Modern Orthodoxy: Bastion of Coercion?

Amid all the sound and fury the recent Asifa engendered, what stuck out was the visceral hatred the 21st century “man on the street” has to conformity. The Asifa stuck in their craw for many nefarious reasons, but what really got their goat were the thousands of people “blindly following their Rabbis like sheep” (puns intended). To them, this was a very public elevation of behaviors long thought discarded and relegated to the moral trash bin. It appeared that conformity and authority were being reintroduced as legitimate ideals, a direct slap in the face to that most modern and Western of values: the supremacy of the individual. Me, Myself and I Uber Alles.

Never mind that people nowadays continue to follow the herd slavishly in almost every aspect of their lives; in mannerisms, culture and above all, making sure to always engage in “right thinking”. Few are “mavericks”, which is understandable considering that mavericks are mavericks, well, because no one else is doing what they’re doing. If everyone were to become a maverick, then by definition no one would be a maverick. Let’s leave that aside for a moment and allow our “rugged individualists” the pleasure of wallowing in their highly exaggerated sense of uniqueness. Let’s make believe that the way they see themselves is an accurate reflection of the truth. You can then imagine my utter surprise when I came across this:

Rabbinic Group Requiring Prenuptial Agreements

An Orthodox rabbinic group is requiring its members to use a prenuptial agreement in the weddings in which they participate.

According to a resolution passed by The International Rabbinic Fellowship, its member rabbis may not officiate at or participate ritually in a wedding ceremony in which the man and woman have not signed a halachic prenuptial stating that if the marriage dissolves, they will agree to a Jewish divorce.

Ignoring for the moment the potentially disastrous pre-nup itself, there is something that struck me about this article. Wait for it, wait for it…… Ah, there it is. “Rabbinic Group REQUIRES..”. Requires? As in, you must do this or else you’re out? Why, that sounds like coercion, something we know only Haredim do! Why can’t the RFA just bring this pre-nup option to the attention of their rabbis and leave it at that? What happened to the individual’s freedom of conscience, the ability of every person to choose wisely without outside pressure? If you ask me this sounds like….. a Takana!

Then there’s more from Rabbi Michael Broyde:

I vote for the latter solution as the best now available to us and I think we should mandate that no Orthodox rabbi perform weddings without a BDA prenuptial agreement.

If your rabbi belongs to an organization that does not mandate the use of any prenuptial agreement, ask him why that is the case. If your rabbi does weddings without using a prenuptial agreement, press him to stop doing such weddings and to mandate that no such weddings take place on the synagogue grounds.

Mandates, requirements, what’s happening to our live-and-let-live friends in the Modern Orthodox world? What’s next, a requirement that schools teach Shmiras Einayim? Mandatory tznius guidelines (gasp)? G-d forbid, a BAN on something??

If I were MO I would protest, raise a ruckus. This is against our tradition (oh the irony!)!! We are not “the requirers” and the “Takana makers”, that’s for sheep i.e. the Haredim. We’re all adults here, let’s allow every Rabbi to follow his conscience and he will surely do the right thing.

Could it be, that it is not Takanas per se that the MO dislike but the subjects they address? It seems that Takanos are fine as long as they address valid concerns of “Tikkun H’olam”. Anything not on the approved list of causes de jour, anything sounding suspiciously too”Jewish” is to be left alone. After all we don’t want to be lumped together with THOSE guys, do we?

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Why The Internet Must Be Banned

(The most ironic headline EVER :)).

People with good intentions (an some with not such good intentions) have been questioning the necessity of a ban on all non-essential internet use. While they admit that there is great potential for wrongdoing on the web, they believe that the potential for good is strong as well. “Like anything else, the internet as a tool is neutral”, they argue, “it is people who use it for good or for evil”. Let us focus on educating and enlightening people so that they are equipped to withstand temptation and use the web as it should be, and not for nefarious purposes.

The crux of their argument is a reliance on the ability of the public at large to overcome any and all temptation they face, provided that they are properly prepared. “Good will always conquer evil, a little light dispels a lot of darkness” is their mantra.

But that’s not all. They also scoff at the ability to close the barn door after the horse has left, as they perceive internet use to be. Even if banning the internet were warranted, there is no point in doing so because the people just ain’t buyin’ it. No way, no how. (To be discussed in a later post.)

Let us take a moment to seriously examine the views they put forth.  But before that, an important caveat. For Haredi Jews, this discussion is academic, if not superfluous. We do what our rabbinical leaders tell us to do, whether we understand it or not, whether we like it or not. We do so proudly and without shame or regret. We began this tradition at Mount Sinai three thousand years ago and it has kept us as a nation ever since. So whether our conclusions lead us to agree with out Rabbis or disagree, it has no practical application.

This discussion is geared toward those who unfortunately need to understand before committing to act, as well as to dispel any notion that this decision is some sort of Haredi Rabbinical power play and whatnot, instead of what it really is: an excruciatingly difficult, partial solution to an almost intractable problem.

Back to the issue at hand. The theories put forth above are logical and quite understandable but contains two major flaws, flaws that force us to seek a different solution to the internet problem.

Number one: It is not the Torah way

Number two: It is at best a utopian view of the world and its people and at worst an extremely naive one.

It is not the Torah way.

From the time of Adam Harishon and forward, the way of G-d and his Torah has been NOT to rely on the innate goodness of man to face evil head on. The sources are too numerous to quote, starting from “Ushmartem Mishmarti”, which Chazal say is the Torah requirement to enact safeguards toward promoting better observance. It is continued with Dovid Hamelech exhorting us “Sur Merah, Veasei Tov”, turn away from evil and do good. Tosafos in Pesachim (2a) even understands the prohibition of Bal Yeraheh, not having chametz in our possession on Pesach, as a safeguard that we not come to eat it.

The first Mishna in Avos, quoting a remnant of the greatest Bais Din in history, the Anshei Knesses Hagdola, teaches us “Veasu Seyag Latorah” Create fences (safeguards) for the Torah. The words of Avos D’Rebbe Noson on that Mishna say it all:

ועשה סייג לדבריך,
כדרך שעשה הקדוש ברוך הוא סייג לדבריו,
ואדם הראשון עשה סייג לדבריו,
תורה עשתה סייג לדבריה,
משה עשה סייג לדבריו,
ואף איוב ואף נביאים וחכמים כולם עשו סייג לדבריהם.

Chazal continued on this path, promulgating all types of decrees designed to remove Jews from temptation and encourage better observance. In Bava Kama (82b) Chazal forbid the learning of Chochmas Yevonis due to one (!) occurrence that resulted in tragedy. And the list goes on and on. The Yud Ches Davar, Harchokos Bymei Issur, Gidul Beheima Daka, Bushul Akum etc. etc.

Throughout the generations, leaders of the Jewish people have stood guard, ever alert to potential problems, and ready to step into the breach with whatever steps were necessary. Famous among them are the Takanos of Rabbeinu Gershom and the Vaad Arbeh Aratzos, the Council of The Four Lands, but these are just few of many. See also Takanas Shum, Bolognan Takanos, Sefer Chasidim and many more.

Were these additional restrictions immediately accepted and beloved by the general population? Who knows?  One can easily imagine quite a lot of grumbling from the man who intended to have a wife for every day of the week and suddenly finds out he’s restricted to one. Poor soul. Better hope she can cook.

There were also no doubt heated arguments put forth that “it’s a Gezeira that the Tzibur cannot abide” (who can live without two wives? Not opening my neighbors mail? C’mon….). Truth be told, there were times that Takanos preciously enacted were repealed for that reason, but more often than not, the rabbis stuck to their guns and we’re all better for it.

Chazal and later leaders did not need Pesukim or Divine Inspiration to prove the wisdom of Gedarim. History was their guide. The greatest people from the greatest generations faltered when confronting evil head on. The greatest time mankind has ever known, Matan Torah, was swiftly followed by the Golden Calf. Shittim and Kozbi bas Tzur were enough to corrupt the Dor Deah and some of it’s leaders. King Solomon, the wisest of them all, who told us that “hakol hovel”, was severely criticized by Chazal for his misdeeds (on his level and beyond our understanding, of course). The times and places of the greatest revelation of G-d’s presence, i.e. The Bais Hamikdash, were often the times and places of the greatest sins (see the killing of Zecharia etc.) The great Talmudic Sage Abbaye admitted that left to his own devices he would’ve sinned (See Sukkah 52a). Im beshalheves naflu ohr mah nanu anan eizovu kir? Can we ever hope to reach higher levels of kedusha and goodness, levels that will protect us from evil when it failed the giants of history?

Chazal, keen observers of the human condition that they were, understood one of the most basic natures of the human being. Ki Yetzer Lev Ha’adam Rah M’nurav. As much as he can reach dizzying heights, he can also fall to the lowest depths, often in the same person and at the same time! Which is why they warned us: Stay away from evil! Don’t be misgara the Yetzer Horah! It was they who taught us that if not for G-d’s help man would succumb EVERY day, which is why they instituted the prayer “Al tivieinu liydei nisayon” Do not bring us to temptation. They did not ask that we overcome temptation, but that we AVOID it!! They shouted from the rooftops, “Heresy attracts”, “Man soul desires immorality etc”, “Do not believe in yourself until the day you die” etc. etc..

The way of the Torah is clear: we are to avoid evil as much as possible. Of course we should do good, of course we should look to fortify ourselves with Torah, Mitzvos, G-dliness and all that is good in this world. It is the reason for our existence. But even after we’ve done that, it is still incumbent upon us to remove ourselves from harm’s way, to reduce our exposure to minus and znus as much as is humanly possible. Someone who can avoid temptation and chooses to disregard Chazal’s warning is called a RASHA, regardless if he actually sins or not (See Bava Basra, Ika Darka Achrina).  Evil was granted tremendous power and potency in this world and we would be blind not to recognize it.

Some may see this as a preoccupation with the dark side of this world. On the contrary, we are enjoined to STAY AWAY from the dark side and immerse ourselves in the good. Sur M’rah Ve’ase Tov. Don’t fight evil, don’t give it the time of day, just stay away.

This is the Derech Hatorah as taught to us by our Sages and leaders from time immemorial. So should we rely on people making the right choice or should we avoid that choice to begin with? Chazal say run. Bloggers disagree. You decide.

It is at best a utopian view of the world and its people and at worst an extremely naive one.

Wouldn’t it be great if people could be relied upon to follow their better instincts and make the proper decisions at all times? It sure would. There is a name for that world, it is called by the general public “Utopia” and by Jews the “Days of Mashiach” (although even then, evil will have it’s say, see Sukkah 52a). But we’re not there yet.

Let the truth be stated unequivocally: There is no chinuch in the world, not Haredi, not Modern Orthodox, not secular, none, that can inoculate a person against temptation. Never has been, never will be.

No doubt, the more a person is plugged in to the source of life (G-d), the more we teach our children right from wrong in a positive, loving way, the better off they will be. But free of temptation? Hardly. Acquiring Middos Tovos, self control and delayed gratification is a life-long, ongoing process. Are we to assume that once we’ve given up the reigns of teaching our children they are now an Adam Hashalem (a complete person)?. Who are we kidding here?? At best they have had a solid foundation laid out for them, on which they can build a grand edifice over the course of a lifetime. But to think they are now evil-slayers and paragons of righteousness is absurd.

So here’s the $64,000 question. Will a properly educated child be equipped to resist all that the (under)world has to offer? The answer: All temptation? No. So how much can they resist? It depends. How strong is the pull? How overwhelming, how pervasive, how intense is the offering they are being exposed to? That will determine the outcome. Should they succumb, does that mean that they have no goodness in them? Does it mean their mechanchim have failed them? Of course not, evil can and has overpowered goodness, early and often.

The pull of immorality in particular is recognized in the secular world as well. How many politicians have acted against their own best interests and thrown away brilliant careers, including the possibility of being President of the United States (!) to heed the siren call of znus? How many successful businessmen, athletes and professionals have lost it all during a moment of weakness? Can we expect our chinuch, any chinuch to inculcate within us a stronger desire than the desire of self-preservation? Being that self-preservation is swept away by temptation more often than not, why are we so confident that our chinuch is up to the challenge? On what evidence to we base our perceived chinuch prowess?

Then there’s marketing. Why do successful marketing campaigns feature immodestly dressed women as their spokespeople? I’m looking to buy a briefcase for work, where does a woman come into the picture (pun unintended)? Does she recommend this $10 briefcase? Has she used it and loved it? For G-d’s sake, who in the world is she?? Does this need to be spelled out?

No, we are all smart enough to recognize what’s in front of our noses. Shmutz sells, it pulls, it attracts, even for the best of the best. Ever heard of a marketer design an alternate campaign for “those who won’t be attracted to our regular one”? Quite a small consumer base, I suspect. Definitely NOT the prized audience of 20-35 year-olds.

Still not convinced? Take a look at Jewish and non-Jewish sites geared toward helping those who have fallen due to the internet. Read the stories, feel the pain, weep the tears, tears of good and decent people who fell off the cliff BECAUSE THERE WAS NO GATE AT THE EDGE OF IT! Hear it in their own words as they describe their history. True, there are often other issues at play, but take away the internet and they manage, they survive and sometimes even thrive. Hear how they started off innocently surfing the web for news and even Torah and how they ended up in the pit. Hayom omer lach asei cach umachar omer lach asei cach. Hear how the internet was the catalyst for their fall off the deep end, a fall that led to broken marriages, broken homes and broken hearts. Do the underlying issues need to be dealt with? Of course! But should we leave the bor birshus harabim unfixed and uncovered because someone has a limp? Shouldn’t we deal with what’s in front of us along with what’s deep inside us?

Ask them, the fallen. Ask them if they would’ve preferred to never have surfed the internet to begin with. They’ll be honest, they’ll admit that the internet is not the root of their PROBLEMS but it is often the root of their DOWNFALL. Of course we should and DO work on the positive, it is good after all that we seek. But it’s not enough.

Before you criticize a good faith attempt by truly caring individuals, do your research, ask around. Put your heart and soul into it. Speak to people who have fallen due to the internet. Speak to the askanim and the rabbis who are weary and broken from case after case of internet-related tzaros that come to their doorstep. You can be sure, if there were ANY other way, our leaders would GRAB it with both hands. No one is interested in bans, especially in this day and age. Put the cynicism on hiatus for a moment while you get some REAL information, not the lies and half truths you read in the media and on blogs. The two Rabbis behind it all, the Skulener Rebber and Rabbi Matisyahu Solomon are true ehrliche Yidden, sick and frail individuals, who have NOTHING to gain from all this, except possible relief to Yiddishe Kinder. Do you have purer intentions then them?

You want to criticize, you want to have a deah (opinion)? Sure, but first spend a month dealing with the practical, real, life-and-death issues the internet has caused. Talk to the nameless, faceless sholom bayis counselors and educators who toil in the trenches and are begging for relief from the endless parade of internet causalities.  If you still feel the way you do now, we can continue this discussion.

Something tells me you won’t.