In the wake of the suicide bombing in Jerusalem’s Beit Yisrael neighborhood, print and electronic journalists wandered around asking chareidi residents, in one form or another: "So what do you think of G-d now?"
Reporters ironically juxtaposed the scene of death and destruction to a nearby poster proclaiming the "miracle" that occurred a year earlier when a car bomb detonated seconds after a truck laden with gas canisters passed by, and no one was injured. It did not take a Geiger counter to detect the barely disguised mockery in some of the news reports, and perhaps even a sense of relief to have concrete "proof" that Torah study and mitzvot do not protect against tragedy.
The reporters could have spared their irony, for it was based on a false premise i.e., that until that moment chareidim perceived themselves as living under an impermeable bubble of Divine protection. That premise provides another sad reminder of how little Israel’s Jews know about one another.
Few chareidim believed that the Angel of Death did not know their address. They could look out their windows in Jerusalem’s Ramat Shlomo, Arzei Habira, and Kiryat Kaminetz neighborhoods and see Arab villages a few hundred meters away, with nothing in between.
Chareidim listen to the same terrorist alerts, and make the same calculations as all other parents about where their children are going and how they are going to get there. The six thousand American seminary and yeshiva students studying in Israel are under strict instructions from parents and schools alike about where they can go. "In a place of danger more merit is required," goes the traditional wisdom.
To think that chareidim view their Torah learning and mitzvah observance as an absolute protection is to imagine that they have never heard of the Holocaust -- that they know nothing of the Lithuanian yeshivos of which not a trace remains (with the exception of Mirrer and Telshe), of the great Chassidic courts, like that of Alexander, which were wiped out, or of the hundreds of thousands who went to the gas chambers with Shema Yisrael on their lips.
Chareidim do not imagine themselves to be more worthy of Divine protection than all the generations of martyrs that preceded them. Nor do they kid themselves that many of the victims of the current war were not Jews far more righteous than themselves. The suffering of the righteous is, unfortunately, not exactly a theological problem being raised for the first time in the course of Jewish history.
Before the suicide bombing in Beit Yisrael, chareidim did not smugly observe the unfolding tragedies all around as somehow unrelated to them. Like everyone else, chareidim seek to assure themselves after every terrorist incident that their loved ones are safe, knowing that even that even if they were spared, the victim was another Jew’s wife or husband, father or mother, son or daughter. And again like everyone else, the more they share in common with the victims, the more they will be personally touched by the tragedy.
But no chareidi ever advised Yasir Arafat where he should send his suicide bombers, as have some Hebrew University professors, or distinguished between victims according to which side of the Green Line they lived on. There are great men and women in the chareidi community(albeit far too few) who weep openly over every Jew lost. The view of Klal Yisrael as a collective body is fundamental to the chareidi worldview.
The image of each Jew as a limb on the collective body of Klal Yisrael offers another reason why chareidim never dreamed that they were immune to the terror striking all of Israel’s citizens. One limb cannot develop gangrene without ultimately affecting the entire body, nor can any limb survive the death of the body. So too will we all share a common fate.
Because of the spiritual connection of all Jews, it is fundamental to the chareidi worldview that the positive actions of any Jew bring merit to the entire community by opening up pipelines of Divine blessing. But the converse is also true. When only 15% of the Jewish population is shomer mitzvot, chareidim expect a fair amount of Divine displeasure. As part of the collective, they do not expect to be spared.
Yet chareidim do not self-righteously blame the secular population for everything that befalls us. There is a strong countervailing tendency in the chareidi world to place the blame for national tragedy on their own failures to draw close to G-d in the prescribed ways. As one student in Mirrer Yeshiva told a Ha’aretz reporter, "As far as we are concerned, we are all in overdraft with G-d."
Rabbi Amram Blau, the leader of Neturei Karta once complained to the Brisker Rav of the latest Zionist desecrations, to which he attributed all the tzores of Klal Yisrael. The Brisker Rav reminded him that when the prophet Yonah found his ship engulfed by huge waves, he immediately identified himself as the culprit, even though he was on a ship filled with idol worshippers. In other words, when bad things happen to Klal Yisrael, first assume that God’s message is being directed to those Who acknowledge Him.
No one familiar with the classic Jewish sources claims to know the Divine calculus operating at any given moment. At best we can know some of the general rules by which He governs the world, but not how those rules are operative in a particular case.
At the same time, chareidim assume that nothing is random, and that whatever happens to us, whether good or bad, has a reason. While the various reasons behind a particular event of necessity elude us, nevertheless those events have to be internalized and be used for self-improvement. It is in this context that last year’s celebration of the miracle in Beit Yisrael must be understood – not as an assertion that Torah learning is always sufficient to protect, but as a means of strengthening the commitment of yeshiva students.
This chareidi impulse to internalize every external event was nicely captured by another Mirrer yeshiva student interviewed by the Boston Globe, the morning after viewing a mutilated body for the first time: "About a half-hour later, I prayed, `Let this have a helpful effect on me.’ I’m still praying."