highschool level in terms of something the kids could actually do. He explained it in time increments, that is, the first couple months you don't touch, and then if you do touch it's only minimal, and pretty much just don't have sex. And the fact was, this is something the kids could do, and not touching at all was not.

It never occurred to me that people could be raised with a complete lack of knowledge of halakha or the halakhic process as opposed to deliberately dismissing it. But now I see that people really may have no concept of what halakha means; it will appear as a bunch of laws some biased men put together years ago, archaic and outdated. Of course, the challenge is to make it more meaningful, but the point remains that people like this exist.

I was at this person's house for a while, and the part where I learned most was over dinner. A family member was reading a devar Torah aloud. It's the kind of devar Torah that I could smash in an instant; I could offer dozens of alternative approaches, all of them happier. And it was a really depressing devar Torah, the kind that wears on you and irritates you because it's all about how humans are weak and miserable and more of that mussar-oriented approach.

First I did it my way. That is, I critiqued this devar Torah and I expected that the person would be able to fight back and fight me and offer his approach as to why these words were relevant. That's because I assumed that of course he would have the same knowledge I have, and he had chosen to read this particular segment because it had meaning to him. Again, I was harsh, much harsher than I meant to be, and he was very deflated afterwards. Because I had just insulted his Torah- or at least, the Torah he had chosen to read aloud- and that is how he would see it, rather than my attempt to offer a much happier, less depressing approach.

And I realized that later and felt very bad about it because I never meant to insult anybody's Torah; it is just that I assumed that everyone has an equal amount of knowledge and that is not necessarily so, because it is very dependant on where you grew up and what circumstances you faced.

So I completely changed tones the next couple of days, especially when I was speaking to this girl. There's no way that I could or would disabuse her of the notion she had of shomer negiah, for instance, or the other overarching generalizations that are not true- for example, this idea of "These are new days." She suggested, for instance, that when the Messiah comes, women will be allowed to testify in certain cases because "these are new days." That's really not necessarily so. But I realized that this was not a case where I could put my ideals into practice and inform her about her own religion; it is simply not my place.

I also understand now, by the way, what the she'aino yodeah l'shol by the Seder night is. You know why that child doesn't know how to ask? It's not because he doesn't understand, or that he's a baby for instance. It's because he doesn't even know what he's missing! He doesn't even know that the understanding he has is flawed! He's not going to ask because he thinks he knows.

That's exactly the situation I was in: this girl is a very self-assured person who feels sure of her opinions and ideas exactly as they have been taught to her and it wouldn't even occur to her that she might be mistaken- as it shouldn't; why would it?

So what did I do, you're asking?

I did what I do best: I adapted.

We had a very pleasant conversation in which I threw in lots of ideas that would help to support her points- not the ones that were problematic, but other points. I don't know where it came up, but I referenced Rabbi Soloveitchik's opinion about "recreating the destroyed worlds" and other parts of his philosophy. We were all very genial and pleasant and it was really nice. It's very obvious that she's a good person and a good kid and yes, she's interested in a lot of things that I'm not interested in, because she's of the more popular group, and yes, she has a boyfriend, but what does it matter? You can see how sweet and sincere she is. Potentially misguided from a halakhic standpoint, but good and sincere nonetheless.

Anyway, meeting her threw me for a loop. Here I thought it was all so clear: we all attend Orthodox Jewish schools, we all have a basic knowledge and mastery of halakha; it is our choice to follow it or not to follow it. But that's not so at all.

I wonder about that Rabbi's approach. See, I personally would be very uncomfortable teaching something that works for our times, per se, and pretending that it is real halakha when it's not. But at the same time, I think it's good that he's teaching the girls something that they can do and practice in terms of shomer negiah rather than the impossible. I think I would just prefer that he wouldn't paint it under the name of "halakha" as that's misleading. Then again, I haven't been in his class, so I don't know if that's what he said or how this girl took it.

Either way, it's very good that he has these "Ask the Rabbi" sessions and the girls feel like they have someone to communicate with and to talk to.

I guess I don't believe in making people more religious; I simply believe in letting them have the information at their disposal, and a skewed understanding of halakha is a problem. But I can't sit down and have a whole discussion with her, even if I offered up every proof available, because she's not ready for it and wouldn't necessarily want to hear it; it's not my place.

And so, hard as it is, I can't put my ideals into practice and have to modify and change and adapt and say, well, this is good for now and hopefully I can make it better.


Looking Forward said...

Chanah, I think that this is a very mature realization, but in a very real way, it isn't even half the point.

Sometimes what halacha demands is impossible. Halacha is full of grey areas. We are told that girls and boys are not supposed to touch at all before marriage. However, if you look at the halachic texts and their explanations, this is entirely chumra. This halacha is actualy rooted in the nida prohabition of "do not approach" and states clearly that "it is forbiden to touch a woman 'bederech chiba' while she is nidda". Thus one may touch a woman if she is either A: not nidda or B: if it isn't intended in a way of affection (bederech chibba).

That leaves for a considerable amount of give room in this halacha. Further we need clerification of the word "chibba". Does "chibba" mean in terms of caring affection, or does it specificaly mean intimate husband and wife type affections? these are issues that have to be very clearly deleniated to understand halacha. This could potentialy mean that it would be permissable for a girl who happens on a boy who is crying to give him a hug as comfort.

Now still doesn't mean that what the girl is doing is ok halachicaly, but that is the real interesting point of this. One can only ask a person to do so much before they burn out. Certainly one cannot ask a person to do everything to begin with either. There is a concept of "not yet" and sometimes when counseling people (youth especialy) you have to be forgiving and a little (not a lot) permissive, because they can and will make those mistakes anyway, and generaly if they do not make those mistakes, they will have serious problems later on in life. The phrase "give him just enough rope to hang him" comes to mind (as an undesirable action).

This is especialy true with regards to boys and girls issues. I have heard personal testimony, and even seen it that the restrictions placed on boys and girls are still not enough to keep them seperate, almost at all, and it actualy screws up alot of children who go through it. That isn't to say that the alternative is any better, but to say that society has forced these issues to become the monstrosities that they now are.

There are times where you have to take what you can get, and encourage them to do what they can do. Sometimes that means compromising, and this has been an issue in halacha ever since ancient times. I would guess that one would say that you cannot teach someone something until they are ready for it. To attempt to teach them this earlier would be to hurt them and damage them severely with guilt, remorse, and all kinds of other painfull feelings. You may even eject them from torah completely. It is for this reason That I think in some instances our yeshivos and schools are not forgiving enough of indiscressions made by the students. That is not to say that they should condone them, but I think that they can and should be understanding and forgiving, while at the same time making effort to help the child rather that outright rejecting him or her.

I think there is a phrase about "picking your battles wisely" that is quite appropriate. It's good that you've learned that lesson, but I think that it applies more widely than you realized.

Matt said...

I probably shouldn't say this, but I have a short anecdote about an older couple I know. The man, though not a Chassid himself, was raised in a classic European Chassidishe household and had a traditional yeshiva upbringing. They are now in their 70's, but decades ago, when they were dating and considering getting married, they met with R' Moshe Feinstein to discuss their plans.

At the end of the discussion, his final response was: "I think you two should definitely get married . . . you're probably already holding hands."

Now, it may be tempting to ask questions like, "What did R' Moshe mean? What halachic implications can we derive from his statement? What would he say about modern Orthodox teens? How did he know what they were doing? How could he be dan l'chaf chovah? Or did he assume they were not doing it b'derech chibah?" and so on. But that is not the point.

The point is that R' Moshe did not treat something like shomer negiah in a neurotic, über-religious sort of way. In my humble opinion, one of the sources of distorted ideas of halacha is the attitude with which it is presented.

Rather than flesh out my opinion (no pun intended), I'll just leave this anecdote and observation to the judgment and contemplation of readers.

Chana said...


I agree with you- that the presentation really matters. Presentation is an art...Also, shomer negiah is probably not the best example, but it's the one that she and I discussed at length. It might be better to focus on the other point- her determining that because "these are new days" halakha will automatically change in the time of the Messiah- not a necessarily true point. There were others, as well- there were parts where it was simply not halakha but she believed it to be halakha.

Jewish Atheist said...

I just want to say that I feel lucky that I can read your blog and watch a mind like yours at work, especially in such an interesting time as college. Regarding the topic, I think there are two distinct modern Orthodoxies -- one which is epitomized by R' Lamm et al, which is a philosophical position regarding the importance of madda and one which is, in practice, another denomination altogether without the stigma of actually being another denomination. (Duh, now I see you basically already said this in your other post.)

The latter form of modern Orthodoxy is the one I grew up in. The Rabbis, of course, belonged to the former camp as did perhaps a third of the community. The rest of us probably did in fact believe that halakha was "bunch of laws some biased men put together years ago, archaic and outdated." We believed in God and that halakha was the governing process of Orthodox Judaism, but we felt more free to substitute our own judgment for halakha in certain circumstances, the way one might run a red light at 3 in the morning out in the country with perfect visibility. Negiya, kol isha, tznius, and even parts of kashrut were pretty much up for discussion.

The interaction between the Rabbis, who are traditionally Orthodox, with the segment of the community which is de facto in another denomination is an interesting subject you might want to look into, especially historically. It used to be that the most knowledgeable rebbeim were known for their willingness to be lenient in their rulings in order to make things easier for their people. In my parents' generation, much of an Orthodox Rabbi's congregation was probably not even nominally Orthodox, and all kinds of compromises were made.

You see halakha as ultimately binding, but I believe that many Jews who consider themselves Orthodox have a more flexible relationship with it. In fact, I can think of a few circumstances in which the Rabbis explicitly made rulings on certain topics which a sizeable chunk of the community consciously rejected.