Monday, November 17, 2008

The Institutionalization of Personal Choice

Frum Jews have always been governed by laws and rules. These laws and rules touch on all aspects of life. But despite their thoroughness, there has always been a great deal of leeway for personal choice. In addition to the laws we live under there have always been community standards or community minhagim that we have generally abided by. There were, however, any number of minhagim because of the number of communities. And a whole lot of those minhagim have waxed and waned over the centuries.

Today, however, we are seeing something new that has arisen. There is a push to institutionalize the practices of Klal down to the smallest item, such that personal choice is being pushed out of existence. There have been communal minhag changes that boggle the mind of anyone with even a modicum of common sense. And we are all at fault for letting this happen.

Once upon a time what you could afford monetarily was a measuring stick for what you would do. Those with more money made weddings with more people in attendance, at least sometimes. And those with less money put up a chupah and got married without all the extras. Once upon a time a Bar Mitzvah was an aliyah for the bar mitzvah boy--maybe--and shnaps and cake in shul at minyan, if you could afford it. Once upon a time summer camp was the purview of the rich. Once upon a time you lived where you could afford to live and you furnished with what you could afford to furnish. Once upon a time what you wore was a matter of what you could afford to buy. Not anymore.

Today we are seeing an institutionalized list of must have/must do items, regardless of personal feelings or money available. The fanfare surrounding an engagement and wedding has created some real resentment in some people, but for the most part everyone complies with the l'chaim, the vort, the showers, the shabbos kallah, the aufruf, the elaborate and large weddings, the sheva brochas and the myriad gift expenditures for choson and kallah, not to mention the "must provide" items for the home. Bar Mitzvahs? Also a multi--affaired rite of passage, from breakfast given in school on the day a boy first lays tefillin, to a seudah "boh b'yom," to a shabbos kiddush in shul, to an elaborate seudas mitzvah around the same time.

Dating has become highly regimented, from the resumes that have to be submitted by both sides to the allowable number of dates, to the duration of those dates, to what is permissible to talk about on those dates, and certainly to who is acceptable for a date. No seminary for the girls and no year in Israel learning for the boys? Tssk, tssk, not done. There is a hierarchy that has been established with sitting and learning boys on the top, and anything else is second best. Independent thinking is so not encouraged when it comes to dating and getting married.

Head coverings for males and females, and yes, they are both included here. Tichlach and hats and sheitlach for the women, in multiples. Yeshivas that make school rules that mothers cannot come to pick up their children wearing tichlach. Society yentas who have declared wearing a tichel outside in the street as not acceptable. Thirteen year old boys who have purchased for them a Borsolino for everyday wear and another one just for Shabbos wear. And a year later, when their heads have grown bigger the purchases can be repeated. And then repeated and repeated again.

Schools that are so worried about their kavod that they cannot allow or tolerate anyone in the school who will not be a perfect exemplar of what the school wants the public to see it as. Like early factory assembly line plants, the schools want all their finished products to be identical. They "lay down the law" on everything from shoe style to what kinds of barrettes a girl can wear in her hair, from what activities a child can participate in outside of school to which types of people a child can associate with. Not content with dictating what children can or cannot wear in school, they extend those rules to what a child can or cannot wear when out of school. Imagine the horror! A young single girl wearing a ponytail and a denim skirt walking around outside; truly world-destroying behavior. Nor are the schools content with merely manipulating all aspects of a child's in-school life; they also dictate to families what they are and aren't allowed to do, say, and think. The push for seminary and learning in Yeshiva in Israel? A "direct order" from the high schools. And the punishment for not obeying this order? It's going to hurt for shidduchim, hurt reallly badly.

The style police are also out in full force. Your house had better look the "right" way, your clothes had better conform to what this gestapo has declared is acceptable, and you'd better be members of the "right" shul, in the "right" neighborhood, with the "right" friends and indulging in the "right" activities. And, of course, you had better be a member of the "right" family.

There is a bare tolerance in some circles for the idea of a man's working to support his family, with a concomitant push to indoctrinate the boys while in yeshiva that working somehow makes a man less "choshuv" than those who do not work. There is a stigmatization of the working women of Klal, even though in many cases they are the sole support of their families, or the only way that a young family can afford to pay school tuition. There is a changing of traditional family raising patterns so that parents are not only expected to raise and provide for their own children while young but must also provide and pitch in when these children get married and have families of their own. Retirement is viewed as an un-Jewish idea: older people have to stay in work harness until the bitter end.

This substitution of institutionalized behavior for personal choice hasn't enriched Klal in any meaningful way either. There are far too many people who have said "No!" to this infringement into private decision making and have taken their disenchantment and themselves all the way out of the frum world. There are people who simply cannot take the artificially imposed stress and choose to leave yiddishkeit rather than make themselves ill trying to fit standards that make no sense to them. There are families suffering from any number of ills, financial and otherwise, because they can't cope with the "communal requirements." Along with the loss of personal choice has also come a loss of common sense.

And one side affect, I would hope not an intended one, of this constant feeling of having to be just like everyone else is a raising tide of kinah. If you buy into the idea that you have to be just like everyone else, then seeing someone else with something you don't have raises jealousy to the flash point. When institutionalized "equality" replaces common sense and personal choice then there is no way to point out that people have different amounts of money, which will affect what they may or may not do. Kinah has always been with us, but never to such an extent, and never so entwined with the idea of entitlement.

When "they" push to institutionalize areas which have in the past been a matter of personal choice, no matter who "they" are, they are not doing Klal any favors and are laying the groundwork for some severe eruptions coming soon down the road. I'd venture to say that some of the financial woes that face Klal today are directly correlated to this idea of institutionalizing the minutiae of personal thought and behavior. Those who push for this institutionalized behavior have given little or no thought to the cost to Klal of this behavior, not the emotional cost and certainly not the monetary cost. To the outside world Jews are seen as being really smart about money--if only that were true right now.

I would like to add this caveat before finishing off. Even those of us who see that the way things are being run right now are not beneficial are not always helpful when we bring up the issues. Why? Because sometimes the discussion focuses on one practice alone. Excoriating people for the wastefulness of lavish weddings and pointing out that they could afford to send a child to Israel if they didn't make that lavish wedding does not deal with the idea of personal choice. Assuming that money is actually available to pay for either the wedding or the year in Israel, how that money should be spent should be a matter of personal choice. But when people feel forced to provide both the wedding and the year in Israel and have the money for only one or for neither, then we are coming closer to the heart of the problem. No one should feel forced by societal expectations to have to make either of these choices. It's not for any of us to stigmatize the choices that someone else makes freely: it is for us to discuss that such forcing is going on.


SuperRaizy said...

This is an excellent, important post. I think you should consider submitting it to some Jewish newspapers so that more people can hear this important message.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you here. Far too much mixing in by the community into things that should be the choice of the individual. What's next? Sending out standard menus and telling everyone what they are permitted to eat during the week? Telling us whose brand of socks we can buy? Telling us what types of flowers we can put on our tables? At the rate we are going these things are all too possible.

BrooklynWolf said...

I don't often leave "Bravo" comments, but this post calls for one. It's well-written and expresses clearly something that I've always felt to be true.

Sadly, I think that this phenomenon has three factors:

1. People have ceded control over their personal lives to schools, shuls, etc.

2. The basic human nature of wanting to "keep up with the Joneses."

3. People refusing to use their God-given brains and deciding that the rabbonim have to decide every issue of their lives from shidduchim down to the color of the daughter's barrettes.

Well done!

The Wolf

Anonymous said...

Excellent food for thought to start out the week with. In my field we sometimes have to do a risk analysis before we change a standing policy or recommend a new project. A risk analysis of the wiping out of individual choice would show almost no benefit and lots of danger.

Anonymous said...

Just to add in one area that this excellent posting didn't mention specifically and that's the standardizing of what our kids can major in if they go to college. Look at Touro and count all the ed majors and the various therapy majors and then look and count how many of the girls attending are majoring in the numerous other majors that are offered. Then look at the boys. Even there the majors are pretty much predecided. Most of the boys major in the business fields such as accounting or economics and finance (just what is a finance major anyway?) Just how many accountants does the frum world need anyway? And how many lawyers? Look at the number of financial people and attorneys who are now without jobs and you can see that someone needs to shift the forced idea that these majors are the only "good" ones.

Anonymous said...

If people would just decide that they really don't want their child marrying someone who will choose a spouse on the basis of such silly criteria, this problem would just disappear. If people want to act like sheep, each following the other, they have no business complaining about where they are going. No one is forcing people to go along with theses 'requirements.' If you insist on living in a community where everyone is in lock step, then you have to go along. If not, there are plenty of nice young Jews you can find to marry who also haven't necessarily checked all the 'right' boxes, and aren't having their dates filtered by shadchanim, teachers and other handlers trying to insure perfect uniformity.

The root source of the problem though, I think, is the fear that anyone who is slightly out of step may be headed off the derech. Not only does this show a terrible lack of faith in the Torah, but also becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

mlevin said...

Rae - excellent point. The reason that these are the most popular majors is because high schools (most high schools, there are exceptions) do not teach math and sciences or even logic. So, once in college, many are at loss at these subjects and have no choice but to major in a select few that are left.

Anonymous said...

rae, you raise a good point, but it's all tied in together. If a frum life is all the things that ProfK wrote about, then their are certain socio-economic requirements. Women need jobs that can go full-time or part-time and can support a family. Men who decide to work rather than learn had better make the decision pay, so they go to high-paying professional fields. Law and accounting are particularly attractive since they don't require that much additional schooling beyond college.

mlevin said...

Mike s. if only it had been so easy. Making a personal choice doesn't only impact you, but your whole family and their shidduch, exceptance into schools and etc.

My co-worker is divorced. When proper time came he announced his daughter's engagement. Knowing all the rules, I inquired what is wrong with the Chassan? Why would he marry a daughter of divorced parents? Well, there is tzurras in his family. His older brother is not married and working. The shame of being a working single man is so great that he had to stoop down and marry a girl with divorced parents. And of course having divorced parents is just an unimaginable tsurras.

My daughter was recently at the friend's wedding. This girl lost her father a few years ago. No one even considered setting her up with a normal boy. She ended up marrying a boy who also lost a mother.

Anonymous said...

Re your statement "If you insist on living in a community where everyone is in lock step, then you have to go along." you are assuming that someone has complete choice about where they can live at a given point in time. Sometimes leaving a community isn't going to happen right away. And sometimes that community is a vast one and in the geographic area where you need to be that community's reach is a wide one.

I take issue with having to go along. I think that is the whole point of the posting here. There is no reason for anyone to have to go along with practices that invade the area of personal choice and decision. Bullies, and some of this is about being bullied into doing what someone else wants, win as long as no one stands up to them. Sometimes all it takes is just one person to say, No!.

Lion of Zion said...

"Yeshivas that make school rules that mothers cannot come to pick up their children wearing tichlach. Society yentas who have declared wearing a tichel outside in the street as not acceptable."


Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

I've been called a defeatist by others but I stand by what I've said elsewhere before - the current large Jewish communities are too in their ways to be changed. If you want to live in Lakewood, Monsey, Boro Park, etc., then you must accept this narishkeit as part of yoru life. Don't like it? Too bad, because complaining marks you as an apikorus.

Those of you who still have the ability to use your brains independently need to think about relocating and starting a new community or joining an existing small one that could benefit from your energy and frumkeit.

Anonymous said...

I do not live in the NY area and did not become observant in that area, but the more I read about what is going on up north, the more dismayed I become. Where I live, down in Texas, either I am really naive or we just do not have that kind of Orthodox Judaism here. There are so many flavors here, so many different philosophies, that I hope that these things do not filter down here. I have actually heard from ppl who have relocated to here from Toronto/NYC that living here is such a breath of fresh air: there is no pressure as to what you wear, what you drive, what your home looks like. Sure it's not perfect here, but the Judaism I read about in the NY area is not the Judaism I am interested in.

Bas~Melech said...

Frankly, I don't think this institutionalization is real at all. Proof being that there will always be people who do things like live within their means and make choices independently. As long as there are those among us who use their own judgement, we can be certain that the rules that seem binding do not really have power over us.

Anonymous said...

M. Levin: I meant that there are plenty of nice young Jews in communities where the young people meet each other without a bunch of nosy intermediaries deciding who is "suitable" for whom. I am aware that there are places where you will be shunned if your second cousin is caught marying for love, but, hey, if you want to live in a commuity like that you have to accept the consequences. If you want to make sure that every child your kids meet is brought up the way you approve of, you can't compain when the neighbors judge you the same way.

If you want to live your life according to your judgement, you have to have the confidence to accept that not everyone will approve of your choices, and that you will live with that. You can get a very good education without going to the "right" schools. And you can find plenty of nice people who aren't marrying by checklist.

Anonymous said...

I whole heartedly with the theme of this post and with most of the comments. I would however like to take issue with the post high school year in Israel being equated with all of the other trivial things mentioned in the post. The year in Israel has proven to be a vital time for real spiritual and emotional growth and maturity for many of our community's young adults. As long as the MO Yeshiva high schools' standard is to keep students orthodox and hope they get inspired in Israel, this year should be a priority for observant parents. While we certainly shouldn't judge or ostacize those who opt out of sending their kids, the year in Israel should, IMHO, be encouraged.

Lion of Zion said...


"As long as the MO Yeshiva high schools' standard is to keep students orthodox and hope they get inspired in Israel, this year should be a priority for observant parents."

i'm all for going to israel for a year for a number of reasons. but "keep[ing] students orthodox" is not one of them. there's a real problem if after paying $20+k/yr x 4 yrs a MO HS still hasn't "inspired" a high level of orthodox commitment and knowledge in its students. what in the heck is the justification for spending all that money?

Anonymous said...

"A young single girl wearing a ponytail and a denim skirt walking around outside; truly world-destroying behavior."

At first I thought you must be joking, but I've been reading your excellent blog for some time and by now I know that you are usually completely serious about these things. But please, tell me you were joking about this one. Tell me such nonsense doesn't exist!

And you mentioned that people's homes have to look a certain way. What does this mean? That people have to buy a house they can't afford or risk ridicule, no shidduchim, etc.? I don't understand this.

Anonymous said...

Lion of Zion - I wasn't saying that "keeping students orthodox"is a reason for the year in Israel. I was decrying the state of the Yeshiva high school situation in which most are not inspired with the passion that they should have toward religious observance. I agree this is a real problem. Because of this unfortunate situation, a year in Israel, where many students do get real and lasting inspiration, is essential. It is not just a "nice thing" or a luxury. Sorry if I was unclear on this point.

ProfK said...

Apologies ahead of time if I don't respond to every comment, but a few words to add to this discussion.

Lion, yes, I suppose you could really wonder why 13 years in the present yeshiva system couldn't give the students what one year in Israel is "necessary" to do. But I'd add this--why are parents ceding to the yeshivas the job of inculcating yiddishkeit into their kids? I grew up out of town in a place that had only less than a handful of frum Jews when my parents arrived there. There was no day school and we had to import the shochet from Seattle to come shecht for us when we needed meat. No one would have noticed if we had fallen off the derech because there was precious little derech in town then to fall off of. No one, that is, except for my parents and my aunt and uncle. They were the ones that kept all of us on the derech. They showed us the way.

Re the tichlach when picking up kids, at least one girls school in Boro Park and one boys school in Queens whose "preference" is that mothers not wear tichlach when coming to pick up children from school. You know, tichlach could slip and--gasp--might show a wisp of hair, and it's not a tsniusdik look for women to be out in the streets in what should really be house head coverings.

WonderingJew, yup, denim is not a Jewish look and should not be worn in skirts, certainly not in the "hallowed" vicinity of Brooklyn or Monsey or Lakewood. Where once denim skirts were standard wear for casual times that isn't the case any longer. And pony tails on girls in the shidduch parsha? Girls who are looking to get married need to be "picture perfect" when out on the street and pony tails don't cut it. The single girls who do exercise their right to personal choice in these areas? There are some, and they are called "older" singles, and there are many people who point out that they are still single because they don't conform to the rules.

Re buying the "right" house, yes it is about buying a house that you can't afford because it is in the "right" neighborhood, the one "annointed" as frummer than others or that presents the "correct" frumkeit. The houses in Brooklyn are so highly over priced, even in today's market, for the size of house and property that you get for your money. Yet parents, and the young couples as well, look at you as if you are crazy if you suggest that other communities further out would be a saner place for these couples to buy a house. Move to New Jersey--except of course for Lakewood--and expose yourself to who knows what?! And heaven forfend that you should suggest a "real" out of town location.

Bas~melech, the fact that you can point to some people who use their own judgement when making decisions doesn't mean that the institutionalization is not real and is not there. The people you mention are considered "yotzai min ha'klal." Look around at all the people in your school and all the people in Brooklyn and then tell me that you don't see that institutionalization in action. The girls for the most part could be clones of each other--they look and act identically. So do the boys. Those who do think for themselves stand out from the rest, and standing out is not encouraged.

Rejewvenate, law school doesn't require much education after college??? At least three years. And there are truly no guarantees today about getting a job. We are an extended family with lots of attorneys in it. One of those attorneys is out of a job because his firm closed down shop in NY and the other is out looking for a new job because the firm cut out about 20% of the present workforce. My husband came home from shul on Shabbos with the news (can't verify this with 100% accuracy) that of Cardozo Law School's June graduating class not one person has gotten a job in a law firm, including the top ten members of the class. Other law schools are reporting very dismal placement records.

Yes, there are some communities in the New York area that are more "live and let live" than other communities--my home community of Willowbrook is one such community--but even in our community the "follow the leader" mentality has slipped in regarding certain issues, particularly among the younger members who have gone to school outside of the community. And then you cross the bridge to work or shop or visit in Brooklyn and points east. You attend simchas around the city. And the pressure is on.

I was once asked by a relative to please wear a sheitle to a function she was having instead of my usual hats because she wanted me to be comfortable and she didn't need any conversation that might upset me or that might reflect poorly on the family in general. I don't usually wear a hat to a wedding anyway so putting on the sheitle was what I would have done regardless. And then the funny part was that the talk was there anyway because I live in Willowbrook, and "everyone" knows that we are very non-conformist here. You can't win.

Anonymous said...

But I'd add this--why are parents ceding to the yeshivas the job of inculcating yiddishkeit into their kids?

Parents should be working in tandem with the Yeshivas. Parents are a very important part of the system but kids are influenced by their schools and peers. Furthermore, doesn't it make sense that a Yeshiva the place where kids recieve their Torah education should play a role in their spiritual development. Parents need to be good role models and pass on good values, but they are not the ones teaching their kids chumash, navi, halacah, gemara, etc. That education should be connected to religious inspiration.
Unlike your case, kids growing up in NY are surrounded by Orthodox Jews. When the other Orthodox Jews in their peer group aren't passionate about Judaism,why should they be. Maybe that's why Yeshiva in Israel works for so many. It puts kids in a new environment where people around them are passionate. Obviously there are acceptions and I'm sure there are other factors I'm leaving out but the bottom line is that Yeshiva is more than a "keeping up with the Jones's" luxury.

Anonymous said...

There can be a real price to pay if you buck the system and do what you want. Not everyone is able to handle having to pay that price. It's nice to say do what you want, move out, stop following the crowd, and that may work for some few people out there. Don't think that social ostracism can't hurt and hurt badly. The system now sucks and is totally invasive into the private areas of life. I know that. That doesn't mean that a person and their family doesn't pay a really steep price when they go their own way.

G said...

I don't understand...who told you that personal choice was muttar?

ProfK said...

Mazel tov G! and now to business.

Let me reverse the question you asked: who says that personal choice is not muttar, that it is ossur? Remember that we are not talking about personal choice regarding everything that one can do or say in life; obviously, as I stated in the posting, some matters are halachic matters and there is no personal choice available there. But please show me where you can possibly draw a halachah from that says some barettes for a girl's hair are muttar and some are ossur. Please show me a halacha that says straight flowing hair yes, pony tails no. And please show me a halacha that says Brooklyn yes, the rest of NYC no. Show me an actual halacha that states how many people must come to a wedding and what kind of food has to be served at that wedding. Show me a halacha that states precisely what gifts are mandated to be given to a choson and kallah. Show me a halacha that specifically mentions the words "post high school" and that outlines what studying and where post high school boys and girls must attend. Show me a halacha that talks about summer camps. Show me any actual halachas that precisely govern dating and what can be discussed on a date and for how long each date should last. Show me a halacha that dictates the menu of what you can serve your family for meals both weekdays and on Shabbos, aside from any issues of actual kashrus. I could go on and on but here is what I bet you--you are not going to find any direct halachas for any of these things mentioned because they are a matter of personal choice, not halachic dictate. I'm talking here d'oraisoh, although you would be hard put to find a d'rabonon that everyone holds by or that is even there for many of these items.

Anonymous said...

This issue is so simply resolved: Ask anyone who moved from the Brooklyn/ Lakewood/ Monsey axis to Chicago, Miami, Texas, anyplace, and you'll find that they LOVE being away! Shockingly, they live far away and they still EAT KOSHER! They don't work on Shabbos!
Simply vote with your feet, and when you leave don't take your Little Brooklyn-based brain with you!
Yossi G.

G said...

Let me reverse the question you asked: who says that personal choice is not muttar, that it is ossur?

Oy yoy yoy, you are so confused. You have been taken in by your western ideals of 'innocent until proven guilty' and such similiar approaches to life.

fear not...i will pray for you

ProfK said...

Just a little correction to your using "western ideals." "Innocent until proven guilty" is not accepted across the board by those countries generally lumped under the rubric of "western." In the British court system you are guilty until proven innocent.

Gila said...

First--excellent post.

>>This girl lost her father a few years ago. No one even considered setting her up with a normal boy.<<

So...losing a parent makes one ABNORMAL?