Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Prof Moshe Koppel: Understanding the difference between Charedim and Modern Orthodox - it is not ideology

Dr. Koppel published an article in Tradition 36:2 in 2002. Yiddishkeit without ideology: a letter to my son. ;The entire article can be downloaded from Tradition Archives. While I cited this article in 2008 - it is obviously still relevant and current as seen by various allegations made recently by Eddie about the topic.
[...] In order to clarify the problem, let me recap some personal history so that you can appreciate the context in which these problems first arose for me. (For you the context is a bit different but the parallels will be obvious enough.) As a child in New York in the 1960's I attended school in what would now be called a Haredi institution. What distinguished this school from other, non-Haredi, 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).

You won't be surprised to hear that my classmates and I quickly applied this same critical point of view to everything that we were taught. This attitude was bolstered by the fact that, although our parents' sense of identity as Jews was utterly beyond question or even reflection, they themselves were quite cynical about the kind of ideology that our rebbes felt compelled to push. Gedolim don't make mistakes? Tsaddikim find jewels in fish? Once upon a time. 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 chinyoks 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.

Overall, institutional Yiddishkeit is superficial and inauthentic-in institutions, homogenized ideology trumps common sense every time. In the absence of checks and balances, of healthy tension, a sense of proportion and limits is lost and Yiddishkeit itself is diminished and distorted. You probably don't fully appreciate this point yet because you are at that stage in life where things are black and white and it seems important to nail them just right. What I cal tension, you cal hypocrisy. Time will broaden your perspective.[...]

You can-and, under current conditions, you must-learn Shas and posekim in an institution. But Jewish attitudes must be learned through immersion in family or community, internalized, and lived instinctively. Internalized values lived instinctively don't ever form a neat consistent package. On the contrary, they are always full of tension between conflicting poles: between loyalty to Jews and loyalty to the values they embody, between the letter of halaka and its spirit, between conformity and individuality, and so on. This tension is a wonderful, healthy thing - it is the source of a person's intellectual vitality and creativity. Living a life of Torah means living with tension: Yiddishkeit is not
meant to consist of instant solutions to personal problems, canned shallow theology, shlock aesthetics or narrow-minded provincialism. It is meant to encourage the kind of depth and tension that-forgive me for this odd example but I know you'll know what I mean- distinguishes Carlebach from Boro Park rock.

It is precisely this creative tension that distinguishes Yiddishkeit from other cultures and which has allowed it to survive under impossible circumstances. What is required is a terrific loyalty to tradition down to the most trivial detail, and humility in the face of the accumulated weight of this tradition. This loyalty and humility must be balanced by a creative restlessness that forever challenges spiritual complacency by testing tradition against the very values with which it imbues those who are truly loyal to it.

The enemy of this creative tension is ideology. Ideologues of the "right" fear the fluidity of Torah Shebe'al Peh (or are deaf and blind to it) and would reduce it all to Torah Shebikhta1J. In doing so, they reduce a living tradition to ideology. Ideologues of the "left" fear an "outdated" halaka and would round its edges to render it palatable. In doing so, they too reduce a living tradition to ideology.

You should recognize the rhetoric of ideology since it is all around you, insidiously trying to pry you from your own tradition. One type is peddled by those people who will tell you that there is only one true derekh. Whatever that derekh turns out to be, it won't be yours. Any claim that the Jews have always had it all wrong is simply incoherent by definition. If your rebbe tells you that a centuries-old minhag is wrong because a contemporary halakhic cookbook says so, he is not only clueless but also dangerous. If he tres to teach you some strange new topic called "emuna" or "hashkafa," he's probably proselytizing to some questionable ideology of recent vintage, usually radical Zionism or radical anti-Zionism. Steer clear. If you feel an urge to learn machshova, take out a Sfas Emes on Friday night. Remember that Gemara wasn't invented in Brisk, Bretz Yisrael wasn't discovered by Rav Kook, and hasidus isn't the private property of Chabad.

Another type of dangerous ideological rhetoric is peddled by those who will remind you that "there are many true paths in Judaism." They are probably not on any of them. Their apparent open-mindedness is usually a cover for the doctrinaire and arrogant conviction that Yiddishkeit as we know it is primitive, unenlightened, and provincial and desperately in need of the civilizing influence of whatever intellectual fashion is sweeping college campuses (which, they will try to persuade you, is what Yiddishkeit really was supposed to be all along). Given the choice between those who understand Yiddishkeit but have drifted, or even bolted, away and those who bastardize Yiddishkeit, always choose the company of the former. Ultimately, it's the location of the anchor that matters. [...]

Finally, continue to be a stubborn and clever critic of received wisdom just as your ancestors were. But always be sure to do so in a way that honors those ancestors and doesn't belittle them. [...]


  1. What a kavod to have a post dedicated to my earlier comments. Now I feel like a "somebody" in the welt!
    But joking aside, this is a very critical article, and it is also critical of the world he came from. One interesting observation is that there is a cold Litvish atmosphere in YU circles. I would attribute this to the character of RYBS, who was known to be very aloof. I have read that his father never even kissed him as a child - but friends, please don't ask me for a source on that.
    I would also comment that there is a link between this and the previous post about Prof Shapiro's new book. The orthodox world is good at rewriting its own history. The Hareidi world - which this current post attests to - is averse to secular education. But this was not always the case. In Spanish Jewry, it was the norm to combine Torah studies with secular, as well as professions which meant engaging with the dominant culture. Working in the court of kings was very common amongst even religious Jews.
    I also would add, as a an eye witness, that the much maligned R' Lamm of Torah u Mada fame, was meticulous in practice of halacha, he would not shake hand with women, even when they would be sponsors of his lectures.

    Finally, this seems to me to be a hatchet job of [Modern] Orthodoxy, and that suits DT's recent turn to a fully fledged Eda member as opposed to his earlier open minded Orthodoxy. When there are plenty of stories of students who learned under gedolim of YU, such as the Rav, R' Lichtenstein, and others such as R' Kasher, R Lifshitz etc. we are getting a caricature which if the primary attack was on hareidim he would be called a soneh. One example, of the futility of this kind of article "[E]retz Yisrael wasn't discovered by Rav Kook". What value does such a pathetic statement hold? The Torah wasn't discovered by Rashi, and the Mishnah wasn't discovered by Rambam, and Halacha wasn't by the Hatam Sofer or the CI. that doesn't mean we stop studying those and other works devoted to Talmud Torah. So why can't rav Kook be respected and studied, and more to the point this is a double standard.

    Anythign that MO does which differs from Hareid is mocked. But anything they do which is the same as haredi, eg to follow a Gadol who even R' Elyashiv admitted was the greatest of all, is also mocked.

  2. @Eddie this is not a hatchet job - Rav Lichtenstein made similar comments

  3. Yes, but a leader must always give tochecha to his flock, and this is done even in Hassidic communities.

  4. Oh, for heaven's sake! Eddie, you have an absolute talent for missing the point. It's the unifying theme of almost all your comments.

  5. nothing of value in your comment

  6. How I feel about yours as well.

  7. Thanks for sharing. I was wondering if his son was able to identify with
    his father's words. Imho it takes some
    time to mature and move beyond ideology ,focus on middos, mussar, Halacha and
    yiras shamayim , to be able to see the person beyond the label and to able to
    see the positive which all groups have to offer. As one Rov and educator put it
    - there is education for the masses and
    education for individuals and here we
    have an example of educating an individual

  8. It is true that if you look at all the people who describe themselves as Modern Orthodox you will find many who are just looking for Judaism-lite. There is also the dynamic Professor Koppel alludes to in the article, that in Modern Orthodoxy, "if we like it, it's Jewish".

    But those are natural consequences of of its existence. If Modern Orthodoxy didn't exist, Haredi drifters would be acting the same and would simply not have that MO label. But that shouldn't undermine the religiosity of those who genuinely adhere to a Modern Orthodox philosophy.

  9. Nat,
    you allege that many MO community are negligent in the Mitzvot, and hence you claim that MO is therefore not authentic Judaism.
    But, in what you would class "Hareidi" Orthodoxy, there are many who are also negligent of mitzvot or altogether abandon it. There are peopel who learn in Hareidi yeshivot, but then go on to eat treif, be mechalel yom Kippur , enter into gay relationships etc. there are also people who continue dresing in hareidi clothing but do these things. Thus according to your "logic" Hareidi orthodoxy is also inauthentic judaism.

  10. "However, An honest look at MO shows that the actual way of life of the
    great majority of its adherents is quite different from the idealistic
    way in which it is portrayed. It is a very watered-down form of Judaism,
    full of heterim and compromises and its lack of success is evident in
    the behavior of the next generation....."

    Really? What about many in the חרדי עולם which is notorious when it comes to defrauding the Federal Government, completely dishonest business practices, and every other economic scheme in the books? Have you ever heard of a חומרה on לא תגנובו? Let's face it, many (I say many) in the חרדי עולם care absolutely nothing whatsoever about any עבירות שבין אדם לחבירו. They even consider it a מצוה to steal from those unlike them, whether Jew or not. So, when you speak of 'a very watered-down form of Judaism' doesn't that also apply to many חרדים? I realize that what I'm saying may not be very pleasant for you to hear, but after all, one must certainly be מודה על האמת.

  11. Eddie, I have lived in both types of communities and am generally aware of the different types that comprise them. While there may be a few people like that in the "Haredi" communities, they are a very small minority, and they are classified as renegades. This is totally different from MO, in which their practices are accepted by the majority as well as by a number of their rabbanim.

  12. As I explained previously, Haredi drifters are quite different from MO, because they know that they are going against a system, while the MO are acting within their system. There is a world of difference between those two ways of life.

  13. you are being very cagey with your line of argument.
    You are first to accuse the MO, the community and the rabbonim, but of course if anything happens in Hareidi community it is this or that, or some other phenomenon which makes it ok. This is typical tunnel vision. In other words you have double standards.
    I have chatted with quite a few of the OTDs from the Hareidi world. Many of them have stories of sexual abuse. These are the not big stories that occasionally get reported here or there, but it is part of the overall S'dom that exists in some quarters. whenever such a thing occurs, those who expose it are attacked, as per R' Nochum shlita.

    The OTDs from the Hareidi world combine the bad middos of the Hareidi world and of the secular world. Thus they become atheists, are megadefim, eat treif, but they still hate MO and Zionism, and support the Palestinians.
    And how about the community who silence scandals of abuse, and the rabbonim who tolerate it? It is true that this also occurs in the MO world, but the scale of the industry seems to be bigger in the Hareidi world.

  14. I am sorry, but what you are claiming is so grossly exaggerated that I refuse to distinguish it with a response.

  15. Eddie, I don't know if this will help, but when I say MO, I am basically speaking about the American MO communities, with which I am more familiar. Also, when I say Haredi, I am basically speaking about the Haredi non-Chasidic communities. And am not talking about deviants, scandals, or OTDs. My main point is just that if you look at the general accepted standards of practice in Judaism among the general public of the two communities, within the Haredi community, Judaism is much more on the forefront of their everyday lives, as opposed to the MO community, where it is closer to the back burner.

  16. Fine, that is a better way of putting it. Essentially, there are "synagogue" only communities, where the shul is orthodox, and the membership is jewish but very few are actually even frum. That is how it is in UK, and Israel. So many peopel have orthodox denomination, but in terms of actually being frum they are much smaller. I am talking about the the Yeshiva based communities, and i speak about Mo yeshivot, where people are Torah observant. The difference is still there. The Mo say that there are heterim and kulos, not everythgin has to be machmir,, whereas Hareidism (which can also exist in MO) is about finding the strictest din, and then being arrogant towards others who might be slightly less machmir. I think until RMF and RSZA, R' Yaakov etc ztl were in charge, there was

    still plenty of balanced halacha. Even the Hatam Sofer who we associate with strictness showed true balance and shikul daat in halacha. On many things there was no compromise, but he was also critical of those who were extremely strict. This also was the case with the Netziv, the Arukh Hashulchan etc.

    I would "guess" that there is nto actually a balance anymore, either one extreme or another exists, and there is a split in Orthodoxy. Perhaps ROY was the last great posek who had the ability to be lenient but stay firmly Hareidi.


  17. is it good or bad that for chareidim yahadut is "my way or the highway", even for someone unhappy with group?

  18. And yet, you did distinguish it with a response, didn't you? Tell me something, please. Does the term delusional have any special significance for you? Have you ever read a newspaper or ever seen the Internet? There regrettably is one story after the other from the illegal sale of human organs to a cascade of Ponzi schemes, from countless cases of money laundering to kidnapping for money, etc., etc. in the חרדי עולם. You of course, who are incapable of being מודה על האמת, are a great part of this problem, and condone all of this גניבה וגזילה with a לב שלם. So, by all means, go right ahead and play the part of an ostrich. When it comes to עבירות שבין אדם לחבריו, the חילול שם שמים ברבים of the חרדי עולם is more of a סכנה to us than anything our enemies of the אומות העולם can do. So, keep your head in the sand, and don't distinguish my posts with any more delusional remarks.

  19. Is it possible that people on here often misunderstand comments or articles critical of hareidi icons?

  20. Yes, it is not just possible but a certainty. You are serving to "level the playing field" by misunderstanding the other way!

  21. another choice comment by Koppel "Given the choice between those who understand Yiddishkeit but have
    drifted, or even bolted, away and those who bastardize Yiddishkeit,
    always choose the company of the former. Ultimately, it's the location
    of the anchor that matters."
    This all sounds to me like pure arrogance and stupidity. Firstly, we have to rely on this unknown computer programmer to tell us what "true yiddishkeit" is.
    Secondly, he is making a really dumb statement - ie it is better to be in the company of apikorsim because they were once frum, than with those who are shomer mitzvot, but have a view on the world today, whether it is having a secular career or supporting the state of Israel or whatever else.
    It sounds very much that the author is someone who was angry at everything, and never satisfied with anything, not his original education nor his new found faith. That is a problem in OTD Hareidim, in that they are not well suited for either world, and hence are angry at both.

  22. @Eddie - I can't believe how seriously you have misunderstood the article.

  23. No, it's not good. There has to be more acceptance for people who don't fit in to the mainstream. Contrary to what some people have read into my post, I do not believe that today's Charedi world is some kind of a utopia. There is definitely major room for change and introspection within that system. My main point is that people should not think that MO is necessarily an acceptable alternative due to the major failings within that system.

  24. I am not really persuaded by the article, and it also fails to demonstrate the claims you were making in the discussion leading to this post. I also am quite surprised at his claims as to what "authentic" Yiddishkeit is. He is not espousing what you were previously. And he is a computer scientist, not a Rav or Gadol. In fact, he is saying the opposite of what most rabbis do say. that in itself does not make him wrong, since sometimes the majority can be wrong. But he is saying that you are better off being with someone Isaac Bashevis singer or Chaim Potok rather than Rav Kook or the Chazon Ish.

    The joke/irony is that in our debate the hareidi side was saying that MO are essentially watered down both in halacha and in assimilation, whilst the Hareidim are spot on in both areas. This guy is an embarrassment - he is essentially a wannabee Maskil who missed out on the real Haskalah 150 years ago, and is venting his frustration at how he is frum but the only people who got it right are those who left the religion!

  25. @Eddie - you are totally off on this one. F- on understanding what he is saying

  26. OK, so if you are a teacher and you have a clear understanding, what is your interpretation of his sentence "Given the choice between those who understand Yiddishkeit but have drifted, or even bolted, away and those who bastardize Yiddishkeit, always choose the company of the former. Ultimately, it's the location of the anchor that matters." ?

  27. @Eddie Rav Soloveitchik once said that the people he can pray with he can't talk to and those that he can talk with he can't pray with them

  28. Chaim, you do have a point here - but you miss the point and background of the post, at least the way it is described as a response to the previous discussion I had with DT. It was about the alleged strengths and weaknesses of MO. So for this discussion, my primary focus is on his criticism of MO.

  29. That's not exactly what Koppel is saying. He is not saying keep in touch with your university friends even if they are goyim or secular; he is saying an ex-frum "shaigetz" is better than a frum person who wear jeans and celebrates yom haatzmaut. This borscht belt Judaism he is peddling, and precisely what you were accusing Mo of being. Essentially he is saying Christianity is better than Modern orthodoxy, be it Brisk or YU, since Yashke learned in a heimishe yeshiva, even though he ended up elsewhere. But YU or brisk did not exist back then, so better stay away.

  30. It wasn't Rabbi Soloveitchik. It was R' Saul Lieberman.

  31. That makes sense, RYBS was very deeply within the Yeshiva world, and this is clear from those who were close to him. R' Rakeffet gives a shiur on how the Rav distanced himself from R' David Hartman , when hartman went more and more left wing. Hartman was certainly the kind of intellectual that the Rav could talk to philosophically, but Rakeffet quotes him as saying he "doesn't know Hartman anymore".

  32. You are a true Mechadesh!


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