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.