"In our country, they say that he who wishes to tell a lie has his witnesses live far away." That's the Ramban at the Dispuitation explaining why the claims of Christianity mean nothing to him. What good is it, he continues, to say that Jesus has saved us from sin, or given us eternal salvation? These claims are impossible to falsify. What you say may be true, or not, but who can tell?
An identical charge, alas, might be made against some of the claims of Ultra Orthodox Judaism.
Go to a BT seminar, or question your local Haredi believer, and you'll be told that there are three primary reasons for living the Ultra Orthodox lifestyle. In this post, I attempt to discuss them with the bombasticity and lack of nuance for which I am quite unjustifiably famous.
First up, the claim that This is God Wants. Oh, really? And how exactly do you know that? How do you propose to prove that God wants you to wear strange headgear, mutter old poems three times daily, and gorge yourself on meat and potatoes on the weekend? The only proofs are circular (the book says so and the book is true because the book says its true) and far too many UOJ behaviors that are considered essential and original are really nothing of the sort. None of these more recently added Ultra Orthodox affectations can honestly be said to be what God wants, not when perfectly spectacular Jews did otherwise for thousands of years. Did the Rambam say Kabbalat Shabbos? Did he know from upshurin? Where was his kippa? In fact, a halachic conservative Jewish lifestyle -- one that features scurpuliously ethical behavior together with non-glat kashrus, regular mikva trips, and the contours of an observant shabbos - is just as plausibly What God Wants, but with none of the accoutrements, and a tenth of the difficulty. Why not do that instead? (Answer: Superstition, ignorance, fear of neighbors)
Second, It Will Make You Happier. Yeah, says who? Admittadly most of my social contacts are Orthodox Jews, so I don't have much basis for comparison, but my cronies don't seem especially joyful. Many are downright misreable. Working extra hard to pay exhorbitant tuition bills, and fealing forced by society to pay for obcenely lavish smachot will do that to you. As for the UOJs as a whole, well, lets play amature sociologist: Ultra Orthodox Jews are less educated, make less money and have larger families. None of these factors are traditional indicators of happiness.
If UOJs are happier, perhaps it is a result of the smugness/sense of certainty that comes from thinking of yourself as God's Special Guy, or from the satisfaction aquired from completing our daily maze of religious rituals and obligations. The former is available to the LWCJ/OJ, too; indeed its available to anyone - Jew or gentile - who lives right, according to his or her own standard of right. As for the latter, well, I agree the real world offers nothing quite like the satisfaction of making it through Yom Kippur, or starving through a flight when no kosher food is available, but this isn't necessarily an indictment of the real world.
Third, It Will Make You Smarter. At the BT seminars, this claim is too often backed up with bogus bible codes. Your local heredi true believer is more likely to say that everything scientists know is contained in the Torah, and attempt to prove it via the famous, but undocumented, Chazon Ish anecdote, or by pointing to some mideival commentary who, when read in just the right light, seems to presage Einstein. I agree that UOJs generally have much more candlepower than most, but too many just don't seem to know anything. Is it because their schools teach them nothing, or are they just not taught modern modes of thinking? My friends who practice medicine in Lakewood and Williamsburg have a new story every month about some cokamamie treatment plan that everyone seems to swear by. Once it was crystals, another time garlic in the ears. The fact that these menthods don't work, and are endorsed by no one save the neighborhood yenta seems not to matter. Over at R. Yanky's website, the denizens have been discussing the Areivim scheme - what pathogen in our culture allows otherwise brilliant avreichim to imagine that some goofy fellowship plan is superior to life insurance? (Answer: Because they were told "The Rabbis said so" and they've all been trained to shut off their brains upon hearing those words.) And of course I've aquired countless grey hairs, stress lines and stomach ulcers attempting to explain to the so-called smartest of the smartest how history works, what midrashim are, and why blindly relying on authority is a lousy wayto aquire knowledge. These are all things that ordinary non-UOJ creatures of the 21st century just seem to know, in the same way that ancients just seemed to know that dragons were real.
More later, maybe
Search for more information about Ultra Orthodox propoganda at 4torah.com.