Learning from Shimon and Levi
Kana'us is not a subject to which I thought to return so soon after Mishpacha's symposium on the subject. Unfortunately, the Channel Two video about a eight-year-old girl in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Naama Margolese, who was spit at on her way to school, and the resultant worldwide publicity given to attacks on students of the national religious Beit Orot school by zealots living nearby leave me little choice.
The Channel Two TV documentary, introduced by Yair Lapid (yes, Tommy's son) quickly went viral. The 13-minute film opens with Naama relating how she was spit at because her elbow-length school shirt was not deemed modest enough. We then see her mother walking her to school, and Naama whimpering piteously when her mother suggests she try walking part way alone. Next the TV interviewer asks a man with long peyos whether it is permitted to spit at girls whose dress is insufficiently modest in his eyes. He answers that it is, adding, as an odd justification, "We are healthy people."
Let's forget for a moment about the terrible damage done to the image of Torah and Torah Jews, and focus on nothing but the self-interest of the chareidi community in Israel. The video was explicitly used by Lapid to suggest that the secular struggle against the chareidim has entered into a new stage. "Is this what we can expect in the rest of the country?" he asks at the end of introduction. The issue, the propagandists are saying, is no longer one of the oppression of chareidi women, not even one of whether chareidim contribute too little and take too much from the general society. Now, the issue, they say, is one of chareidim attempting to dictate chareidi mores to the rest of the country and turn Israel into another Iran.
To buttress that claim the film shows a shopping center in Beit Shemesh, on which construction has come to a standstill, because of zealot threats. The film ends with the interviewer asking the "healthy" man with the peyos what will be the end of this turmoil. He replies triumphantly, "The state will finally be chareidi – a chareidi state, whether you want it or not."
That kind of demographic boast can only serve to terrify secular Israelis, and reinforce their desire to nip the threat in the bud. We should not forget that we are a poor, despised, and minority community, with great vulnerabilities if faced with a hostile government. Dramatic cuts in government transfer payments, support for chareidi educational institutions, or various forms of housing subsidies all carry the potential to cause widespread immiseration in the chareidi community. We should not count on the fact that we will always have a crucial role in any future government coalition. Thus providing ammunition to those who wish to portray us as an imminent threat to the freedom of non-chareidim endangers the entire community.
IN MANY RESPECTS, the larger chareidi community finds itself in the position of Yaakov Avinu after Shimon and Levi wiped out the men of Shechem. Yaakov accused his two sons of having caused him to become odious among the inhabitants of the land, and expressed his fear that those inhabitants would "gather together and attack me. I will be annihilated – I and my entire household." Yaakov's worst fears were not realized; Hashem struck the cities around with terror. But note that Yaakov Avinu did think it sufficient to rely on that Divine protection. And even on his deathbed, decades later, he did not bless Shimon and Levi together with their brothers, but rather cursed their haste to act upon their anger.
In their defense to Yaakov's accusation that they had endangered their entire family, Shimon and Levi offered only, "Hakazona yei'aseh es achoseinu?" In their minds, it was enough to point to the wrong done their sister. Nothing else mattered. That is the typical response of the zealot. Identify some positive value – avenging the violation of a sister, modesty in dress and conduct, absolute separation on buses – and everything must be done to achieve the goal. All means are appropriate once the ideal is identified.
Balance – between ends and means, between short-term gains and long-term costs, even in terms of the ideal itself – has no place. The mindset of the zealot is the exact opposite of that of the chacham, who takes all factors into account, who never loses sight of the long-range goal in the heat of the moment, who can balance Torah values when they are in tension with one another. The latter is the perspective that has always caused the Jewish people to be admired for their wisdom, and which is so little evident in the way we are viewed today.
MOST OF THOSE WHO SENT ME the Channel 2 video were distraught chareidim. Many have written to me from around the globe that they are being asked: What is the difference between the chareidim and mullahs in Iran? Not a pleasant question.
The events in Ramat Beit Shemesh have placed all chareidim in a Catch-22 situation. We don't identify with the zealots' actions. And thus we resist the demand that we disassociate ourselves from them, since we never associated ourselves in the first place. That demand appears to us no more reasonable than demanding that President Shimon Peres disassociate himself from the actions of a motorcycle gang or a family crime syndicate, just because the members are also secular Israelis. We fear that by saying loud and clear that the zealots do not represent us, their actions are the antithesis of the Torah we learned from our teachers, that we will be tacitly conceding that we are part of one group: chareidim. At the same time, if we do not condemn their actions because we do not want to criticize fellow chareidim, then we have effectively proven the point of those who say that the zealots are also chareidim, albeit of an extreme nature.
There is no easy out from this trap. We must be careful not to repeat the mistake of the zealots and fail to consider the costs and benefits of our reaction. For that reason, it was unthinkable to join the demonstration in Ramat Beit Shemesh last week, whose organizers are using Naama to promote a left-wing, anti-religious agenda.
But the situation is now one in which chareidim and zealots are being portrayed as sharing one mindset, distinguished only by various gradations of extremism. In those circumstances, we must raise our voices and proclaim that we reject what has been done in Ramat Beit Shemesh with full force, and we do so in the name of the Torah.
Already two months ago, a group of primarily English-speaking chareidi women from Ramat Beit Shemesh starting bringing cakes and other Shabbos treats to the girls in Beit Orot on Friday to reassure them that those menacing them do not represent the chareidi world. And last week, Agudath Israel of America issued a statement, after consultation with the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, stating unequivocally: "Violence of any kind, whether physical or verbal, by self-appointed "guardians" of modesty is reprehensible. Such conduct is beyond the bounds of decent, moral – Jewish – behavior. We condemn it unconditionally. . . . [T]he extremist element is rejected by the vast majority of chareidi Jews."
In a Channel Two interview, Aryeh Deri called for the police to put an end to the "massive chilul Hashem," and said forthrightly that those who stone cars with an Israeli flag or spit at little girls understand only the language of force. "The only "rav" to whom they will answer is Rav Nitzav (Police Commissioner) Yochanan Danino," said Deri.
These are steps in the right direction. But there is room for much more to be said and done lest we all become odious.
IF They Can Mention G-d, Why Can't We?
Walter Russell Mead, professor at both Bard College and Yale University and editor-at-large of the The American Interest, is one of my personal guides on public policy issues through his indispensable Via Meadia site. He is also the son of an Episcopalian priest, who is not afraid to mention G-d in his writing.
One recent short item at Via Meadia dealt with a cheating scandal on Long Island's affluent North Shore, in which weaker students hired others to take their SAT exams for them. The scandal centered in Great Neck, a heavily Jewish suburb, and touched at least one day school. Mead pointed out that students did not get $3,000 to pay test takers out of their own allowances, and called for prosecutors to go after the parents. Disbarment would be an appropriate punishment for lawyers who push their kids down this road, he opined.
Then Mead added his own moral from the story: "This should be a reminder that faith in G-d is the best foundation for a happy and peaceful life. Faith in G-d is not just about keeping people honest when no one is looking. It is also about the belief that G-d has a plan for your life and that if your do your honest best, whatever comes is where you were meant to be. Going to Podunk [University] in accordance with G-d's plan will have a better outcome than cheating your way into Harvard. Material success is a good thing, but not the only thing, and a life built on fraud won't be happy."
While delighted to read such a perfect summing up of the Mishnah in Avos – "Who is a rich? He who rejoices in his portion" – something about Mead's post niggled me as well. When was the last time, you read a prominent Jewish intellectual or public figure (with the sole exception of Dennis Prager) unabashedly bringing G-d into the public discussion or affirming his own faith?
Related Topics: American Jewry & Continuity, Social Issues
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