Get a hold of yourself
by Jonathan Rosenblum
March 5, 1999
Dear Ms. Ragen, I'm neither your rabbi nor your shrink, but it strikes me that your anger is eating you up.
First there was your September piece in The Jerusalem Report. The one that began with the pain and anguish of arriving at shul on Friday night - the one Nachshon Wachsman prayed in - and finding the spray-painted slogan 'Death to Dosim.' As you contemplated what could have led a Jew in our land to echo the sentiments of Chmelnicki and Hitler, you suddenly remembered the haredim, and everything was clear. By the end, you too are shouting, 'Go back to Williamsburg.'
(I trust the delicious irony of a new immigrant from Far Rockaway urging some whose families have been here since the early 1800s, when life in the land was not so easy, to go back to America did not escape you.)
The problem, it seems, was not that our young vandal spray-painted a shul, but that he got the wrong one. (By the way, have you ever heard any words of hatred of haredim from Yehuda and Esther Wachsman, whom you used to bolster your argument?)
And then there was your piece in this paper on last month's prayer gathering. You watched at least a quarter of a million people do nothing but recite psalms and selihot for two hours - words dear to both of us - and you were reminded of the Israelites dancing around the golden calf.
I don't have to remind a learned, religious woman like yourself that Moses did not break the tablets because the people had the 'wrong idea,' but only when he saw them dancing and realized that they built the golden calf to permit debauchery. Is that what you witnessed?
You write in that article of the haredim and 'their" yeshivot. Are those yeshivot really so alien to you? When you see 3,000 students learning in the Mirrer Yeshiva, does nothing stir inside? Do you see only non-productive parasites? Is it not also one of Israel's great achievements that 50 years after all the great Torah centers of Europe were turned to ashes, they have been rebuilt on an unprecedented scale?
I keep coming back to the question: Why do you write like this? It is not the money or fame. You have more than enough of both. You were quoted once as saying that 'the haredim are not used to criticism,' surely the funniest remark ever to pass your lips. Is that what your are doing, offering some constructive criticism?
The venues chosen - Ha'aretz, The Jerusalem Report - suggest not. And it must have occurred to you that haredim, like most people, do not respond well to being screamed at or mocked.
Or are you trying to win over secular Israelis to modern Orthodoxy with the message: 'You can be religious and still hate haredim.' That message has never worked, and will not work now. You'll have to show them something a little more positive.
I have no problem with your presenting your vision of Torah as powerfully as you can. I just don't think that the message is strengthened with the ubiquitous tag line 'and not like the 'primitive,' or 'sheep-like' (or whatever other choice epithet you can think of) haredim.' I would personally be thrilled if more secular Israelis were drawn to your committed, religious life. And if formulaic romance novels, with their inevitable beautiful and brilliant heroines - intended, no doubt, to suggest their creator - is the means of doing so, no problem.
But it must have galled you when you lived next door to Or Sameah to watch hundreds of products of the finest secular educations drawn to Torah by rabbis in black suits and the warmth of haredi homes. Were they all neurotic, lost souls?
Think of some of the most important recent works on Torah: Jeremy Kagan's The Jewish Self, Dr. Akiva Taitz's Living Inspired and WorldMask. These works have inspired and changed thousands of Orthodox Jews like you and me, and provided access to the depth of Torah to Jews with no background. Though these authors use their sophisticated, academic backgrounds to present Torah in a modern idiom, the Torah they teach is exclusively that which they received from rabbis you dismiss as primitive.
My guess is that you too were once powerfully drawn to the haredi world. Perhaps you saw there a certain intensity, or modesty, or simplicity, or commitment that you had not experienced before. I would guess that at some point you met a Jew like Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, who was born and died in the same tiny apartment in Sha'are Hesed and yet was accompanied to his final resting place by 300,000 Jews of all types.
But somewhere along the way, you realized, as we all do eventually, that together with the exemplary souls nurtured in the haredi world are many ordinary ones and failures as well. You felt betrayed by the loss of your dream of human perfection. In place of the pure light you once sought, you now find only blackness and ugliness, forgetting that since Adam's sin the whole world is a mixture of light and dark.
It's too bad. You are blessed with talent and brains and passion. You can do better than vitriol, and you can do better than best-selling novels that tell your readers what they want to hear: that the haredi world is characterized only by stifled souls and dysfunction.
My childhood rabbi once explained why American Jews preferred Isaac Bashevis Singer's portrait of their ancestors to the elegies of Abraham Joshua Heschel. The Yiddish writer eased their consciences and told them what they wanted to hear: that their ancestors were as sex-obsessed and removed from holiness as they are.
I'm afraid that you have fallen into the same trap of providing an eager audience with a one-dimensional portrait of the haredi world. By doing so, you serve neither God nor His Torah nor yourself.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics
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