Sunday, October 18, 2009

A Tale of Two Tales, and of Stereotypes

[This week’s Haveil Havalim is here!]

This is a bit of a rant, and it's on a matter of common sense, so feel free to skip this post.

They tell the following story regarding Rav Jezrel, Rosh Kollel in a small New England town some 30 years ago:
Rav Jezrel was approached by one of his yingeleit, who wanted to leave the beis medrash and enroll in Yeshiva University. Rav Jezrel asked what courses he would be taking, and what would be the content of those courses. The young man explained that he would be studying accounting, biology and Spinoza.
Rav Jezrel shook his head. “Accounting, fine; you need it for a parnassah. Biology, fine; it will help you understand gemara. But Spinoza, in a yeshiva?! Der pasuk shteit “מבית ומחוץ בכופר,” not “מבית ובפנים בכופר!” [a pun on the Hebrew of Bereishit 6:14, reading it as “You shall keep the kofer/heretic from the house and outside,” and not “from the house and inside.”]

They also tell the following story regarding Rabbi Michaelson, a musmach (ordained rabbi) from Yeshiva University:
One morning, in shul, a yeshivish young man was honored with gelilah – the chance to wrap up the sefer torah. He rolled the Torah closed, then attempted to put the cover on the Torah before tying the Torah closed with its gartel.
Rabbi Michaelson quipped, “He doesn’t understand – the gartel belongs on the inside, not the outside. A gartel on the outside is a siman psul [a standard sign that the wrapped Torah is disqualified]!”

Neither story ever happened – I made them up this morning – but they fit the stereotypes surrounding two camps, the yeshivish and the centrist. (I could just as easily have attributed the first story to Rav Gifter and the second to Rav Soloveitchik, the way people tell stories about each, but I would not want to contribute to the already-great canon of misleading stories surrounding them.)

Everyone seems to be aware of these stereotypes, and people believe them and invoke them. Example: Someone commented to me on seeing me reading a teshuvah on my laptop at seder, “You wouldn’t last one minute in the Satmar kollel with that kli (implement)!”

But in real, person-to-person interactions, the stereotypes often fall apart; here in Toronto, I’ve worn my black hat at Modern Orthodox minyanim without anyone looking askance, and I’ve davened at yeshivish kollel minyanim and received an aliyah. I have yet to be treated in a hostile way by either side.

I don’t think we do ourselves any favors with these assumptions. These beliefs intimidate us, convincing us that we cannot cross lines, that we cannot enter a certain minyan or a beis medrash, or even speak to someone who is of different political beliefs, lest they attack or ridicule us. If I think Rav Jezrel won’t respect me, I’m not likely to approach him with a shailah. If I think Rabbi Michaelson looks down on me, I’m not going to attend his shiur. But until I ask them, I won’t know whether there is any substance to my fears.

Prejudice is a natural defense mechanism, a pre-emptive wall protecting us against attacks, but walls work both ways, locking us in as well.


  1. Re your last line, I believe you are quite right. Frost addressed this in his poem "Mending Wall" when he said "Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
    What I was walling in or walling out,
    And to whom I was like to give offence.
    Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
    That wants it down."

  2. Is it better to make yourself vulnerable to a feeling of betrayal and disillusionment when someone you want to look up to as a person who you share identification and values with turns out to consider you beyond the pale and not actually "on the same side" as them?

  3. ProfK-
    I had almost forgotten that one; we read it in high school, and I held on to it for a long time because it resonated with me.

    Why does that need to be binary?
    Is there not a third option - you look up to the person with whom you share id/values, but you disagree on a specific point?

  4. Steg-
    Why does that need to be binary?
    Is there not a third option - you look up to the person with whom you share id/values, but you disagree on a specific point?
    Individuals may operate at that level, communities? I haven't seen it.
    Joel Rich

  5. Joel-
    I've seen it in communities and their rabbis.

  6. Labels and stereotypes dictate the way some people lead their lives and those of their children -- often to their detriment, see