Shimen and Heidi

It was in the kosher dining hall in Princeton where I lost my innocence. I was 23, out of yeshiva for the first time; Heidi (or so I’ll call her) was a grad student of some sort who had taken it upon herself to educate me about the special duties of the Jewish People to humanity. “The lesson of the Holocaust is that we Jews must never put our parochial interests ahead of others’ interests. We should know better than anyone what happens when that lesson isn’t learned.” I had never encountered orthodoxy before.

My own thoughts about Jewish obligation were not quite as pious as those of my interlocutor. My first lessons in the matter were learned in the Gerrer shtiebel where my grandfather davened. The members of this shul were Polish Holocaust survivors, chassidim who retained their loyalty to the ways in which they had lived before The War, but without beards and shtreimlech. They had yiras shamayim (fear of God), but were at home (heimish) with God, so they felt comfortable taking liberties as necessary. They were worldly, cynical, fiercely independent, but chose to remain loyal to the ways of their fathers. Some were just all-in Gerrer chassidim for whom it could never be the same after The War, but many — maybe most —  could better be thought of as ex-Gerrer chassidim who wouldn’t think of jumping ship after what had happened to their families.

My grandfather and his best friend in the shtiebel, Shimen, were of the latter variety. Shimen told many stories, all about the same topic. Here’s an example: A Nazi officer in the Lodz ghetto demanded that Shimen hand over either his son or his daughter within 48 hours. One of Shimen’s profoundest sorrows, and he had many, was that his daughter sensed that he had fleetingly thought to choose to keep his son. She never spoke to him again until both she and her brother were murdered. After The War, Shimen got his hands on a pistol and went from house to house gathering Jewish children who had been left with Polish families when their parents were deported to the camps.

Elie Wiesel, who often davened in that Gerrer shtiebel, relates a story about Rosh Hashana in Auschwitz in which one of his fellow inmates announces to the rest of the assembled in the barracks that though they have no wine, “we’ll take our tin cups and fill them with tears. And that is how we’ll make our kiddush heard before God.” That inmate was Shimen. Of course, Shimen had no patience for drama and would say dismissively, “Nu, Wiesel. He makes a living telling maiselech (stories) about me.”

The Gerrer shtiebel gang were intense, they were angry, they could be funny in a biting sort of way, they were devoted. But one thing they had no patience for was high-minded pieties. They despised pompousness and self-righteousness. Their devotion to Yiddishkeit as a way of life and to the Jews as a people were as natural and instinctive as drawing breath.

For reasons not quite clear to me, to this day I see the world through their eyes. My instinctive judgments about most things are their judgments. My views are hopelessly, and proudly, old-fashioned. In some odd way, I think of myself as an ex-Gerrer chassid without having ever actually been a Gerrer chassid.

The very cosmopolitan Heidi of Princeton, and the thousands of Heidis I’ve met since, patronize old Shimens as addle-brained relics out of touch with contemporary doctrines. First, Shimen’s old-fashioned views evince not the equality of all people but rather what Heidi regards as an immoral preference for the welfare of Jews over those of others. Second, Shimen is committed to social norms that are mediated by rabbis and thus, in Heidi’s view, insufficiently respectful of the autonomy of individuals. Third, Shimen’s understanding of the world is rooted in a set of beliefs that are, to Heidi’s understanding, ahistorical and unscientific.

This series of posts will be a defense of Shimen’s cranky conservative view of the world — okay, my cranky conservative view of the world — against Heidi’s views. Actually, I expect it will be less a defense than an attack on progressive pieties. My main argument will not be that the cosmopolitan critique of (small c) conservative Judaism misrepresents Judaism (though it does). Rather I will argue that this critique is rooted in a number of cultural blind spots, including a blinkered understanding of the scope of morality, of the preferability of social norms to laws and of the extent to which certain beliefs are unavoidable.

In short, between Heidi of Princeton and Shimen of Auschwitz, one was narrow and orthodox and the other was worldly and realistic. I shall argue in these posts that most people are confused about which is which.

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9 thoughts on “Shimen and Heidi

  1. I am glad you are taking on this mission. The “progressive-universalist” dogma has become so entrenched in modern society that even those who should know better are sucked into their world view. A good example is the current Pope. Open Orthodoxy also shows signs of this. Looking forward to what you have to say.

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  2. The truth is somewhere in between. We must establish a particularistic national life based on Torah but we also have to be a light unto the nations.

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  3. Just discovered your most recent endeavor (thank Mosaic for that – https://mosaicmagazine.com/picks/2017/06/the-narrow-orthodoxies-of-jewish-cosmopolitanism/). I look forward to your thoughts and for opportunities to agree or disagree..

    One point of mine that I’ve been thinking about of late. Heidi is not historically unique by any means. She is merely a priestess of the latest religious fashion, progressobabelianism. Looking back at Jewish history there were always Heidis who super-identified with and sought the validation of whatever was current intellectual / sociological /political fashions of the time. Naturally they who looked down at Shimens as hopelessly not with it., Some with more vehemence and Jew hatred than others. During the mid-19th and early 20th century hardcore socialism / communism was all the rage in intellectual circles, and the Heidis were folks like Marx himself or Rosa Luxemburg who preached the religion and determined that Jews were the greatest sinners. During the middle ages, scads of Jews converted to Catholicism and often became the most vicious of preachers used by the church to convert the Jews. See Pablo Christiani and the great disputation with the Ramban. Similar doings in the Islamic world.

    Perhaps the most ironic was the nephew of the ancient Jewish philosopher Philo. The nephew (whose name escapes me) abandoned the Jewish way of life of the time and joined up with the political / sociological fashion of the time, the Roman empire. Nephew joined the Roman army and rose up through the ranks to eventually become a high ranking officer.valued and trusted by the ruling class. So much so, that Nephew became the Chief of Staff (רמתכ”ל) for one Titus during the latter’s siege of Jerusalem and was among those who set fire to the Beit Hamikdash. Which included golden doors contributed by his father (Philo’s brother). And slaughtered and enslaved many Jews in the process.

    A suggested subtitle for your blog:
    מהרסיך ומחרבייך ממך יצאו

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  4. It is this cosmopolitanism that leads to “progressive” jews making common cause with “marginalised” groups and individuals like Linda Sarsour whose openly declared agendas are antithetical to jewish existence

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  5. Perhaps Dr Koppel will address what I am going to say, but after years of debating Jewish “progressives” I have come to the conclusion that their political views actually are derived from the fact that they seem largely to be unhappy, frustrated people and they do not like those who are, which is the religious Jewish community. This, I believe is reflected in the fact that they generally have lower rates of marriage and fewer children. If they think the world stinks, why bring children into it? This is a big reason why they get swept up in various doomsday scenarios like the Global Warming hysteria, not allowing any rational discussion of its scientific merits. By emphasizing that mankind is supposedly doomed, they think they can make the happy people as unhappy as they are.

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