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?