Old Navy, Home Depot, and Novardok?

Commenting on the Novardok mussar exercises (see Moment 2 here) designed to work on humility, Rafi G wrote:

I can see how it would humble a person, but isn’t it some sort of chillul Hashem (maybe that category is extreme for this case) or something that Jews are looking so foolish and stupid walking into a hardware store and asking to buy clothes? Doesn’t it make Jews look foolish? I have a hard time believing there is really such an important benefit of humility gained that can justify the overall bad light in which it portrays Jews, and specifically yeshiva students.

This chillul Hashem factor seems to be a big one, I admit. This quote might clear things up about the Alter of Novardok’s methods:
Rav Yosef Yoizel also formulated a special program aimed at helping students break their negative character traits and acquire new ones. This program consisted of various exercises designed to provide students with “spiritual courage”, a courage that would imbue them with the confidence to do whatever was needed to promote Yiddishkeit despite any deterrents that would arise. One such exercise called for them to act strangely in public, so that people would ridicule them. For this exercise, bochurim from the Novardok yeshiva would enter a shop and ask for a product not sold there, such as watermelons in a drugstore or screws in a bakery. (Originally found in the Yated, posted online here)

In essence, we see that the plan was to instill a feeling that no matter what an individual or society might think, if I can act in a way that doesn’t make me feel embarrassed, the better off I am.

I don’t think we had a situation where a yeshiva student would go into Old Navy asking where the power drills are, and then insisting that the store really does carry them in stock. I have always thought it was more like a student or two going into store or shack “A” that sold hardware and asking if they carried any fresh bread. After being told, “No”, the yeshiva student would say, “Oh, my mistake. I must be confused. Have a nice day.”

There is a great book titled BEYOND THE SUN (long out of print) by R David Zaritzky (who studied in Novardok and also with the Chofetz Chaim in Radin). I had heard about the book in 1991 and found a copy 15 years later. Sadly, I loaned it out and somehow didn’t get it back. The book itself is viewed as a fictional account of the the Novardok system and has several profiles of the Alter and other key figures in the Novardok movement. As I recall, it discusses this same issue, focusing on this idea that a student in Novardok was trained not to be embarrassed by serving Hashem and doing what was right against the various anti-Torah movements of the time.

This whole exercise could have been viewed as a chillul Hashem, as Rafi suggests. At the time, though, most yeshiva students were getting a bad rap from the Maskillim. That’s part of the reason that in Slabdoka there was an emphasis on one’s clothes looking fit and proper (it might also have been a reaction to Novardok’s emphasis on most things non-materialistic).

Either way, today, I think most of us fall somewhere in the middle. We want to be Avdai Hashem and have the strength to be a Torah Jew in all situations, yet also want to give Klal Yisrael a “good name”. I try to stay away from chillul Hashem as much as I can, to the point recently, when we went on a family outing I was against bringing saltine cracker because of the crumbs that are left when the kids eat them. Maybe, I’m taking it a little too far?

8 thoughts on “Old Navy, Home Depot, and Novardok?

  1. Neil Harris

    Slabodka was more interested in nurturing individuals who would go on to head many yeshivos here in America. Even based on a casual reading of R Hillel Goldberg’s THE FIRE WITHIN, R Yosef Yozel Hurwitz seemed more interested in building a yeshiva network to teach a particular mussar derech. Obviously the draw of Slabdoka as being easier to digest probably was a big factor in it’s success, IMHO.

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  2. Admirer of Novhordock

    Today you can get the same spiritual benefits just by going to an average “heimisher” store in New York, without the shtick! And the store owners are Jewish, so there’s no shayloh… unless you’re not a Novhordocker, but an innocent customer…

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  3. Lady-Light

    As far as the example of the Yeshiva students entering a hardware store, say, and asking for clothing-that could be interpreted by the salespeople as sarcasm by a ‘troublemaker,’ and would be מוציא שם רע in my (humble) opinion.

    I don’t think that is a good way to instill humility in someone (it’s actually a ridiculous idea).
    A better way might be perhaps, to have a yeshiva student take the street sweeper’s broom and sweep the street for several hours, or scrub out the toilets in a public restroom, or the like.

    Something like that, would go a long way in instilling עֲנָוָה in someone.
    I also don’t know what leaving crumbs (in your example) has to do with ‘chilul Hashem?’ Isn’t ok to leave crumbs for the animals? Please enlighten me…

    (btw, I would be honored if you would link my blog in your blogroll, as I, too, have a blog “link which makes you think.”)

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  4. Neil Harris

    …from the chullul Hashem factor, huh? The idea of chullul Hashem, as well as Kiddush Hashem, mostly apply to Jews seeing other Jews. Maybe in the towns were branches of Novardok students studied, it was sort of the ‘norm’ for this thing to happen. It was not so long ago, that ideas like “essen tag” and yeshiva students sleeping on floors of baatei midrashim were commonplace as well. Times change. I could go on with a list of “chillul Hashem” items that have sprung up in the news or on blogs for the past year. Many of these violations of Torah laws were not even in the minds of the average Torah observant Jew in the generations prior to the Holocaust. Could be that chillul Hashem might work on sort of a sliding scale based on society? I’m not trying stir up any trouble…

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  5. Rafi G

    “chillul hashem” is a tough category to figure out what fits in. in halacha we find it only referring to something done in front of ten Jews.
    Nowadays in the age of communication and mass media, does it apply when it is done and later is broadcast in front of the world? Obviously yes, but maybe it would be a different category of chillul hashem.
    It is hard to know when something falls into the category, as many things can be borderline. That is why I was reluctant to use that category but could not think of anything better at the moment.
    I do not know if this case would actually be a chillul hashem, but as Lady light said, there should be better ways on imbuing anavah than this…

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