Monday, August 12, 2013

Is it better to be normal or frum?

The recent discussion of Rav Moshe's bus teshuva [ see comments section here] raised an important issue which really deserves a post of its own. Is the ideal goal of an observant person to achieve normalcy - a point of stable equilibrium of various conflicting spiritual demands? Or is it to achieve the maximal level of frumkeit - with as many chumros as he can think of?

My understanding of Rav Moshe Feinstein is that he has an image of being normal and he views that as the ideal. He seems to view a stable functioning person as preferable to one who is always pushing for the extreme. Thus he indicates that a person should not seek out sexual stimulation nor should he even expose himself to  such without need - such  as having a job. But on the other hand, normal means being able to live with periodic exposure to women without losing one's spiritual equilibrium. A normal person is able to function well in a wide variety of circumstances because the balance is internal. Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky also comes to mind as being focused on being normal rather than frum.

The alternative to being normal is to focus on frumkeit. To maximize ones spiritual activities and to take these activities to the extreme. Since contact with women is spiritual harmful, one should avoid it to an extreme degree. Since Torah study is important, one should go to an extreme of hasmada - even if it messes up family relations and other spiritual goals. If davening is good - then davening with great kavanah for long times is even more desirable. Such a position is inherently unstable and difficult to maintain. It is best dealt with in large homogeneous groups where there is maximal predictability and control over the experiences one is likely to encounter. Thus focusing on frumkeit requires removing as much temptation and trials as possible to minimize the chance of failure. A person who focuses on frumkeit is playing for high stakes and also is open to high failure. If he actually sees a woman or hears an apikorus - or fails to live up to his ideal spiritual self - he can crash and be destroyed. Rav Wolbe  talks about frumkeit as an instinctive selfish urge to get close to G-d which can conflict with what G-d want you to accomplish in this world. It is interesting that the major criticism of the Musar movement is that it didn't focus on being normal. The Alter of Novardok nearly destroyed the Mussar movment by acting in an atypical fashion by locking himself in a cabin after his wife died. The Mussar movment was criticized for destroying the best and brightest in the yeshiva by encouraging an extreme examination of  the motivation for doing Torah and mitzva. As the result of realizing how far he was from the ideal, the best bachur in the yeshiva became a non-functioning despondent person.

Is it better to be normal or frum?
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Update: The following are excerpts which warn about identifying ideology with normal.

Dr. Moshe Koppel (Yiddishkeit without Ideology Tradition 2002) wrote 

First, Yiddishkeit is not simply a set of laws but rather embodies particular perspectives on all that is important. These perspectives are manifest in a web of attitudes regarding, for example, what families and communities are supposed to look like, and in a whole host of desirable character traits. These attitudes and traits were implicit in the Torah given to us at Sinai and have taken on particular forms and emphases as a result of our collective experience over the centuries. They include generosity, humility, empathy, alienation, self-deprecating humor, civility, not taking pleasure for granted, argumentativeness, skepticism, awareness of suffering, et cetera. No point in haggling about this list-what I tell you explicitly hardly matters. Such attitudes and traits are imparted from parent to child, from teacher to student, and circulate within communities in a million subtle ways, few of them explicit. Rules can be preserved in books and filed by bureaucrats. Attitudes are implicit, deeper and more defining, but they can evaporate in a fl.ash in changing cultural conditions, especially if not manifested in actions. It is the very essence of Yiddishkeit to preserve these attitudes and pass them on.

Second, every individual has personal needs, interests, talents, character traits and social attitudes. Some of these are distinctly positive or negative and Yiddishkeit takes a firm stand for or against them, but for the most part individual proclivities are simply taken for granted as the backdrop for a life of Torah. People need to eat and to marry, to work and to earn sustenance, to enjoy art and music, to interact with others and to understand them, to defend their lives and their property, to comprehend the workings of nature and to exploit them. I could try to prove to you that Tanach and Gemara are replete with stories in which these needs are assumed and taken fully for granted. But to do so would be unnecessary: you know in your bones that the satisfaction of these needs is fundamental for normal human emotional and intellectual development.

Things sometimes get sticky when certain attitudes which you think of as inseparable from your very self are consistent with the letter of the law but somehow at odds with the attitudes that your family and community are clearly trying to pass on to you. For example, your militantly nationalistic feelings might run up against a tradition of quietism and moderation which strikes you as craven; perhaps your egalitarian tendencies will be frustrated by an unambiguously hierarchical traditional society; your interest in science is liable to be curtailed by a strong focus on Iimud Torah; your exceptional artistic abilities could be discouraged as frivolous; your focus on textual and historical aspects of Gemara might put, you outside the pale of usual yeshivish discourse; your freewheeling individualistic spirituality is likely to be constricted by a tradition of discipline and conformity; your wanderlust will be frustrated by the demand to settle down and assume traditional reponsibilities.

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? [...]

Because educational institutions are set up more to impart book knowledge and packaged formulations than hard-to-define attitudes, they are always driven in the direction of ideology. Herein lies their failure. Neither Haredi nor Modem Orthodox institutions have succeeded in imparting, or even sustaining, the normal heimish Yiddishkeit, full of the humor, creativity and authentic yiras shamayim that simple Jews have lived naturally in communities around the world for thousands of years. To put it another way, ordinary, knowledgeable, committed Jews have customarily spoken the language of Yiddishkeit as a first language fluently and unself-consciously. Institutions have taught students to speak the language of Yiddishkeit as a second language-awkwardly constrained by poorly internalized rules of grammar. [...]

26 comments :

  1. I fear some may not even understand the question...

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    1. Because there's no such thing as "normal". Anyone can define "normal" to be whatever he dreams or conjures up or whatever his biases are.

      The bottom line is everyone is required to be frum/Torah observant. There is no two ways about that.

      After that you can be whatever "normal" means to you.

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  2. Thank you DT for raising this question, as it is connected to many issues discussed on this blog.

    1) Is extreme ascetism healthy, or does it lead to madness and sin?

    2) Is repression (psychological) something that is later manifested possibly in abuse, of self or others?

    3) Did Hashem , chas v'shalom, make "errors" in the Torah, which needed so many new laws and upgrades? In mamrim, Rambam makes the contradictory statement that saying the Torah is outdated is heresy, but also one who rejects Torah She b'al Peh is heresy - so what are the limits of takkanot?

    4) Torah does forbid both Tosif and Tigraa.

    5) Koheleth - our wisest sage of all says the following:

    16. Be not overly righteous, and be not overly wise; why should you bring desolation upon yourself? טז. אַל תְּהִי צַדִּיק הַרְבֵּה וְאַל תִּתְחַכַּם יוֹתֵר לָמָּה תִּשּׁוֹמֵם:

    17. Be not overly wicked, and be not a fool; why should you die before your time? יז. אַל תִּרְשַׁע הַרְבֵּה וְאַל תְּהִי סָכָל לָמָּה
    תָמוּת בְּלֹא עִתֶּךָ

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    1. I agree that these issue are related but I think they are really tangential to the point that I am raising.

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  3. My Rov, who is a member of the Badatz Eidah Chareidis, often stresses דרכיה דרכי נועם. Someone who runs after chumros and removes himself from normative society, cannot be following the Ratzon Hashem.

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    1. אמר רבי יהודה קשה היא המחלוקת, אפילו לעשות סייג למצות, שכן מצינו בבני גד ובבני ראובן שאמרו למשה יותן את הארץ הזאת לעבדיך לאחזה, ומפני מה בחרו בה, מפני שהיה להן מקנה הרבה והיו מבקשין להתרחק מן הגזל, ולפי שפירשו הן מישראל תחלה, לפי כך הן גלו תחלה, שנאמר ויער אלקי ישראל את רוח פול מלך אשור וגו' ויגלם לראובני ולגדי (דהי"א ה'), והרי דברים קל וחומר, ומה אם מי שפירשו מחביריהן כדי להתרחק מן הגזל כך נענשו, הפורשין מחביריהן מפני השנאה והמתחרות על אחת כמה וכמה

      מדרש הגדול, במדבר לב:ה

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  4. Rav SR Hirsch:

    "The more, indeed, Judaism comprises the whole of man and extends its declared mission to the salvation of the whole of mankind, the less it is possible to confine its outlook to the synagogue. [Thus] the more the Jew is a Jew, the more universalist will be his views and aspirations [and] the less aloof will he be from … art or science, culture or education … [and] the more joyfully will he applaud whenever he sees truth and justice and peace and the ennoblement of man." (Religion Allied to Progress)

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  5. Of course you realize that everyone thinks that their mehalech is mainstream, and everyone to the right of them is machmir and everyone to the left is meikil

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    1. It is not just an issue of level of chumra - it is a question of the dynamic of factors. Inevitably if you are machmir on some issue you will end up being meikel on something elese.

      Focusing on being normal i.e., having a balance of factors that maximizes avodas Hashem is different that seeing how frum you can be. This is also Rav Wolbe's point

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  6. Dear DT,
    This is a great post with "Mar Mikomos" to bolster each side. A lot has to do with the kehilla you are associated with and where you live.

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  8. I agree completely with what you wrote but question this statement... "Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky also comes to mind as being focused on being normal rather than frum" ... This assumes that there is a conflict between normal and frum. The Rebono Shel Olam does not demand that we don't look at a women, He demands that we don't "stare" at a women. Even the Gemora where it discuses "Im Leka Derech Achrina" is in the first place not talking about seeing a women in the street or "on a bus", it is only talking about an area where they may be exposed (laundering in the river) and even then it is permissible to use that road, Im leka derech achrina.

    Rav Schwab ZT"L once told me that there is a fine line between Frum and Crum... it is the fine line difference between a Peh and a Caf.

    So I would say we should focus on being Frum AND normal!

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    1. I agree with what you are saying, however the issue that I am raising is a critical one. Frum has many connontations. Frum also seems to come at the expense of yashrus and seichel. Clearly the term frum can be used either in the pejorative sense or positive sense. I am using it in Rav Wolbe's sense.



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    2. Understood... I think in general many of these issues that are now unfortunately the norm in the Yeshiva/Charedi world can be traced back to the leadership role that Roshei Yeshiva have taken in Klal Yisrael as opposed to Rabbanim. The extreme that may be appropriate for a Yeshiva (given the limited tome and ground needed to cover) are not necessarily appropriate and perhaps inappropriate for the Tzibur at large. Hence Rav Moshe, Rav Yaakov, Rav Schwab acted differently then what is considered "Frumkeit" today.

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    3. the implication is that the more we have a "frum industry", where the standards of mainstream Orthodoxy from 50 or 100 years ago are now "treif", the more cognitive dissonance this causes to the average person.

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  9. more clarification, pleaseAugust 12, 2013 at 6:37 PM

    The saying goes "fine line between Frum and Crum... it is the fine line difference between a Peh and a Koof (not Caf) and the difference is a "Tzadik". Self understood.

    What does your Rav and Mentor Rav Sternbuch have to say on this issue? If you have not asked him yet, you may want to try that route.

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  10. You know when Moshiach will come? When we decide that being "really frum" means being obsessive with loving other Jews and performing deeds of kindness and not with how strict we can be with ritual.

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  11. Now men shaking hands is "forbidden" in Gur

    http://www.nrg.co.il/online/11/ART2/498/938.html?hp=11&cat=1102&loc=8

    is that normal, or an admission of overall perversion in their sect?

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  12. This post suffers too badly from false dichotomy to be really addressable. As the comments before mine show.

    You quote RSWolbe about the problems with Frumkeit, but then write about Mussar excesses as though they are instances of what he meant. Obviously he didn't mean that the beyond-normal observances of his own school of Mussar (the Alter of Novhardok aside) were "frumkeit", or else he wouldn't have adhered to it.

    So you have to distinguish between being religious as part of the community, being religious in ways that stand out from the community because you wish to reach for some particular Ideal, going beyond the norm because of frumkeit, because of OCD, or any of dozens of other possibilities.

    I personally would value the approach of looking for the forest beyond the trees, and accepting non-"normal" practices that aid that search and fit the Ism by which the person views the forest. Which is neither "frumkeit" nor "normal".

    (That said, pragnatically, people need community. I wonder how the children of such non-conformist idealists do in terms of staying in the fold.)

    And I agree with Garnel that we need a bit of a reminder that in that forest, interpersonal mitzvos really do take priority. Someone looking for chumeros in his esrog but not in his business ethics simply is missing the whole thing. And might as well just stick to normal.

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    1. Micha, did you read about the latest chumra in Gur about men shaking hand with men?

      I think it is a good thing for myself to make a geder to keep far from the total lunacy and Salafist type ultra-orthodoxy that is spreading these days.

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    2. Did you see this anywhere but Maariv?? (not exactly a dependable news source when it comes to haredim)?

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  13. Once heard in the name of Rav Tzadok that this is really a machlokes between Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel. Beis Hillel view a world without gzeros and chumors as the ideal whereas Beis Shammai do not view gzeros and chumros as intrinsically problematic.

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  14. When I was parting from my RY, ztzl, before entering the world of commerce,  he asked me that if the Torah, which is extremely careful and every word is calculated, adds an entire chapter on the family and times of Yishmael for the sole purpose, according to RaShI, of enabling us to calculate an apparent discrepancy of 14 years,  which must be attributed to Yakov stopping on his way to Lovon at the Yeshiva of Shem. Would it not be simpler and of more benefit to omit that chapter and state clearly: and Yakov left Beer Sheva to go to Haran but stopped on the way at the yeshiva for 14 years? Why did the Torah use the cryptic, more verbose method, which goes against the grain, and by stating it clearly there would be the additional benefit of telling each school leaver, your grandpa went to yeshiva so should you....?

    The answer he gave me was that the Torah doesn't want people to be secluded away in a cut-off environment and to come out later as a righteous person, that is a role reserved for a select few, the majority need to know that one goes out into the open society and associate with different races, creeds, cultures, religions and sexes, people with differing morals and standards, and still be a sincere Jew, true to God and to mankind. Living in this manner one will fulfil his true obligation in this world,  to be mekadesh shem Shomayim. 

    PS. I've heard in the name of the Kotzker:

      פרום = ר"ת = פ'יל ר'שעות ו'וייניג מ'צוות. 

    He would say: don't be frum, be ehrlich.Sent from Samsung Mobile

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  15. I read a very interesting vort from the Chatam Sofer, on the Maakah, or parapet. He says, whilst the maakah represents making borders for ourselves, the idea of falling can refer to the spiritual dangers of getting caught up in the BT or frumkeit obsession, where people take on too many strictures, and this can be potentially very dangerous.

    So, the brilliant Chatam Sofer was well aware of the problems of frumkeit, and how it can be very dangerous.

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