Tuesday, August 11, 2009

No Intellectual Honesty, No Gedolim

Last week while opining on why cloistered Haredi media is not really the same thing as major news organizations, I mentioned a sad paragraph that had appeared in the Jerusalem Post's coverage of the Tel Aviv shooting:

Meanwhile, a senior editor at the haredi daily Hamodia said that his paper would totally ignore the incident.

"We do not want our children asking questions about that community," said the editor, who was interviewed on condition of anonymity.

"Our philosophy is to stay away from that entire issue," added the editor. "Someone who walks into a perfumer's store comes out smelling good. But someone who walks into a tanner's comes out smelling bad."

I suppose this shouldn't be all that surprising, given the Haredi world's track record on "undesirable information." Similar thinking appeared in 2005 and 2006, when Israeli Haredim preferred to ignore the Gay Pride debacle rather than give it increased publicity. To a degree, I can appreciate the "if you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all" sentiment-- except that when it comes to dealing with a problem in your community, say, hateful incitement, saying nothing is the moral equivalent of an emphatic shrug, or passing the buck. If anything, refusing to condemn the Tel Aviv shooting sends the message to youngsters that it's not such a big deal, which is indeed a big problem.

Now today we have a similarly bone-headed argument for censorship, only this time coming from a Mafdal, or Religious Zionist, rabbi, in fact, the Chief Rabbi of the IDF, who is irked that the army magazine did a series of articles about gay officers, in honor of Gay Pride Month. Ronski has said that he doesn't think homosexuality is an appropriate topic for the magazine. Apparently Rabbi Ronski was particularly disturbed by an article describing an officer who identified as both religious and gay. Today, the universe tried to achieve some karmic balance by having a group of religious gay IDF soldiers slam Ronski in the press.

A group of religious homosexuals serving in the Israel Defense Forces sent a letter of protest to IDF Chief Rabbi Avichai Rontzki yesterday over his statement that it is inappropriate for the army journal Bamahane to run articles on homosexuals in the IDF.

The statement, which was reported in yesterday's Hebrew edition of Haaretz, "gives us the feeling that we, religious homosexual soldiers and officers, have no place in the army," the soldiers wrote.

"As religious men loyal to the path of religious Zionism," the letter continued, "we view military service as a duty and a privilege. With God's help, your words and your effort to prevent articles in Bamahane will not succeed in harming our integration into and advancement in the IDF."

The soldiers, all graduates of hesder yeshivas or religious pre-army academies, said they "believe it is everyone's right as a private individual" to hold racist or homophobic views. "But because you are an IDF officer and serve as the IDF's chief rabbi ... we expect you to be the rabbi of all IDF soldiers, including religious homosexual soldiers," they wrote.

The IDF is dismissing the calls for Ronski's resignation by saying that he "has a habit" of saying boneheaded things. But I think there are some deeper issues here. First is the mater of the Mafdal world becoming more Haredi in its thinking- again, Ronski is a good example of the trend.

There has been tension growing between Modern Orthodoxy and Haredi Judaism for 15-20 years, but the past few have seen some big rifts developing, as hot-button issues like Zionism and feminism continue to stir the pot. The fact that the Haredi response to anything threatening is to either ban, ignore or censor it does not improve matters.

The bigger problem, however, is that Modern Orthodoxy, including the Mafdalim in Israel, continues to sublimate itself to Haredi Judaism, in thought if not outright deed. As an outside observer, I continue to be unable to understand exactly why this is so, particularly since, unlike, say, ignorant secular Jews' love affair with Chabad, Mafdal folks know their halakha and, in theory, should have enough education and pride to be able to stand up for their traditions and practices and not cave in to a group whose primary intellectual argument seems to be the ability to yell very loud.

Mostly, though, I find this all particularly sad because of the impact the Haredi approach towards life has on the BIG QUESTIONS, such as Truth, or in Yiddish, Emes. In theory, Emes, both pursuing it, and wrestling with it, should be one of the guiding questions for all people, particularly religious people. Truth is not only worthy of deep intellectual discussion and engagement, but also a bedrock value to countless belief systems.

However, when it comes to dealing with uncomfortable questions, the Haredi approach to Emes seems to be, again, a shrug. When you have Haredi newspaper editors who say they are going to ignore news of the day because "we'd rather not get into that," you have crossed a point of no return. That is the home of crazies like Bill O'Reilly who say they don't want to have their kids "exposed" to gay people (or anything else that makes them uncomfortable) because they don't want to feel obligated to actually act like a parent and "have to explain it." Yes, clearly all you have to do is shelter your kids from homosexuality until they're 18 and they will never have to find out it exists. Run away from Bill O'Reilly, my Haredi brothers and sisters. This man is not a role model!

The origin of my previous post had been one by DYS over at DovBear talking about why the so-called Sages of this Generation... weren't. Later in that comment thread, I wrote,

Torah and Emes do not have to be mutually exclusive. But I do not see the Gedolim even interested in the question of Emes, whether in regards to science, history (making of a Godol), or, even worse, personal relationships (see for instance the treatment of Slifkin and Kamenetsky). And that is truly sad.

Not only is it sad for the Haredim who claim to be the truest representation of our religious heritage to the world. Not only is it sad for the state of Israel who for reasons unfathomable to me continues to privilege this worldview above other Jewish approaches and beliefs. It is also sad because this seems to be the direction Modern Orthodoxy is leaning. Modern Orthodoxy, which, as its triumphalist ambassadors remind us at every opportunity, may very well account for the majority of "real" Jews left in America in 100 years. If this is the straightjacketed moral and intellectual compass that Modern Orthodoxy is going to follow, Lord help them. Yes, they may wind up being the only demographically viable denomination (whatever that means) by 2100-- but if they have sacrificed their cultural and intellectual integrity to become Haredim in lighter clothes, what's the point?

If what's left of the worldy Orthodox want to constrict their minds with Haredi blinders, I invite them to do so. I will stay on the sidelines with my Shiksa Girlfriend and Chinese food. Somewhere between us two groups of sinners, we'll find one Perfect Jew. And then at last we'll have at least one Godol.

No comments: