There was recently a post here where the commenters, ostensibly members of the yeshivish community, displayed a complete certainty that the right-wing yeshivish way of life was the One True Way and that they were morally superior to anyone who is more “modern” than they are.
The comments on every site that linked to this post expressed the polar opposite reaction – a certainty that the hard-line yeshivish posters were nuts.
Is one group any more justified in their sentiments than the other?
(I’m talking about large groups of people here, and so I’m going to be making gross generalizations.)
The first group (yeshivish people) takes it as a given that their interpretation of the Torah is the only correct one, and anyone who interprets it less strictly than they are is only doing so because they are looking for excuses to do as they please. As such they regard other interpretations as excuses and those who are less stringent than them as weak willed at best and more probably morally degenerate.
The second group takes it as given that those who adhere to (and seemingly go out of their way to find) the strictest possible interpretation of the Torah are ignorant, indoctrinated, self-righteous xenophobes who know nothing of science, philosophy, or history; do what they do blindly because someone with “Rabbi” before his name told them to; and look down on anyone who is different than them.
I think that the second group is the more justified of the two. (Surprise!) Not so much because their characterization of chareidim is unbiased and objective truth (which it probably isn’t) but because this characterization, by and large, was arrived at based on experiences. The first groups’ characterization of those who are less stringent than themselves, on the other hand, is like nearly everything they ascribe to derived from seforim, which in turn derive their conclusions from scripture and maamrie chazal. What is physically real is unimportant: if it says it in a sefer, it must be true.
More than anything, it is this difference in epistemology that separates the two groups. The chareidim are certain they are right because they have it on the authority of scripture, revealed wisdom. Even if it were demonstrated that most modern and secular people are not morally degenerate and have legitimate reasons for their beliefs (or lack thereof), a fundamentalist cannot accept anything that contradicts revealed wisdom, and so cannot change his mind.
The “moderns” and skeptics, who base their opinions on their own and others experiences, are at least in theory open to changing their views. If experiences with right-wingers were to change, if it became common to find most chareidim were well-educated, accepting of those different than themselves, and open to the possibility that they were mistaken about some of their beliefs, then opinions among the second group would change accordingly.