Jonathan Rosenblum wrote a follow up essay in Mishpacha “In Praise of Fiction”, September 4, 2008 on the impact of poverty in the haredi community. It isn’t difficult to understand his concern although I am less sympathetic for reasons expanded upon in my essay “Give me-I’m Entitled”, September 8, 2008.
What emerges from his essay is a striking declaration that “there is no comparing our society to that of Eastern Europe a hundred years ago”. This is a troubling statement coming from an articulate member of the haredi community. After all, the underpinnings of the haredi community is grounded on precisely the premise that they are closely and inexorably linked with those past generations and revere almost to the point of avodah zarah the Eurpean experience. Even our own rabbinic sages commented that “nitkatnu hadorot” that as we progress in time, the succeeding generations becoming smaller relative to the previous generations regarding their quality and values and shemirat mitzvoth. The point of reference is the past, a pivotal principal within the haredi community.
Europe was and has been the focal point for the haredi community and it ought not be dismissed out of convenience when confronted with disturbing social issues. Chaim Nachman Bialik in his landmark poem “haim yesh et nafshecha” addressed the phenomenom of our obsession of referencing everything to our glorious (inglorious at times) past. Harav Hutner, in the sefer “Meshulchan Gavoha”, commenting on parshat Re’eh as to why we observe a year of mourning for a parent but only a month for the loss of a child is very compelling and demonstrates our fixation on referencing our lives to past generations. Rabbi Hutner believes that the year of mourning is not so much for the parent who has passed, as much as it is for the fact that another link from Sinai has been broken – forever.
There are things we can learn from our Eastern European ancestors. Rosenblum is correct when he asserts
“formal chinuch ended for almost all boys before they ever reached bar mitzvah age, and at that point they were apprenticed out to learn a trade or start working. Torah education was an unaffordable luxury for all but the very brightest and wealthiest.”
The model sighted above (with exception of the absence of girl’s education) strikes me as one that ought to be adopted in the haredi community. A yeshiva student who doesn’t demonstrate unusual gifts of scholarship ought to be channeled into productive trade schools where they will acquire technical skills appropriate for competing in the 21st century market place, thus avoiding the scarlet letter of becoming a burden on the community. Those gifted students should be adequately prepped not only in Torah, but in leadership training to make them effective rabbinic leaders, dayanim, and community leaders.
There may be something else to be learned and borrowed from the crucible of the European experience other than a depressing dress code. They lived by a set of values and ethics that weren’t up for sale. They understood that sacrifice was necessary if one wished to live the life of a model Jew. Mesirat nefesh was a value, not to be inflated or deflated depending on the strength of the Index or the stock market. Today, a haredi, according to Rosenblum places his value in the strength of the market place. He’s more concerned with a “good shiduch” for the bachur than being true to those values that were precious to yisrael sava. Why should living a life of mitzvoth be linked to the Index? Are haredi values so cheap?