Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Litvak Caveman - Modern Historical Development of a Polemical Stereotype

Years ago, a controversy erupted when a past President of Yeshiva University and Rosh Yeshiva of RIETS, in an attempt to delineate and distinguish between his yeshiva and those of the more right wing Yeshiva world, stated, that unlike at some other institutions, his students were not cavemen.

Some right wing Yeshiva world elements then reacted with furor, seemingly thinking that the caveman reference was to a neanderthal type creature. Actually, however, the learned speaker and masterful darshan was referring to the famous gemara that tells of R. Shimon ben Yochai and his son R. Elazar staying for years buried in earth in a cave, when they were fugitives from governmental tyranny and religious persecution, with the speaker meaning that his students interacted with the outside world more than those of more insular institutions.

Over time, that speaker retired from Yeshiva University, and the controversy became a piece of history, past rather than present, for a while.

More recently however, the caveman stereotype has reemerged in a new form, with Hasidic figures at YU and elsewhere invoking it more broadly, not just against YU's right wing rival yeshivas, but as a rhetorical tool against Litvaks in general.

In the new form, Litvaks are carricatured as monkish types who do not engage with, or even reject the world, rather remaining isolated studying Torah all day. In other words, unbalanced people, who's lifestyle is a departure from Jewish tradition. On the other hand, Chasidim are portrayed favorably as people who engage with the outside world rather than cower from it, who believe in בכל דרכיך דעהו.

Exhibit one of this new form of the polemic - A few years ago, Rabbi Moshe Weinberger, Rabbi of Cong. Aish Kodesh, and RIETS Mashpia, basing himself on Rabbi Mottel Zilber (aka Rabbi Mordechai Silver), a (one of two) Stutchiner Rebbe (son-in-law of Rabbi Moshe Wolfson, spiritual leader of Cong, Emunas Yisrael of Brooklyn, NY, and mashgiach of Yeshiva Torah Vodaath of Brooklyn), attempted to propagate it in a talk at YU, under a guise of 'A Chasidic View of Parnasah', as part of his 'introduction to תורת הבעש"ט' series there.

Exhibit two - Rabbi Hershel Reichman, RIETS Rosh Yeshiva and neo-Hasidic pioneer, in a just published message, reflecting on neo-Hasidism at YU/RIETS (interestingly he expresses some reservations about it there now, entertaining the possibility that it has gone too far), says (last paragraph) that Hasidism is a seamless fit with Modern Orthodoxy, because they both see opportunities for avodas Hashem in every area of life, as per the fundamental Torah teaching of בכל דרכיך דעהו. As if Litvaks have excised that from their Yiddishkeit!

What is the problem here? Does anyone else realize what is wrong with this rhetoric? May I suggest a few points to ponder.

1) Litvaks as a whole are being conflated with a certain type of modern yeshiva/kollel (long term/indefinite "Torah-only" study for the masses) lifestyle, and its constituency.  As if such a thing ever existed in Lita, Jewish Lithuania, the 'old country' for them where the amount of kollel students pre-WWII did not even get close to three digits, and where the typical man, with rare exception, was a 'balabos' (בעל הבית) rather than a kollel yungerman. The fact is, though, that Litvish in general is not totally identical with Yeshivish. Yes, there is overlap, and common cause, and collaboration at times, but they are still distinct identities and categories.

2) Chasidim nowadays have gone into kollel in a big way, and now have some of the largest kollelim in the world (in Kiryas Joel, New Square, etc.).

3) Pre-WWII Chasidim had similar things to kollel, even if the term was not used by them (e.g. the famous Belzer 'yoshvim' system).

4) Many of the most extremely insular segments of the contemporary Jewish world are actually Chasidic communities.

5) I don't recall this argument/polemic being raised in the days of when the Chasidic-Misnagdic clash was in full swing 200+ years ago. Chasidim then did not (IIRC) accuse Litvaks of being monk-like cavemen. Why not? Simple. Because it would have been ludicrous. There was no such thing! There was no kollel movement in Lita, Jewish Lithuania and environs, at that time, in the time of the Vilna Gaon! It is a modern invention, which became a mass movement only in recent decades. That itself shows that there is a problem with a polemic linking such a lifestyle to core Litvak ideology and identity.

I wonder, would Rabbi Reichman have proclaimed such drivel in front of his late rebbe Rav Soloveitchik z"l, or Rabbi Weinberger in front of his (alleged - I don't know if I have ever heard him say over Torah from the Suvalker Rav z"l despite listening to quite a few of his talks - if he ever does, it definitely seems to be quite rare) rebbe Rav Dovid Lifshitz z"l, and other past Litvishe RIETS greats? I seriously doubt it. Now, however, after their passing, these people feel free to spout anti-Litvish rhetoric openly in the institution where their teachers taught Torah for so many years.

Let us speak out strongly against this grotesque carricature of the Litvak being propagated by some to promote aims of their own, in which the Litvak is a Christian monk like figure, who doesn't believe in בכל דרכיך דעהו.

It is time for this defamation campaign to be exposed and retracted. The contemporary figures propagating it should be challenged for their words, and held accountable for the ugly stereotyping. Issues can be debated, but leave the broad brush stereotyping out please. Hopefully those responsible will consider their words more carefully in the future, and refrain from such talk, restoring a measure of peace among us.

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