It ain't easy being haredi
by Jonathan Rosenblum
May 28, 1999
Because the haredi world is perceived as an undifferentiated sea of black, the act of any haredi automatically becomes the act of all haredim. As a consequence, every haredi Jew frequently finds himself identified with actions or speech that he considers repugnant - or even worse, contrary to everything he has been taught about the Torah.
To protect ourselves, we develop a series of psychological tropes. When people would ask Rabbi Chaim Mordechai Katz, founder of Telshe Yeshiva in Cleveland, 'What do you say about religious Jews who cheat on their taxes?' he would reply, 'What do you say about Orthodox Jews who eat on Yom Kippur?'
Inevitably his interlocutors would exclaim that Jews who eat on Yom Kippur aren't Orthodox. And Katz would tell them, 'Well, neither are those who cheat on their taxes.'
But such an answer is only partially successful. For whatever we may think of those whose behavior is anathema to us, they consider themselves part of the broader haredi community, and they are often the products of the same educational system to which we send our own children.
There is no understating the educational failure, from a Torah point of view, when a dozen or so teenagers (out of tens of thousands of religious Jews present) throw filled plastic bottles at other Jews at the Western Wall Plaza.
As an educational failure, this group of hooligans may pale in comparison to that of the Israeli educational system as a whole - where physical intimidation in school has become a way of life for the majority of Israeli youth, nearly half of them as perpetrators - but they still constitute a failure the Torah community cannot ignore.
A Jew who raises a hand to strike another Jew is considered in Halacha an evildoer. A Jew who joins in a mindless mob has failed in the goal of all his striving: to enthrone his God-given intelligence as master over his every action.
A Jew whose act ignores the explicit directives of preeminent halachic authorities undermines the belief in the guidance of Torah scholars, which has always been the foundation of Jewish communal life. (The Eda Haredit has repeatedly distributed a proclamation signed by its rabbinical court stating unequivocally: 'Our only power is that of mouths [open in prayer], and God forbid [that] anyone should ever act with violence or force...')
A religious Jew who does these things compounds the gravity of the offense a thousandfold, for he is also guilty of hilul Hashem, the desecration of God's name. And for that, the mishna in Pirkei Avot informs us, it matters not whether that desecration is intentional or inadvertent - both are punished equally.
If there is one overarching duty imposed on every religious Jew, it is to reveal the 'ways of pleasantness' of the Torah and its adherents. Every one of the thousands of Jews who have returned to full halachic observance in the past two decades was attracted in part by the example of Jews whose lives set them qualitatively apart from anyone they had ever met before.
They were drawn by the moral seriousness, the intellectual depth, the self-sacrifice, the joy, and the generosity they found in the religious community. Not one, as far as I know, was drawn to Torah Judaism by being physically or verbally abused. And had they been so attacked at the beginning of their journey, it is likely that it would have been for them the end of the journey as well.
I too have a vision of Shavuot, and it has nothing to do with bottle-throwing at the Wall. It is a vision of three 10-year-olds standing at their lecterns all night to keep from falling asleep while engaged in vigorous Talmudic debate. And I am filled with anger at those who prevented that vision from being the one seen by Jews all over the world this year.
Physical assaults on other Jews are indefensible. Period. They do not, however, render those who provoke them right.
I do not question the sincerity of Jews who believe God also listens to those who pray with men and women intermingled, or even those who believe that today God only listens to those who pray in that fashion.
But I do have a hard time accepting that the desire to communicate directly with God is the sole motivation for the annual egalitarian minyan at the Wall, just as I would find it hard to believe that a group of Pentecostals who chose to conduct a revival meeting in St. Peter's Square on Palm Sunday was only interested in praying.
If one wants to communicate with God, one does not normally choose to do so in a place where one knows that one's actions will be deeply offensive to over 99 percent of those present, especially when there are plenty of places available where one could pray undisturbed.
Most of the Jews on their way to and from the Wall on Shavuot morning have never heard of Betty Friedan or Gloria Steinem. When they see women attired in tallitot and kippot, all they see is street theater and scoffing. (I'm making an anthropological, not theological, observation.) And their heckling in response is predictable.
If one wants to talk to God - rather than generate fund-raising publicity - one does not ensure media coverage of one's prayers. Nor does one insist on praying in such a way that it will necessitate Shavuot morning duty for dozens of Jewish policemen.
An 'in-your-face' assertion that our way of praying is a good as yours may provide a heady feeling of being in the vanguard of social change for those too young to have marched at Selma, but such statements are better left for other times and places
At the same time, there is a positive impulse that draws the egalitarian minyan to the Wall every Shavuot. Part of the attraction is a desire to join together with tens of thousands of others Jews wending their way through darkened streets to pray there. And equally important is the desire to pray at a place where Jews have prayed for 3,000 years.
But one cannot experience the power of being joined to other Jews, and at the same time insist on rites that they view as a mockery. One cannot seek the power of being joined to Jews throughout the ages and insist on praying in a manner completely at variance with the traditions of the place from time immemorial.
You can't eat your cake and have it too.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics
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