Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Attack on Freedom: Hell is Other People

The Rabbi came into my room 3 days in a row now. Uninvited. Just got a key from the landlord and marched in. Opened my closet, and looked around. I inquired as to whether he has taken anything of mine. He answered in the negative, but added that he had thrown out something that he found under my bed. I asked what that might have been, and he replied that it is disgraceful to talk about it, that my room lacks the "look" of a yeshiva, that I can't possibly understand a Tosfos if I read secular books, and that I shouldn't allow my corruption to spread to the other guys in the apartment. I responded that my intention was never to influence others or entice them to sin. He said there are guys who wouldn't read these things, but will if I put it under their faces. I tried to explain that the inside of my closet is not, under normal circumstances, under anyone else's face unless they have violated my space. He didn't want to discuss it. Told me to gather all my books and hide them where no one will see them. He did offer to pay for what he took, at least (v'heishiv es hag'zeila asher gazahl).

My best guess is that the book he tossed as objectionable was a collection of plays by existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964 "for his work which, rich in ideas and filled with the spirit of freedom and the quest for truth, has exerted a far-reaching influence on our age." Sartre refused to accept the prize for "personal and objective reasons". The collection previously in my possession included No Exit, a scene from hell; The Flies, the story of Orestes and Electra's quest to avenge the death of their father Agamemnon; Dirty Hands, a political drama about an assassination; and The Respectful Prostitute, about a black man framed for a white man's crime.

I imagine it was this last that drew the Rabbi's ire for its uncouth maintenance of the word prostitute in the title. Though the story concerns itself with the universal values of freedom and cruelty, and is far from vulgar, any author who could use this word is assuredly incapable of writing anything but trash. Nachon? Ideas, the spirit of freedom, and the quest for truth just doesn't jive in haredi society. Note, I hate bashing people like this, but I am upset about a personal afront.

My problem is not that he disapproves, or wants to run his yeshiva a certain way. That's ok, but deal with it like a mentsch. Discuss with me what problems you have; we can agree to disagree or maybe compromise. Or maybe I'll have to accede, or maybe you'll convince me, but at least we will understand and maybe even respect each other. And that way I would learn something: it can be an educational experience, instead of a display of bigotry.


Aviva said...

I agree with you. The way he handled it was wrong, very wrong. And then to not discuss it afterwards, with the person he offended? Also very wrong.

What I don't get is, they (rabbis, scholars, etc.) try to teach us about how being a good, kind, respectful person is important, and then they are upset when we don't act the way they taught us how to. But don't they get that they can teach more by example than with words? This is one of those incidences.

Good luck.

batya_d said...

Is that pic really you? You're hot. Don't tell my husband. (He's hot too, btw)

Teddy Douglas said...

Thanks, Aviva. And thanks for the compliments, batya. I won't tell. You're lucky to have married a hot guy: sometimes I wish I could do the same. (but I won't)

Papke said...

I am curious, but I do not know what question it is that I want to ask.

I grew up in a very liberal area of Minneapolis in Minnesota, which is by itself, a very liberal city. I have always felt as if I am free to believe and do whatever I will. So reading about what you live with seems like a completely different world.

I am also a bit confused as to how a Rabbi could legally acquire a key from a landlord to a private residence.

I realize that you are attending a religious school, but it still seems more of a system of narrowing thoughts rather than an institution of higher learning.

Basically, I would like to know more about the world you live in.

Teddy Douglas said...

Papke, thanks for your interest. It's a big question. First, let me try to explain the structure of the yeshiva "system". Later, I'll try to get into how it works within the yeshivot themselves.

Orthodox Jewish children are generally sent to Jewish private schools beginning at the elementary level. There is a range of philosophies in these schools in terms of the level of isolationism and religious stricture. Some schools consider themselves more "modern", others are more conservative in their policies. The world Orthodox Jewish educational system is based in New York, New Jersey, and Jerusalem, but there are many yeshivot in cities around the world. While not officially united under any governing body, the yeshiva system often functions monolithically because the individual yeshiva deans generally conform to guidelines handed down from a hierarchy of Rabbis, with a handful of deans of prominent yeshivot making many of the decisions that others will follow.

After elementary school, students will choose a yeshiva high school. This is a big decision, as there is even more disparity between yeshivot at the high school level. Some feature intense religious programs, while others emphasize secular education. Still others seek a golden mean. Many of these are boarding schools, allowing students to go home between once and several times a month. Acceptance and attendance at a given HS often predetermines, at least partially, the educational path students will follow later in life.

After 4 years of high school, students go on to "beit midrash", or college-level Talmud study. These post-secondary institutions feature rigorous programs in Talmudic Literature and Law, as well as offering courses in Bible, Practical Law (Halakha), and Ethics. Some students choose to spend their first year of beit midrash in Israel at yeshivot designed specifically for freshmen. These programs may prepare students for further study at advanced yeshivot, prepare students who plan to leave yeshiva for college or work with the fundamentals of Talmud study, or seek to entice students to remain at their institution as they continue their education.

Other students eschew the freshman "year-in-Israel" and remain in American yeshivot post-HS for several years of "undergraduate" study before advancing to one of the more prominent "graduate" yeshivot. At this level currently the "ivy league" of advanced yeshivot for American and international students in Israel (Israeli students tend to stay within the separae Hebrew-language Israeli system) includes:
Rabbi Avrohom Yehoshua "AJ" Soloveitchik's "Brisk" yeshiva in (Jerusalem), which has abut 700 students. (The height of exclusivity; known for it's bright students)
Rabbi Dovid Soloveitchik's "Brisk" yeshiva (Jerusalem) has about 300 students. (The"other Brisk", generally the 2nd choice for those who couldn't get in to "AJ")
Rabbi Tzvi Kaplan's yeshiva (J-lem) has about 300 students. (Known for it's extreme intensity.)
Rabbi Nechemia Kaplan's yeshiva (J-lem) has about 100 students. (The "new kid on the block"; does not yet fully rank with the first 3.)
The Mir yeshiva (Rabbi N. T. Finkel) is the largest of the bunch, with enrollment upward of 4000. Mir is less selective about admission than the others, and is thus not as prestigious as the aforementioned. Its curriculum differs somewhat from the others.
In addition, there are many other smaller yeshivot at this level.

In the US, Beth Medrash Govoha (BMG) in Lakewood, NJ is considered by many to be the top post-graduate yeshiva program. For most serious young scholars, this is the goal. After spending time at the major yeshivot in Israel, many will return to America to study at Lakewood. Enrollment here is about 3000, meaning that of the over 6000 advanced students in Jerusalem, many will be denied admission to Lakewood. Many do not want to go on to Lakewood, preferring at this point to pursue a secular education or get a job. Others see Lakewood as vital to being able to marry "the right girl": A large number of girls educated in the parallel system for girls, Beis Yaakov and post-HS seminary, are socialized into wanting to marry a top scholar. This often entails study at BMG in Lakewood.

This is the basic structure of the yeshiva system for American Orthodox students. Yeshiva University is an option for some, but is viewed as more "modern" by the "yeshivish" element of Orthodox society becasue of its parallel emphasis on a secular education.

In the more right wing yeshivot, study of the Talmud is seen as a goal unto itself and is encouraged as a lifelong pursuit. There is a great deal of logical reasoning, analytic thinking, comparing and contrasting, memorizing, investigating involved in study of Talmud and the commentaries. Cases and rulings are presented, and researched as to whether and how they fit into the rest of the legal code. Often, a similar case with a different ruling will be found. When this happens, some difference however minute must be found to distinguish the cases and a theory must be presented to explain why this difference could logically support the new ruling. Study becomes very involved, with attention to every word and detail of sentence structure used by the leading commentaries and codifiers. An extra word or unusual phrase can signal an entirely new reading of the passage. Then this too must be assimilated with the rest of the ideas relating to the law in question. It is a logical structure of exquisite beauty, full of clever solutions to seemingly intractable puzzles and leading to a vast library of information that somehow all checks out with itself after researching it, despite the myriad surface contradictions.

Because of the intricate nature of study, it demands concentration and the absence of distractions in the environment. This is the source of many restrictions placed on the yeshiva students. There is a lot more to say. Maybe later.

A good resource is:
Helmreich, William B. (1982). The world of the yeshiva: an intimate portrait of Orthodox Jewry. Free Press, 412 pages. ISBN 0-88125-641-2.

Papke said...

It seems... very... restrictive? I did some light research into the Talmud, and while I did not go into it very thoroughly, I did not find anything on how it relates to God.

It seems to be more of a doctrine on how to be Jewish rather than how to devote one's self to God.

If I seem anti-semitic at all, please believe that that is not my intention. I grew up going to a very relaxed presbyterian church, which was more of a weekly neighborhood gathering than anything else. So I am apprehensive when it comes any system that requires me to live my life a certain way, that is based completely on faith.

Thank you for taking the time to explain the yeshiva, and for the book reference. I still have more questions, which deal more with why Judaism requires such a vast and complicated system of rules and beliefs, but I realize that's a huge topic. If you could point me toward a good overview, I would be very appreciative.

Teddy Douglas said...

Anti-semitic Papke? No. You seem to have grasped at the essence of our way of life: asking questions, analyzing things and searching for answers. Orthodox Jewry has become somewhat restrictive in recent years, explain community leaders, because the temptations of sin in the "outside world" have grown as barriers of modesty have come down in modern times. TV and Internet have made what was once private a public affair, and premarital sex among other things, has become the norm in many communities.

You noticed the apparent absence of God from the Talmud. It is important to realize when looking at the Talmud that it is seen by religious Jews as the Will of God in the world given over - in the form of a set of ideas - to man. These ideas are also said to be the "blueprint" according to which God created the world. By studying the Talmud, we glimpse a more intimate picture of God, and accordingly a closeness to Him, than would be possible by any other system of spirituality.

What do we want from people we are close to? That they should put on displays of affection or truly and deeply understand us? It is similar in our relationship with God. When we pray, we talk to Him. When we study the Talmud, that is akin to His answer to us. That makes it a 2-way conversation. This type of communication is good for a relationship, which is how "service" of God is often perceived amongst observant Jews.

It is said that God is perfectly Good and He wanted to do good to others. Therefore, He created a world of people to be good to them. However, it is a basic part of human nature to enjoy more a reward which is earned than a handout. Therefore, God created this world as a world in which we could work and earn the reward which will be waiting in the next world.

The reward includes an intensely close relationship with our Creator, who is a Giver and never has a need to take anything from anyone. We could, therefore, never get very close to Him if we were only takers, so we are told to learn in this world to be givers.

In this way, the system of life is set up entirely for the purpose of making possible the ultimate pleasure for man out of the kindness of God's "heart".

The fundamentals of Jewish belief are extremely nuanced and many observant Jews don't completely understand them. Also, there are differences of opinion regarding many points. If you forgive my own humble attempts, I'll try to look around for a good reference for you.

Papke said...

Thank you Teddy. Sometimes it is hard not to dislike someone and judge them based on their skin or their beliefs. The mid-west doesn't have a great deal a diversity outside of the main cities, and even then, it's spread out a lot more than on the east coast. It took me a year in Jersey to realize just how much unconscious racism there really is here, and everywhere.

I only mentioned "anti-semitism" because I have caught myself disliking some people just because they were different; it bothers me and I have to be cautious so I can recognize it again if it comes back.

I find that learning more about the differences helps me to let go of my prejudices.

I really do appreciate the time you have taken to explain the beliefs of Judaism for me.