Thursday, June 19, 2008

Conversion crisis - because the Modern Orthodox are wimps! II

In order to clarify my point, I am posting some excerpts from one of the most insightful and sensitive presentations of the differences between the Chareidi and Modern Orthodox mindsets. Prof. Moshe Koppel is a talmid chachom who works as a mathematician at Bar Ilan University. He has lived in both worlds. It is worthwhile reading the whole article which is found in Tradition magazine.


Yiddishkeit without ideology:

A letter to my son

By Prof. Moshe Koppel

Tradition 36:2 2002 pp 45-55



As a child in New York in the 1960's I attended school in what would now be called a Hareidi institution. What distin­guished this school from other, non-Hareidi schools was not so much the stricter standard of halakha to which we were held, but rather the pervasive sense of alienation from everything outside our narrow circle. We were cynical about law and order, about high-sounding ideas, about goyim, about Jews, you name it.

Such an attitude is perhaps easily dismissed as the inevitable conse­quence of being the children of Holocaust .survivors. But in fact. it was merely a slightly exaggerated form of an attitude of wary subversiveness that serves as the backdrop for everything Jewish. "Avadai hem"- Jews are slaves of Hashem, but, more to the point, of nobody else. In any case that's what all the real Jews I knew were like; if there were any wild-eyed and bushy-tailed ones, they were somewhere else. To this day I think of alienation and its social corollary, subversiveness, as insepara­ble from Yiddishkeit, This attitude is deep in my bones (and, of course, I regard it with suspicion).[...]

At some point, we ourselves couldn't help but notice that there were plenty of things that goyim did a lot better than we did. In fact, as we got older we began to suspect that some of our role models might have been a bit more clever than they were wise and that, in a few cases, cynicism about rules and regulations had led to just plain crookedness. Not that I thought then, or I think now, that the rest of the world is any better, but suffice it to say that unpleasant moral dilemmas that pitted loyalty against rectitude arose more frequently than they should have. Beyond all that, for an adolescent kid looking to find himself and develop his own particular interests and talents the atmosphere was just a bit stifling. Ultimately,,we had to decide between buying into the whole system despite misgivings or leaving. I left.

I didn't go far. In the Modern Orthodox institution to which I eventually migrated, the underlying principle was openness. Openness to art and music, to science and literature. Not to mention sports and movies and television. My new friends really were more articulate, more knowledgeable in most areas and often more naturally ethical than many of my friends in the yeshiva world. Of course, I had to get used to the idea of guys with names like Jerry and Stuie who wore jeans and had girlfriends. Apparently, I was hopelessly square but at least I had found what I took to be a healthy rebellious spirit that held the promise of a more thoughtful Yiddishkeit and I identified with it.

There were some problems. The version of Yiddishkeit that was upheld there as an ideal was different in disturbing ways from that to which I had been accustomed. The place suffered from a Litvish cold­ness that had adapted neatly to the American technocratic mindset to produce a somewhat formal and not very heimish version of cookbook Yiddishkeit. You asked somebody there if it was okay to daven in your gatkes, they started pulling books off the shelf. Lacking a sense of the heimish and hankering above all for middle-class American respectabili­ty, they tended to undervalue the little hard-to-pin-down gestures and manners that give substance to Jewish distinctiveness.

Moreover, the yeshivish rule that "if it's not Jewish, we don't like it" was flipped in the modern Orthodox world to read "if we like it, it's Jewish." These two formulations are equivalent in logic books but not on the ground. It turned out that my casually-clad new friends had few rebellious thoughts after all; they were simply practicing Yiddishkeit ­often with rather quaint earnestness as it had been taught to them. It was the chnyoks in the yeshiva world, who managed to maintain some emotional distance from the trappings of middle-class respectability, who were actually the subversives. I wasn't quite home yet. []

Let me be absolutely clear: where the demands of halakha are unam­biguous, you must submit to them. But how does one navigate between much less well-defined traditional attitudes and strong personal inclina­tions? When I was your age I didn't know the answer I still don't but one proposition that seemed self-evident to me at the time was that it was essential to be consistent. In other words, I felt that I had to some­how make sure that the way 1 defined Yiddishkeit and the way I defined my commitments even my own inclinations would be perfectly aligned. [...]

The ideologues who ran the yeshivish institutions I knew tried to inculcate a set of ideological commitments so comprehensive and intense as to suffocate an individual's personality. One result of this was a kind of cynicism that sometimes amounted to the complete annihilation of any moral and aesthetic compass. The good news is that this mostly worked on the feeble; the normal people's cynicism extended also to their own education: Most of us lived rather comfortably with, for instance, the idea that in principle great rabbanim have da’as Torah whatever that might mean, but that in fact some of the rabbanim we actually knew were, how should I put it, not necessarily especially sharp.

Conversely, in some Modern Orthodox institutions that I know: many of the subtle attitudes that form the core of Yiddishkeit have been diluted out of existence. What remains is a bare-bones even if scrupu­lously observed-halakha that constitutes a kind of obstacle course that needs to be negotiated in the pursuit of self-fulfillment. But what is worse is that this pursuit of self-fulfillment doesn't consist merely of individuals unselfconsciously pulling received attitudes in directions suited to their own personalities; rather its acceptable forms are defined for one and all in accordance with prevailing cultural tradewinds-nationalism feminism, humanism, whatever. This can lead to an eviscerated Torah forever subordinated to passing intellectual fads. The encouraging fact is that, in general, fads pass-or else they're not fads after all. […]


  1. So how about a title like: Conversion Crisis - because we all have what to work on!"
    Joel Rich

  2. "Conversely, in some Modern Orthodox institutions that I know: many of the subtle attitudes that form the core of Yiddishkeit have been diluted out of existence."

    The most important "core" I can think of is "Who is a Jew". Too many schools, MO or Black Hat have a policy of "don't ask, don't tell".

    The presence of a significant number of non Jews in any institution naturally dilutes the Jewish values of the place.

  3. One should also read his book, Metahalakha (very thin, but very expensive; jason aronson), for even more gems.pierre

  4. I would like to find the whole article but the link is not working.


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