The Abnormality of Excellence

Response Article To "Toward a Charedi Middle Class"

Rabbi Moshe Farkash Avrech, disciple of Rabbi Moshe Shapira zt"l

The New Charedim are not searching for their path; it has already been paved before them, and it does not resemble that of the Old Charedim. Their problem is not finding a path, but rather finding an identity. To solve this they try to restate Charedi society such that it meets their lifestyle. Rabbi Pfeffer's attempt to mediate between the two by glorifying "religious excellence" is doomed to fail, since this is the very ethos that that ruined the "normalcy" of the original Charedi bourgeois.

Elul 5778, August 2018

Rabbi Pfeffer’s article “Towards a Haredi Middle Class” stands on two principal pillars. One is the nature of the bourgeois, and the positive effect of its integration into Haredi society. The second is a proposal for a “new-old” Haredi ethos that would allow Haredi society to live in peace with a developing bourgeois ethos. Below, I will question the motive for this attempt at peacemaking between the Haredi ethos and the bourgeois, and whether or not “religious excellence” can indeed be the basis for establishing a Haredi middle class.

 

Questions of Identity

In the article, Rabbi Pfeffer describes the social processes that led him to seek a new ethos for Haredi society:

“Many thousands of Haredi men and women have already making their way into Israeli academia, the general workforce, and public service. Even in terms of culture and leisure, large swaths of Haredi society have over recent years moved closer to general society, a proximity that can be discerned both in development of a Haredi cultural alternative to that of general society, and in increasing Haredi consumption of general culture (the popular Shtisel series, depicting a Haredi family residing in Me’ah She’arim, is a good example). Growing numbers of Haredi Facebook groups and a significant presence on other social media platforms also indicate an unprecedented level of openness and integration. …

My intention here is … to pose the pressing question: What do these processes mean for the future of Haredi society, and how do we deal with them?”

The article proposes a solution to the question of “how to deal with them”—with the processes taking place within Haredi society—but does not come to terms with the more fundamental question of why these processes require a solution in the first place. To the contrary, the article declares that asceticism in its Haredi form is not required by the Torah. Given that this is the case, the processes of embourgeoisement in Haredi society are ostensibly natural and beneficial. Why is there a need to “deal” with them?

Later in the article, however, we discover the problematic nature of the embourgeoisement process:

“But in what sense is there Haredi-ism here? Can somebody who does not fulfill the triple asceticism outlined above, rooted in a profound detachment from surrounding society, be numbered among Haredi society? Are external markers—clothing, language, food, culture—sufficient for entry into the community? Can Haredi-ism dwell alongside in peaceful coexistence with the bourgeois tendency toward comfortable mediocrity?”

The author amplifies the challenge of dealing with the embourgeoisement process, and asks: “where do we go from here?” Ostensibly, we could calm the minds of those “new Haredim” asking “where do we go from here?” by answering: “Continue along your present path.” This, it seems from reading the article, is simply the balanced and correct path upon which to tread. At least for the many, the path of “Torah with the way of the world” is more appropriate than the old Haredi asceticism. What, then, is the problem? The predicament itself, it could be argued, is a solution rather than a problem!

[T]he question of “where do we go from here?” hides a deeper crisis—a crisis of identity. The new bourgeois is not seeking its path per se but is rather questioning its continuity as a Haredi group.

If this simple answer did not occur to the author, even after his discussion of Rabbi Yishmael concerning the importance of following “the way of the world,” the reason must be that the question of “where do we go from here?” hides a deeper crisis—a crisis of identity. The new bourgeois is not seeking its path per se but is rather questioning its continuity as a Haredi group. The “new Haredi” asks himself: I have (to a large degree) abandoned the fundamental values and strict way of life of Haredi society. I consume secular culture, devote time to leisure, do not abide by the halachic strictures of Haredi society, study in academia, am willing (at least in principle) to serve in the army, am connected to various social media platforms—so what exactly makes me Haredi? His way of life creates a profound identity crisis. The need of the individual to define himself as being part of a particular society, especially for those whose childhood is deeply rooted in that society, is an existential need. It is this need that begs the question of “where do we go from here?”

The general one receives from reading Rabbi Pfeffer’s article is that there is no serious religious or value-related issue in the “new Haredi’s” lifestyle, but only that it creates an existential need for self-definition. Prima facie, we could propose establishing a new society that does not affiliate with an existing Haredi group, and which would create its own ethos and define itself separately from old Haredi society. For reasons he does not specify, the author refuses to take this path; we can speculate that the reason is that the “new Haredi will not easily give up (if at all) the title “Haredi.” The author therefore considers the desirable solution to be not the establishment of a new society, but a different definition of existing Haredi society, which could also include the new Haredim. He wishes to found Haredi life on “religious excellence” rather than “asceticism,” which will allow the new Haredim to be accepted as full members in the community of God.

The need of the individual to define himself as being part of a particular society, especially for those whose childhood is deeply rooted in that society, is an existential need. It is this need that begs the question of “where do we go from here?”

The author is aware that this new definition of Haredi-ism cannot emerge from the new Haredim themselves. So long as the definition is unacceptable to the core Haredi public, the identity crisis will remain in place. The author therefore calls on the authentic Haredi community to adjust its own self-definition, so as to contain the new Haredim: “Social change is taking place “bottom up,” while institutional change “top down” is dithering. The sooner it comes, the better.”

To my understanding, it is naïve to think that the Haredi establishment will heed this call, if only because its declared purpose is to create a society that can include the new-Haredim, whose way of life is foreign to the old Haredi ways. It seems to me that this alone is hardly a convincing reason to change one’s self-definition.

 

“Religious Excellence” vs. the Bourgeois Ethos

At this stage, I wish to examine the core of Rabbi Pfeffer’s proposal: “Haredi society as religious excellence.” The author sees “excellence” as an ethos that can include all levels of society, and he emphatically states that “by contrast with a life of asceticism, the demand for excellence is not reserved for individuals alone.” For the author, “excellence” is a ethos that provides an encouraging and refreshing spirit, and which can produce a “religious revival” and not just a negative self-image of asceticism and separation.

The problem is that “excellence,” by its very definition, means distinction—as Rabbi Pfeffer himself notes from the Sages. The “excellent” stands out in being different from his lesser competitors. When the People of Israel are required to be excellent, this means they are must excel at something that does not exist among other nations. “Excellence” is forever the superiority of the individual compared to his peers. It is so when it comes to one nation among other nations, to a society among other societies, and to a worker among his colleagues.

[I]f we wish to actually define the proposed “religious excellence,” it seems we will simply return to the familiar definition of Haredi society, which the author wishes to escape.

Thus, if we wish to actually define the proposed “religious excellence,” it seems we will simply return to the familiar definition of Haredi society, which the author wishes to escape. The verse Rabbi Pfeffer uses to demonstrate the trait of excellence characterizes Israel as a “holy nation.” How does one become a “holy nation”? By excelling at religious obligations, by observing all halachic practices with their stringencies and details, and by isolating from secular culture. And since Torah study is a supreme value, a society that wishes to excel will invest all its energy in Torah study to achieve excellence in this field.

In general, a society or person who wishes to excel in the love of God, His fear and His cleaving, will of course invest all available energies in these fields, inevitably reducing involvement in other fields to the necessary minimum. Even if we assume that asceticism is not an obligation upon everyone, it is unquestionably a prerequisite for those striving for religious excellence. What is the ethos of “dedicating one’s soul,” which Rabbi Pfeffer comes out against, if not religious excellence in the most exalted manner? Indeed, the system of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai—to leave behind affairs of this world and focus exclusively on Torah—is the true and complete representation of excellence. This is why only the few succeeded at it; “excellence” is a matter for the select.

Excellence in any given field requires the investment of many resources, both spiritual and physical, and necessarily detracts from other fields. Excellence in the religious field, and the necessary direction of most of one’s resources toward achieving it, will necessarily detract from skill in earthly affairs. Subsequently, if Haredi society is indeed undergoing processes of “normalization,” as the article argues, it must give up a degree of striving for excellence. The meaning of this “normalization” is the absorption of the idea that excellence can only work for a few.

 

Excellence Destroys the Bourgeois “Normality”

Not only can the striving for excellence not dwell alongside the bourgeois ethos; it was also the very principle that formed Haredi society in its present form.

One of the examples Rabbi Pfeffer brings for religious excellence in the bourgeois framework is a man who works for a living and devotes an hour in the early morning to study Torah. Indeed, this was the image of many fine Jews over the generations. But Haredi society presents a different image. In the Haredi mindset, the Jew who awakens early for Torah study—who wishes to excel in his religious practice—tells himself: “If I am anyway striving to excel in Torah, why not excel further? Why not study more hours, live more frugally?” Even if he, himself, doesn’t entirely succeed in the mission, from their early years he raises his children to aspire to religious excellence, and they naturally become kollel students dedicated immersed in Torah study from morning to night. The ethos of excellence is what destroyed the ideal bourgeois “normalization.”

It is both impossible and absurd to create a social ethos of excellence while ensuring that society should not excel too much.

It is both impossible and absurd to create a social ethos of excellence while ensuring that society should not excel too much. If somebody wishes to excel in mathematics, he will not stop at devoting an early hour each day to study math. The more he aims to excel, the more hours he will devote to his studies, even at the expense of working hours or other endeavors. A person truly interested in excelling at mathematics will not be quieted when told that his efforts of daily study are commendable, and that he is already a master in his field, though his knowledge remains woefully incomplete. Moreover, even if the trials and tribulation of life do not allow this ambitious mathematician to excel, he will no doubt strive to ensure that his son will succeed where he did not—including doing all he can to ensure his son will be free to invest the maximum in studying math.

In short, the author is correct in stating that Haredi society is built on religious excellence, but that’s just the point: The Haredi world as it exists today is the result of a society that educates its members and children for religious excellence. Some of Haredi society meets the obligations of asceticism happily, some with sorrow, some waver, and some give up. Like any elite unit in which every member aims to excel, only some make it to the finish line.

***

This conclusion does not mean that all is fine in Haredi society, and that it has no need for criticism or rethinking. Natural increase has indeed created a situation in which the ethos of religious excellence has left many behind. In this article I only aimed to show that we need to separate the question of identity and the question of values, and that the idea of “Haredi-ism as excellence” does not solve the problem—it only magnifies it.


photo: Bigstock

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