Sunday, May 11, 2014

Argument for Distancing in Our Times

I found this interesting write-up on the web. The author summarizes the debate regarding succession (austritt) from the general community (grossgemeinde) that raged in Germany in the 19th and even 20th centuries; although he favors those that opposed succession and argues in defense of the contemporary multi-denominational Limmud conference. While the write-up is certainly intelligent, reading it, a student of Hirsch can become confused because of the author's leanings. He favors multi-denominational religious conferences. He defends this by naming several German Jewish scholars who opposed succession and saying that a multi-denominational gathering is similar to a grossgemeinde. As he doesn't cite their words, one is tempted to take his word for it. But the mind wonders: Did they all really oppose succession and are the two the same?  I am not accusing the man of making up sources, but perhaps reading them with an intent towards a conclusion, as driven by the Jewish heart in its desire for outreach. Beware the heart overtaking reason. The results seem wonderful in the short run, but the long run is another matter. It's like DDT, lead paint, or asbestos. Beware the magical short-term solution.

I'm not saying here that there's nothing good about the Limud conference. Same with Reform Judaism. If it is giving Jews some kind of a Jewish consciousness, then it's doing some kind of good. But should the Orthodox participate and thereby give non-observant practice some credence - that's another question. I'm not saying that I have the final answer to that question. But the concept of Austritt, and I mean post Germany Austritt, would argue against participation.

But the Limud conference isn't the main concern of my post. My concern is the effect of the influence of even Orthodox people on one another. What I find in the article is an argument against Austritt that's serves as an argument for something that perhaps shouldn't be called Austritt, as that has a very specific historical meaning as I have been learning, but perhaps we can call distancing. The author seems knowledgeable and well-meaning - and he likely is both of those things. Accordingly, he is persuasive in a way, and the reader may find himself buying into the argument. But the argument is superficial and unless you have time to really pick it apart, it can influence you. The mind is pliable and takes on different modes of thought, different outlooks, different personalities. We can take on different identities in life.The mind switches. This is how you get debate, how you get people on completely different sides of the fence. The mind is an amazing instrument, but most minds limit themselves to singular outlooks. We can use this power of change for the good, but we can allow it to confuse us too and take us to problematic places. We piece together arguments and facts and experience it as the truth. In our youth, we are particularly vulnerable. Isn't this what happened to the many people who left Torah observance in modern times? They took on a new identity, one with its own arguments, symbolism, and feeling, but one that was so tragic.

All of this is exactly why you need a kind of distancing in our day and age not only with the non-religious elements, as they are so far away from Orthodoxy, but with groups that have absorbed excessive amounts of problematic secular attitudes. By this I'm not talking about friendship or neighborliness. I'm talking about a mental distancing where one is careful to hold onto his or her vision and ideals. Problematic groups (and they can be on the right or the left or the center) speak a language similar enough to be persuasive but take one to the wrong places. You wind up confused, diffused, and weakened in your derech. Examples of this include the halahkic radicalism that has taken over parts of the frum community due to feminism. The same applies to the influx of rap and rock music that one finds in simchas. Once you open the gates to secular music, how do you keep out the rap? You have to be very careful. And when you associate excessively, or organizationally, with groups that are not careful, you lose your discipline.

In the end, it comes down here to trusting in your gadol. If R' Breuer and R' Schwab advocated distancing, which post Germany meant distancing oneself from official organizational association in theological matters with religious groups that themselves are hooked into non-religious groups or even religious ones who have taken on excessive amounts of secular attitudes, then one must trust them, their wisdom, their tzidkus, and their experience. They speak from a mesorah. As R' Hirsch told us often, Torah differs from science in that we rely on a mesorah, a tradition, a revealed truth, rather than one that is the product only of observation and reason, a home-grown truth, so to speak. You can grow your own tomatoes at home, but don't try growing your own penicillin.

The Torah Im Derech Eretz person needs this general distancing more than the Charedi. One reason Chabad sluchim hold on so well even in remote communities is because they look, dress, and think so differently from their environs that they are much less at risk from absorbing negative attitudes then a Torah Im Derech Eretz person would be, as TIDE people are by definition open to the positive parts of the general culture. This is why the Torah Im Derech Eretz needs to be able to distance him or herself. If you are going to be open, then you have to know how to close the door.


  1. I'm sorry, but without some additional information, this is one of the more disturbing posts I've seen in a long time. We should separate from the "Modern Orthodox" because their ideas are rationally persuasive, instead of actually adopting those ideas? You make no claim at all about what horrible outcome would actually arise from adopting Dr. Elton's position.

    Now, I have a very different take on Dr. Elton's position, but that comes from my own reading of the historical Austritt argument. I would argue that the formal Austritt argument applied to a very narrow historical situation. Limmud is not the Grossgemeinde; in fact, there is no more Grossgemeinde. Nobody is forced by the government to directly support religious activities which go against one's cherished beliefs. Even R' Hirsch did not state that Austritt should extend to avoiding *personal* contact with the non-Orthodox (although that quickly became the norm).

    If you want to claim that we should have "Austritt" in our times, you need to cleanly define your terms, as well as make a reasoned argument. In this post, you have done neither.

    1. Somebody is reading this blog?. I had no idea.

      Thanks for posting and sorry for the offense. I'll touch this up.

      But note, I'm not talking about personal contact but about maintaining a healthy suspicion. Also, while R' Hirsch dealt with the issue of his day - the general community - TIDE leaders after him extended it even while in America. But obviously I didn't explain it right because if it's one of the most offensive things you have read in a while, on the internet no less, i didn't do it right.

    2. I'm not sure what was so disturbing here. The author of the post is simply saying that we need to be very careful in who we let into our heads. He doesn't pick on modern orthodox in particular but warns us against letting in ideologies from any group (whether left, right or center) that takes us away from our core beliefs. If our core beliefs are Torah Im Derech Eretz, we need to steer clear of IDEOLOGIES (not people) who preach ideas that are antithetical to our own. For example, we may want to stay away from discussions that espouse free access to any reading materials at public libraries for children. That's not to say we should shun individuals who believe in doing such but that we should not engage in arguments with them that will create confusion in our own minds. And if they form a society "frum jews for free library access", we do not want to associate ourselves in any way with such a society. Perhaps a silly analogy but I hope that clarifies a little bit more what modern day Austritt looks like. I think Austritt is more relevant today than ever because many of the values of secular society in 2014 are directly antithetical to the Torah. We actually have an option today to avoid associating with groups that espouse anti-Torah values. And any group that approves of the treifkeit and anti-Torah attitudes of the secular world is best avoided. In Rav Hirsch's time, Jews were forced by law to be part of the Grossgemeinde. Why would we possibly run to do what Rav Hirsch dedicated his life to fighting against when we have a choice?

  2. The reason I found this post "disturbing" is that it's hard for me to fathom someone promoting TIDE who espouses shunning ideas from other Orthodox groups. Someone with a good foundation in TIDE should be able to easily withstand exposure to a wide variety of Orthodox ideologies without fear of corruption. If, in fact, one hears a compelling argument against one's views, then one should either do more research or change one's mind, no?

    Austritt, historically, had NOTHING to do with ideological insularity. R' Hirsch never put any works into cherem, and he closely read those that he denounced. The historic Austritt argument is a very narrow one, and deals with actively supporting a heretical ideology under the rubric of "unity." I grant that it has since been broadened to include non-association with even Orthodox groups who do not subscribe to it, but that is a later adaptation, and one that should at least be debated by contemporary Hirschians, IMHO.

    Owl Lake: your note about the changing values of contemporary secular society is very important, but I believe that it is much more relevant to a discussion about how to implement TIDE in contemporary times.

  3. Didn't the separatist community in Frankfurt avoid the frum people of the general community? Dr. Marc Shapiro talks about that. I don't know that in Hirsch's day you had so many strains of Orthodoxy, like the quasi Orthodox that we have today. But since you didn't have the mandated communities, yes of course, Austritt became primarily about other groups in post Hirschan times. For example, the German Washington Heights community distanced itself from YU even though the two are a third of a mile apart. Professor Alan Brill in his lecture series on Modern Orthodoxy says that TIDE "lost its nerve" after Hirsch.

    What I'm trying to do is defend the logic of the post-Hirschians against this criticism. It's not the the TIDE person should fear ideas. If you have time to think the thing through, and if you have the inclination (you are the thinking type) then, then you can consider anything. In that case, you can serve as one of the gate keepers of TIDE, one of those who sifts through the 'outside' material and considers if it's fit for the TIDE community. This is one of the differences between TIDE and TUM (Torah u'Maddah), in TIDE they'll consider anything idea that's positive, that's Torah-like. (In the Torah only camp they won't do this). But they don't just read anything. In TuM, they'll read anything. People often confuse the two. See Aaron Rakefett's lectures on TIDE and TuM for his depiction of the difference.

    Particularly if you are a parent, you have to know that not everybody is a thinker, and not everyone a disciplined thinker. If you are, nobody is stopping you. But I have seen people bring into their homes material that did not affect them but destroyed their kids. BTs often make this mistake.

    So you might say there are two paths in TIDE. One for the typical person. There they may enjoy secular material but it has been carefully picked out. The other path is for people who can do their own screening. This is the much smaller group.

    1. In practice, yes, the Frankfurt Austritt community, particularly post-Hirsch, socially distanced itself from the Grossgemeinde. Again, though, I'm not at all convinced that this was a good thing, and it certainly was not an explicit requirement of Austritt in Hirsch's writings. Later on, Austritt became an umbrella term for isolationism.

      If I may: I think I see part of the problem here. You look at the actions of the Post-Hirsch Frankfurt community as carrying significant moral weight towards what a mordern Hirschian should do; I do not. I consider the Hirschian canon to be R' Hirsch's writings and public proclamations. I can understand the desire to maintain separateness, and I can accept that a contemporary Hirschian would want that. I cannot accept that as a litmus test for determining whether or not one is a "Hirschian" or "TIDE-nik," however.

      I am quite familiar with both R' Rakeffet's and Professor Brill's lectures (I've had the privilege of actually being cited by the former a few times correcting minor details about the Heights). As I recall, Brill's comments about the Frankfurt post-Hirsch community related much more to R' Shlomo Zalman Breuer's political conservatism. There was also the post-WWI "east meets west" effect, which is presumably how R' Schwab wound up in Telshe.

      The KAJ/YU schism is due to a significant confluence of factors, and in my reading is only tangentially related to the differences between TIDE and TUM. YRSRH parents had no problem sending their children to City College and Columbia in the 50s through the 70s, nor did they have a problem sending them to Lakewood in the 80s onwards. YU is certainly closer to TIDE than any of these institutions, regardless of any differences between the two philosophies.

      As a parent, I fully agree that it's critical to expose children to material on their level. I don't think that's a feature of TIDE vs. TUM, though: that's just responsible parenting.

      Outside of the ghetto, we and our children are going to get exposed to ideas that are anathema to our worldview. This is unavoidable. It might be desirable to minimize the exposure, but it is naive to think that it is possible to eliminate it, regardless of one's intellectual proclivities.

  4. I appreciate your point of view. Maybe you'd like to post your thoughts on this website. This is supposed to be a society, meaning a collection of people, and not just a forum for my views. What TIDE needs is discourse, a sharpening of minds on how to approach it in our era. I certainly am not the spokesman for anything. I just try to shape my own life and to build a TIDE community.

    I would certainly agree that a person can use Hirsch alone as a guide for TIDE. Fortunately, his writing is so voluminous that there's no shortage of material for figuring out his point of view. I don't accept the claim that we don't know what he'd say about today thus we have to look at his words like a museum piece. He wrote for modern times. These are modern times.

    However, I have an instinctive respect for R' Breuer, based in part on his essays, and also on what I have heard about him. I respect R' Schwab, who I knew, as well. So I look to them for their take on TIDE in our times. I'm not saying that anybody else has to do that.

    Obviously, I wouldn't advocate attempting to construct a ghetto even in these poisonous times. If I did, I wouldn't be Hirschian. I'm just talking about a filter.

    I am curious as to the reasons that KAJ kept its distance from YU. Obviously, individual families did all kinds of things. I'm talking about the various institutions of KAJ. I mostly have my guesses and little things I have heard. From that I'm attempting a hypothesis. I realize that I'm really in the dark. But I don't approach this as a Jewish studies professor as material for a paper. The info is relevant to my own life choices. And in the end they are of course my own.