Torah-True Tea Partiers about Rabbinic Authority?

This is a first draft. Not completely thought through so it may change in a few days. I am not wedded to any section, so I may retract whole sections. Yet, I think there is something here.

When I first started this blog, the New York Times Sunday book review had an issue dedicated to the 1930’s depression featuring books about the attitudes toward the downtrodden masses . Many of the opinions featured corresponded to the positions of the Conservative rabbis of the era and their decision for the law to respond the masses. (My thoughts on the 1930’s will show up in a more professional venue, eventually). This week’s New York Times book review has two articles about the Tea Partiers. As I read those articles, it sounded much like the rhetoric on the orthodox blogs and orthodox editorials which blame the Rabbinic administration for the high cost of yeshiva tuition. It seems like we are heading for some form of Tea Partying about rabbinic authority.

It seems that the economic difficulties are generating a sense of outage that is taken out on the current leadership, in our case day school administrators. The important line in the book review is that “the objects of their outcries …are of far less consequence than the great failures that plague the nation.” There are problems and the objects of anger are not the cause. So the question is: When will there be a Rabbinic leader who is playing a tea-partier role? Since we have had rabbis in the 1950’s hunting communists, in the 1960’s wearing Dashikis, in the 70’s advocating “do your own thing” in the 1980’s cozying up to the Moral Majority, becoming libertarians in the 1990’s, and rabbis sounding like Evangelicals today, then it is only a matter of time until we start hearing Tea Partier sermons about Rabbinic leadership.

People are angry that they cannot afford to live the frum lifestyle they want, because if one is frum then one is guaranteed the lifestyle. Someone has to be at fault. If you create a community that requires the members to be in the top 6% of US income, and makes one comfortable only if one is in the top 3% then you have a social problem. The objects of blame are a side show, but if the blogs are an indication then there is some of the blame is being placed on leadership.

From the NYT

Anatomy of an Uprising By ALAN BRINKLEY October 8, 2010
Listening to the many and diverse demands and ideas that the Tea Partiers express in their rallies, pamphlets and oratory does relatively little to explain why so many Americans are so angry… Similar outbreaks of outrage and blame have accompanied most major economic crises over the last century and more…. The Great Depression produced multiple movements that reviled the power of bankers and the concentration of wealth. In both cases, as in our own time, the movements soon became immersed in innumerable other grievances and prejudices.
The Tea Partiers are right to be angry. But the objects of their outcries …are of far less consequence than the great failures that plague the nation.

But let me recount another Sukkot story. We had as a guest an NCSY BT from the 1970’s who is RW MO, as are his kids. He now lives in an agudah neighborhood somewhere in the US where 4 bedroom houses cost 180, 000. He was complaining that the synagogues here in Teaneck don’t allow drinking. He was adamant in his declaration that: who do the rabbis think they are telling us what to do! Rabbis have no right to forbid anything! He proclaimed that the tradition to drink on Simchat Torah goes back to the Gemara since the gemara says we do birchat Kohanim at Shararit because the kohanim will be drunk by mussaf. (I did not correct him about the Gemara or tell him what the Mishnah Berurah actually says, it was too good of a diatribe). Over the course of the meal, he complained about NY orthodox, its day schools, and the cost of living in the NY community. There was a sense of the Torah being one thing and the Rabbis as administrators as another. There was also a sense of how alienated some parts of out of town Orthodoxy are from the NYC enclaves.

There is a certain distrust of the elites in America and so too in certain parts of Orthodoxy. Many people feel outside or looking up at the elites who are disconnected from their lives. And many want freedom – a core value in America. Our enclaves are conformist and dont hear their needs.

The Beat Generation and the Tea Party Lee Siegal
Still, American dissent turns on a tradition of troublemaking, suspicion of elites and feelings of powerlessness, no matter where on the political spectrum dissent takes place.
Like the Beats, the Tea Partiers are driven by that maddeningly contradictory principle, subject to countless interpretations, at the heart of all American protest movements: individual freedom. The shared DNA of American dissent might be one answer to the question of why the Tea Partiers, so extreme and even anachronistic in their opposition to any type of government, exert such an astounding appeal.
More seriously, the origin of the word “beat” has a connection to the Tea Partiers’ sense that they are being marginalized as the country is taken away from them. According to Ginsberg, to be “beat” most basically signified “exhausted, at the bottom of the world, looking up or out . . . rejected by society.”

There are people out there who fell that they are not represented in the Rabbinic elite, just like Tea Partier’s have “a feeling that their opinions are not represented in Washington.” This movement or moment is likely to come from the right wing side – a call to follow Torah and not Rabbinical organizations, Rabbinical administrations, and the politics generated by rabbis. (It will probably still deeply respect Gedolim, Zaddikim, and Rabbinic authority in general-just not the political manifestations of lower levels of the hierarchy.)

In the past when there was an economic gap and a blaming of the Rabbinic leadership it led to varied results. In the 1740’s, there was a critique of Rabbinic leadership and the newly wealthy and new lands of Podolyia created Hasidism. People broke from the Kehillah to form shiblach. In the 1880’s, it lead to a variety of secular solutions that fled the Rabbinate to Zionism, Socialism, Bund, Folks Party. The story of Kotso shel Yod by Yehudah Leib Gordon conveys a sense of the alienation. By 1921, it lead to young Rabbis choosing the Mizrahi movement that preached job training, education for productivity, and secular studies. The Great Depression created a generation of Conservative rabbis who spoke of social realism and helping the masses.

Now, what will come from the economic crisis of the last few years. There will certainly be the creation of Orthodox communities that allow one to make lower than the top 6% of income. Centrism may be cast as having been a rich man’s religion. But the interesting point is that the blaming of the Rabbis as an object of scorn for the economic difficulties will lead to a distancing from the seemingly aloof rabbis. (It does not matter if it is true at all, just that it is perceived that way).

Now from where will the change occur? There are three choices: (1)the places with 180K homes far from NY who are alienated from the economics and education required for Centrism. (2) the new places in the Sun belt devoid of seminaries, rabbinic elite, and direct contact with the North (3) the heart of places such as Bergenfield where the economic inequities are being felt. This corresponds to (1)Those who fundamentally disenfranchised from the community (2)Those in a new place without a strong leadership base (3) those in the center who feel the greatest dissidence and that their expectations not met. Hasidism started in a place like the second choice, Secularism, Bund, and Mizrahism in the third, but those leader found fertile ground for their ideas in the first group.

Let me know when you start hearing from some young Rabbi who thinks we need to scale back Rabbinic authority or that the Rabbinical supervised enclave is not needed. Not a liberal Orthodox Rabbi who never had a strong sense of authority, rather someone who has a tea-party rhetoric against the elites who are not concerned for the needs of the people. Look to the right not the left. Someone with Tea Party politics and a strong sense of Torah.

I am not interested in discussing American politics, rather to gather the voices of the new Jewish generation.

16 responses to “Torah-True Tea Partiers about Rabbinic Authority?

  1. On the internet the blogs and commentators mostly identify with the rabbis, in fact do the heavy breathing on their behalf. Those in full rebellion like the influential Failed Messiah are already outside Orthodoxy. What I do see is the rage being sublimated against institutions like the Agudah and Daas Torah, or those rabbis who have shielded child molesters. UOJ has been particularly effective, but always in the name of some more ideal rabbinical Orthodoxy. R. Maryles has to wiggle a bit, but never attacks gedolim except for the Edah Hacharedis. Everyone is protecting their charedi posterior. Since MO is gushed, there is no one out there defending the old Mizrachi, or the big shul moderate Orthodoxy of the 1950’s. Look at the response to female rabbis or the hijacking of geirus by the most extreme elements. In fact your term “post Orthodoxy” has turned into a synonym for not really, really Orthodox, wink, wink. My view is that the internet, while providing an outlet for ranting, and a certain distancing from a chumra prone rabbinate, has actually strengthened the rabbinate as decisors of halacha. I would be more impressed if people exhibited less rage, and started imagining new possibilities.
    Individuals naturally feel inadequate because they can’t play in the fast lane, and end up suffering in private, a classic example why communitarianism is a right wing ploy. There is one other acceptable track…become ever more frum and learned, and beat up on those to the left, a sort of identification with the aggressor. There might be some threshold of misery that creates an out and out rebellion. But so far I see the yeshivas and the associated network of rabbis as strong as ever. We are living in a generation where the parents and grandparents have been charedized, leaving Orthodox modernity with a European sophistication to the rapidly aging great- grandparents.

    • My view is that the internet, while providing an outlet for ranting, and a certain distancing from a chumra prone rabbinate, has actually strengthened the rabbinate as decisors of halacha.

      Can you explain this a bit more? How? Who? What would have been without the internet?

  2. Some positions are silenced in the sense that unless you want to fight big time and have people insult you or even worse make believe you don’t exist, it’s best not to bring them up. 70% of Orthodox Jews voted Republican and most on the internet are to the right of the Likud. I know from experience that one has to be very careful and tread lightly on political subjects or you become a sort of pariah.

    Similarly it is very difficult to engage in substantive feminist criticism if there is the slightest conflict of halacha. You just don’t find anyone saying “Neither my mother nor my wife cover their hair, both wear pants; and my daughters, can you believe this, go out once a week for old Bnei Akiva style Israeli dancing.” You find people being mechutzafim with dogmas, but never with halacha. Because there is this implicit rule that it is better to accept the Documentary Hypothesis than to eat fish in a non kosher restaurant, there are no really acceptable blogs that represent the voice of those MO who are 80% Orthodox. Frumkeit has become a threshold phenomena, much like pregnancy. Just try defending Shira Chadasha on Hirhurim. Within two comments some guy is going to say “You call THIS Orthodoxy?!”, and there goes the conversation. Strict halacha has become the minimal baseline.

    Even your Tea Party style Orthodox rebellion, accepts as given that it is ok to question lower rabbis but “It will probably still deeply respect Gedolim, Zaddikim, and Rabbinic authority in general.” Zionists, Socialists, Bundists and Folkists were obviously less inhibited.

  3. ej – that’s actually not true regarding Hirhurim, in my own experience. If anything, as an example, most of the commentators were pro-Hurwitz (in principle), pro-SOP, and I recall pro-Shira Hadasha, though I could be wrong. However, there is one commentator there that is a bit obsessive and comments 24/6 and is quite opinionated/narrow-minded, who will probably do that.

  4. Jon- al tiftah peh, let change the subject to avoid attracting wingnuts.

  5. EJ I don’t think you are quite correct. Remember that skeptic blogs are not really that old and that the people involved with them seem to go through stages of grief which focus them more on lost innocence than on new approaches. However, most of them seem to stay within the frum community more or less as they reach “acceptance”. Many of these people may be open to helping create new approaches to things. Indeed, Judaism always had periods like this where someone had to create something new. It could be as simple as this…egalitarian orthodox communities. People who are committed to every other aspect of orthodoxy but cannot deal with separation of gender roles. Frankly I believe that there is a huge market for that (and perhaps it will draw more from the conservative movement, but also from Orthodoxy). All it will take is one serious Rabbi to move in this direction and voila. That said, there are several ways in which this can work. Firstly, the Nusach clarifications that are being embraced by both Sephardim and the new Nusach Eretz Yisrael could break things up. Also the NeoHasidic approach could go modern orthodox or even conservative. Finally, the tuition crisis is not a joke. Indoctrination begins there…without the schools, the kids are going to get thrown in with the general population and that is almost certainly the direction thinks are heading in.

  6. BTW. I found the article below to be quite incisive. It is hard to imagine that skepticism will not lead people to draw similar conclusions.

  7. Jonathan Hirsch

    Perhaps the Tea party would focus on the power of the national religious organizations who ,who claim to speak for Orthodoxy yet nobody elected them and there are few checks on their power,sometimes these organizations the rabbis to be more open or responsive to their communities needs ?
    Historically speaking ,isn’t the power of these organizations is a new development ?

  8. I think that we need to distinguish between the Modern Orthodox and the yeshivish/chareidi communities, where these ideas play out and the role of the leadership play out in very different ways.

    I spent the last days of sukkos in Lakewood with my brother-in-law (and his family) which is a prominent chareidi pundit/writer and he was expressing an extremely anti-centralization, anti-leadership position expressing support for the lack of any real leadership in Lakewood.

    • Why do you think that is more Lakewood than elsewhere?What is unique about it? Does it have a tea-party argument or some other form of argument? Do you think Washington Heights or Boston is more respectful of its leaders?

  9. Lakewood would be sui generis, expect for that it is basically the still growing center of American Charedi Judaism. (As an aside, someone needs to write a straightforward, honest, journalistic account of the rise, growth & transformation of Lakewood, NJ from a small defunct resort town with a single (intentionally) out of the way Yeshiva run autocratically by a single family into the current massive, wild place that it is today).

    Lakewood on many levels is different primarily because it is younger than almost all other Jewish communities in America so no one is able to control the community. The Agudah has minimal activity there. (As another aside, but relevant to this discussion, the Agudah strength, among the people, is primarily in “out of town” communities where being active in the Agudah can be an expression of their Judaism).

    The leadership of Bais Medrash Gevoha (BMG) has been attempting for years to force their will on the community (much to the resentment of even those who studied in BMG). The last attempt on the leadership’s part, with mixed results, was when they forced all of the girls’ schools to not open until there was a spot for every girl in every High School. In contrast, when the Kotler family was running the show, there were no sit-down Pizza parlors allowed in Lakewood.

    In many ways this is just playing out the culture of BMG where there are no shiurim & people basically join any chaburah that they want & ties to the Yeshiva are just formal. (As yet another aside, the RY of the Mir in Jerusalem (with whom my brother is very close) has severely criticized BMG for this hefkervelt and, at some point, unsuccessfully attempted to open a Yeshiva in the NYC area as an alternative to Lakewood. )

    But at this point most people are moving to Lakewood because of the cheap homes with all of the amenities of an ultra-Orthodox community, so they have no affiliation with BMG.

    Individuals such as Rabbi Simcha Bunim Cohen & Rabbi Gissinger have set up little fiefdoms, but their authority is limited to members of this congregation.

    I strongly believe that “tea party” arguments work better in Lakewood than in Washington Heights (KAJ) or other Jewish communities with a more centralized form of leadership. However, no one really wants to change American Chareidi halakha or the status quo. No one is going to start sending their children to public schools. So its application is rather limited.

  10. Re: where to look for the wave of Tea-Torah.

    Just as the union contracts of government workers can anger voters during a recession (e.g., “I’m surviving on less income, why do my taxes have to fund their raises?”), the length and tenure of pulpit contracts could help trigger congregant anger. It is only natural that this would happen if a pulpit rabbi received a generous, long-term contract before the Great Recession began.

    But a professional rabbi would be financially dis-incented from making that argument (similarly, it’s hard to find negligence lawyers advocating tort reform). So I would raise my antennae to detect a lay leader, or at least a non-pulpit rabbi, riding the wave of such a movement.

    • Not necessarily. Look at all of the establishment figures who have re-invented themselves as Tea Party leaders. Many congregants would be only too happy to support their Rabbi, the crusader, fighting against the establishment.

  11. >Can you explain this a bit more? How? Who? What would have been without the internet?

    The influence of Israeli poskim, for one thing. Before widespread internet use, I do not recall the regular dissemination of the up-to-the-minute pesak of Israeli Da’as Torah.

    Actually, allow me to post an amazing statement in a widely distributed printed pamphlet:

    “The anisakis question is not new but has recently caused quite a stir in the halachic community. The gedolei haposkim in Eretz Yisroel, Rav Eliyashiv shlit”a; Rav Wozner, shlit”a; Rav Nisin Karelitz shlit”a; Rav Chaim Kanievsky shlit”a; and Rav Moshe Sternbuch shlit”a among others, have all forbidden fish that may possibly contain the presence of the anisakis. They feel that the fish is forbidden min HaTorah, unless it has been checked.

    “Many distinguished חוץ לארץposkim (located outside of Eretz Yisroel) maintain that the Shulchan Aruch’s criteria for permitting these types of fish is that as long as the anisakis is generated in the flesh, the fish is permitted.

    “Practically speaking, how will this controversy be resolved? This is a question of an אסור דאורייתא . I believe that just as kashrus has been vigilant regarding b’dikas toloyim on land, so too it will be vigilant in the sea. Kosher fish market mashgichim will be trained to spot worms on a lightbox or under ultraviolet light.”

    To me this is amazing – and novel. Here you have a rabbi matter-of-factly telling the masses that the Americans tend to pasken le-kula (and apparently still hold that salmon is kosher) but the Israelis pasken le-chumra. So, practically speaking, opines this rabbi, what will probably happen is that light boxes are coming to a fish near you: that is, we will ignore our American poskim and pasken like the Israelis.

    This is the new reality and examples like this mount every day. Strictly speaking, this isn’t an internet phenomenon per se, but my contention is that it is the internet that has turned Israel into the neighborhood next door, that has turned a phone call away from a long-distance big deal into nothing at all. Webcasts, Youtube, Skype, email, blogs, even the print media– all of it.


    Scroll forward eight years to 2010, and it’s the Vaad that’s now experiencing a jolt … one so intense a local official likened it to an “Orthodox Tea Party” backlash.
    Known as a potent political force able to steer entire voting blocs, this body of rabbis, businessmen and government liaisons was unable in recent months to muster enough Orthodox community support for its most established darling.
    In this bubble of rigid customs and clear hierarchies, a consensus has formed that the grip of the old order is slipping as technology and new thinking take hold.
    It is struggling, they say, to keep up with an expanding Orthodox population as fresh voices speak out and the economy shifts personal priorities.
    “We’re at a point where the community has minds of its own and does not just follow recommendations without understanding them,” Vaad member Avrohom Moshe Muller said. “It puts us in a different position.”
    Some Lakewood leaders argue that a splintered Orthodox constituency may hurt the town’s influence at the state level. Others see the diminished leadership role as a healthy swing toward an open political system

Leave a Reply to S. Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s