Book Review | Strictly Kosher Reading

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Over Yom Tov I read some great books and articles. I hope to share some of them with you over the next couple of weeks.

Perhaps the most compelling book I read was hot off the presses: Strictly Kosher Reading by Yoel Finkelman. Briefly, the purpose of the book is to present an academic study of the fiction and non-fiction reading that is published within the charedi community. Analyzing books for children, adults, women, religions and secular audiences gives the scholar access to the framework of charedi Judaism.

The book posits that charedi Judaism is a conscious effort to recreate a Utopian version of Eastern European orthodox Judaism. The book disputes that this society ever truly existed in the way it is imagined and recreated today and calls this version of history unhistorical and a myth. But the point of the book is not to prove or disprove whether or not this is a myth or fact. Rather, the book tries to prove that there a Herculean effort to establish that myth/fact as the reality in 21st century America.

The book only analyzes the charedi community and uses a specific (and very accurate) definition of the charedi community. It is a non-chasidic, “yeshivish” community that does not completely shun the outside world. Charedi communities are not absolutely insular. They teach secular subjects, many obtain secular jobs, English is the primary language, yet there is a conscious effort to reject much of secular culture. Whether it is culture, science, diversity or other contemporary values in secular society, these are all rejected.

This creates a very interesting phenomena. The charedi community is situated inside the secular, “outside” world but ultimately rejects much of it. This balance is what creates much of the tension in the book and in the charedi world. Ideas are only acceptable if they are found in Torah, secular recreation is frowned upon, yet, and this is the key, ideas not found in Torah have crept into charedi Judaism, secular recreation (fiction books, sports, movies etc) have found their way into the charedi community.

Strictly Kosher Reading analyzes this phenomena and does so excellently.

I read a lot as a teenager and read a lot of the books that Finkelman uses in his analysis. At times, I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly with his findings. Particularly with regard to books that claim to teach the “Torah approach to X (parenting, depression, divorce, whatever)” but really are just regurgitated ideas from popular science, psychology, pop-parenting, etc.) that are repackaged with Torah lingo and jargon is this most egregious. Further, trying to codify any specific parenting, family, psychology advice as Torah advice is at best disingenuous because of the myriad sources that disagree, contradict or talk above one another. Also, it is clear that many of these sources are products of their times and the vicissitudes of the environments in which they were written.

I recommend Strictly Kosher Reading for any curious reader.

I do have two criticisms of the book. One in style and one is substance.

The style critique is that the book seems to jump around a lot. There are times where I was reading and wondering how what I was reading was related to the paragraph I had just completed. Things seem disjointed at times and there is no clear order to the book. Also, similarly, the author is constantly telling the reader “what he is going to do” and when he is going to do it. It was a bit distracting. I do not revoke my recommendation based on this I just wish it were easier to read.

The substance critique is a bit more serious.

Throughout the book various rabbis, gedolim and Roshei Yeshiva are mentioned. Mostly because there are books written about them and they provide more data to support the book’s arguments. Three specific gedolim are mentioned and I feel strongly that mentioning them in the context of this book is disingenuous.

The three are: R’ Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, R’ Shimon Schwab and R’ Yaakov Weinberg. I admit, I have a bias towards these three great men. They are three of my personal heroes.

Finkelman tries to prove that the American yeshiva is a facsimile of an Eastern European yeshiva that never really existed. One of his “proofs” is a famous idea from R’ Shraga Feivel who is credited with inventing the modern day charedi yeshiva / day school. In his view, R’ Shraga Feivel was saying that the goal of the American yeshiva is to follow the model of the Eastern European yeshiva. The thing is that R’ Shraga Feivel’s model was specifically a drastic departure from the prior Eastern European model. The same quote Finkelman uses to prove his point is actually a disproof! R’ Shraga Feivel’s theory of education is quoted as follows:

“Reb Shraga Feivel sel-consciously set out to create a new type of bochur in the melting pot of America, one who would… draw from all that was best of the many strands of European Jewish life. America… would produce a new Jew combining within himself the best elements of Europe: the Lithuanian intellectual acuity, the bren (warmth) of Chasidus, the organizational abilities of German Jewry, and the appreciation of hiddur mitzvah (beautification of the mitzvah) of the Hungarians. Above all, the American Jew would be characterized by his temimus (sincerity), a trait that was much more a part of American culture than of Europe.”

My grandfather was a talmid muvhak of R’ Shraga Feivel and is mentioned several times in the book. He is also credited with facilitating the book’s publication in the acknowledgments. I probably heard this idea from my grandfather several dozen times. This was R’ Shraga Feivel. It was his essence and the essence of the yeshiva system he envisioned for America.

The entire point R’ Shraga Feivel was making was that America is different and requires a more well rounded yeshiva student. He is quoted in the same Artscroll book as saying that yeshivas in America needed to produce “soldiers” and not “generals”. This in itself was a huge modification to the yeshiva system as it was in Eastern Europe where the goal was to produce Torah giants and not be as concerned with the general public.

Therefore, I find it disingenuous to use R’ Shraga Feivel’s words to make the point that American yeshivos recreated the Eastern European version when he was in fact saying and doing the very opposite.

The book uses a famous quote from R’ Shimon Schwab to support the idea that charedi Judaism specifically creates a sanitized version of history that supports the charedi view of history. His words:

What ethical purpose is served by preserving a realistic historic picture? Nothing but the satisfaction of curiosity. We should tell ourselves and our children the good memories of the good people, their unshakable faith, their staunch defense of tradition, their life of truth, their impeccable honesty, their boundless charity and their great reverence for Torah and Torah sages. What is gained by pointing out their inadequacies and their contradictions? We want to be inspired by their example and learn from their experience…

On the surface this quote plays right into Finkelman’s thesis. I believe that R’ Schwab meant something slightly different. He meant that the focus of studying history for frum Jews is not for historical accuracy. It is for inspiration. It is not a science. It is literature. Meanwhile he clearly acknowledges that the charedi view of the past is skewed. But he says that’s okay as long as one realizes the difference between inspirational myth and history. I don’t believe R’ Schwab meant that we should purposefully ignore or rewrite history. Rather that if the goal is to inspire (and usually it is in charedi schools) then it should not be taught as history or claim accuracy, rather it is inspiration.

R’ Yaakov Weinberg is quoted in the book as well. The context is not important at all. What is important is that if anyone with gadol credentials would agree with Yoel Finkelman it would be R’ Yaakov Weinberg. His learning was classically rationalist in many respects, his yeshiva approved of college and secular education and his students are more acculturated than the students of almost any other yeshiva to the right of Yeshiva University. He was maligned for his “left wing” views and fought for moderation in the charedi community. It seems silly to toss R’ Weinberg’s name into a conversation about charedi censorship and rewriting of history and casting him as part of the process. He certainly did more to slow that process down than any other ostensibly charedi gadol.

My father is a talmid muvhak of R’ Weinberg. I met R’ Weinberg several times myself. I grew up hearing his insights and opinions on a daily basis. That he could be lumped in with the most narrow version of charedi Judaism is absurd by all accounts.

Similarly, I think R’ Shraga Feivel and R’ Schwab would more likely be allies of Yoel Finkelman on many matters in this book. If he felt it was necessary to include them in his study and place them on the side of the fence that is criticized in Strictly Kosher Reading I wish there would have at least a footnote at the mention of the names of these three gedolim indicating their general stance as being more sympathetic to the author’s than the current charedi establishment.

There is much more wonderful, insightful, fascinating and constructive material in the book. I strongly recommend it for anyone who wants an academic lens into charedi culture. Whether you know nothing about the charedi community, are in the charedi world now, were in the charedi world at one time, or plan on being in the charedi world sometime in the future, Strictly Kosher Reading is a great read.

Click any of the links in the post to purchase from Amazon: Strictly Kosher Reading. (Softcover version here: Strictly Kosher Reading)

  • Yoel Finkelman

    Thanks, Rabbi Fink, for the kind review of my book. I just want to point out a) that you can download the preface of the book and read other reviews at http://www.strictlykosherreading.blogspot.com, and b) that Amazon has a much cheaper softcover edition – http://tinyurl.com/65c28zs . Readers in Israel who want a discount copy can be in touch with me at Yoel.Finkelman@Gmail.com .Yoel Finkelman

  • Yoel Finkelman

    Thanks, Rabbi Fink, for the kind review of my book. I just want to point out a) that you can download the preface of the book and read other reviews at http://www.strictlykosherreading.blogspot.com, and b) that Amazon has a much cheaper softcover edition – http://tinyurl.com/65c28zs . Readers in Israel who want a discount copy can be in touch with me at Yoel.Finkelman@Gmail.com .Yoel Finkelman

    • Thank you for stopping by. I hope you sell a lot of books! Great work. Really.

  • Anonymous

    Nice review Rabbi Fink. 

    Regarding your critiques, the first issue you raise I think is a result of many of the chapters previously having been independent  artciles and only later brought together to form this book. Much of the beginnings and endings of each chapter in which he tells you what you’ve read and what you will read was YF’s attempt at a segue. 

    In your interpretation of the R Shwab quote, you’ve really only spelled out what was written by him in dumbed down language. I don’t think whether you see that he acknowledge that history is skewed really makes a difference; either way he is in support Haredi Fan Fiction. 

    I find the quote from Artscroll, about R Shraga F. M. interesting, in that R Aron Kotler is really the individual credited with introducing the concept of torah study for its own sake, or in other words, to create “soldiers” and not “generals.” Wonder how that dispute will end in a world where everything can be true…….

    Regarding R YW, I don’t really know anything about him, although being the RY of NIRC (in the past) is certainly a sign that he wasn’t mainstream Haredi. However, an acquaintance of mine once said that RYW was in fact not a rationalist and used one of his sons as a benchmark. I don’t know who his children are. 

    I think today’s R Aron Feldman (whose brother Emmanuel wrote one of my favorite books as a kid, ‘The Shul Without A Clock’) gives of the aura of not being Haredi, but the snippets I read from his book ‘Eye of the Storm’ seem to indicate otherwise. 

    • > Yes I gathered that the book was pieced together. It was still slightly irritating.

      > Knowing everything else I know about R’ Schwab it is clear to me that he was saying it the way I understood him.

      > RSFM was different than RAK. He established day schools and high schools and post high school programs. RAK was actually trying to create roshei yeshiva. RSFM was not.

      > Your acquaintance is partially correct. RYW was not a pure rationalist. But his students today are still debating many of the things he said. He was “classically rationalist in many respects” that is certain. I have first hand information about that. But no one that knew the man would disagree that he was a moderate.

      > R’ Aaron Feldman is far more charedi than RYW ever was.

  • G*3

    > I believe that R’ Schwab meant something slightly different. He meant that the focus of studying history for frum Jews is not for historical accuracy. It is for inspiration. It is not a science. It is literature. Meanwhile he clearly acknowledges that the charedi view of the past is skewed. But he says that’s okay as long as one realizes the difference between inspirational myth and history.
     
    I don’t see that in the quote at all. I see someone who is saying that history has no value in itself, and that the only reason to learn history at all is to draw inspiration from lionized historical figures. In point of fact, hagiographies and revisionist history (created by people with this view of history) is not taught as inspiring myths, but as what actually happened.

    • I think my opinion is colored by an understanding of who he was and what he stood for.