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. “How can you justify your narrow tribal loyalty? Isn’t the lesson of the Holocaust 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.

Mapping the Territory

So what are the main differences between Heidi’s world and Shimen’s world?

The first difference concerns the scope of morality. Heidi is extremely sensitive to treating people unfairly or generally causing others distress. In fact, as far as she is concerned, this is the main moral litmus test: no harm, no foul. On the other hand, Shimen (of whom I’ll speak in the present tense even though he is long gone) lives in a highly moralized world. What you eat, what you wear, whom you sleep with are all fraught with moral considerations, whether or not anyone else is adversely affected. Furthermore, Shimen feels morally bound by particular loyalty to the Jewish People, deference to its scholars and elders and reverence for institutions and objects sanctified by its traditions, even at the possible expense of others.

The second difference between Heidi and Shimen concerns the mechanisms through which communities determine and enforce the boundaries of the forbidden and the obligatory. For Heidi, the relevant community consists of citizens of the state, the mechanism for determining what may and may not be done is legislation and the method of enforcement is prosecution. For Shimen, the relevant community consists of those committed to halacha, the mechanism for determining what may and may not be done is community tradition and practice, occasionally codified and augmented by expert opinion, and the method of enforcement is social pressure. In short, Shimen lives mostly in a world of social norms driven from the bottom-up and Heidi lives mostly in a world of laws driven from the top-down.

The third difference concerns the relationship between beliefs about the world and social and moral commitments. Heidi strives to ascertain the truth through the study of science and history and to base her commitments on such truths as best she can. But Shimen’s social and moral commitments are primary and his most important beliefs about the world – his religious beliefs – follow from these commitments.

These three somewhat telegraphic claims will be discussed in gory detail in the next three (multi-post) sections of this series. In each I’ll begin with a primer on Shimen’s world — respectively, the substance of halacha, the mechanisms through which halacha develops and the nature and content of Jewish belief. This will be followed by a brief precis of Heidi’s reservations about this world and an analysis of the differing assumptions and motivations that underlie the disagreements between Heidi and Shimen. These parts of the analysis are meant to be non-judgmental and my writing will no doubt be characterized by admirable impartiality and rhetorical restraint, traits I hope to acquire between now and then.

But then I’ll take off the gloves. In each section, I’ll explain why every long-lived society that we know about is more like Shimen’s than like Heidi’s. In the first section, I’ll argue that societies need rich systems of social norms – including public rituals, food taboos, kinship rules, commercial exchange regulations – in order to cohere and survive. In the second section, I’ll argue that to remain viable, such systems of social norms must – like language – adapt to circumstances slowly and organically, not – like legislated law – through dramatic theory-driven revolutions. Finally, in the third section, I’ll argue that members of a society must genuinely believe that they are part of a meaningful directed project that will long outlive them to be willing to make the sacrifices necessary to sustain that society.

In short, Heidi’s world is doomed.

Since my assumption is that my readers, whatever their religious sentiments, spend a fair amount of their time – like me – slumming in Heidi’s world, I will be mostly arguing on Heidi’s turf: classical and contemporary social science literature. The first section should take us on a tour through anthropology and cultural evolution (Richard Schweder, Joseph Henrich), moral psychology (Jonathan Haidt) and repeated games and economic signaling theory (Eric Posner). I hope to discuss topics ranging from trolley dilemmas to the persistence of Jew-hatred, without assuming much prior knowledge. The second section will be largely my take on conservative thought in the spirit of Edmund Burke, Friedrich Hayek and Thomas Sowell. The topics considered should range from the evolution of language to the unintended consequences of social engineering. The third section will refer to some recent literature on the nature of (Jewish) religious belief – Howard Wettstein, Menachem Kellner (without the polemics) and Sam Fleischacker (without the gratuitous anti-Israel virtue signaling) – but mostly will be my own apikorsus (the good kind).

There are two potential pitfalls that I hope you’ll help me avoid. First, my intended claim is that Heidi’s world is not viable, not that it is morally inferior. Since morality is precisely the issue in dispute here, an argument against Heidi on grounds of morality would almost certainly be circular. Second, my case will be very weak if I turn Heidi into a parody; my hope is to point out the flaws in Heidi’s best case, not her lamest case.

So please do shout if I make circular arguments or if I ignore strong arguments that could be used on Heidi’s behalf. But please don’t object that Heidi’s or Shimen’s opinions aren’t more similar to your own. Heidi and Shimen are two specific individuals; they can serve as plausible representatives of a range of similar characters, but they can’t be avatars on which everybody gets to project their own views. (Only I get to do that…)

Shimen’s Daily Life as a Jew

This is the first of many posts that will focus on differences between Shimen and Heidi regarding the scope of moral principles and the social norms that embody those principles. We begin with a review of Shimen’s daily life as a Jew committed to the Jewish way of life – halacha. This review is intended mainly as a primer for those less familiar with halacha. But it is also intended to slightly reorient the reader already familiar with halacha from the customary emphasis on halachic severity and importance to an emphasis on actual salience in everyday life.

Immediately upon waking on a typical weekday, Shimen will wash his hands in a ritual manner and recite the appropriate blessings. If he shaves at all, it will not be with a razor and he will always leave ample hair on his temples. He will dress modestly and will wear a tallis kotton (a garment with fringes called tzitzis) under his shirt and will keep his head covered at least partially at all times. He will not wear any clothing that includes mixtures of wool and linen. In public, he will almost always wear a jacket and a hat, though not the long bekeshe and round kapelush he wore before The War.

On most weekdays, Shimen will go to shul, don his full-size tallis and phylacteries, and recite the morning prayers with a minyan. He will treat religious articles with great reverence, pointing to the mezuzah as he passes through a door frame and handling his phylacteries only in accordance with specified rules. He will stand for the Torah scroll when it is taken from or returned to the ark for the abridged Torah readings on Monday and Thursday mornings, just as he would stand in the presence of a scholar of Torah. During prayers, Shimen will put some coins in the charity box or in the hands of a passing beggar. He will catch up on who in his community is ill or in mourning and will plan to visit them at the first opportunity. If a friend asks for a small loan, he will comply on the condition that no interest be paid, not even a thank you; if he needs a small loan, he will expect the same conditions. When approached, Shimen will make a modest contribution to the maintenance of the shul, the mikveh (ritual bath) and other of his community’s institutions. All of Shimen’s friends and acquaintances are Jewish and almost all are from backgrounds very similar to his own.

Shimen’s routine is broken for shabbes and holidays. For a 25-hour period beginning on Friday evening just before sundown, Shimen will – among many prohibitions too numerous to fully enumerate – not light or extinguish a fire or even turn a light on or off, not move money or make a transaction, not cook or even pour from a pre-heated kettle onto a tea bag, not write with a pen or a keyboard, not carry in an unenclosed space, not tie or untie any semi-permanent knot, and generally not even speak of business and other mundane matters. He will spend extra time in shul davening and listening to an extended reading of the Torah. After davening on Friday night, he will recite kiddush at home over a cup of wine and then will wash his hands and make a blessing over two whole loaves of challah; this will be repeated in the morning after davening; he will have challah again at the third shabbes meal before sundown.

The shabbes restrictions and rituals will be repeated with relatively minor variations on the festivals, each of which has its own associated special rituals: Shimen will eat all meals on Sukkos in an outdoor sukkah, on Pesach he will neither eat nor maintain any foods — other than matzah — that include grain, on Shavuos he will typically stay up all night studying Torah, and on Rosh Hashana he will spend extra time in shul and will listen to the blowing of the shofar. On Yom Kippur, he will fast for the entire 25 hours, spending most of it in shul davening, focusing on the theme of repentance. On five other fast days during the course of the year, four of which commemorate events associated with the destruction of the First and Second Temples thousands of years ago, Shimen will fast from morning to night – and on Tisha B’Av for a full 25 hours. On the minor festivals, Purim and Chanukah, he will remember miracles from the period of the Second Temple. On Purim, he will go to shul to hear the megillah in the evening and the morning and will partake in a festive meal with friends in the afternoon. On Chanukah, he will light candles on the window sill of his apartment, adding one candle for each of the eight nights of the festival.

Shimen eats with considerable restrictions. He will buy meat only from a vendor under strict supervision ensuring that the meat is from approved species, that the animal was slaughtered in a strictly specified manner, that certain parts of the animal were removed, and that the remaining parts were soaked and salted appropriately to remove blood. He will not mix milk and meat products or eat them at the same meal; in fact, he won’t use the same dishes or utensils for milk and meat and he won’t consume milk products for six hours after eating meat. He will eat fish only from species with fins and scales. He will not eat any processed foods that are not marked with a trustworthy seal of approval ensuring that they contain no non-kosher ingredients. He will not eat dough products or agricultural produce of the Land of Israel without first ensuring that symbolic tithes have been taken. He will drink wine only if it has been produced by sabbath-observant Jews. He will not eat any food without first reciting the appropriate blessing, taking care to eat food items in an order that properly prioritizes the blessings; he will also recite appropriate blessings following eating.

Shimen will frequently attend life-cycle rituals — a bris, a bar-mitzvah, a wedding — often addressing the assembled to share a thought based on the weekly Torah reading and on his gratitude that Jews are once again capable of celebration. He will take pleasure in suggesting shidduchim, matches between his friends’ children and grandchildren, the rules of which are well-known to the participants: courtship is meant to be relatively brief and the prospective mates are supposed to refrain from sexual activity, even touching. Engagement and marriage are regarded as creating a bond not just between two individuals but between two families, each of which undertakes financial obligations related to the well-choreographed celebrations surrounding the marriage and to the establishment of a new home. Even after marriage, the couple will not be permitted to engage in sexual activity during menstruation and for a week afterwards, after which the woman will immerse in a mikveh. They are expected, if they are able, to produce many children, with one son and one daughter regarded as a minimum. Abortion is forbidden, except in rare circumstances. If the marriage fails, a get (writ of divorce) must be enacted in a very precise manner; a child born to a woman who has not obtained a valid divorce is regarded as a mamzer and is almost unmarriageable.

Whenever he has free time, Shimen studies Torah; on any given day, he is working his way through one of the tractates of the Babylonian Talmud. The subject matter is no more likely to be one of the matters enumerated above that determine the texture of his daily routine than matters that have not had direct application for the past two millennia. Shimen will study the laws of sacrifices brought in the Temple — categories of sacrifices, on what occasions they were brought, the sequence of the associated rituals, who was eligible to perform them, which errors of action or intention disqualified a sacrifice, and so on. He will study the laws of ritual uncleanness — the hierarchy of uncleanness from dead human bodies on down, the means by which contamination could be transferred to a person or object, the means of purifying a contaminated person or object, the proper handling of uncertainty regarding possible contamination, and so on. He will as soon study laws of torts and fines intended for application by specially-ordained judges — none of whom have existed for centuries — as the laws of ordinary debts and transactions which are adjudicated on a daily basis.

Shimen works hard to make a basic living, handling all transactions with care and honesty. In the rare event that some dispute needs to be adjudicated, he will – with the agreement of his counterpart – approach a local rabbinic scholar to propose a compromise or to rule in accordance with halacha. When Shimen needs to make an especially important decision about which he is uncertain, he might turn to the Gerrer Rebbe for guidance.

This sketch merely touches the surface of halacha, but it should give us adequate background to highlight some key differences with the very different moral principles preferred by Heidi, whose reservations about all the above will be the subject of our next post.

Why Judaism Lost Heidi

Heidi’s maternal grandfather studied in the Telzer yeshiva in Lithuania and came to the United States in the 1920s. He married an American girl from a fairly well-to-do family and subsequently became the rabbi of a nominally orthodox shul in a medium-sized city in the Midwest. The Rabbi’s family was the only shomer shabbes family in the neighborhood. Heidi’s mother and her two brothers went to public school; after school Heidi’s grandfather studied Talmud with his sons.

Heidi’s paternal grandparents moved to New York shortly after their marriage in Warsaw in the early 1930s. Jobs were hard to come by during the Depression; Heidi’s grandfather worked in a kosher butcher shop and her grandmother freelanced as a seamstress. There were few Jewish day schools available and, in any event, the family could ill-afford one, so Heidi’s father and his sister attended public school. They both went to the local orthodox shul’s Sunday School program.

Heidi’s parents met in New York in the 1960s. They shared a conservative and traditional sensibility that was rare at that time. They married and moved to Long Island, where Heidi’s dad worked as an engineer at a large firm and her mom worked as a schoolteacher. They became active in the local Conservative congregation, attending services often, if not religiously. Heidi attended the local public school because it was regarded as an excellent school academically; almost all of her classmates and friends were Jewish.

Heidi attended after-school classes in the local synagogue; she could read Hebrew passably and was well-versed in Jewish legends. She had good relationships with her Orthodox grandparents and even with her mother’s brother’s family, who had turned yeshivish and lived in Flatbush.

When she came to Princeton as an undergrad, she naturally gravitated to Stevenson Hall, the forerunner of the Center for Jewish Life. Most of the students who dined at Stevenson came for the kosher food, but Heidi – who did not generally keep kosher – simply felt comfortable in the company of other Jews. In fact, she often attended egalitarian services on Shabbat and, after befriending orthodox students who had returned from gap-year programs in yeshivot in Israel, occasionally allowed herself to be pulled in to lectures on halacha.

By her Junior year, however, Heidi’s large circle of friends began to resemble a Benetton ad. Initially, the evident ethnic pride of her black, Hispanic, Muslim and Hindu friends increased her appreciation of her own ethnic identity. Gradually, though, she felt her own commitments challenged in two ways. First, the view from nowhere accords no privilege to Judaism and so she became keenly aware of the utter arbitrariness of her own particular identity. Second, she became aware of the financial, social and cultural obstacles that many of her new friends had to overcome in order to get to and survive in Princeton and she began to feel guilty about her own privilege as a white and relatively wealthy American.

From this new point of view, she began to re-assess her Jewish attachments. Her orthodox friends and relatives seemed a bit, well, provincial. Their professed beliefs seemed so random as to necessarily either be insincere or the product of brainwashing. Their concern with picayune details of halacha seemed somewhat obsessive; in any event, it apparently sapped them of energy for the truly important social justice causes crying out for attention.

But most of all, halacha itself seemed to her to suffer from serious moral failings. First of all, halacha seemed to encourage in its practitioners a certain hostility to non-Jews (or, as her orthodox friends insisted on calling them, “Goyim”). She had always known that Jews were opposed to intermarriage; for reasons becoming increasingly inexplicable to her, her parents had mentioned their own revulsion at the idea on several occasions. But she had discovered at Princeton that orthodox Jewish disdain for non-Jews extended beyond that: some wouldn’t even drink wine handled by non-Jews. She had also learned that Jews would not collect interest for a loan to a fellow Jew but would take interest from a non-Jew. Altogether, halacha seemed to her to embody an arrogant and disdainful attitude toward non-Jews for no apparent reason.

In fact, Heidi became increasingly aware of a certain condescension towards non-observant Jews such as herself. She discovered to her horror that some orthodox Jews would not drink wine that she, a non-Sabbath observer, had touched. She noticed that when discussing Torah, her orthodox friends would switch into a private language she felt was deliberately intended to exclude the uninitiated. Heidi felt some were particularly antagonistic towards her because she was an opinion leader. Just as she discovered the suffering of the Palestinians, it became a hot topic on campus; just as she discovered the many ways in which gays were made to feel excluded, that became a defining issue of campus life.

But in the final analysis, what really turned Heidi off to Judaism was its attitude towards women. Women in the orthodox minyan sat behind a mechitza and could not lead the services. They were not taught Torah at the same level as the men; suddenly she recalled her mother’s resentment at not having been included when her own father had studied Torah with her brothers. Jewish marriage was, as far as Heidi could ascertain, a patriarchal institution, entered into by the man “acquiring” a wife. Jewish literature was rife with what Heidi saw as oddly essentialist attitudes: men are inherently different than women, Jews are inherently different than non-Jews.

Heidi’s student days were for her a time of discovery, of expanding horizons, of disappearing barriers. She wished to know all cultures, to love all people, to drink the world in whole. The Judaism for which she once had a certain fondness now seemed unnecessarily restrictive, confining and narrow. It squelched love in the name of obscure principle.

By the time I met Heidi, she was a committed social justice warrior, who came to the kosher dining hall mostly to educate innocents like me on the immorality of Judaism. Was there merit to her claims? We’ll take this up in our next post.