The job of a social critic is always a delicate one. Even the most legitimate and accurate observations often provoke defensiveness and counter arguments, frequently including ad hominem claims. But while not belittling the sacrifice made by social critics everywhere, when it comes to frum society the sphere of social criticism becomes a bona fide minefield, and the sacrifice of its protagonists potentially huge.
It is understandable that negative coverage of the frum community should add significant agita to the dynamic of social criticism. After all, the frum lifestyle is presumed to be identified with and characterized by an all-encompassing commitment to Torah and Mitzvos. A life informed by the Torah and its values is rightly assumed to represent the best possible way to live life. To call out unique social ills of the frum community is to suggest that a society actualizing the Torah’s loftiest ideals still maintains its own share of suboptimal social realia.
[W]hile not belittling the sacrifice made by social critics everywhere, when in comes to frum society the sphere of social criticism becomes a bona fide minefield, and the sacrifice of its protagonists potentially huge
Yet at the end of the day, every society is comprised of human beings; it cannot be more perfect than its human constituents, who are by definition imperfect. For frum society topics of critique often include—without getting into detail—such issues as attitudes towards safety standards, an uneasy relationship with government, attitudes towards women, or our schools’ ostensible insistence on a monolithic parent body, to the exclusion of those are (or appear to be) slightly different. For many decades such matters were not confronted publicly. Even today, when the defensive posture behind our need to preserve the “perfect community” narrative has relaxed somewhat, we remain uncomfortable when such skeletons peek out from behind the closet door.
While those born and raised within the frum community (“Frum From Birth” or “FFB”) may develop, through sheer exposure, a measure of resilience to these tensions, baalei teshuva or others who join the yeshivish and chassidish communities later in life have a much harder time facing internal social ills. They are far more likely to be aware of and grapple with the inconsistency of a theoretically model community that hides deep and unpleasant flaws (barely) beneath the surface. Without a doubt, a frum lifestyle offers the incredible beauty of chessed, Shabbos, and family life, as well as other central elements of belonging to a Torah-true society; but other aspects of the community are less heartwarming. To some extent, the teshuva movement’s slowdown might be related to the frum community’s difficulty keeping up with the image it created for itself.
A common rejoinder to such critique is to remind those who raise it not to confuse Judaism with Jews: The fact that some Jews manifest inappropriate behavior should not call into question the truth of Torah and its values. While true enough as such, this argument does not address the core issue. If we believe that the light of Torah guides each individual, and therefore society as a collection of such individuals, towards perfection, how can the Torah community be so glaringly deficient in some areas?
Reactions to this challenge generally fall into one of three categories: denial, rejection, or accommodation. Denial is quite bold and straightforward. Social ills simply do not exist in the frum community, certainly not in a variety exclusive to our society. If they can be found at all, they are no more common in our community than in general society. Even obviously unique community challenges, such as schools rejecting a family for non-substantive reasons, will be rationalized by the prodigious Jewish intellect and its ability to find explanations for all phenomena and positions.
At the other end of the reaction spectrum is the unfortunate tendency to see these social problems as reason to reject the Torah community’s values outright. Thus, the very existence of negative elements is seen as proof that the Torah lifestyle is deeply misguided. After all, the claim goes, only a fundamentally broken value system could produce such deleterious side effects.
The third type of response acknowledges both the existence and uniqueness of the frum community’s problems but accepts them as legitimate or unavoidable trade-offs. Other communities, we will often hear, have far worse problems! We are better off within the familiar community framework, flaws and all, than in the swirling chaos of the street. If such challenges are simply the price one must pay to realize all the benefits of belonging in the community, then so be it.
While the third approach may provide a coping mechanism for individuals facing the existence of undesirable social phenomena, it nonetheless fails to address the central question: Why do such problems occur in the first place? How does a community that aims to live up to the highest ideals develop its own unique and significant deficiencies?
Torah Values and Community Norms
Our various sub-communities, yeshivish, chassidish, and so on, are often grouped under the more general label of Ultra-Orthodox or Charedi. Yet, these latter terms themselves are largely undefined, in part because their very usefulness in providing an easy, recognizable shorthand for a large community relies on a certain ambiguity. For the purpose of the present article, I would like to more fully develop the meaning packed into these names.
First, Ultra-Orthodox or Charedi cannot not describe all those who observe Torah and Mitzvos; many religiously observant people would not call themselves “Charedi.” Nor can this label, which legitimately includes many Sephardic communities, reasonably draw upon a particular version of Eastern European piety. Most importantly, it would be incorrect to suggest that Ultra-Orthodox or Charedi is simply a more serious or committed version of Jewish Orthodoxy. The roots of today’s Charedi community go back to 19th century self-definition, when the term “Orthodox” was adopted by the Torah-true community as a means of separating from an increasingly distinct secular Judaism. But today these terms operate in different realms. “Orthodox” is a catch-all label for Torah observant Jews, while distinct social norms and unique codes of conduct confer the “Ultra-Orthodox” or “Charedi” moniker. In short, today’s Charedi community is a subset of the larger Orthodox denomination.
On the one hand, [Charedi] communities stand for complete and careful commitment to observance of Torah and Mitzvos. On the other, this unwavering devotion to Torah is accompanied by additional layers of communal norms. The latter are, for the most part, borne of an innate conservatism and a desire to remain distant and isolated from general society and its potentially harmful influences
Charedi communities are distinctive because they weave together these two elements. On the one hand, these communities stand for complete and careful commitment to observance of Torah and Mitzvos. On the other, this unwavering devotion to Torah is accompanied by additional layers of communal norms. The latter are, for the most part, borne of an innate conservatism and a desire to remain distant and isolated from general society and its potentially harmful influences. Today, with the passage of time and ever-increasing entrenchment of these norms, it can often be difficult to discern what is assigned greater weight in the community’s value system—actual halacha or accepted communal practice. And it is precisely at this nexus of Torah observance and cultural norms that we encounter the issues under discussion in the present essay—those communal ills that elicit cries of “how can such-and-such phenomena exist in our community?!”
One example of this distinction is Charedi society’s distrustful relationship with secular authorities. Historically, the Jewish community frequently had much to fear from government, whether in the form of far-away rulers or local officials. Jews were always fair game for persecution and the Jewish way of life was often the subject of deliberate disruption. Sometimes these threats were spiritual—forced conversions or attempts to otherwise acculturate Jews; at other times the threat manifested in government-endorsed pogroms. Later, in the newly created State of Israel, the secular Jewish government posed a direct threat to the traditional values and lifestyle of the frum community. For all these reasons, distrust and avoidance of authorities was a matter of self-preservation, spiritual and physical. Today, while these factors are largely no longer present, our communities, in Israel and elsewhere, have inherited a legacy of suspicion and fear towards government. Practically, such dodging of secular authority extends well beyond areas that could plausibly be related to religious autonomy and community preservation. Instead, a general ambivalence towards certain areas of civil law prevails, including a hesitation to involve the authorities even in potentially criminal matters.
Commitment to Torah learning has likewise evolved. Always an immutable Jewish value, “learning” is now an institutionalized community norm, a lifestyle as much as an activity. Tremendous numbers of today’s Charedi men learn full-time, while their wives often function as primary breadwinners. Torah study and scholarship are thus promoted and elevated across all levels of Charedi society. Certainly, Charedi society has placed Talmud Torah at the very top of its value system. At the same time, in service of what is truly a central Jewish value, secondary (and less positive) consequences have emerged too. Disdain for those who leave the beis midrash to work for a living, and social pressure to remain “in learning” even at significant personal and family cost are unfortunate contemporary realities in many parts of our community.
Additional examples abound of how Jewish values and instincts have been transformed by way of socio-cultural interpretation into hard-to-defend practical applications. But one hardly needs further demonstration that the culture of Charedi society extends beyond actualizing the Torah’s highest values. While strict Torah observance remains the community’s central organizing principle, some of the very qualities that enable it to follow this path—staunch conservatism, a strong sectarian identity, and suspicion of the “other”—also produce undesirable side effects. As I shall argue below, these might not be entirely unavoidable; but we must acknowledge their presence. As individuals and as a community, we should know when our actions manifest purely Jewish values and when we are instead motivated by social and cultural norms, whose relationship with essential Torah is sometimes tenuous at best.
Normative Halacha Versus Community Norms
Why is it important to untangle those characteristics of our community that are truly Torah-informed from those that are but socio-cultural in nature?
Over the past several decades these boundaries have often been blurred, to the degree that defenders of the community sometimes seem more committed to its social norms than to essential halachic principles. To be clear, I am not suggesting that there has been a deliberate reconfiguration of the community’s value system. Rather, ignorance and poorly considered public policy have created a distinct culture in which some undesirable features have attached themselves to core values. Our educational system itself fails to adequately train children to differentiate between a ruling in the Shulchan Aruch and community norms.
Confusion between the two becomes most pronounced in situations where there is direct conflict between Halachic dicta and the Charedi community’s instinct. Interpersonal dealings might be the most egregious arena of such competing impulses. Much could be done to improve the strained relationships between Charedi society’s many and varied sub-groups, and to correct the unfortunate attitudes far too often evident with respect to those who are “different”—single parent families, baalei teshuva, and the like.
Honesty vis-à-vis government authority is another domain in which commonly accepted norms seem to have outweighed halachic ruling. It is well known that halacha establishes an obligation to comply with all civil laws that do not directly conflict with observance of Torah and Mitzvos. This is true in non-Jewish countries such as the United States, and likewise true—according to many mainstream Halachic authorities—in a Jewish-but-secular Israel. And yet, many seem quite comfortable gaining illegitimate access to government funds, whether in the form of evading taxes or by receiving questionable subsidies and benefits. The claim is generally not that dissenting Halachic rulings endorse such behavior; it is simply that the topic is not considered one that requires halachic analysis.
Confusion between the two becomes most pronounced in situations where there is direct conflict between Halachic dicta and the Charedi community’s instinct. Interpersonal dealings might be the most egregious arena of such competing impulses. Much could be done to improve the strained relationships between Charedi society’s many and varied sub-groups
Attitudes of this sort manifest themselves in a variety of applications. Our community is quite meticulous when it comes to respecting individual property and avoiding financial infringements of any kind. Yet, failing to report “off the books” income is rarely considered improper. Complex payroll arrangements, aimed at securing or maintaining enrollment in various public benefits programs, are very common, and in certain circles assumed as obvious. To be sure, the same people engaging in such activities would be horrified if they caught themselves or their children lying or being dishonest in any other setting. They are simply participating in a culture that takes for granted such “institutional” theft, tacitly asserting that undeserved receipt of public benefits is not theft at all. So entrenched is this mindset that individuals rarely consider the need to seek halachic guidance on such matters.
Similar paradoxes can arise even in the face of explicit halachic rulings, wherever these might conflict with a community norm. For instance, girls raised in a Bais Yaakov environment are typically taught to avoid wearing very long skirts and dresses. Such attire is considered excessively casual, hence “trashy” and immodest. Even a ruling issued by Rav Chaim Kanievsky whereby long skirts are in fact preferable failed to dislodge the attitude, seemingly encoded into the DNA of every Bais Yaakov graduate, that women in “our community” do not dress this way.
While Torah values and halachic rulings are occasionally overlooked or set aside, as in the instances above, Charedi community norms are sometimes elevated to the level of absolute canon. A perhaps minor but still pervasive case study is the accepted text used to sign invitations. It is now very common for the Hebrew text of a wedding or bar mitzva invitation to identify the hosts as “Ploni Almoni and his wife,” or in some Chassidic communities, “Ploni Almoni and his household.” In Israel this practice has become virtually universal.
It should be no shock to the reader that there is but shaky historical precedent for this practice. For example, in her biography about Rebbetzin Kanievsky (wife of Rav Chaim Kanievsky and daughter of Rav Elyashiv zt”l) the author shares an image of Rebbetzin Kanievsky’s parents’ wedding invitation, in which guests were invited not by a mysterious “household,” but by “HaRav Avraham V’HaRabanit Chaya Musha Elyashiv” and “HaRav Aryeh V’HaRabanit Tziporah Chana Levine.” And while we may correctly argue that our generation’s adherence to halacha should be ever growing, it seems far-fetched to suggest that we discovered a halacha unknown to these great Rabbis. Of course, any reasonable member of the community would acknowledge when pressed that the text of a wedding invitation is not a halachic issue. And yet, many families will insist on the accepted practice, even at the cost of major disagreement with the other side or to the point of printing separate versions of the same invitation.
I am fairly certain that thinking members of the community will recognize these few illustrations as reasonable examples of a tendency to place socio-cultural codes and norms on a pedestal that is nearly on par with actual halacha and innate Torah values
And of course, there is the question of publishing women’s pictures. Charedi publications, for many years and especially in Israel, have refrained from publishing pictures of women altogether, even in media aimed at women (but which might be picked up by a man). In some Chassidic outlets, even simple illustrations of women and girls are disallowed. Currently at the center of a vocal public debate in the American Charedi community, calls for including pictures of women have not yet targeted print media in Israel. Regardless of the parameters that publishers will ultimately decide on, the root of the controversy, and the inevitable criticism leveled at those who might opt to include pictures of women, is hardly a halachic issue but rather a community norm.
As a final example, we might consider the Charedi dress code or “uniform.” In yeshiva communities and other Charedi concentrations, a man who strays from the white shirt/dark suit and hat ensemble is subject to merciless evaluation as “different” and may jeopardize his child’s acceptance into desirable schools. In the most unforgiving settings, such judgement extends to the slightest nuance, such as a man who wears tcheiles or a woman who opts to cover her head with a headscarf instead of a wig. The fact that these choices might be supported by halachic positions is of no relevance; it is the deviation from cultural norm that causes others to look at them askance.
There are many other examples we could mention, several of which (such as discrimination of the Sephardic sector common to Ashkenazi Charedi society) have been voiced on the pages of Tzarich Iyun; but I do not see a reason to continue our list any further. I am fairly certain that thinking members of the community will recognize these few illustrations as reasonable examples of a tendency to place socio-cultural codes and norms on a pedestal that is nearly on par with actual halacha and innate Torah values.
Change is Possible!
Bifurcating between Torah-driven values and norms that evolved into cultural cues and codes helps explain how it is that a community marching under the banner of Torah’s highest ideals can yet manifest uniquely distressing phenomena. Indeed, these ideals are true and remain intact as central organizing principles. Yet, the community has adopted, and even sanctified, cultural norms and behaviors that its conservative instincts have in turn rallied to preserve and strengthen.
In addition to forming a factual response to external critics of Charedi society, the above analysis also provides a useful inward-facing tool with which to assess the merits of any critique. While we may instinctively, and often legitimately, look to defend our community from any and every attack, circling the wagons around every feature and cultural quirk can be dangerous. Our refusal to even consider legitimate social criticism will inevitably cause some to wonder if we should also be similarly defensive about the community’s core values. If we are to prevent individuals from losing their connection entirely, we must learn to differentiate between attacks on essential principles of Torah and reasonable criticism of phenomena we should in fact weed out.
For example, criticizing the centrality of Torah study in the Charedi community is a direct attack on an essential value of Judaism, a modern recasting of the Talmudic apikores. Conversely, it may be reasonable to question why the Charedi community in Israel insists on maintaining a rigid dress code adopted in 19th century Europe. While equally legitimate answers may be offered, it would be wrong to see in the question an attack on Torah values.
[C]riticizing the centrality of Torah study in the Charedi community is a direct attack on an essential value of Judaism, a modern recasting of the Talmudic apikores. Conversely, it may be reasonable to question why the Charedi community in Israel insists on maintaining a rigid dress code adopted in 19th century Europe
At the same time, critiques of certain social ills elude easy rebuttal. The tendency of schools to reject students based on purely superficial factors is a product of divisive and clannish impulses which can hardly be explained in a Torah-informed framework. Similarly, while preservation of family custom is an indisputably Jewish value, discrimination based on family origin or ritual is a community feature that has no basis in Jewish tradition. Likewise, modesty is an integral Jewish virtue, but insisting on its very specific application in the form of specific types of clothing (beyond, and sometimes in tension with rules prescribed by halacha) is problematic. Aspiring to raise children to be Torah scholars is a lofty Jewish goal; ignoring the challenges some youngsters might face attempting to learn full-time is a community issue.
One might ask: What then justifies the existence of a frum community that struggles to maintain clear boundaries between halachic and cultural norms, yet allowing for the development of such unhealthy attitudes and behaviors? Simply put, the answer is the same one would give to a patient suffering from the side effects of a medicine he or she is dependent upon. Notwithstanding side effects, the patient must carefully follow instructions, while at the same time remaining aware of and attempting to mitigate the impact of side effects. Stopping treatment is hardly the answer. Likewise, the frum community, with its aspirational value system and way of life, offers overall a highly successful model for producing healthy and productive generations of God-fearing Jews who live deeply meaningful lives. Acknowledging this should in no way discourage us from calling out any unfortunate side effects and working to minimize their impact.
And there is good reason to be optimistic. Some sub-communities within the larger Charedi umbrella are already advancing in many areas that plague our communities. Moreover, there are issues that were historically neglected but are now being confronted more openly
And there is good reason to be optimistic. Some sub-communities within the larger Charedi umbrella are already advancing in many areas that plague our communities. Moreover, there are issues that were historically neglected but are now being confronted more openly, child safety being a prime example. Notions of what should or should not be publicly discussed no longer dictate which dangers are confronted and which are ignored. Community schools, usually bastions of a conservatism bordering on stagnation, now teach students basic awareness, safety, and precautionary self-defense. Predators are identified and distanced much more effectively, a direct result of the heightened awareness around these issues and aided by communication technologies. While things are still not perfect in this regard, positive strides have certainly been made. These improvements should serve as encouragement to continue pursuing positive change in other areas.
In a recently published story, the late renowned Israeli lawyer Yaakov Weinrot is quoted as remarking that “the Orthodox community is divided into only two groups: those for whom the Torah is their life and those for whom it is not. All other distinctions are a fiction.” For the moment we can but hope and pray that a time come when his appraisal will be borne out in practice. Until then, we would do well to use his argument as a helpful tool for assessing when our choices and actions, as individuals and as communities, are in fact informed by the Torah’s highest values, and when we are being driven by cultural norms alone. In so doing, we can play our part in building a better and healthier community, one in which valuable criticism serves as a growth opportunity towards further actualizing the Torah’s vision.
 Moshe Cohen V’Ra’ayso.
 Moshe Cohen U’vnei Beiso.
 R. Tzivyon, Beit Immi (Bnei Brak, 2017), p. 64.
photo: Kobi Gideon, GPO