Titanic II and Yeridos Hadoros
Rabbi Benjamin Blech had an interesting piece last week at Aish.com on the Costa Concordia disaster. A few years ago, Rabbi Blech served as he scholar-in-residence on a kosher cruise on the magnificent ocean liner. Guests were escorted on a tour of the state of the art ship and its multiple levels of safety devices. At one point on the tour, the guide remarked, "No one will ever have a Titanic experience here."
The builders of the Titanic famously asserted with even greater hubris that not even G-d Himself could sink it. Yet the Titanic did not survive its maiden voyage, and 1,517 passengers drowned.
In both cases, the ships were brought down, not by failures in technical design, but by the moral failings of those in charge. The owners of theTitanic were eager to claim the record for the fastest transatlantic crossing, and thus settled on a northerly route, at a time of year when that area of the Atlantic was known to be still filled with icebergs. Worse, the telegraph operator received numerous warnings from another ship of a huge iceberg directly in its path. But the telegraph operator received large tips for transmitting the messages of wealthy patrons, and told the ship sending the warnings to stop pestering him and tying up his lines, which he could put to more profitable use. As a consequence, the captain of the Titanic never received any warning of the danger looming ahead.
In the case of the Costa Concordia, the ship became grounded because the captain decided to show off his magnificent toy to friends on shore of the nearby island.
Human foible remained a constant in hundred years between the Titanic and the Costa Concordia disasters. But there were differences as well. The captain of the Titanic instructed his officers to maintain calm as women and children were allocated the first seats on the lifeboats, of which there were far too few because the possibility of disaster never entered the owners' minds. Some of the richest members of New York high society went down with the ship in evening dress, prepared to die as "gentlemen." The captain did not desert the ship, and the ship's orchestra continued playing as it sank.
The contrast could not have been sharper to the Costa Concordia disaster, in which passengers clawed for seats on the lifeboats, with the strongest prevailing. One of the first off the ship was the captain, who abandoned a sinking ship and ignored an order from the Italian coast guard to return to the ship. He was promptly nicknamed the "chicken of the sea."
One hundred years ago, there still existed a code of honor by which honorable people – gentlemen, if you will – were expected to comport themselves. Such codes of honor are for the most part a remnant of the past.
So far we have been discussing the non-Torah world. But a similar decline can be seen in our world as well, albeit over a much longer time frame. This week I was learning a Gemara in Bava Basra, which discusses how far earlier generations would go to avoid having to take a shvuah (oath), even when they were telling the truth. Another assumption of the Gemara is that a person will not lie about matters that are likely to become known eventually.
Yet today we find instances of the most bald-faced lies. Signatures of prominent rabbonim are affixed to letters that they never signed, and this is done despite the fact that the number of signatures added in this fashion is so great that it will inevitably become known.
Every lie lessens the trust that is the basic glue holding any society together. But the avla (outrage) is compounded many times when it lessens public trust in pronouncements purporting to be from those upon whose leadership the public relies. Even if the one promoting false messages is motivated by his vision of the public good, it is hard to conceive of any purpose that could compensate for compromising public trust in the words of the gedolim.
A Tale Of Two Bus Rides
Last week I received multiple emails containing a description of a confrontation/conversation on a Mehadrin bus travelling from Bnei Brak to Ashdod between four pants-wearing feminists and a Breslover Chassid. One would not have to be a great skeptic to have guessed that the account was at best a "composite" and at worst a complete fiction.
The Chassid was just a bit too good to be true – never removing the beatific smile from his face during a long back-and-forth with the ringleader of the group. Only when she sits down next to him does a tear fall from his firmly closed eyes, as he explains to his assailant, "I love my wife and want her face to be the only female image in my brain."
Other details were also too perfect. The Chassid's wife, pregnant with the couple's eighth child, is referred to as "an ignorant cook and bottle washer" by the ringleader. She turns out to have been a sergeant in the IDF Artillery Corps, who served for two months as an army medic in Lebanon. For good measure, she also holds an MBA from Tel Aviv University. For his part, the Breslover is a former tank commander, who met his wife while finishing his B.A. at TAU.
In the end, the sheer goodness of the hero overwhelms his antagonists. The ringleader gets up from her seat, and she and her companions prepare to get off the bus, though not before the Chassid repeats his invitation to come for Shabbos.
All the many people who forwarded the story to me or circulated it to their mailing lists desperately wanted to believe it was true, exactly as reported, even if believing so meant suppressing all their critical faculties. (I too fell into this group.)
I find something touching about that desperation, as it reflects their pain at the image of chareidim being transmitted in both the Israeli media and around the world as an outgrowth of recent events in Beit Shemesh. I also think that the story was aspirational for many – i.e., it reflected how they hope that they or their husbands would behave if challenged in the same way and what they believe to be the proper response for Torah Jews.
For what it's worth, I offer as compensation a story told to me last week by an older Klausenberger Chassid, with abundant hadras panim, who comes collecting for various good causes on a regular basis. He told me that recently a woman had asked whether she could sit next to him on a bus, and he had raised no objection. He sat there for one stop, and then got off the bus, just as in a famous story told about Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt"l. Not quite as dramatic as the bus confrontation described above, but it does have the advantage of being true.
Two weeks ago, the publisher of a local Jewish paper in Atlanta did something so stupid that one can only rub one's head in wonderment: He published a piece in which he assumed that Israel has operational plans for the assassination of President Obama over his Iran policy. That assumption is lunatic, and so was the publication of such a fantasy. And as is so frequently the case with lunatic acts, the publisher in question did great damage to his cause – opposition to President Obama's Iran policy – by giving credence to those who claim that Jewish opponents of Obama are loony-tunes or motivated by racism.
My focus, however, is not on the idiocy of the publisher, but on the reaction to his remarks. The Jewish establishment came down like a ton of bricks on him – rightly so, in my view – with calls for him to immediately find a new line of employment. They understood that sometimes the statements or actions of one Jew can be so incendiary that they cannot be allowed to stand without condemnation.
No one could possibly suspect David Harris of the American Jewish Committee or Jonathan Tobin of Commentary Magazine, for example, of sharing the sentiments of the Atlanta publisher. Yet I am confident that it never occurred to either of them or any of the other figures who rushed to condemn the hapless publisher to say, "It's insulting to even ask me to condemn such lunacy just because both the publisher and I are Jewish."
As a small minority in America, Jews are hypersensitive to the ways in which the actions of individual Jews can provide ammunition to anti-Semites and have negative consequences for all their co-religionists. And when they sense that there is such a threat, they feel duty-bound to dissociate the community from those words or actions in the sharpest possible fashion.
I suspect it was the same sensibilities, honed by the experience of living as a minority, but not one so insulated as to have little awareness of how the majority views us or of the possible fall-out from the actions or words of individual community members, that led Agudath Israel to so quickly and unambiguously condemn the actions of the violent minority in Beit Shemesh as "beyond the bounds of decent, moral - Jewish! - behavior. We condemn these acts unconditionally."