Was Shimen Haredi?

If we’re to understand the direction in which observant Jewish communities in America (I’ll get to Israel later) are headed, we’ll need to first overcome one common misconception.

Many people imagine that the binary division of observant Jews into modern orthodox and haredi (in Israel, national-religious and haredi) is some sort of immutable law of nature that always was and always will be. Given that dichotomy, they put Shimen in the haredi box. In fact, Shimen was completely unaware of any such dichotomy and the attempt to shoehorn him into such a box is anachronistic.

Yes, Shimen spoke Yiddish and davened in a chassidic shtiebel. He was not acculturated into American society and was suspicious of all sorts of characters outside his community. But, on the substance, he pre-dated the institutional split between what are now called the modern orthodox and haredi worlds.

Consider some of the issues that, for better or worse, are now commonly regarded as litmus tests for membership in these worlds. Is an advanced secular education essential for living an integrated Jewish life or a gateway to acculturation and assimilation? Is Zionism a step in the redemptive process or a secular revolt against religion? Are stringencies in halacha showy over-reaches or commendable precautions? Are leading rabbis simply experts in halacha or oracular fonts of wisdom in all areas? We can go on and on, but this will do.

Shimen was not a party to any of this. He was a practical man. As far as Shimen is concerned, if you think an education will get you ahead in life, go ahead and if not, don’t – as long as you also learn Torah. A sovereign Jewish state is probably good for the Jews, whether or not it’s a step in the redemptive process. Some chumros (stringencies) are better, some are worse; suit yourself. In the worst of times, rabbis exhibited inspiring righteousness and often profound heroism, but political acumen is not necessarily part of their repertoire.

Shimen’s division of the Jewish world cut through an altogether different axis. For Shimen, there were Polish Jews, the thoughtful and cantankerous types who defined the norm for him, and an assortment of other types, each of which suffered from some stereotypical flaw. These included Litvaks (learned but cold and elitist), Hungarians (warmer but overly concerned with appearances), Yekkes (upright but uptight) and, at the bottom of the totem pole, Amerikaners (earnest and eager but naïve and Jewishly ignorant). Shimen carried his resentments around with him, but if you were learned and a mentsch, he didn’t check your tzitzis.

In fact, a generation of yeshiva-educated baby boomers growing up after The War moved comfortably along the spectrum running from frum and segregated to modern and assimilating. On the one hand, they inherited deep feelings of alienation and resentment towards acculturated American Jews and their establishment. On the other hand, as is common with children of immigrants, they rushed headlong into professional achievement and American culture, often including the 60s counter-culture. The resulting tension played out in many interesting ways, including various singular combinations that are fast becoming extinct.

The success of Orthodox institutions in America, especially beginning in the 60s and 70s, has had some unintended consequences. Large educational institutions are not artisanal studios; they are instruments of mass production. Even if graduates inevitably choose their own divergent paths, these institutions define a standard against which one must self-define. Furthermore, since such institutions compete for students, they inevitably cluster around certain standard forms – at the lowest level of granularity, modern orthodox and haredi. Eventually, such institutions are around long enough to produce their own teachers, creating a feedback loop that narrows and hardens institutional identity. Graduates of the various standard educational types then sort themselves out to different neighborhoods, like Teaneck and Boro Park, where they don’t need to interact and where there is intense pressure to conform to the right stereotype.

One consequence of this is that a certain type of crossover character is disappearing. There are no more Litvishe gedolim playing chess at the opera. There are no more chassidic rebbes’ wives studying in Hunter College and no more future chassidic rebbes in Breuers. There are no more talmidim of old-school gedolim simultaneously teaching philosophy in university. It’s important to emphasize that none of these (very real) characters thought of themselves as renegades; their paths seem unusual now, but were perfectly natural not that long ago.

To be sure, such free spirits are typical of the chaos that attends dislocation and the ferment that precedes the development of institutions. Segregation of distinct sub-communities is an indication of communal maturity and has been common throughout Jewish history. But there are two aspects of this particular instance that bear a bit more analysis. First, the rise of institutional education at the expense of communal immersion has produced a book-centered form of religion very much at odds with Shimen’s world of tradition, as I described earlier. Second, in this case, the division of a messy continuum into distinct segregated sub-communities is merely the preliminary phase of a process in which segregation leads to polarization.

I’ll discuss these developments in the next post (or two), but for now suffice it to say that if Shimen were alive today, he’d be homeless yet again.

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4 thoughts on “Was Shimen Haredi?

  1. The inter-war years’ incubator that formed these men and women was ruptured by Hitler.The Jewish world that was reconstructed after WWII was bereft of that murdered leadership for communities that provided support structure for “Tzu G-t und tzu leit.”(Consider how Agudah leader Rav Dr Tzirelson was among the first ones murdered when the Germans entered his city.) Instead,the values of the few Gedolim that Hashem allowed to be spared have dominated uber alles.

    “Shimen” is a person I know very well.In my opinion,he is still around but I would not say he harbors “resentments.” He simply tries to live in the world that ought to be even as he is in the one that is.

    Liked by 1 person

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