Observant Jews in an open society dominated by Heidi’s values need to make choices. To what extent ought we take advantage of the opportunities that Heidi’s world offers and to what extent ought we segregate ourselves to avoid its temptations?
Shimen could afford to be rather blasé and pragmatic about such matters. While he was very appreciative of the openness of American society and the freedom it gave him to live as he chose, American culture was for the most part nothing more than background music for him. It didn’t penetrate too deeply into his world, so he didn’t need to react to it beyond the occasional krechtz. Shimen was sufficiently rooted in his own culture not to feel threatened by Heidi’s culture.
This is not the case for Yitzy, a typical graduate of a hard-core Litvish yeshiva, a bit younger than Heidi. Yitzy grew up in a ghetto inside Heidi’s world. Though he has been encouraged since childhood to avoid pop culture, he lives in New York surrounded by the products of mass media wherever he goes. Yitzy fully appreciates that Heidi’s world is accessible and tempting to him, and for precisely this reason he understands the threat that it poses to his way of life and especially to his ability to pass it on to his children. He is not unsophisticated, but he is wary. Unlike his more modern cousin, Ben, whom we’ll get to know in the next post, Yitzy tends towards segregation rather than accommodation. Let’s consider how.
Yitzy is meticulous even about the apparently trivial details of halacha. He is careful to be no less exacting with the seemingly arbitrary traditions as he is with those having a specifically moral resonance. He avoids prettifying halacha by smoothing its jagged edges.
Yitzy is instinctively suspicious of fashionable utopian ideas. Obviously, Heidi’s wish to liberate individuals from the strictures of communal institutions is a threat to his most basic commitments. But Yitzy has a sober enough understanding of the world to further grasp that Heidi’s aspiration is rooted in a wildly optimistic view of both human nature and of the state institutions that must inevitably replace the communal ones.
Yitzy chooses not to provide his children with the sort of education that yields social capital more easily redeemed outside than inside their community. The ability to learn gemara is best rewarded within his society, while academic achievements will always be valued and rewarded outside his society. Yitzy is afraid that if his kids get too good a secular education, they’ll ultimately give their allegiance to the society that best appreciates the skills they have to offer.
All of this makes good sense and is more or less a continuation of Shimen’s view of the world. It would all be harmless, even admirable, if Yitzy were just one of the brown M&Ms in the variety pack. But, as we discussed in the previous post, Yitzy lives in a community in which everyone is as conservative as he is. As a result, his understandable caution doesn’t play out so elegantly.
In the aftermath of The War, the student population of yeshivas was heterogeneous and the kind of people who chose to teach in these yeshivas thought of themselves as more devout than their own parents. Both of these facts contributed to an educational approach that emphasized book knowledge over mimetic tradition. The most faithful products of this approach self-selected to become Yitzy’s teachers. As a result, the version of halacha that Yitzy learned in yeshiva – the one that matters for him – is over-codified to the point of counter-intuitiveness and often baroque in its pointless complexity. It is very much a second-language, formal and sapped of real life, designed to saturate the mind with distracting details.
Yitzy isn’t merely careful not to slight arbitrary-seeming traditions; he actually favors them over those with more universal meaning. Because the barriers to entry to Heidi’s world are so low, Yitzy revels in the performance of costly activities that broadcast his loyalty to his own community. He has become a veritable signaling machine. Such signals are indeed important and I’ll be the last to under-estimate their value. But in Yitzy’s world, an escalating parade of loyalty-affirming signals has crowded out the more intuitive and substantive aspects of tradition.
To take a rather benign example, in earlier times in the United States, not eating non-kosher meat or Hostess Twinkies was sufficiently onerous to serve as an effective signal. When the easy availability of kosher meat and snacks rendered such signals insufficiently costly and hence ineffective, they were replaced by more onerous signals. Kosher was replaced by glatt kosher, followed successively by chasidishe shechita, yoshon, hydroponic vegetables, and so on up the ladder of costliness and strictness.
Unfortunately, not all signals are quite that benign. When Yitzy demonstrates his loyalty to the home team by burning bridges to the outside world through, for example, denying himself or his children basic skills necessary for earning a living or interacting with outsiders in a civil manner, he is imposing a cost on third parties. Apart from sometimes encouraging boorishness, such bridge-burning increases dependence on the largesse of the very society of which Yitzy is trying to remain independent.
Similarly, the pragmatic rejection of utopian ideas that Yitzy inherited from Shimen’s world has, in Yitzy’s monochromatic world, morphed into a decidedly non-pragmatic ideology. Heidi overvalues fairness at the expense of other moral flavors – a flaw with catastrophic consequences, as we have seen – but her excesses in this direction do have manifest benefits, especially for cultural minorities like Yitzy’s community. Shimen appreciated these benefits and steered clear of the flaws simply by maintaining his community’s traditional balance between universal and particular moral values. But Yitzy and his friends are cynical even about the positive aspects of Heidi’s ambition for fairness and this cynicism sometimes leads them to wink at moral violations. Unfortunately, as some discover too late, when we tolerate delinquents just because they’re on our team, we soon become their victims.
In short, Yitzy does battle with Heidi by becoming her mirror image: she overvalues fairness and he undervalues it. In the next post, we’ll meet Yitzy’s more modern cousin Ben, who does battle with Heidi by lagging a decade behind her.