In his column last week on the chareidi teenagers recently charged with smuggling drugs into Japan and the criminal who sent them, my esteemed colleague Rabbi Moshe Grylak referred to them as "Jews of chareidi appearance." His reasons for doing so are easily enough discerned. First, he wanted to remind us, just in case any such reminder is needed, that smuggling is not proper profession for Jews who tremble before G-d.
And second, he sought to offer us the psychological balm that those in question – and even more so the one who sent them – are not really chareidim; they just dress like chareidim. Unfortunately, there is no solace to be had on that score.
Sometimes, as in the case of someone who traded his blue jeans and t-shirts for a black suit and peyos two months earlier, it bears noting that the person being discussed was not raised in a chareidi family nor educated in chareidi schools. But that was hardly the case with the youths in question. They were raised in chareidi families; they were educated in chareidi institutions; and they fully identified themselves as chareidim.
Nor was their arrest a unique event. The phenomenon that Rabbi Grylak describes of Jews in chassidic dress being singled out for special scrutiny by customs officials around the world did not come about because of just one or two such Jews being caught smuggling drugs or other contraband. It took the combined efforts of numerous chareidim on many continents to create this stigma in the eyes of law enforcement officials.
In short, the teenagers arrested in Japan represent a more general educational failure that requires a bit of soul-searching. (and that is true even though it is clear they had no idea what they were carrying.) They would never have knowingly put anything treife into their mouths. (Not eating non-kosher food, unfortunately, may no longer be possible for them. Unlike American prisons, Japanese prisons do not routinely make provision for kosher food.) Even the cruel person who dispatched them to their fate probably does not eat treife.
Yet the potential chilul Hashem if they were caught smuggling, no matter what they were smuggling, did not enter their calculations. Yet chilul Hashem is much more severe than eating treife. Only about the former, are we taught there is no difference between advertent and inadvertent transgressions (Pirkei Avos 4:5). Even though pikuach nefesh overrides all but three cardinal transgressions, both Rabbi Elazar Menachem Schach and Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky, z"l, told Rabbi Moshe Sherer, in response to a query he had put to them, that rule does not apply where there is likelihood of chilul Hashem.
At the very least, we should hope to raise children who have the ability to take into account the future consequences of their actions (roeh es hanolad) and make some kind of balance of the potential "reward" for the sin against the potential loss involved. The continued widespread existence of smoking among our youth is only a less dramatic proof of our failure in this regard.
I don't know what the young men now in a Japanese prison were offered for their services – according to one report, it was a free trip to the kever of Rebbe Elimelech of Luzenzk. But it is hard to imagine any scale on which it could compare to the risk of 12 years in what is reputedly one of the cruelest prison systems in the world – one designed to make crime as unenticing as possible.
THERE IS ANOTHER REASON why any attempt to downplay our connection to those involved in smuggling by describing the latter as "Jews of chareidi appearance" won't wash. Sadly, the willingness of some youth to engage in criminal behavior and of adults to use them as couriers derives, in part, from attitudes that are too widespread. For some, our designation as the "chosen people" does not primarily refer to our higher level of obligation and our role in showing the world what individuals and a society shaped in accord with Hashem's will would look like.
Rather the Kuzari's description of the Jewish people as the highest level of creation is somehow twisted to mean that we are completely removed from the rest of humanity: We need not feel any obligation to obey their laws or concern ourselves with their well-being. Only such an attitude can explain the willingness of those who dispatched these youths to traffic in drugs whose destructive impact is well known.
Yet our special status as the chosen people actually imposes a higher degree of responsibility and a universal mission. A story involving Rabbi Mendel Kaplan, one of the outstanding talmidim of Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman, Hy"d, and a long-time rebbe in Philadelphia Yeshiva illustrates the point.
Reb Mendel once drove into a car repair shop. In the garage, he noticed a calendar with the types of images from which we are taught to avert our gaze. The typical reaction for most of us would have been to simply ignore the calendar and look the other way. Reb Mendel, who was already in his latter years, however, risked life and limb by ripping the calendar off the wall right in front of the rough crew working in the garage.
Why did he bother? What was the point of potentially setting off a riot, especially since it is probably safe to assume that none of the mechanics in the shop were Jewish? I don't know for sure, but I suspect the reason is that Reb Mendel saw himself as responsible for the world that Hashem created. The calendar polluted that world and degraded human beings created in the Divine image.
Even if the immediate victims of that pollution were not likely to be Jews, Reb Mendel knew that a Jew's responsibilities extend to the entire world, for only we were given the mission of bringing the knowledge of Hashem to all of mankind.
Unless we internalize that mission, we can expect more tragedies like that in Japan.