Different Styles of TOJ

What Do These People Have In Common?

Well aside from President Obama, Oprah, Al Gore and the little inset of his family, and NJ Senator Corey Booker, the rest of the people in these photographs are all Torah Observant Jews. You see here going from left to right, top to bottom the following people: Jack Lew, former White House Chief of Staff and current Secretary of the Treasury; Harvard educated scholar Aaron Lichtenstein, women at a wedding, Senator Joe Lieberman, a Yeshivish/Chasidic family on the Oprah show, Sephardic Scholar Ovadia Yosef, and talk show host Shmuley Boteach. They represent different styles of Orthodox Judaism. Which style would suit you best?

When hearing the term "Orthodox Jew" you might picture a man with a long beard, a hat, and long black coat. Well, that is a type of Orthodox or Torah Observant Jew, a chassidic one to be exact. But there are many other types. US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew wears neither a long coat nor a beard. Yet, his substantive religious practice is actually quite similar to that of a Chassidic Jew. What's different is largely superficial. 

As with any movement, religion, or society, TOJ has different camps that fall to the left, middle, and right. Now, TOJ's left isn't quite the same as the Western world's left but there do have much in common as does TOJ's right to the Western world's right. But rather than work up a sweat connecting TOJ's groups back to those of the larger world, I'll just talk a bit about us and you can make your own connections. Please excuse the over simplifications of the forthcoming generalizations and categorizations. As Woody Allen once commented "You have just generalized me into oblivion." But still, the groupings can give some sense of things to newcomers, and as long as we don't take them too seriously, they should serve us productively.

Here are more than a dozen groups, each with their own characteristics. You can follow the links for descriptions from elsewhere on the web.

CarlebachCentrist OrthodoxTorah u'MaddahTorah Im Derech Eretz, Right-wing YU, Litvish, Neir Yisrael, American Yeshivish, Chabad, Israeli Yeshivish/CharediChassidic, Chassidic/Satmar

That's quite a list and still doesn't cover it. Professor Alan Brill of Seton Hall University has made a specialty of categorizing and re categorizing the Orthodox world and offers all kinds of interesting insights. The main point I want to convey here is that the Torah Observant world is not monolithic. We don't have a governing body at this point of our history. And I'll bet there's a group that suits you best. And if feel that there isn't, you can do your own thing or find a mix that works.

It would take quite a while to present the characteristics of each of these groups. I'm going to try, not worrying too much about delivering cliches so that I can give you a start in understanding the different options that are open to you. I'll publish this post even before I'm completed with it because otherwise it won't see the light of day for many months.

You can say that in general, the groups to the left allow themselves more involvement with the the world at large. They tend to attend college, often becoming professors themselves, and believe that they can benefit from the best the world has to offer. Rabbi Aaron Lichtenstein heads a yeshiva in Israel. He is a world class Jewish scholar who also earned a PhD in English Literature from Harvard. He cites British poetry in many of his articles on Torah and believes he can combine both disciplines for a great net effect.

The groups to the right tend to practice more insulation from the world at large, some won't pick up a secular book. Nevertheless, they do visit doctors and utilize technology. I have yet to see a TOJ group that functions like the Amish or Scientologists. Why do they do this? They believe that the world at large can confuse people and fill their heads with crazy ideas. One can hear their point. My friends' mothers from my old Italian neighborhood would tell you the same thing. The world has gone crazy, they say. Seriously. Some of these ladies lost their children to drug abuse. This was a craziness that affected many young people in my generation. It took lives. You see very little of this in the TOJ world because there's more of an effort to keep out the craziness of the world. Both the folks on the left and the right work at this, but the ones on the right take it further.

Here's a graphic from the U. of Calgary.

Different Paths

Judaism, while operating off of postulates and timeless laws, is fluid. In each generation, new styles emerge to help Jews be Jew goods under the conditions of their era. The differences between groups may seem subtle at first, but, like anything, they become clearer when one studies it. Here are some of the major religious styles of our day. You can pick any one you like. You can even combine aspects of each to create your own if necessary if you do so with care.

Charedism/Torah Only - retreats from the world at large and concerns itself primarily with Torah study and the Charedi community. The Yeshivah people generally stick to their own yeshiva and the Chassidim to their respective groups; although the Yeshiva world has numerous outreach schools and programs. Otherwise, they are insular. The idea is that the Torah contains everything you need. Secular studies are shunned for the most part. Some are allowed reluctantly for parnassah; although parnassah is also shunned in many cases. I don't employ the term Yeshivish here because Charedism is something of a departure from the old time Yeshivish approach of even thirty years ago. For example, I have a record of R' Mordechai Gifter, the famous Telz Rosh Yeshiva, defending the Yeshivah world against the charge that it shuns secular studies. There are different strands of Charedism such as B'nei Brak, Lakewood, and Torah v'Daas, the latter being closest to old time Yeshivish. Charedism is arguably a blend of Yeshivish and Chassidut as the Yeshiva crowd absorbed from the Chassidim the idea of everyone dressing alike and authoritarianism. Many people find a happy home here and the approach has become dominant in many respects in the Orthodox world. For some BTs it works quite well as they leave their old lives with no regret. For others it can be a disaster.

Litvish Derech- The Charedi approach is not the same as the Litvish approach. Charedism is really part Chassidish as I just described. Litvacks were more independent minded. Each student had his own mind. Litvacks all dressed differently, caps, brown suits, whatever. Many Litvacks engaged in secular studies to varying degrees. A good example of this is R' Eliyahu Feinstein, the brother in law of Chaim Soloveitchik. R' Feinstein was a tremendous scholar and tzadick and was quite open to secular studies. Another example of a Litvach is R' Eliyahu Henkin. Really, most of the great figures of the prior generation were Litvish: R' Moshe Feinstein and R' Yaakov Kamenetsky are two more good examples.

R' Moshe Feinstein and R' Eliyahu Henkin

Ner Yisrael - this is a yeshiva in Baltimore, started by the European Litvish gaon R' Yaakov Ruderman. It is probably closer to the true Litvish style which does not shun kosher secular studies and sees it as wisdom that edifies the mind, helps a person to be worldly, and brings a person closer to God. Ner Yisrael men often attend college and pursue careers. Ner Yisrael itself today is moving towards Charedism but there still are plenty of old time Ner Yisrael graduates around who studied under R' Yaakov Weinberg and even R' Ruderman. Here's a story told by one of R' Ruderman's grandchildren:
I sat down to learn with my grandfather zt”l, and continue from where we had ended the previous day. He had left me with a long list of questions that he wanted me to answer. “Zaidy, I’m sorry, but I looked all over numerous Sefarim and couldn’t find an answer,” I shamefully admitted.
“Did you daven today?”
“Of course!”
“You said the blessings of Shema?” he asked.
“Of course!”
“Did you believe what you said?” he asked.
“Of course,” I answered, despite knowing that I was about to receive a spiritual beating.
“In His goodness renews daily, perpetually, the work of creation.” “Why,” asked my grandfather, “does God renew each second of existence?”
I was too cowardly to respond.
“Because He wants His power of Chiddush, renewal, to permeate each detail and each second of creation. He wants you to connect to Chiddush, and not run to the books already printed to find answers, but to be Mechadesh your own answers! Use the blessings of Shema to connect to the power of Chiddush in your learning and in your Middos! We’ll learn when you find your own answer.” He closed his Gemara.
I was back in less than half an hour with my own answer, which he, of course, cherished, then ripped apart, and then reconstructed as a masterpiece.
I continue, more than forty years later, to keep a list of unanswered questions to review before I connect through the blessings of Shema to God as the Mechadesh, empowering my own power of Chiddush.
See what I mean, thinking for oneself is Litvish.

Rav Ruderman
R' Ruderman

Slobadka/Rabbi Avigdor Miller - R' Miller was born in Baltimore in 1908 but lived most of his days in Brooklyn. He attended the Slobadka Yeshiva in Lithuania and worked his whole life to transmit the Slobadka derech to post-War Jewry. It is not easy to describe Rabbi Miller's approach which likely is his own variation of Slobadka. It's hard for me to know because I was never there. Rabbi Miller's approach seems geared for contemporary people, ie post-War Americans and Europeans. His approach was complex and simple at the same time and chock full of other dichotomies too. He often condemned the secular world, colleges, and secular learning, yet his books are full of science and history, all applied towards the development of emunah. He never hesitated to talk about the fires of gehenom, yet he put forth a very positive message about life, explaining and stressing regularly how a Torah life brings a person to happiness. He could seem dogmatic at times, yet he offered myriad interesting and acceptable explanations about principles of faith and Torah that are hard to find elsewhere nowadays. If he was dogmatic at time it seemed to be all in the right ways, ie it served as a mechanism for being tough and dealing with the world. He was highly idealistic yet very practical. He encouraged independent thought. He encouraged parnassah.

All dichotomies aside, Rabbi Miller's outlook was at heart very positive. You are to be proud of your simple Torah observance. You are part of a great tradition with great ancestors. God loves you. You can grow wherever you are. Being a baal habiyit is wonderful. R' Miller is the cheer leader for the baal habatim, who are often neglected in the Yeshivish derech. Emunah is the most important thing you can work on. Life is to be enjoyed and that enjoyment connected back to recognition of God. He has a lot to offer even if his approach is not tailor made for everyone. Best of all, his words are accessible as he wrote 12 books in English covering Chumash, philosophy, Tefilla, and Jewish history. He was a good writer, pithy, witty. Did I mention that he produced over 2,000 classes on tape? And he spoke calmly, slowly, and nearly entirely in English. He is a powerful resource for BTs.

Rav Miller

Torah Im Derech Eretz - This is the famous derech of R' Samson Raphael Hirsch. You might describe it as a committed Torah life as aided by a careful supplement with the best of the secular world. It's not the same as common Modern Orthodoxy because in TIDE you don't run out to watch the latest Hollywood movie; although you might listen to Beethoven. You don't wear a baseball cap and shorts; although, at least in 19th Germany, you might not wear a yarmulka much of the time, depending on various factors. In TIDE, there's a great stress on study of Chumash and Tanach. There's also a great stress on personal conduct, decorum, and purity of mind. TIDE is a beautiful way of life. Unfortunately, the Holocaust really did a number on it as it was practiced mostly in Germany. Yet, wonderfully, Rav Hirsch wrote prolifically, producing volumes and volumes of gentle and intelligent Torah commentary, which included introductions to Torah concepts for beginners. His descendants and students, being organized and disciplined people, translated it all even as they were simultaneously engaged in building up American Jewry's mikvot, kashrut organizations, and the like.

R' Yosef Breuer brought Torah Im Derech Eretz from Germany to the USA

Traditionalism - This describes a mid-20th century dignified Orthodoxy that seems to me an attempt at Torah Im Derech Eretz in America. R' Leo Jung and R' Joseph Lookstein would be two of its most famous proponents. Picture, elegant synagogues and men seated in top hats. It was a counter in many ways to the culture that was developing on the Lower East Side of Manhattan where poor Eastern European immigrant Jews lived in squalor. In Traditionalism, one gets a good Torah and secular education, goes out into the world to make a dignified living, becomes a community builder, feels a part of the world at large and contributes to it, and so on. Is this not Torah Im Derech Eretz with an American twist? This is another lost angle on Judaism that could be an excellent fit for many people. I'm probably not capturing it accurately, but that's in part because I have never seen it in its pure form, even though Traditionalism played such a huge rule in getting American Orthodoxy on its feet that we have all felt its influence if only subtly.

Rabbis Leo Jung

Berlin Orthodoxy -
Berlin Orthodoxy is different from that of Frankfurt, the latter of which followed the Hirschian approach. In Berlin, particularly at the Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary, the great scholars engaged in secular studies and even scientific Torah study. Some of the leading figures from the seminary include R' Hildesheimer, R' David Zvi Hoffman, and R' Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg. These were Torah giants and great men. Here are some comments that Rav Eliezer Shach wrote in a haskama to a book about R' Hildesheimer:
I am not of sufficient stature to provide a letter of approbation for the great Gaon, disseminator of Torah and fearer of the Lord in Germany, our master, Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer, of blessed memory. He lived in the generation that preceded the previous generation; great was his fame due to his good deeds. The Gaon R. Yitzhak Elhanan of Kovno referred to him as "the great Gaon;" many others praised him for his greatness in Torah and for his fear of God. Who am I to follow in the footsteps of kings? (Who are "the kings"? The rabbis.) Moreover, it is stated in Scripture: Do not stand in the place of nobles (Proverbs 25:6). Now that his grandson has undertaken to publish his (i.e., R. Hildesheimer's) novellae on various tractates of the Talmud, we wish him every success.... May the merit of his grandfather, the Gaon, assure him every success in every matter.R. Eleazar Menahem Shach
(Haskama to 'Hiddushei Rabbi Azriel: Yevamos, Kesubos', Jerusalem 1984)
Article on the Seminary

Carlebach - R' Shlomo Carelbach was German born and Lakewood educated, yet went on to become America's chassidic rebbe. Mostly he was a singer, song writer, and story teller. Around him developed a whole world of joyous, emotional, sentimental yiddishkite that many call home. I know many hippies that found their place at Carlebach or one of its manifestations. There are all kinds of Carlebach groups with different personalities. Many try to bring in the best of holistic health, psychology, literature. You get the picture.

Chabad - Chabad is Lithuanian chassidut on a corporate scale. I don't use the term corporate pejoratively; although it's hard not to hear the word that way these days. What I mean is that Chabad has a grand kiruv mission and goes about it in a strangely organized fashion even though the minyanim start at 9:30 or whenever. When you think about Chabad you can't possibly accuse the Orthodox world of being monolithic. It really is so different from so many other groups and is the place to be for many BTs. It's intellectual, yet emotional. They let you be yourself, yet they are somewhat Charedi. There's much more warmth in Chabad, a result of it's Russian roots for sure. Lithuanian and German culture can seem cold for some. At Chabad, you'll get a warm hello and you'll get it a hundreds of 'Chabad Houses' located around the world, many in places where Jews are only passing through.

The Chabad of Rutgers University

Sephardic Orthodoxy - I can't say I know much about this, but I know it's a pretty big world and most of it is not (yet) Haredi. The Sephardic gadolim were generally open to secular studies and parnassa, even into modern times.  I sometimes feel too bad I'm Ashkenazi. I'd love to be Sephardic. That's not saying you can't switch. I have heard that R' Ovadia Yosef says everyone living in Eretz Israel should take on Sephardic minhagim since the Beit Yosef (author of the Shulchan Aruch) lived there. But certainly Sephardim should be reaching deep into their brilliant heritage and the rest of us can learn plenty from the Sephardim. And there are of course many branches.

I'd like to close with one final point. All of these styles of Torah observance have their scales of intensity. The most important thing is to be an observant Jew, to be in the game in some way. You can be a holy roller in any of these groups. But if you want to take life a little easier, any one of these paths can still work for you. Their existence isn't meant to squeeze every drop of energy out of you. They are ways of approaching Judaism, that's all. It's hard to be successful in life without some kind of style or plan. If you are overly passive, you'll get sucked up in the current trends, which is what happens to most people Jew or gentile. And that often leads to unhappiness and other trouble because you wind up surrounded by people you can't relate to. We all have to put in some work to find a way in life, something to believe in. But that doesn't mean you can't be a regular person, approaching growth in a gradual manner according to your situation. I argue that you'll go further as a Jew along a path that fits your nature even with less work than along a path that does not suit you even with harder work.

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