Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

5 Shevat 5760 - January 12, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Sponsored by
Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network

Produced and housed by

Opinion & Comment
A Warped Way of Following Tradition

by Rabbi Nosson Zeev Grossman

Two stories not long ago printed in the newspapers show a widespread distortion of values. Ever since the Reform, Zionist, and Haskalah leaders began to prevent Torah leaders from guiding the Jewish Nation, these anti-religious elements have uprooted hundreds of thousands from Torah observance. There are others who, though perhaps partially observant, have adopted a form of warped behavior, according to their own notions of what the Jewish tradition is. By many, such a way of life has created radical internal contradictions. Even people behaving in an immoral way can still believe -- surprisingly -- that they "observe tradition."

Some examples are instructive.

Police detectives recently revealed details of two criminal incidents that demonstrate this acute contradiction in values. The first concerned the gang of lawbreakers, the "Ramat Amidar gang," who waged fierce blood feuds with gangsters of Pardes Katz (both areas are located near Bnei Brak).

Police investigators found out from a gang member where they had met to plan their last crime: inside the local shul on erev Rosh Hashanah! In the middle of formulating their strategy they decided to recheck their target. They went to the scene of the future crime and looked him over carefully.

In the middle of this, one of the gang remarked that they must hurry to finish their "business" so as to be back on time for Selichos. They immediately returned to their shul and said Selichos with everyone else. After Selichos, they went back to planning their crime.

In another case, on Shabbos morning at the beginning of Iyar a man was found, shot dead, in an apartment in Bnei Brak. Investigators could determine that the murdered man was a robber who had attempted to break into the empty houses, but they did not know who shot him and why. The police recognized the dead man as a well known burglar.

Recently, his partner in crime admitted to having shot him. He said he could not bear seeing his partner steal on Shabbos and had often demanded from him to refrain from doing so. Since he knew that his partner was continuing to rob houses on Shabbos, he followed him one time and took along a gun. Early in the morning he caught him red-handed in a stairway of an apartment house in Bnei Brak -- and shot him.

Police had difficulty believing this story, but the murderer told them he had buried the gun in the graveyard at the end of Chazon Ish Street between two tombstones. He took them to the hiding place and pulled the gun out from underneath the ground.

"He gave me a real headache!" complained the murder suspect. "It is unthinkable that people go to shul early on Shabbos in the morning while such a person would empty out their homes."

This is what the murderer told the astounded policemen. He decided to shed blood on Shabbos for the sake of Shabbos observance!

These are certainly extreme examples of perverted "traditionalism," definitely not representative of the rule. Nonetheless, everyone has surely encountered different forms of wrong religious practice by unfortunate, dreadfully ignorant Jews. They have created for themselves a new "religion," not regulated by the Shulchan Oruch but by their heart's feelings and perhaps by family "folklore."

In October 1999, on a Shabbos, there was a terrible bus accident in Israel resulting in many deaths and injuries. One of the survivors told the newspapers the following: "This all happened after it began raining. We heard the rain outside the bus. The tour guide opened a siddur and began reading aloud together with us the tefillah for rain."

We do not know which tefillah for rain was meant: perhaps mentioning or requesting of rain in Shemonah Esrei or the tefillah we say on Shemini Atzeres. In any event, the story proves how distorted this "traditionalism" can be. Is reading a tefillah for rain from a siddur while riding on a bus on Shabbos not absurd?

We must distance ourselves from any phony yiras Shomayim that is detached from halocho and from expressing spiritual feelings which are mixed with utter ignorance. "A boor cannot be fearful of sin; an unlearned person cannot be pious" (Ovos 2:5). Goodwill, righteous intentions, and a warm heart are insufficient. Without Torah knowledge, without being completely attached to Torah and halocho, a person may well be a "fan of tradition" but behave in a terribly distorted manner.

Chazal teach us that it is not true to say "there is no harm in trying" to be religious, and we should at least be glad that there are "good intentions." Sometimes an ignorant Jew who wants to behave according to Judaism causes grave harm. Chazal (Tosefta Brochos 6:23) draw this moshol for us: "This can be compared to a flesh-and-blood king who commanded his slave to cook for him but the slave had never cooked anything in his life. The end result was that the slave burned his stew and agitated his master."

The gemora (Shabbos 63a) tells us to take pains in detaching ourselves from ignorance combined with excessive piety since it is likely to have a detrimental influence on our environment. "Do not live in the same neighborhood with an am ho'oretz who is a chossid." Rashi (ibid.) explains that an ignorant person "does not know how to be careful in doing mitzvos. His piety is imperfect -- and eventually you will learn from him."

We are living in a generation where light and darkness function together in disarray. Anti-religious Jews are trying to destroy all Torah values while the Torah World is, bli ayin hora, flourishing. It is evident that many Jews between these two extremes are drawing closer to Torah observance. Some are zoche to become complete baalei teshuvah: they adhere carefully to mitzvos and set aside regular times for Torah study. They have become part and parcel of the Torah-true camp. Much of the credit, of course, goes to the many organizations active in kiruv work for this blessed development.

At the same time it is impossible to ignore the growth of spiritual thorns, some of which are "institutes" for the study of Kabbalah and/or various "miracle makers." Many Jews retain a "symbolic connection" to Judaism and are "lovers of tradition," and "Jews in their heart." The common denominator is their self-deceit, which is usually caused by utter ignorance. This lack of knowledge allows them to feel they are "doing something Jewish" and "paying their dues" albeit in a partial and perverted way.

"Behold days are coming, says Hashem Elokim, when I will send a famine in the land, not a famine for bread, nor a thirst for water, but for heeding the words of Hashem" (Amos 8:11). HaRav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman zt'l, the rav of Ponevezh, explained that the novi compares the spiritual hunger that will be in the ikvesa demeshicha to material hunger. When people are starving, craving for a piece of bread, they go out of their minds. They even search for food in garbage cans and lick unsatisfying dregs and peels.

It is important that we do not delude ourselves and realize that this is what is going on. We must see clearly what is happening. We cannot treat as a priceless treasure every slight expression of "traditionalism." Sometimes the pseudo- religious and semi-religious acts stem from a habitual, knee- jerk pattern of behavior or from empty "traditionalism" with its numerous deformities.

Let us remember the incidents mentioned above. Any chareidi Jew visiting the gang's local shul would have seen many Jews who did not appear to be highly observant, nonetheless enthusiastically saying Selichos with the traditional piyutim and melodies, and might have been moved by such an inspiring sight. Unfortunately, he would not have known that in that particular case some of those fervent mispalelim were a band of criminals taking a break from planning a new crime that to observe their "tradition." They do what they learned from their fathers, mechanically and automatically, without even minimal thought about the revolting contradiction between the meaning of the Selichos and their disgraceful behavior.

Although this case is extreme, each one of us has doubtless encountered many incidents of perverted traditionalism. For some people, listening to startling droshos about harsh punishments in Gehennom has become an integral part of their lives. After each mention of Divine retaliation, Rachmono litzlan, they scream in fright and astonishment.

A ben Torah who would just happen to be in the audience and see and hear their dramatic response to the drosho would probably assume that these people would turn over a new leaf, do teshuvah, and become truly Torah-observant.

Reality is completely different. They hear the fiery words of mussar but afterwards revert to their indifference. This has become part of their daily routine: they hear droshos, praise the speakers effusively, even continually play these droshos on cassettes in their cars rather than shrill music, but do not connect what they have heard to their deeds.

The rebbe, R' Klonimus Kalmish of Piaztzna zt'l in Hachshoras HaAvreichim (ch. 5) gives us a sharp analysis and penetrating explanation of what happens within the nefoshos of such people. "They have developed a sort of pleasure to hear and become excited by sharp, stinging mussar. It is similar to those who love to drink strong alcoholic beverages or boiling hot drinks and are thrilled when their throats burn. They are scorched by what we tell them but will make no effort to react."

Contemplating the harmful lifestyles, dangerous influences, and behavior patterns that our Torah sages disapprove of, necessitates an analysis of such saddening occurrences.

Chazal teach us to distance ourselves from a rosho and his damaging influence and we therefore separate ourselves from those who have thrown off the yoke of the Torah. Not everyone, however, internalizes Chazal's warning against the detrimental effects of "an unlearned person who is scrupulously pious," and about whom is written the statement of the gemora (Shabbos 63a): "You should not live in the vicinity of an unlearned, scrupulously pious person."

Even bnei Torah and talmidei chachomim are liable to be badly effected by the ignorance and superficiality of such a neighbor. Rashi (ibid.) explains that an ignorant person "does not know how to be careful in doing mitzvos. His piety is imperfect -- and eventually you will learn from him." A Jew who clings to Torah and mitzvos usually feels himself secure and even mocks the ignorance and shallowness of such an am ho'oretz. He certainly does not feel threatened by him. Chazal, however, with their perceptive look, determine that each one of us is liable to be contaminated by the lack of Torah study and proper lifestyle of the "pious" am ho'oretz.

This refers not only to extreme cases of traditionalism coupled with a lack of Torah learning and sharp deviation from halocho, as mentioned before. Our Sages teach us that bnei Torah must guard against all popular feelings and superficial thought which, though perhaps not considered as swerving from explicit halochos, nevertheless cause a blurring of hashkofo.

A letter entitled "The Issur of Listening to Various Media Channels" is to be found in the sefer of letters of HaRav Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz shlita, a member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah in Eretz Yisroel. In this letter, written some four years ago, HaRav Lefkowitz writes: "Doubtless it is ossur to use [a radio], and surely it should not enter a Jewish home, and certainly not a house of a ben Torah for several reasons:

"1) It is almost certain that he will listen to secular topics too;

"2) Who can possibly ensure that the Torah programs are not combined with matters which need checking as to their correct, pure Torah outlook. This especially refers to songs;

"3) Even if this is kosher, why do we need to use such destructive means that have killed so many Jewish nefoshos, caused Jews to discontinue observing the Torah, and awakened all types of specious views and hatred? How can one use such destructive means? The gemora (Avoda Zorah 16b) writes about distancing oneself from minus. Also one will benefit from studying the introduction to HaSefer HaMekach VeHamemkar of Rabbenu Hai Gaon z'l that was recently printed."

HaRav Lefkowitz adds that, of course, when one is engrossed in hearing and analyzing the news and the like, even with a hechsher, there is always the chance they will remove him from his Torah study. We are, however, focusing on the second reason of: "Who can ensure that the Torah programs are not combined with matters that need checking as to their correct, pure Torah outlook. This refers especially to songs."

It is unnecessary to write at length nor explain that it is almost impossible that one will not hear some items of non- Torah outlook. No one can control what is being said into the microphone.

We should at this point add even some lectures and cassettes intended for the secular public are not for bnei Torah. Even in those that are under the strict supervision of talmidei chachomim, it is understandable that some of what is intended for kiruv of secular people should not to be heard by bnei Torah. Sometimes there are problems with content, while at other times it may be just style and ways of expression that are inappropriate. The bottom line is that they are not intended for bnei Torah.

The whole essence of a ben Torah is one who elevates himself far above the general public, in yiras Shomayim, in Torah study, and in a profound and analytic approach to all of life. Popular views and popular style are opposed to the internal world of a ben Torah. It is also possible that the sheer superficiality of some shiurim intended for the secular public will damage a yeshiva student, as is stated in Chazal "eventually you will learn from him."

R' Moshe Shoenfeld zt'l in an article (published in Digleinu 5713, and copied in Hashkofoseinu 5) writes that every movement and political party must protect itself from being dragged after the masses. It must be apprehensive that perhaps it is "unable to elevate the general public, but will decline because of them." He adds that "the masses always destroyed all that is good in the most sublime movements known to mankind. Many times the gedolei Chassidus complained of what the masses did to chassidus because of their crudeness and materialism." In that article he writes at length about the obligation of each Torah group to distance itself and beware of being influenced by the masses. What he writes has immense value for us today too.

A little light pushes away much darkness. As much as we disseminate deep Torah study, dikduk in halocho and yiras Shomayim, so will the clouds of popular and superficial ideas be scattered. It is surely the duty of those engaged in zikui horabim and kiruv to combat the perversions of the traditionalism to which our Torah sages are opposed.

We must encourage the people who are coming nearer to Judaism not to be satisfied with the little they have heard. They must strive for Torah in its entirety and to reach a high degree of halachic observance and Torah study. They should not remain content with Shabbos and Yom Tov visits to shul and listening to droshos that leave them with no practical impression. (It is well known that maranan verabonon shlita have told us that the main sphere of activity for kiruv rechokim should be encouraging them to set permanent times for Torah study, for studying gemora together with a chavrusa. Studying shor shenogach in Bovo Kama is the antidote against the yetzer hora and the momentum for a strengthening of emunah.)

Notwithstanding, the Torah World must buttress itself against any popular influence and superficiality that are liable to imbue us with perverted outlooks. As Rashi explains, the ignorant person "does not know how to be careful in doing mitzvos. His piety is imperfect -- and eventually you will learn from him."

All material on this site is copyrighted and its use is restricted.
Click here for conditions of use.