Tzarich Iyun > “Seder Sheni”: Reflections > Morality > “A Bissel Mentchlichkeit?” Decency in Charedi Society

“A Bissel Mentchlichkeit?” Decency in Charedi Society

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Yitzhak Stern Professional Editor Specializing in Torah Texts

It sometimes seems that everyday human etiquette, an occasionally even basic decency, are somehow missing from Charedi society. Some will claim that the reason for this might is that "being a mentch" is not included in our religious duties. But delving deeper reveals that this is not if fact the case. The true reason for occasional neglect of "good manners" is the separation of the "holy" and the "mundane" into distinct spheres, as common in Charedi society. The outcome of this separation is that a focus on the religious sphere can cause neglect of the mundane.

Elul 5778, August 2018
 

Much of humanity—possibly the majority—agrees upon a set of values that we could loosely call “proper human behavior.” Can it be that these values are undersubscribed in the Haredi world? At times it appears that in scrupulously trying to follow our religious obligations to Hashem, we do not find any order to “be a mentsch.” We know, however, that the Haredi public does not really believe that. I would suggest that the reason for the abandonment of education for proper daily behavior is the separation of secular and sacred lives into segregated universes. This sometimes diverts the attention of the religious person from his human obligations in general society.

One Shabbat, when I was crammed with dozens of other prayers in one of the shtiblach rooms in the Beis Yisrael neighborhood, two people caught my attention. The first, a young man in his thirties, brought three small children with him to prayer, aged six and below. The disruptions of prayer were inevitable, and with them the comments the father received from the prayers in the synagogue. The second was an older man with a serious and weighty countenance, who pushed his way to pray where he wished, in the process pushing a number of people aside without noticing.

These two actions bothered me, and their lack of consideration for people around them screamed for attention. But I found myself judging the young father favorably. I could easily find logical justification for his actions, even though his disruption of the prayers was deliberate and conscious. By contrast, I had great difficulty accepting the other man, even though it was clear that his behavior derived from lack of awareness and attention to the consequences of his actions for others.

How could he so rudely push the people in his path, with such profound inattention, convinced that he is observing a commandment?

I began to question what so bothered me about this minor lack of consideration. Why did the fact that it was based on inattention make me feel more uncomfortable, rather than more accepting or forgiving? I understood that it was the inattention itself that infuriated me, perhaps even more than the actual deed. Not only did I refuse to judge him favorably for it, but I found it to be his key infraction.

I will attempt to unpack the moral approach which likely was at the source of his conduct. How could he so rudely push the people in his path, with such profound inattention, convinced that he is observing a commandment — standing before his Maker in his special corner? The basis of this discussion lies in the question of the relationship between morality and obligation in the religious world.

 

Between Human Morality and Religious Obligations

The relationship between religious duty and human morality is a question as old as time. Many thinkers have devoted thought to it and we can hear its echoes already in the beginning of recoreded philosophical thought. But since the rise of humanism in the West, this question has become particularly important. Western humanism places man at the center of the universe. His morality was therefore shaped around the happiness and good of the individual. The spirit of humanism greatly undermined the traditional balance in which religion was also charged with the correction of human virtues and his moral direction as well as his worship of God. It has forced  the two to become combatants.

The challenge of humanism aroused various responses in the Jewish world. Rabbi Haim Navon mentions three approaches to the new tension  between morality and religious duty.

According to Leibowitz, the believing Jew is not a man of morality. “Morality” is a humanistic term which places man at the center

The first is the approach of Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who believes that Judaism is indeed detached from moral values, instead serving as “the principled and normative marker of contradiction between religion and morality.” According to Leibowitz, the believing Jew is not a man of morality. “Morality” is a humanistic term which places man at the center, while Judaism, and really every religion, places God at the center. Thus, we should not expect a religious man to be more moral than others. To be religious is to worship God, which includes observing halacha; it is not a means to any other goal.

To strengthen his position, Leibowitz tended to quote the Sages: “He who deals in Torah for its own sake, it becomes for him a life-giving potion. He who deals with Torah not for its own sake—it becomes for him a death potion.” Leibowitz objected to attempts to explain Torah and its laws as molders of character, and sources of humanistic benefit. Torah, simply put, is worship of God. Finding humanistic dividends is practicing Torah not for its sake at best, and idolatry at worst:

“So long as the religiosity of a person expresses but his self-awareness, his conscience, his morals, his values—his religious act is worship where he worships himself, and therefore is rebelling against the Kingdom of Heaven. […] Every action in which a person satisfies his own needs—whether material needs or spiritual or psychological needs—this is worship of self and not worship of God. […] An expression of the worship of God is, for instance, the wearing of tefillin according to all details and rules, such as square tefillin, black strips, and so on: A person has no motive to do this, and there can be no motive other than doing the will of God who commanded it. Accordingly, we worship of God through a Shabbos replete with strange halachos possessing no significance in terms of the physiological, social, or psychological needs of man.”

At the other end of the spectrum is Rav Kook. In his opinion, Torah and human life are forged from a single Divine source. Religion and man are not two different categories, but a single harmonious collection. The Torah needs to adapt to life, and life to Torah:

“The honest man needs to believe in his life, meaning that he should believe in his own life and feelings following the straight path from the foundation of his soul, that they are good and straight and that they lead in a straight line … The Jew must believe, that a Divine soul lies within him, that his entire being is a single letter from the Torah.”

In between these two approaches—the one detaching religious duty from morals and the one connecting them—Rabbi Navon places the thinking of Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik.

In various places, Rav Soloveitchik says that there is a close connection between Torah and nature. However, he does not consider this connection to be a complete merging. The Torah does not fit nature as it is, instead describing how it should be. Thus, Rav Soloveitchik describes the sacrifice which the Torah demands of people. In his monumental article “Combination” he points to the retreat and concession demanded of the observant Jew in various areas of his life: physical, emotional, and even intellectual and spiritual. In all these areas, man does not fulfill himself in complete measure, and this is the sacrifice Judaism demands of him. He disputes Rav Kook, who stressed the harmony between the laws of the Torah and human nature, in understanding that religious life involves sacrifice. The Torah wishes to shape man, and is not necessarily seeking the path to help him perfectly express happiness in its primal human sense.

In various places, Rav Soloveitchik says that there is a close connection between Torah and nature. However, he does not consider this connection to be a complete merging. The Torah does not fit nature as it is, instead describing how it should be.

In the opinion of Rav Soloveitchik, the Torah wishes to create an ideal world—an ideal version of the world we know. The aim of the Torah is to elevate reality, improve it. For that purpose, it sometimes needs to minimize and restrict man’s place. The Torah is not humanistic, in the sense that it does not place the good of the individual at the center, but rather wishes to elevate the whole world to a higher level. This happens not through some miraculous mystical-spiritual transcendence, but rather through the granting of a greater significance to life.

Rav Soloveitchik elaborates on the principled meaning of the Torah and its attitude to the world:

“The creation of the world is a moral act, which found its completion in the revelation at Sinai, the materialization of the moral-revelation commandment is an act of creation. The correction of reality is a moral act. The fact of the “is” is the embodiment of the moral will. A moral act is a creative and renewing act. The supreme purpose of man is to live a complete and sophisticated existence and also participate in the uplifting of the reality of others. […] Halachic Judaism is therefore riven with complete optimism. […] It is hungry and thirsty for tangible life and the majesty of its beauty. […] All existence is a moral outburst of the infinite, and the moral purpose of man is to exist in the uniqueness which he was graced by God.”

 

Haredi-ism and Humanistic Morals

What is the common approach in Haredi society on this question? Some will say that Haredi-ism is effectively Leibowitzian. Its separation from practical life represents a position that the Torah is solely a religious business, and it has nothing to do with human life. But a deeper look reveals that Leibowitz’s approach is in fact furiously rejected in Haredi society.

According to Leibowitz, the separation of religion and state is quite easy—these are two entirely different realms, and there is therefore no reason to oppose a secular state dealing with the humanistic sides of life. Religion need not be hostile to the idea of secularism. Leibowitz’s thought legitimizes humanism in that it restricts religion into a narrow framework, defining where it is relevant and where it stakes no claim.

Leibowitz’s thought legitimizes humanism in that it restricts religion into a narrow framework… The Haredi approach is entirely different.

The Haredi approach is entirely different. Haredism rejects the legitimacy of humanism. It does not accept the separation of realms. To the extent that it separates itself from the political arena, this derives from bitterness, an admission that “We are in exile.” The fundamental Haredi approach argues that there is no separation, and that the only way to live is the Orthodox way. This belief is well-rooted in every Haredi person, who knows how to say that the Torah should guide all the ways of man and improve his path, both in his dealing with other people and his dealing with God.

It thus seems that we should ostensibly seek the Haredi approach in the thinking of Rav Soloveitchik or Rav Kook. Both stress the commitment of Halakhic Man to walk in the path of human morality in all his ways, and that humanistic good is not contrary to religion but the opposite—it is its purpose and reason for being.

The issue is that it appears that parts of Haredi society are not adopting this position in a simple manner, and the story mentioned above is a small example of that. Parts of Haredi society have a clear tendency towards religious duty, while abandoning human duties. This does not occur due to a principled dismissal of the importance of considerate human behavior, but rather simple inattention. The tendency happens on its own, without normative thinking: People simply don’t notice that they are trampling the other. Why then does this happen? What is the source of this sharp tendency in the direction of religious duty at the expense of basic human duty?

 

The Place of Sanctity and the Place of the Secular

In Maseches Yoma (53a), the Sages mention the dispute between the Tzdukim and the Prushim regarding the location of the incense which the High Priest prepares on Yom Kippur:

“Our Rabbis taught: And he shall put the incense upon the fire before the Lord:2 i.e., he must not put it in order outside and thus bring it in. [This is] to remove the error from the minds of the Sadducees who said: He must prepare it without, and bring it in. What is their interpretation? — For I appear in the cloud upon the ark-cover3 ‘that teaches us that he prepares it outside and brings it in’. The Sages said to them: But it is said already ‘And he shall put the incense upon the fire before the Lord’.”

According to the Tzdukim, the priest prepares the incense outside the Holy of Holies, and only afterwards enters with the incense and smoke to the Holy of Holies. The Prushim, meanwhile, say that the High Priest deals in preparing the incense while inside the Holy of Holies. They argue that the preparation also needs to be done inside, while the Tzdukim insist that such preparations have no place inside the Holy of Holies. Such arrangements all belong outside.

In his article regarding the meaning of the sacrifices and incense, Dr. Zeev Friedman argues that this dispute reflects a profound difference in the worldviews of the Prushim and Tzdukim. According to him, this is not some marginal dispute over the High Priest’s use of incense, but a fundamental debate about life and the understanding of the world. The dispute presents two worldviews regarding the connection between a life of holiness and a life within the secular, a life of spirit as opposed to the life of the spirit, and deals with the question: Can the sacred and the secular serve together in an integrated framework of life, or should they be separated into different realms.

The view of the Prushim, however, is that there is only one realm of life, which combines the sacred and the secular, spirit and matter, worship and Torah.

Their dispute is not therefore whether the Torah has something to say about secular life. Both agree that the instructions of the Torah include human aspects alongside religious ones. The question is rather whether they exist in a single realm, or in two separated ones. The Tzdukim argue that the sacred and the secular must be kept fully separate, and therefore the physical part of preparing the incense should be in a separate realm. For them, the sacred and the secular cannot be mixed.

The view of the Prushim, however, is that there is only one realm of life, which combines the sacred and the secular, spirit and matter, worship and Torah. There is of course a distinction between sacred and secular, but they exist in a single realm. The sacred contains the secular and the secular the sacred. Therefore even the holiest place, on the holiest day, in the Holy of Holies where the High Priest enters on Yom Kippur, there is a dimension of secular worship.

What are the consequences of this dispute? To my understanding, the separation between the realm of the sacred and the realm of the secular creates a barrier of consciousness which allows people to “forget” about the sacred within the secular and the secular within the sacred. A man can greatly excel in the sacred realm, but also forget that it contains an aspect of the secular. Moreover, this approach makes it very easy for him to live a life of double standards—being diligent to observe every detail of work within the sacred, but acting with inattention leading to the trampling of others within the secular realm.

By contrast, according to the Prushim, for whom the sacred and the secular dwell within the same realm, it’s much harder to live this way. There is only a single realm where the sacred and the secular serve in different roles, and both require equal attention, and in this realm the sacred integrates into the secular and the secular into the sacred. Proper behavior in secular life has a dimension of holiness, and holiness also has a dimension of secular—the preparation and placement of incense.

 

Neglecting the Human Aspect

The Haredi public has gotten used to being proud of its education system and the fruits it bears. We often hear Haredim taking pride in the degree to which the children educated in their system are suffused with values and decency, compared to other educational systems. I agree that there is virtue to Haredi education which does not exist elsewhere. Youth in the Haredi community are gentle and noble far more than those the same age in other places. However, I wish to point to something which is often forgotten and shunted to the side.

A great gap is opened between educating for observing the mitzvot and educating for humanity and “secular” values—of the sort which are not directly related to religious commandments.

A great gap is opened between educating for observing the mitzvot and educating for humanity and “secular” values—of the sort which are not directly related to religious commandments. It is not rare to see a child walking with his parents who throws a food wrapper on the ground, or who damages something in the public sphere, without any response on the part of his parents. If that same child had thrown down “shaimos” (words of Torah requiring geniza and the like) or that the damaged object had been private property (and a clear case of “gezel”), there would be a sharp reaction to his deeds. However, it turns out that to be “human,” to be a “mentsch,” is not a value of real importance to the parents. Children raised to be Torah observant are not taught to be “simply” human, when a positive commandment or explicit sin is involved.

And here we must ask: Why? After all, every Haredi will admit that Judaism requires that people act in an appropriately humane way, beyond the explicit obligations and letter of religious law?

To my understanding, the Haredi worldview is characterized by the detachment of the simple and daily experience of “this world” and the life of Torah and Mitzvot oriented towards the “next world,” between a life of the secular and a life of the sacred. Eating, drinking, or strolling down the street belong to the realm of the life of the secular, while commandments and sins exist under another roof—that of the sacred. Between the two realms, there is no complete synchronicity.

The ability to bestride these two realms at the same time is complicated and difficult, and the center of gravity naturally moves to one of the two. Since we observe the Torah and the mItzvot, believe in God and in the reward to come, we place the emphasis on our spiritual life—a life of Torah and mitzvot—and neglect the involvement in the realm of the secular. This realm therefore becomes marginal, of the sort that can be ignored. Anything which is not a commandment has no place, since it has no presence in the realm of the sacred. It is something standing “outside,” and is therefore characterized by inattention more than anything else.

This realm therefore becomes marginal, of the sort that can be ignored. Anything which is not a commandment has no place, since it has no presence in the realm of the sacred.

We thus have a situation where daily life passes by through deliberate inattention, while the observance of the Mitzvot is pursued actively, sometimes even somewhat artificially. Let be bring the example of the meal known (mistakenly) as the “amenim se’uda.” People sit and create a situation of the “life of the sacred,” and force on themselves an improvised meal in order to answer another “amen,” completely ignoring the meaning of the meal and blessing in secular life. The “secular” significance of eating disappears to the point of insignificance, and it receives meaning only within the realm of the sacred—answering “amen.”

The attitude to the acts of children is measured by the same yardstick: So long as the act does not belong to the system of commandments and sins of the sacred life, far less attention is paid it. We find that the world built up within the child is only that of the World to Come, while This World is deliberately neglected. A deviation from human morals which does not touch on a religious aspect is not picked up by his radar, which is sensitive only to commandments.

As a result of the detachment of the religious realm from the human one, and the preference for the former, a situation emerges where moral indifference and passivity reigns in the human realm.

As a result of the detachment of the religious realm from the human one, and the preference for the former, a situation emerges where moral indifference and passivity reigns in the human realm. The person’s behavior in this realm is primarily influence by their need for survival, without any thought on the results of the action and the consequences for others or his surroundings. This does not God forbid derive from wickedness, but from the separation of the realms and the focus on only one.

The man who pushed his fellow man from his place through inattention demonstrates the results of an education focused solely on the religious realm. His behavior reflects an inculcation of inattention to anything which is not a commandment or sin. It is likely that if the act had involved a sin explicitly laid down, he would certainly have avoided it. Moreover, if he had seen another do it, he would be diligent in fulfilling the commandment of rebuke. But at the same time, that person would be occupying the realm of the sacred – and it alone. In the realm of the life of the secular he seeks a comfortable place in the synagogue, and in this realm he pays no attention to moral conduct, only self-interest—even if it is spiritual self-interest.

***

The thinking that God’s commandment has nothing to do with human morality is fundamentally erroneous, and the Haredi approach is very distant from it. Every believing Jew understands that we are commanded by Hashem to eschew inappropriate actions, not just when they are formal “sins,” described as such in the literature of Chazal, but rather they are sins because they are inappropriate acts! When Haredi society separates human morality and religious morality, it creates separate realms that needn’t speak to each other. This separation is artificial, and the result is the exaltation of the life of the sacred and the neglect of the moral aspect of human life. The proper path is what the Sages taught us—the unification of both realms, with diligent attention given to both the sacred and the morality in secular life.

We are the students of the Prushim, and the secular and the sacred are supposed to exist within the same realm for us. There is no real need to leave the human realm to observe commandments or avoid sin. We must absorb that attention to details in daily life is not an act of dismissal of the Torah, but the contrary—a supreme value, and part and parcel of its observance.

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