Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Worth of Ghetto Living

I accidentally walked into the middle of a conversation in school that kind of floored me. What was being argued was the idea of Jewish isolation, specifically the idea of a ghetto. Points that were being made--1)it's only a ghetto if THEY force you to live there; if you choose to live together in isolation that's protecting the purity of klal; 2) too much has been made out of the forced ghetto-ization of the Jews in Europe--far from being a bad thing for the Jews it helped to keep Judaism flourishing, in some cases gave us the strength of numbers and reduced the number of Jews going off the derech since they couldn't just up and leave; 3) being in a ghetto prevented exposure to the outside culture and allowed Jews to live a Jewish lifestyle rather than one that constantly had to adapt to the outside culture or that quested after that outside culture.

I'm going to reserve my comments and throw this one open to my readers--what say you? Was/is isolated ghetto-type living a plus or a minus for Klal? How or why?


Sad Jewish Girl said...

No question that it was a minus. Why was the Englightenment so effective? Why were so many Jews lost to all the "isms" of the day - Zionism, Socialism, etc? Clearly because once opportunity came knocking, the ghetto walls fell down and the Jews wanted to follow the bright new light, wherever it might go. History has proven the ghetto was terrible for the Jews. Communities that seek to re-create it are likely doomed to repeat history's mistakes.

People need to know how to keep their religion *within* the greater world. Retreating from it to try to protect their Yahadus is not to know the true basis of why you have emunah in the first place.

JS said...

I'd like to know how the ghetto led to a vibrant and flourishing Judaism. Where the vibrancy? Where was the flourishing?

A bunch of poor, uneducated Jews huddling around in constant fear of the next pogrom?

All those years of exile led to a diminished people. It completely warped the religion as it was shaped by rabbis acting in a reactionary fashion to the outside world. Far from being isolated, life in a the ghetto couldn't have been more affected by outside influences.

What purity of klal? The people were wholly ignorant of their religion. They fully absorbed all the nonsense from the surrounding cultures such as demons and amulets. All our holy songs are local drinking songs and anthems and marching tunes. All our holy customs are adapted from the local culture like dressing up on purim, gifts on Chanukah, dreidel, lag b'omer archery, upshirin, etc. Some purity.

Look at the people in the tanach and even those in the gemara and tell me they bear any resemblance to the Jews in the ghetto. The Jews in the ghetto lost their language, lost their culture, lost their self-respect.

It took Jews that left the ghetto to restore our peoplehood.

The fact that these imbeciles sitting here in America can even have such a ridiculous conversation shows how ignorant they are and how harmful the ghetto was to Judaism.

I won't even get into how their little isolationist enclaves aren't really so isolated and how everywhere you look you see how they're influenced by American culture no matter how hard they try to avoid it.

efrex said...

This is one of those questions that you can spend centuries debating and not really come to any definitive answer.

European ghetto life meant mind-boggling abject poverty, disease, and short lifespans. This condition also lead to massive religious defection, whether it meant outright conversion or cynical satire/ heresy. Contemporary "yeshivish" culture glosses over that aspect, and, to the extent that it mentions it at all, glorifies the "simple yid"

At the same time, there's no question that, for the dedicated elite, the ghetto allowed for exceptional development of learning and inspirational personalities. From the early chassidim to the great yeshivot, eastern European Jewry produced exceptional gedolim and seforim. Their dedication to torah learning and mesirat nefesh requires no hyperbole to be inspirational.

The more "enlightened/involved" world (Western Europe, Sephardi countries, 19th century America) produced, in general, a more moderate laity, where "traditionalism" tended to replace "frumkeit." Religious instruction (and hence religious observance) was much more perfunctory and, in general, much less contentious.

Contemporary religious life always requires some balance of the universal vs. the parochial. There are unquestionably individuals who desert their religion because, at least in part, they were brought up in the wrong environment (e.g., the free-thinking chassid who throws the baby out with the bathwater when he chafes at the restrictions of his life; or the MO figure who falls in love with a non-jewish classmate at college and abandons everything), but the contemporary discussion of isolation vs. engagement is, to my mind, is really more a matter of degree than kind. Lakewood and Monsey are hardly classic ghettos: look at any charedi newspaper and you'll see adds for luxury products undreamt of in 19th century Europe, while modern technology and communications are equally crucial in both camps.

At the same time, the "involved" MO world can be quite cloistered. Consider the average MO kid: he goes to a MO pre-school, an MO grade school, an MO high school, spends a year or two in Israel in an MO yeshiva, graduates from YU... he can easily be in his early 20s before having any non-Jewish/ non-MO colleagues or friends.

Miami Al said...


We're talking the centuries of "ghetto" life, roughly 300-400 years, right? 16th century through 19th century, right? Across those several centuries, how many truly great scholars were there? Those that produced real works of scholarship?

Now compare the depths of the scholarship of the 20th century gedolim, however defined.

Now, consider the Ashkenazim was roughly 80%-90% of Worldwide Judaism in that and the ghetto population was approximately 2/3s of that population? In contrast, contemporary Orthodoxy was less than 10% of the Jewish population.

Despite 5-6 times the population to draw from AND 4 times the period of time, I'm pretty sure that we had about equal amounts of scholarship, give or take, in the past 100 years as in the prior 400 despite working with less than 20% of the population for support.

Regarding cloisted MO-hood, it's the worst of both worlds. Is it any wonder that the YU MO "gedolim" are predominately from non-MO backgrounds?

Any educational system will separate wheat from chaff. It simply doesn't require the academic rigor required to master textual learning. Despite MO BTs being a relatively small percentage of the MO world, they are disproportionately represented in the YU leadership.

The ghetto stifling thinking, incorporated baser elements from surrounding culture instead of higher ones, and causes cultural decay.

It does however, produce in-marriage, because of lack of options.

efrex said...


Great works of scholarship by the "ghetto-ized" rabbis off the top of my head:

Responsa: The Nodeh Be'yehuda, the Chatam Sofer, the Netziv, the Tzafnat Paneach, R' Chaim Ozer Grodsinski, R' Yitzchak Elchonon Spector

Codes: the Aruch Hashulchan, the glosses of the Bach and Taz on the Shulchan Aruch.

Commentary: The Netziv's Ha'emek Davar, the talmudic glosses of the Vilna Gaon and R' Akiva Eiger.

Thought: the entire gamut of chassidic and mussar literature.

It's a bit unfair to compare scholarship across the centuries in any discipline: contemporary rabbinic scholars have much broader source material and ease of publication than their early counterparts.

My point (although, as is my wont, it takes me a while to get there) is that contemporary religion of any stripe requires some level of combined involvement with, and estrangement from, secular society and culture. One simply cannot paint with a universal brush and maintain any degree of intellectual honesty, IMHO. R' Soloveitchik would not have been "The Rav" had he not grown up in a Russian backwater town, raised on a constant diet of talmud, Rambam, and the "Brisker derech," nor would he have been "The Rav" if he had not spent nearly seven years in Berlin. R' Elchanan Wasserman and R' Baruch Ber Lebovitz chose a different path, but I cannot argue that they would have been better off had they gone to university.

JS said...

Aside from the issues I raised above, I think efrex's point is valid. The ghetto wasn't as cloistered as these students seem to think. I already mentioned above several outside influences that crept into Jewish thought that are now regarded as "holy of holies." Similarly, despite self-"ghettoization" Jewish culture could not be more influenced by American society. Look at the crass consumerism, for example. I suppose we are to believe that every poor family in the European ghettos gave over a chassan's watch, set of gemaras, etc. had a vort, a lavish wedding, etc. Everyone surely had expensive human hair sheitlach too. Surey these can't be American influences. Or the ridiculous moves for tznius and removing women's pictures from publications can't possibly be a counter to America's sexual revolution, of which our heilege communities are blissfully unaware and unaffected by.

The fact of the matter is that it's impossible to ignore your surroundings and these students are just fooling themselves into thinking that all we do is so religious and pure and direct from Sinai.

As a brief point, we may have taken some positives from the ghettos (such as scholarly works), but we also took a ton of bad things as well (such as complete distrust of non-Jews and government and a sense of moral relativism vis a vis those two).

Miami Al said...


I think that we took something much worse from the ghettos, we took Judaism as a culture of mourning. Judaism has some legitimate aspects there, but Ashkenazism went to the extreme of it. Look at Tisha B'av, where the aspects of mourning for the week of extended out dramatically, comparing the description in the Shulchan Aruch to the Mishneh Bruah's descriptions. Sephardim have much lower levels of thing.

The net effect of it, American Ashkenazi Jews not in the neo-Orthodox world have almost no involvement with Jewish ritual life, beyond a Seder, RH/YK services, etc.

On contrast, American Sephardic Jews tend to live around the Orthodox Jewish world, keeping Kosher, attending an Orthodox synagogue when they go, observing holidays, etc.

Plenty of "secular" Israelis will hold an Upshirin of all things, whereas how many Reform/Conservative Jews even know what that is?

Many Israelis in America will go to Shabbat dinners with their family, celebrate holidays (not just a some of them), and are all in all much more "Jewish" than their American counterparts. Despite leaving the Jewish homeland, they have a strong connection to their Jewish roots.

Some of this is that as Sephardim evolved their culture, it was mostly joyful.

In fact, how much of the "scholarly works" that became part and parcel of Ashkenazi history is an authentic Jewish tradition, and how much of it is a borrow from the Monastaries?

A fluid approach to Halacha via Beit Din is an authentic middle eastern approach (look at the evolution of Sharia, which was CLEARLY modeled on Halacha as practiced in the 7th Century). The idea of a Rashi style commentary doesn't appear in Judaism until the 11th Century.

In some regards, it's contributed to the cultural dominance of Jewish education by Ashkenazim, having centuries of scholarship to lean on. On the other hand, it's led to a more fluid community, becoming the cultural dominant force in Israeli circles.

tesyaa said...

Al - not just a culture of mourning, but a culture of tremendous restriction. I'm not going to talk about the current ridiculous level of separation between the sexes or extreme tzniut. Just look at Pesach which just ended and the incredible restrictions on kitniyot, when it's obvious to one and all that a fresh string bean is not remotely like a grain.

Maybe the culture of denial and restriction is drawn from Christianity, which frowns on atttachment to worldly goods ... and maybe the frum-world culture of extreme materialism surrounding religious "needs" and life-cycle celebrations is a reaction to the culture of crazy restrictions.

Miami Al said...

Sorry, what I meant was that Sephardic Judaism has become the defacto religion on non-Chareidi Jews in Israel. Despite the academic dominance of Ashkenazim, the masses have repeatedly rejected it.

At this point, I'm not sure that most non-Orthodox Jews in American make ANY distinction between rice and bread. Plenty of Jews that would easily give up bread for a week end up "breaking Pesach" because the severe restrictions make it hard.

In contrast, for Sephardim, unless you are anti-religion, the holiday is much more reasonably kept.

For all the trumpeting X% of Israeli 1st graders are Hareidi, you just haven't seen the Ashkenazi Chareidi political parties gaining from election to election, have you, so unclear how much of that growth translates into growing adult populations.

Well over 90% of Ashkenazi Jews are either unaffiliated or affiliated non-Orthodox, and of the unaffiliated, none of them would think to walk into an Orthodox Synagogue when they need some religious lifecycle event.

OTOH, in the less ghettoized Sephardic world, a trivial number are affiliated with a non-Orthodox synagogue, and when they have a life cycle event, they inevitably choose an Orthodox synagogue.

So while intermarriage would no doubt be a problem anywhere, the non-Orthodox Ashkenazim are quickly becoming non Jewish under Halacha through non-Halachic conversions, a problem which is NOT effecting non-observant Sephardim.

JS said...

It's interesting to look at the differences between secular or unaffiliated Ashkenazim versus Sephardim. It's possible it is related to severe restrictions in the Ashkenazi world, not just by the rabbis as arbiters of halacha, but restrictions imposed by the general societies they lived in. Sephardim generally lived in much more open socities. When Ashkenazi societies opened for the Jews in the enlightenment (and later in the move to America), people couldn't wait to leave - they yearned for secular as well as religious freedoms. This caused various schisms as well (Reform and Conservative, for example). Sephardim never underwent these dynamics.

It's interesting that now there is a Charedizing wave in Sephardic communities. It's not uncommon to see Sephardi Jews, who become more religious to embrace Chareidi style dress and culture. The chumra of the week disease has struck Sephardi rabbis as well. I think a lot of this has to do with discrimination against Sephardim in Israel and perhaps a feeling that they need to "frum up" if they are to be taken seriously.

What Israel gave the Jews more than anything else - and more than anything the ghettos ever could - is the ability to be a Jew without being religious. In Israel a Jew isn't measured by the length of his peyos or how many shiurim he goes to. Even the most secular Israeli still wishes his friends a "Shabbat Shalom" on Saturdays. He may be headed to a club, but he is still a Jew. Whereas his American compatriot is completely clueless and has no desire to be known as a Jew. Ignorance of ritual law is no longer a barrier to peoplehood because of Israel.

The ghetto requires absolute sameness and endless restrictions and rules - everyone single-mindedly marching to the same band, no questions asked. That is how the ghetto keeps people Jewish.

Israel and to a lesser extent free societies such as America allow a person to be a Jew in his or her own way.

If you see the only legitimate way for a person to be a Jew as rigid adherence to halacha as defined by a subsect of a subsect of a subsect of rabbis, you yearn for the ghetto. If you value personal expression and freedom as part of a religious framework, you abhor the ghetto.

Miami Al said...


The most striking thing for me was out walking one of my children to sleep on a Friday night. I passed by a couple of cars in a parking lot listening to music from the stereos, hanging out. A teenager on a cell phone arguing with his parents in Hebrew. When they saw me passing by, a few of the teenagers wished me a Shabbat Shalom.

He isn't observant, but he's distinctly Jewish.

The non-Orthodox Jews I know may say Shabbat Shalom in synagogue, but would never thing to use that greeting. They may be Halachically Jewish, but they aren't cultural Jewish.

The Ashkenazification of Sephardi Judaism is quite sad, and will likely result in the same split that you see in Ashkenazi Judaism. While the synagogue that the Israeli doesn't goes to is distinctly Orthodox, it is also, in America, Chabad.

But, the net effect of that is that the Masorti Jew will become increasingly secular as the Dati world becomes increasingly Chareidi.

However, he'll eat rice on Pesach.

But it IS telling that the "less ghetto" Jews were able to maintain their Jewish identity despite assimilating. While the Yeshiva elite were able to write more Seforim in the ghetto areas, is it worth considering that 90% of Eastern European Jews RAN from Judaism at the first opportunity, while in Western Europe, they embraced Reform as a way to be Jewish and German, and later Modern Orthodoxy as a way to be observant Jewish AND German/American?

Perhaps the current rightward shift in American Orthodoxy is restoring the "one true path(s)" of Orthodoxy, but I think more likely is that the children of wealthy Modern Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews will get familial support to pay tuition for their children to be Chareidi, but they will have no ability to do that for their children, and we're going to see a massive wave of Orthodox abandonment from the rightwing.

If those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat, one is the destiny for those that choose to learn a falsified, white washed, alternative history promoted by Artscroll?

Abba said...


"the net effect of that is that the Masorti Jew will become increasingly secular"

in part some of the blame for this lies with the religious zionist establishment

Abba said...


btw, you might enjoy this video, which of course only a *sephardi* pop star could make


Miami Al said...


Thanks for the video. But yeah, the the Masorti Jew will become increasingly secular, but the synagogue he doesn't go to will be increasingly Chassidic.

What is sad is that the open Ahavat Hashem method of Sephardi Judaism is being drowned out of the religion. So while the Ashkenazi world permits Ahavas Yisrael as part of Kiruv, it simply isn't a part of the religion.

On the plus side, with the borrowing from Hassidism, Ashkenazi Judaism definitely feels less sterile.

On the negative side, it seems increasingly negative, atheistic, judgmental, and concerned with outward displays of piety, which is especially tragic since outward displays of piety violate Halacha.

Miami Al said...


And the religious zionist establishment has done more to destroy Orthodoxy than any other groups... a close second is YU.

Through a unilateral disarmament, the Orthodox leadership gave the moral high ground to the Chareidi camp, and adopted their ideology in the Modern Orthodox institutions, then decided that every family should send their children to Israel to Chareidi indoctrination, and wondered how this happened.

Mark said...

If you make Judaism "depressing", those that aren't depressed will eventually abandon it, and you will only be left with the depressed. And a nation full of "Woody Allen"s just won't be what Judaism is supposed to be (IMO).