Culture

Headlines: A Common Sense Haredi Approach

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Shlomo Zuckier

Haredim and Technology

Recent articles touting the top Jewish podcasts leave the impression that the podcast genre is the exclusive domain of liberal Judaism. But members of the American Haredi (a.k.a Yeshiva) community will likely have heard about the extremely successful weekly podcast (including radio and dial-in options for those without the most up to date technology) run by Dovid Lichtenstein, entitled Headlines. In fact, this podcast ranks among the most listened-to Jewish podcasts, with nearly 800,000 episode downloads since its inception and approximately 20,000 subscribers, as well as over a million episode downloads and listens over the phone and youtube. Despite its absence from these listicles, and indeed from just about any discussion of media outside the Orthodox community, Headlines is thriving.

What is Headlines?

The podcast, which debuted in late 2014, describes itself as “the most popular English halacha radio program in the world,” one that “tackles the most controversial and pressing issues affecting the Orthodox Jewish community” by inviting “distinguished figures… to discuss hot-button… topics,” as it explores a host of issues relating to Halakha and hashkafah, Jewish law and thought. It often draws upon timely issues in the news (hence “Headlines”) that affect either the Jewish or the broader community. A wide range of (primarily, but not exclusively, Haredi and male) guests are hosted on the show to discuss various topics with the host. The podcast runs for a minimum of an hour, but more lengthy discussions of certain topics can last several weeks and/or stretch the length of the podcast to two hours.

The weekly show opens with a devar Torah on the Parsha, at times also including some notes or clarifications about previous discussions. Then it jumps into the topic du jour. Episodes have featured exciting topics across a fairly wide range of hot-button issues for the Haredi listener: feminism, day school education, pastoral training in rabbinical schools, and brain death.

Headlines does not offer a straightforward shiur or lecture. It is designed not only to inform, which it certainly does, but also to entertain. The range of speakers chosen is meant to reflect a variety of viewpoints, and the host plays the role of sparring partner or devil’s advocate in order to push the speaker to defend their view and to represent alternative perspectives. At times the topics are chosen not (only) for novel halakhic content but to tie in to exciting, even outrageous headlines that have appeared in the Haredi press. For example, one episode on “the Thousand Dollar Sandwich” yielded minimal halakhic discussion, although it integrated well with a hot issue that was “trending” in the Haredi media.

These discussions do not remain merely in the ethereal realm of cyberspace. Lichtenstein has authored two books based on the various topics discussed on Headlines, published by OU Press. These volumes treat the issues covered in Lichtenstein’s own voice, although they often include extensive quotes from guests who appeared on the show. [Additionally, he has published several works of halakhic writing in Hebrew.]

Controversial Topics and Positions

Given the paucity of podcasts available on halakhic matters, a program endeavoring to cover these issues would likely not lack for listeners even if it hewed to traditional positions. But, as Headlines has demonstrated throughout its existence, it is not interested in simply rehashing classic topics or hewing to a party line. Time and time again Lichtenstein engages new topics and adopts uncommon or controversial positions for his listeners.

One article published in Headlines 2: Halachic Debates of Current Events (“Is Artificial Insemination an Option for Unmarried Women?”) discusses the prospect of single women choosing to become pregnant through In Vitro Fertilization in an effort to become a single mother by choice, an increasingly popular phenomenon in the Orthodox world. The article surveys the various potential halakhic and hashkafic issues in favor of and in opposition to such a prospect, and cites several views of rabbinic podcast guests—Rabbis Dovid Cohen and Mendel Shafran of the Yeshiva world and Rav Herschel Schachter of the YU worldwho are univocally opposed to the practice. They cite a variety of meta-halakhic reasons, including the appearance of impropriety in bringing into the world a child who is an orphan from birth, and conclude it is “not at all recommended,” “absolutely prohibited,” and “not the way to solve a problem.”

Nevertheless, Lichtenstein’s voice concludes that since no purely halakhic prohibition is at stake, and since having a child would fill a deep void for the mother and offer her a fundamental sense of fulfillment, there should be room to permit this. “While these concerns are certainly valid, it is doubtful whether they suffice to forever deny a woman the joy and privilege of having a child” (p. 229). He invokes the Midrashic theme, “plight of childless women,” as a basis on which to be as lenient as possible, within halakhic constraints. While some of the more left-wing Dati rabbis in Israel have come out in support of this practice, and some in America have done the same more quietly, this remains a radical position to take, certainly for someone in the Haredi community.

Another podcast challenged a different taboo, this one more cultural than (meta-)halakhic. Overwhelmingly, Haredi men and women meet one another to marry through a shidduch matchmaking system. This has given rise to a phenomenon of shidduch resumes, where the two prospective daters (or their mothers) evaluate one another on paper before agreeing to date, a process that has rendered any facts about family members fair game, including health issues, with an unfortunate particular focus on mental health. This, among other factors, has contributed to a deep taboo surrounding mental health in the Haredi community. Many in the Haredi world often avoid seeing psychologists, or at least publicly admitting that they do so, in the interest of protecting family members of marriageable age.

In an episode on mental health and shidduchim, Lichtenstein came out with a radically different attitude towards mental health. He very openly described the assistance that psychologists provided him during a particularly difficult time in his life, challenging the taboo outright. Why wouldn’t all people meet with a psychologist, in order to be in touch with their inner selves and maximize their productivity? Some of Lichtenstein’s guests—rabbis, psychologists, and mental health counselors—were pleasantly surprised with his uncommon perspective towards mental health in the Haredi world, and praised his unusually open perspective.

Other episodes have revealed Lichtenstein’s position on several other unorthodox (although not necessarily un-Orthodox) positions. His came out bearish on the practice of flying the deceased to Israel for burial, despite the practice’s increasing prevalence of late. He engaged in a lengthy debate on the question of organ donation after brain death, a consistently contentious issue over the past decade. While he did not reveal his own opinion, the presentation expressed great sympathy to those allowing organ donation, and certainly a strong antipathy to the view allowing one to receive organs but not to donate them. While some, including many on the Orthodox left, have staked out positions similar to Lichtenstein’s, the pro-donation view remains (at least in America) outside the mainstream for Center and Right Orthodox posekim. In fact, the main proponent of the brain-death-as-death position that Lichtenstein hosted on the podcast was not a posek or halakhist but an activist.

In each of these cases, and they can be multiplied, the positions—although uncommon—remain within the range of halakhic opinion, and thus the lines that are crossed are primarily social rather than halakhic. As Headlines is a strictly Orthodox podcast, antinomian approaches are not countenanced, let alone adopted. But there are a number of cases, such as those noted above, in which Lichtenstein deviates from the sociological “party line” of the Haredi community on these issues. As the host makes very clear, while he is loyal and submissive to Halakha, he is by no means compliant with these social considerations.

A Broader Perspective

Another important feature of the podcast is the devar Torah offered at the outset of each program. These homilies, often tied to the parsha, current holidays, recent events and/or the podcast’s topic, are Lichtenstein’s chance for unmediated contact with the listener. Rather than exhorting the listener to learn Torah and follow mitzvot with greater alacrity, as is often the message of a more traditional Yeshiva devar Torah, these messages aim at different goals. Some advocate compassion for the weak; others encourage the listener to persevere in the face of difficulties; or to take pride in the Jewish people. These personal messages often draw upon Hasidic teachings, looking closely at the Torah’s narratives and characters rather than at its legal principles. This provides a counterbalance to what is often a more legalistic and impersonal presentation in the rest of the show.

A notable point about the podcast is the range of speakers and issues with which it engages. Despite speaking largely to a Haredi audience, Headlines has proven itself fairly open to the broader Modern Orthodox community. Lichtenstein often hosts Rabbi Herschel Schachter, who is widely respected in the American Yeshiva world as a leading Torah scholar but is often seen as outside the mainstream due to his associations with Yeshiva University. Lichtenstein has also hosted a number of other YU faculty and administrators, including several on a discussion as to whether rabbinical schools should offer pastoral training, which is not formally offered in any American yeshiva to the “right” of YU. Headlines even featured an episode discussing the legitimacy of Open Orthodoxy, a conversation usually presumed to be unnecessary for a more Haredi audience that sees their exclusion as already decided over a decade ago.

Lichtenstein has at times hosted women, both those hailing from the Modern Orthodox and the Haredi worlds, in his podcast, which defies the trend of minimizing visual and audio representations of women in Haredi media. In multiple ways, then, the podcast serves both as a way of exposing the Haredi world to phenomena and thinkers in the Modern Orthodox world and as a moderating force of sorts.

Common Sense Haredism

What is the show’s overall worldview? Among the multiple voices presented in the dialogue format, a certain hashkafah, primarily following the attitude of its host, does shine through. Headlines can best be seen as reflecting a “common sense Haredi” approach. It assumes extensive background knowledge on the part of its presumed yeshiva-trained, male listener, as well as knowledge about trends in the Haredi world. Relatedly, it presumes proficiency in halakhic reasoning; one who never studied Talmud post-high school would likely have trouble following the give and take of many of the episodes.

But there is also no presumption that the listener should accept what is done in the community if it lacks a halakhic or reasoned basis, especially if it seems unreasonable. Instead, common sense—within the frame of Halakha—is often used to support alternatives to the standard path. Several of these were noted earlier, as Lichtenstein has supported positions that are non-standard for the Haredi community.

The factors that comprise this “common sense” include a deep sense of pragmatism, a pride in the observant lifestyle, a commitment to reason, and a commitment to the unity of the Jewish people.

The pragmatism expresses itself clearly in opposition to high schools that provide only minimal secular education. Lichtenstein materially supports programs meant to train post-yeshiva men to enter the workforce though, in his view, this remedial training should be unnecessary. Parents should ensure that their children will be able to support themselves as adults rather than rely on miracles to pay their way without making any efforts whatsoever.

Despite whatever critiques Lichtenstein might have of some of the institutions of the Yeshiva world, he has an abiding pride in Judaism, regarding both the Haredi lifestyle and Jewish peoplehood. Often, Lichtenstein will invoke Jewish genius and the many Jewish Nobel Prize winners to support this pride. His divrei Torah often critique general society as compared to a traditional, religious Jewish household, and charge the listeners to take pride in their traditional Judaism and to see how it is manifestly superior to the secular lifestyle.

Related to this is a strong commitment to Jewish unity, the oft-invoked catchword of ahdut. Lichtenstein will frequently assert pride in the fact that his listeners span from Yeshivish to Hasidic, and “even the modern [Orthodox],” or how efforts to free Sholom Rubashkin unified parts of the Jewish community that previously had been at loggerheads. Furthermore, he takes umbrage at cases where these divisions persist. A discussion with Professor David Berger on Berger’s book critiquing parts of Chabad’s ideology got heated, with Lichtenstein criticizing Berger for impugning an entire stream of Judaism.

Who is Dovid Lichtenstein?

Such an interesting podcast stemming from the Haredi world might arouse curiosity about its creator. Who is Dovid Lichtenstein? (In order to dispel any confusion, let me note here that he is not related to R. Aharon Lichtenstein, my beloved teacher of blessed memory.)

By day, Dovid—or rather David—Lichtenstein operates the eponymous Lightstone Group, a large national real estate company holding properties across 20 states that he founded in 1988. A native of Brooklyn, Dovid spent several years in various yeshivot, including Mir Yeshiva and Beth Medrash Govoha of Lakewood, from which he launched his business. Very successful in his business ventures, he is a donor to many Jewish organizations and causes, and resides in Monsey, where he also operates a minyan on Shabbat. Although his own family lacks particular yichus of note, his father and grandfather were shul rabbis and he is married to the granddaughter of Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, the famed Rosh Yeshiva of Torah Vodaath.

It may very well be that this varied background—yeshiva training, self-made businessman, with some (acquired) yichus—was indispensable for “Lichtenstein,” as he is affectionately known by many of his listeners, allowing him to succeed in promoting his program as he has. His bona fides as knowledgeable in Torah may not qualify him as a leading decisor, but they give him access (or “make him a bar hakhi”) to participate in the conversation. His financial standing allows him to run the podcast without being beholden to anyone and, in fact, his significant material support of institutions within the Orthodox and Yeshiva world may incentivize others to support him and appear on his podcast. His yichus grants him additional connections to Torah scholars who might join his program, and over the years he has hosted a blockbuster lineup including R. David Yosef, Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky, Rav Moshe Sternbuch, and Rav Dovid Cohen, among others. Most of all, the communal stature he has earned serves to protect him from backlash among those who might see his podcast as too controversial. All of these factors work together to accord Lichtenstein a widely disseminated voice in the American Yeshiva world.

The nature of an authority-centric community like the Haredi community is that there is a set of officially sanctioned gedolim, askanim and mosdos (great scholars, community organizers, and institutions) who define, and hold, the party line. Generally, those who fall outside this class lack the capacity for promoting their message, especially if it does not map neatly onto the official policy. Lichtenstein represents a rare case in which he can maintain widespread influence despite lack of any formal position and especially in the face of some of his unorthodox positions.

Lichtenstein is not alone. There are several others in the Haredi world who manage to exert influence, even against the party line, despite a lack of formal position. The cases of Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz and Lipa Schmeltzer serve as two relevant models, although they diverge significantly from one another. The former has a biography very similar to Lichtenstein—self-made magnate and son-in-law of a great rabbinic personality (the recently passed R. Yisroel Belsky). Less successful in his yeshiva studies, Rechnitz primarily projects his power on social issues, such as his campaigns to resolve the Shidduch crisis and an attempted intervention into a Lakewood schooling crisis.

In a very different vein, Lipa uses his widespread popularity across the Haredi world to promote himself as a sort of nouveau rebbe. For several years he had his own shul; offered biweekly divrei Torah sheni va-hamishi; and generally comported himself in a manner unlike his Haredi compadres, studying for a degree at Columbia University. (In recent months, Lipa has pulled back from some of his more novel moves, such that this depiction may reflect his past more than his present state.)

Although these characters have somewhat distinct models for success, they may have been created by a similar phenomenon. When there is so much influence centralized among a particular elite group, a vacuum is created among those yearning for something different. In such cases, those who are protected—due to their fame or finances—from possible backlash are in a position to set up shop and promote alternate views on a variety of issues.

Signs of Success

There are several reasons why Headlines has been so successful. The most straightforward reason is that it monopolizes the Haredi market, not just the podcast market, but a good chunk of the entertainment market overall. There are not that many outlets of Kosher fun, especially of the cerebrally adventurous variety, and Headlines is not only entertaining but intellectually stimulating as well. The knowledgeable host, impressive guests, and engaging interface, of course, do not hurt either, and the caliber of discourse on halakhic and hashkafic matters are on a very high level.

Furthermore, listeners need not remain passive—they have the opportunity to write emails or leave phone messages with Lichtenstein, which often get posted to the Headlines website. The listeners are thus brought in to join the discourse as well.

The ideology of the host, with its common-sense Haredi approach, likely appeals to the average listener. While it takes Haredi culture and basic halakhic norms for granted, it also allows room to explore and even adopt positions beyond the party line. In a sense, Lichtenstein stands in and speaks for the “enlightened” Haredi listener, one who feels sufficiently educated to have an opinion and wants his thoughts and opinions to be affirmed in a public forum.

While listening to the show, the listener is presumably meant to identify, in some form, with its host, Dovid Lichtenstein. He’s not an expert, but he does know how to learn, is aware of problems facing the Haredi and Orthodox world, and has a good dose of common sense that has served him well in life. When Lichtenstein debates with great experts in Halakha and leaders of the Jewish world, he represents his listeners, injecting common sense and fundamental sources to discussions that often focus on minutiae and may seem (at least to him) to veer beyond the reasonable.

Conclusion

The Headlines show takes full advantage of the technological developments of recent years. It reaches listeners on a wide variety of frequencies, from old technology radio and phone to contemporary trending tech podcasts. By discussing matters of great import—Halakha and hashkafah—but doing so in a somewhat different way than usual, the podcast distinguishes itself and becomes attractive. And its host, drawing upon his cachet and his (Yeshiva) everyman appeal, manages to draw the listeners to him.

Whatever the future holds in store for technology and the Haredi community, let the record reflect that Headlines has broken new ground as an early, massively successful, Orthodox podcast.

Many thanks to Sarah Rindner Blum, David Zvi Kalman, Yehuda Fogel and Mindy Schwartz for their suggestions on earlier drafts of this piece.

Shlomo Zuckier
Rabbi Shlomo Zuckier is a PhD candidate in Ancient Judaism at Yale University, a member of Yeshiva University’s Kollel Elyon, and an AJS Dissertation Completion Fellow. Previously he served as Director of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus at Yale University. Shlomo is an alumnus of Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshiva University (BA, MA, Semihah), as well as of the Wexner, Tikvah, and Kupietzky Kodshim Fellowships. He has lectured and taught widely across North America, and is excited to share Torah and Jewish scholarship on a broad range of issues. Shlomo serves on the Editorial Committee of Tradition, is co-editor of Torah and Western Thought: Intellectual Portraits of Orthodoxy and Modernity, and is editing the forthcoming Contemporary Uses and Forms of Hasidut.