The toad that won't disappear
by Jonathan Rosenblum
July 11, 1997
These are the worst of times for all those concerned about Jewish continuity who cannot bring themselves to acknowledge that our survival as a people cannot be separated from our relationship with God. They prattle on without getting it: Judaism reduced to the vague ethnic pride of the Irish on St. Patrick's Day has no staying power.
Yet rather than reexamining their own empty houses, the continuity crowd would have us believe that the greatest menace to the Jewish people today is the religious, in particular the haredim.
All those seeking universal patterns in history - from Karl Marx to Arnold Toynbee - have hated the Jews for their stubborn perseverance in the face of theories that grant them no place. So too do secular Jews resent the Orthodox for being the only segment of world Jewry not threatened with imminent extinction.
Toynbee could not forgive the Jews, whom he described as an atavistic aberration, and neither will secular Jews forgive the religious their stubborn vitality. For by their presence, the religious give lie to the claim that it is impossible to be a religious Jew in the modern world.
Among the prophets of imminent doom for the Jewish people, Bernard Wasserstein is distinguished only by the particular viciousness of his hatred of the haredim. In his recent book, Vanishing Diaspora, Wasserstein portrays a European Jewry facing 'slow diminution... to virtual extinction" over the next two or three generations. But this depressing scenario bothers him less than the haredim.
In a recent screed in this paper, the haredim are described as brazen, duplicitous, devious, violent, and corrupt. Their rabbinic authorities are 'shadowy characters"; their learning is 'intellectual mud" that 'numbs the mind"; their claims to authenticity are 'preposterous." They are characterized by 'shameless filching from the public purse,' 'wheeling and dealing,' and 'hypocrisy."
For his coup de grace, Wasserstein offers a compassionate 'understanding" of the disgusting behavior of
haredim. They constitute a 'savage society" led by their 'primitive fear" of modernity into 'barbaric reactions." What proof does he offer that the haredim perceive themselves as besieged?
That private cars make it possible for secular Israelis to drive on Shabbat, despite the lack of public transportation, and videos make it possible for them to watch TV on Yom Kippur, even though Israel TV and radio are off the air.
True, haredim view the decision of their fellow Jews to drive on Shabbat or to watch videos on Yom Kippur as a tragedy for them individually and for the Jewish people collectively. But their way of life is hardly threatened by those decisions.
LACKING Wasserstein's Oxford education, I am perhaps too ignorant to realize just how primitive my society is, but I do have a few questions for him.
On Shabbat, the typical haredi family gathers around the table, often for hours, three times. Each child is given the opportunity to display what he or she has learned that week, the family sings Shabbat zemirot together, and the discussion centers around the weekly Torah reading.
Why is a family joined in common activities more primitive than one in which members runs off separately to the beach to pit their bodies against the depleted ozone layer?
Bookshelves and the Shabbat table are the finest pieces of furniture in the average haredi home. A normal haredi child reads one or two magazines every week and as many books after a long school day. And this reading is far from the pornography for teenagers produced by Israel's leading Hebrew newspapers.
The most common subject of the haredi child's reading is, of course, biographies of the great tzaddikim, but the magazines are also full of scientific material and fiction. Are the volumes of Talmud proudly displayed in the haredi home less elevated than the gigantic color TV to which pride of place is given in secular homes? Is reading about spiritual giants less elevated than MTV?
According to a recent Ben-Gurion University study, haredim give four to seven times as much charity per capita as the average Israeli, even though their disposable income is much smaller because of their large family size.
They forgo what the rest of society views as necessities to give to those less fortunate than themselves. In addition, haredim are three times as likely to do volunteer work as their secular counterparts.
No doubt the haredi attitude to tzedaka appears antiquated to today's yuppies, for whom the goal of life is amassing material possessions and titillating the nerve ends. But is it self-evidently primitive or savage by comparison?
Primitive societies are often characterized by body- piercing and tattooing. Their religious rituals frequently involve the use of hallucinogenic drugs and provide sanction for unbridled hedonism. Are these traits more often found in Bnei Brak or north Tel Aviv?
The late literary critic Lionel Trilling detailed the transformation of the moral virtue of sincerity into the modern cult of authenticity. The modern notion glorifies the exploration of every aspect of one's multifaceted being, and demands acknowledgment that we are to a large extent just smarter animals motivated by the pursuit of physical pleasure. Does the celebration of the beast within represent progress and enlightenment?
In his conclusion, Wasserstein likens haredi society to the toad on the harrow which must be crushed by the tractor, even as we shed a tear for its fate. But what really inspires his vitriol is the recognition that the toad will be there long after the tractor has turned to rust.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics
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