Hadassah Levy / The very title of William Kolbrener’s Open Minded Torah expresses a paradox that demands examination. As the name implies, the book supports an open-minded approach to Judaism, in which a variety of opinions (although not all) are considered legitimate. This represents the polar opposite of ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) ideology. Indeed, Kolbrener appears to be directly critiquing Haredi society. He rails against its narrow-mindedness, exclusivity, feelings of superiority, superficiality and intolerance. He criticizes simplistic readings of Judaism, reliance on segulahs, kabbalah and the belief that the faithful are rewarded in this world. There is also implicit criticism of those who choose to learn in kollel instead of interacting with the world.

The Attractions of Haredi Life

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Guest post by Hadassah Levy

Hadassah Levy is a principal at i-Point Media Group, where she specializes in social media, content writing and SEO.

The very title of William Kolbrener’s Open Minded Torah expresses a paradox that demands examination. As the name implies, the book supports an open-minded approach to Judaism, in which a variety of opinions (although not all) are considered legitimate. This represents the polar opposite of ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) ideology.

Indeed, Kolbrener appears to be directly critiquing Haredi society. He rails against its narrow-mindedness, exclusivity, feelings of superiority, superficiality and intolerance. He criticizes simplistic readings of Judaism, reliance on segulahs, kabbalah and the belief that the faithful are rewarded in this world. There is also implicit criticism of those who choose to learn in kollel instead of interacting with the world.

On the other hand, the author tells us that he commemorates Israel Memorial Day and celebrates Israel Independence Day. He is a poster boy for advanced secular education, stringing together Talmudic sources with literature, philosophy and Christianity. His only real complaint about the Dati Leumi (national religious, or Israeli Modern Orthodox) society, is its exaggerated messianism.

Interestingly, it appears that Kolbrener is a member of the society which he treats harshly in the book. He mentions sending his children to heder, a clear sign that he is (or was, at least, at the time of writing) raising his family in the Haredi lifestyle.

One wonders, without knowing anything about Kolbrener’s life beyond what he reveals in the book, why someone like him has chosen this lifestyle? There are of course other people who seem to support national religious ideology, while living a Haredi lifestyle – at least outwardly. They send their children to schools where advanced secular education is discouraged and the skills necessary to achieve it are not taught. These schools also discourage full participation as citizens of the State of Israel. Why are people choosing this lifestyle?

One conclusion is that there are attractions in the Haredi world that overshadow issues of education and statehood. Haredi society is perceived by many to contain more spirituality and more religious sincerity than the national religious camp. Values such as hesed appear to be stronger in this society, making the community more attractive. Additionally, there is something “easy” about being Haredi. Not as many decisions are required from an individual and even these can be avoided by deferring to the authority of a rabbi.

Another possibility is that people find themselves in Haredi society by accident. Many baalei teshuvah were encouraged to join the ultra-Orthodox camp by the rabbis and teachers who taught them about religion and belong themselves to the Haredi world. In fact, until recently, other streams of Orthodoxy did not engage in kiruv in Israel at all, leaving the field wide open for the Haredim. Baalei teshuvah may easily misunderstand what Haredi society stands for and join it without serious research.

Anglo-Saxons are particularly vulnerable to misunderstanding this society, because the Israeli Haredi society is so different from ultra-Orthodoxy in their country of origin. In the United States, most Haredim participate in the workforce and are much more open-minded than their Israeli counterparts.

It is also possible that because Haredi society has become more extreme in some ways in recent years, people who joined it a few decades ago may now find that it no longer fits their ideology. This extremism has forced some of its members to become disenchanted and express their disillusion through defection or quiet disobedience. Entire factions of Israeli Haredim are looking to serve in the army and join the workforce, leaving yeshiva behind. Haredi women, called upon to support their husbands, are increasingly broadening their career options beyond teaching school. Recent pictures of the Memorial Day ceremony at the Kotel showed many men in black hats as active participants.

In fact, it may very well be that these people, with one foot in ultra-Orthodoxy and the other in plain old Orthodoxy, will serve as a bridge between the societies, allowing each one to broaden its perception of Judaism. They combine spirituality, seriousness and kindness with an appreciation for the values of Israeli citizenship, broader education and the ability to learn from those who are different. Less extremism and more tolerance can only bring value to the State of Israel.

About Hadassah Levy

56 comments

  1. I didn’t realize sending children to heder is adopting a Haredi lifestyle. Is that the case? And is that the author’s only example of Kolbrenner’s supposedly choosing a Haredi lifestyle?

    This whole essay is very confusing.

  2. 1. I don’t believe “kabala” fits in the lists of criticisms – kabala is a legitimate expression of Torah (the samech of p’r’d’s’)and finds its expression – to a lesser or greater degree – in all streams of orthodoxy.
    2. Though not mentioned, being part of a structured community is an attraction of chassidic life.
    3. Anglo-Saxons? Not Normans? Did the author just finish reading Ivanhoe?

  3. Simcha: “Anglo-Saxon” (or “Anglo”) is an Israeli word meaning “English speakers.” Yes, it sounds odd and isn’t really accurate, but that’s what it is.

    Kabbalah is certainly more prevalent among Charedim.

    To be a bit judgmental, I was reading a blog entry yesterday when it occurred to me that many- perhaps most- people out there don’t *like* thinking for themselves. It’s more comfortable that way.

  4. There are many other attractions to haredi lifestyle.
    Two that come to mind: protection from the negative influences of secular culture (suggestive television programs, music, etc.), and less emphasis on demanding careers.

  5. “less emphasis on demanding careers”

    Ahem.

  6. Interesting speculations, Hadassah. I look forward to the response to this post.

    I think the American-oleh aspect must play a part for some people. When we lived in America, we chose to live in a moderate Haredi community rather than a Modern Orthodox one because we perceived the people there to be more sincere and growth-oriented. It stands to reason that Americans who have made the same calculation (but don’t have particular Zioni/Mod-orth leanings) might end up in Israeli Haredi communities.

  7. It is a mistake to consider Haredim a monolithic bloc of humanity who all think the same. I understand that it appears this way from the outside, however on the inside there is diversity and tolerance, providing you toe a few fundamental lines.
    I don’t know if Dr. Kolbrener lives in a charedi community, but I can think of a few where he might live and find a nice chevre of people who think just like him on various issues, including prominent rabbis and rosh yeshivas.

  8. shachar haamim

    I think this essay is very good.

    As Jonathan Rosenblum wrote in his review of Kolbrenner’s book – many highly educated baalei tshuva “bet the bank” on the Haredi world. Once you bet the bank it takes a long time to realize that the bet may have been partially misplaced, or at least the hand overplayed.
    Even though “his only real complaint about the Dati Leumi (national religious, or Israeli Modern Orthodox) society, is its exaggerated messianism”, .Kolbrenner of course nows that this is an oversimplistic formulation and really just comes from the Haredi world’s ” narrow-mindedness, exclusivity, feelings of superiority, superficiality and intolerance”. But once you bet the bank, put the kids through a system, set up a life, etc., it’s hard to pull back. So all these types try and set up high schools where the kids wear black hats but go to a school which is officially in cherem and can’t be located in the Haredi city. and all other sorts of mind-bending feats to remaine affiliated with the group that attracted them to religious Judaism in the first place.

  9. Moshe Shoshan

    I don think it is proper to publicly speculate about an individuals life choices like this. I do think it would be very interesting however to pose these question to Dr. Kohlbrenner himself. Gil- invitation for guest post?

  10. Hmm? I send my children to heder and I’m Reform. I don’t think that’s an unambiguous signifier of a Haredi lifestyle.

  11. Judith – ‘Heder’ means different things in different contexts. A ‘heder’ here means a boys elementary school that has an extremely limited (sometimes non-existent) secular studies curriculum, and is rather focused on Judaic studies. This contrasts with ‘national religious’ (or even some charedi) schools which have a broader curriculum.

  12. i’d suggest this choice leads to a larger issue for one who has tasted the “broad life” (vs. the double life-see R hutner)– dealing with the ambiguity of the real world when you have practically committed to a boolean world. (much like wrestling with schrodinger’s cat)
    KT

  13. There are three ways to define “Charedi” (or any other stream for that matter):
    a) Functional Charedi: dress, schooling etc.
    b) Ideological: A whole spread over here – Zionism, secular studies, Daas Torah, etc.
    c) Sociological: Segulos, Shidduch process, “kosher” newspapers.

    Some things are ambiguous – is owning only a kosher phone ideology or sociology etc.

    It seems clear that Kohlbrenner is functionally Charedi, which has many benefits (especially no immersion in Torah U-MTV VeJustin Bieber vechadomeh); he hates Charedi sociology, and is critical of certain extremes of Charedi ideology which are more pronounced than some decades ago.

  14. Perhaps Gil can shed some light as he, too, has written about how he sends his kids to Charedi schools and socio-religously feels more comfortable among Charedim; while at the same time is critical of certain extremes of Charedi ideology. Apologies in advance for any mis-representation.

  15. Flatbush is a million miles away from Israeli charedism. IIRC, Gil himself once wrote that he would leave his hat in the airport were he to make aliya.

  16. AIUI there are those RWMO(YU) who (se rabbeim) believe the best approach is to put their kids into the chareidi system and “supplement” the deficient areas (me-zionism?secular ed?) I remain unconvinced but understand the approach.
    KT

  17. shachar haamim

    “I don think it is proper to publicly speculate about an individuals life choices like this. ”

    umm, he wrote the book about orthodox Jews – not about the tribal lives of the hutu or the tutsi. of course his own choices in lifestyle affect how the book is perceived and understood

  18. Moshe: I don think it is proper to publicly speculate about an individuals life choices like this

    This post only discusses what is in the book.

  19. Rafael Araujo

    “Kolbrenner of course nows that this is an oversimplistic formulation and really just comes from the Haredi world’s ” narrow-mindedness, exclusivity, feelings of superiority, superficiality and intolerance”.”

    Yes, just as much as the post author’s are oversimplifications and formulaic. Give Dr. Kolbrenner some credit.

    “which has many benefits (especially no immersion in Torah U-MTV VeJustin Bieber vechadomeh)”

    I like that Justin Bieber reference. If being chareidi means not having to see his mug or hear his music, I am sure a number of people here would choose to be chareidi 🙂

  20. Rafael Araujo

    “Yes, just as much as the post author’s are oversimplifications and formulaic. Give Dr. Kolbrenner some credit.”

    My apologies. Meant to write: “are oversimplified and formulaic complaints against chareidi society.”

  21. I tend to agree with Rafael, believe it or not. After trying to make sense of this post, I scanned a few of Kolbrenner’s articles, Jeffrey Goldberg’s interview with him and snippets of other reviews. I am left wondering if the author is writing more about her own issues than Kolbrenner’s.

    For example, in http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/leave-your-agenda-at-home-limmud-in-jerusalem/ Kolbrenner writes:

    Leaving you agenda behind means feeling secure enough in your beliefs to learn something new. Some, especially in Jerusalem — on both the left and the right — are fearful of that possibility, as they continue the suspicious and co-dependent dance of defensiveness and de-legitimization. The best conversations I had in England — with Jews from across the spectrum — were fruitful, thought-provoking, suggestive, not because one of us thought that we were going to convince the other to abandon their beliefs, but because in our disagreement we were able to learn from one another. Limmud runs on the premise — one that the sages of the Talmud also embraced — that you can only learn from someone who has a different perspective from your own.

  22. i would second Rafael’s analysis. this article reminds me the woman who wrote how wonderful and free charedei life is from her bt perspective but in reverse.
    Dr. Kolbrenner is an articulate and intelligent fellow – i am also sure if the question was posed to him he would give an answer. but how is this different from the non ortho sending their children to mo day schools if a comparison needs to be made. we do things for different reasons. and who says that all chareidi schools are alike anyway.

  23. Why all the speculation just do a quick search and you will find out who he . There is a interview here with him where he gives hits bio. http://ilanadavita.wordpress.com/2010/06/27/weekly-interview-william-kolbrenner/

    Can you introduce yourself in a few words?

    I grew up in Roslyn, Long Island, went to Columbia College in New York City where I studied English Literature and where I met my wife Leslie. I then went on to Oxford to get an MA, and back to Columbia where I got my PhD in English Literature. Now I am a professor of English Literature at Bar Ilan University in Israel and live in the Bayit Vegan in Jerusalem.

    What is your religious background (if any)?

    My background is reform, but always had a very strong Jewish identity, inherited from my grandparents and my parents. I am named after my mother’s grandfather Velvel (Wolf or Zev), and have discovered affinities with him over the past years – he was a Gerer Hasid in a village called Govorovo which was destroyed by the Nazis in 1944.

  24. Whether you agree with the writer of this post’s sentiments on chareidi lifestyle and culture or not, it seems she is using Dr. Kolbrenner’s book as a springboard for her own views on the subject. This is not really a serious review of Dr. Kolbrenner’s admittedly complex and nuanced relationship with Israeli Chareidi society.

  25. She never claimed to be writing a review

  26. Fair enough…what was the purpose of her guest post, then?

  27. Discussing a common phenomenon

  28. Is this Hadassah Levy bas Prof. Schiffman?

  29. r’ gil – “Discussing a common phenomenon”

    which phenom? that many people in all segments of our religious society send their children to schools to the right of their views? or that some aspect of this is hypocritical (i do not share that opinion,btw)?

    there is a difference if he sent his kids to a toldot aharon school in mea shearim. but i don’t think that is the case. some basic research would have been helpful so this does not fall into the category of a polemic of a straw man. it tries to be insightful but fails miserably on some perceived truisms and a bunch of maybes.

  30. ruvie: It’s about someone who belongs to the Haredi community despite personally criticizing it. Why are you limiting it to sending children to a school and assuming it’s a matter of judging him? I don’t see either in the post.

  31. r’ gil – i don’t understand – you want him to leave and then criticize or do you prefer rosenblum – who has lightly criticized- as an apologist (that is being overly kind). don’t folks in the mo world criticize their world. what is the difference? there are many strains of chareidi – he sounds more chardal with an open view of higher education – is that so hard to appreciate? he is not choosing a limited chareidi life style but expanding it to his other beliefs. does he want his kids to have no education and not celebrate independence day? probably not. is the issue why isn’t he dati leumi?

    i see judging via contradictions – maybe i am reading too much into the slant of the author (i will let others decide). the writer is trying to make a statement or point by using him as a model. it seems like a bad choice to make her point.

  32. Who wants him to leave? She asks why he is living in that community and then offers thoughtful answers.

    If you don’t like her answers and want to offer different ones, go right ahead.

    If you don’t like her question, explain why.

  33. r’ gil – her complaints of why? can be directed at anyone in any other segment of judaism to some degree. it lacks insight and a modicum of depth. the question is fine but what she does with it: it is possibile, another possibility, one wonders, one conclusion…how many time does a paragraph begin with a sentence with the word possible.

  34. r’ gil – maybe i am being overly harsh but that is how i felt after reading the post. it felt more of agenda driven than insightful. maybe i am biased.

  35. So you agree with her question but not her answer. OK

  36. She asks why he is living in that community and then offers thoughtful answers.

    More precisely she asks why Kolbrenner is living in the Haredi community while “directly critiquing Haredi society.” And even stronger states that “He rails against its narrow-mindedness, exclusivity, feelings of superiority, superficiality and intolerance.”

    Yet, she offers no evidence for her reading of Kolbrenner, nor does some quick checking online indicate any support for such a reading.

  37. Did you read the book? I read it a long time ago and don’t remember specifics but the description rings true.

  38. Nope. But, for example, the JC review ends: “Arguing for a ‘Jewish multiculturalism’ in Israel, Kolbrener champions cultured complexity over over-restrictive conformity. His cosmopolitan sensibility is a model for mainstream Jewish day schools to aspire to.”

    http://www.thejc.com/judaism/judaism-book-reviews/61802/open-minded-torah

  39. From: http://openmindedtorah.com/reviews/

    Jonathan Rosenblum in the Jewish weekly Mishpacha writes about Open Minded Torah here.

    This beautiful book is an exhilarating hybrid, steeped in traditional learning but at home in the modern world, centered on universal questions and yet deeply personal, informed by theology and philosophy and yet guided quite humbly by the challenge of living each day with wisdom and kindness.

  40. IMO, the review does not do justice to Professor Kolbrenner or why he has chosen this hashkafic path. To use the kindest possible adjectives, the review is condescending and conveys a sense of supercilous pity as to why such an intelligent person is not a cheerleader for MO, in light of his secular education. Anyone who has read any of Professor Kolbrenner’s writings on issues relating to Judaism knows that he simply takes the best of both the Charedi and MO worlds, while jettisoning the extremes of both.

  41. r’ gil – “So you agree with her question but not her answer. OK’

    i think from a sociological point of view its an interesting question in general. it also true for others in different segments of our religion. but not to talk or interview people in the same boat and just pontificate with truisms and generalization is a poor attempt. at least be thought provoking and make some statement with a little data or facts (and draw whatever conclusions that can be argued with).

  42. did no one read his piece in Jewish Action Reader, as a religious academic, in response to R. Lichtenstein? There is a link to the place here, with some comments of mine (I no longer have esteemable opinions on this kind of thing);
    http://harherem.blogspot.com/2008/08/argument-ad-naseum-never-more-for-sake.html

    http://harherem.blogspot.com/2009/04/rav-lichtenstein-and-segue-from-chardal.html

  43. Sorry, not the “reader”, no idea why I added that..flashback of some kind.

  44. kolbrenner forgets that the fear factor: it is ‘common knowledge’ in the chareidi world that if you are not chareidi your kids will go otd.
    the bt factor too plays a role: most bt institutions are chareidi-based. therefore, its products are, or at least want to fit in to, chareidi life.

  45. ““Arguing for a ‘Jewish multiculturalism’ in Israel, Kolbrener champions cultured complexity over over-restrictive conformity. His cosmopolitan sensibility is a model for mainstream Jewish day schools to aspire to.””

    I am not that familiar with Kolbrenner, and assume he is a sincere, committed Jew. But this sentence in the review is an example of the most awful gobbledygook I have seen in some time. It reads like a bad doctoral thesis.

  46. For the record, that quote is not from Jonathan Rosenblum in the Jewish weekly Mishpacha. It was my cut-n-paste error.

    In the link I then provided to the Mishpacha review, is a more plausible answer to Ms. Levy’s question:

    Virtually every baal teshuvah was first attracted by the contrast between the ideals of the Torah world and the world from which he came, between the perfection of character of the rabbis to whom he is first introduced and everyone he has previously known — himself chief among them. Because they have bet the bank on the vision to which they are first exposed, they tend to insist (at least if they do not become jaded) that the Torah world live up to its own highest ideals, and strive for the perfection of its greatest figures.

    That is why the Torah world is never fully comfortable with the baalei teshuvah. And why they are so desperately needed.

  47. Shachar Haamim quoted this at the beginning of the thread, but I hadn’t yet understood the post sufficiently to “get” his comment.

  48. lines like this bother me: “Haredi society is perceived by many to contain more spirituality and more religious sincerity than the national religious camp. Values such as hesed appear to be stronger in this society, making the community more attractive.”

    compared to what – dati leumi, yeshivish, mo, centrist…. is perceived by whom and why? is this what you call insightful, nuance, and intelligent observations? did she talk to a smattering of baalei teshuvahs? or just more generalizations. well it would be interesting to know what she based her “insights” on.

    also, the last 2 paragraphs are murky. are they a bridge and have anything to do with hareiidim going to army and working? the sentences are separate but is she trying to connect the two events (that they came in when there was less extremism?)

  49. Is Open Minded Torah a memoire?

    And isn’t it Kolbrener with one ‘n’?

  50. Haredi society is perceived by many to contain more spirituality and more religious sincerity than the national religious camp. Values such as hesed appear to be stronger in this society, making the community more attractive.

    I would not be surprised if haredim see it that way. The national religious camp, however, takes for granted that quite the opposite is true.

    I’m not sure to what extent the difference is due to myopia/ignorance by at least one side, and to what extent terms like “spirituality” have different meanings and each side really is better according to its own standards.

    Kabbalah is certainly more prevalent among Charedim.

    Not if R’ Kook’s writings count as kabbalah.

    There are many other attractions to haredi lifestyle. Two that come to mind: protection from the negative influences of secular culture (suggestive television programs, music, etc.), and less emphasis on demanding careers.

    The strain of DL known as “chardal” has these advantages, without the disadvantages of the haredi lifestyle. (Of course, it has other flaws, like the messianism.)

    I don’t know if Dr. Kolbrener lives in a charedi community, but I can think of a few where he might live and find a nice chevre of people who think just like him on various issues, including prominent rabbis and rosh yeshivas.

    Until these rabbis find out that he believes in evolution, and then his kids won’t be able to get shidduchim.

  51. Shlomo’s points ampify the seeming ambivalence of the post’s author toward Charedi lifestyle rather than any substantive criticism of Kolbrener’s alleged hypocrisy.

    Perhaps Hadassah Levy can engage in the discussion and help us understand her own position and what she was trying to articulate using Kolbrener’s book as a prop.

  52. [I haven’t read Kolbrenner’s book, but from this review, it seems more towards the Samuel Heilman ‘sliding to the right’, sociological type.
    Personally, I found this book http://www.amazon.com/Boychiks-Hood-Travels-Hasidic-Underground/dp/0062512234 hilariously enjoyable. The author actually runs into R Malkiel (who challenges him on his lack of frumkeit), R M Tendler (who tells him about his challenge to Rav Aharon where he expects Frum biolgists to come from), and spends time in Uman. He gets around the Catskills too, if memory serves (I read it awhile ago.) The book is slightly dated- e.g. it seems there was a *different* fight in Satmar back then, but still a riot IMO]

  53. Dr. Kolbrener’s book is sui generis. You can’t compare it to any other Orthodox book.

    He has one chapter about the horrors he faced in trying to enroll his son with Down Syndrome into a Charedi school. I think that chapter shaped both my and Hadassah Levy’s view of the book.

  54. “He has one chapter about the horrors he faced in trying to enroll his son with Down Syndrome into a Charedi school.”

    Ouch.

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