Haredim in the zoo
by Jonathan Rosenblum
August 22, 1997
Haredim have a public relations problem. As far as the secular media are concerned, they are the Jews who aren't there.
That does not mean, of course, that the haredim are not covered in the media. Quite the opposite. The media obsession with haredim finds its nearest parallel in the UN's obsession with Israel. (Standards of accuracy in both cases are roughly comparable.)
But while haredim are objects of discussion, they are not participants. The widespread assumption appears to be that no one in the haredi community is capable of articulating the community's world view in an intellectually coherent manner.
When issues involving the community arise, aligned on one side of the debate will be Jerusalem city councilman Ornan Yekutieli, MK Naomi Chazan, et. al., and, on the other side, Dr. Menahem Friedman or some other academic specializing in the chareidi community. But haredim will not be permitted to speak for themselves.
In short, haredim are viewed as fit objects of sociological and anthropological study, rather than as legitimate participants in the national debate. The only haredim ever quoted are those with a talent for self- promotion and providing good copy in the form of shock headlines, such as Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, self-styled 'director of operations" for the Eda Haredit.
The only time that haredim can be assured of access to the media is to condemn someone within their own community. Thus after the Shavuot confrontation at the Western Wall, rabbinic leaders were urged to publicly condemn the spitting and epithets or have it assumed they condoned it. Ignored was the repeated public rejection of violence as a means by all haredi authorities, most recently in the controversy over the Shabbat closing of Jerusalem's Rehov Bar-Ilan, when posters decrying violence signed by leading religious authorities appeared throughout Jerusalem.
Those who had never sought the views of rabbis on any issue of national concern suddenly proffered them a band on the cable spectrum, albeit for the exclusive purpose of apologizing. Not surprisingly, the generous offer was not seized upon.
The relegation of haredim to the realm of historical curiosities adversely affects both the secular majority and the haredim. The former are cut off from those with the most profound knowledge of our common heritage: the Torah of Israel. Even more important, secular Jews are denied exposure to those for whom Judaism is most vibrant - a living, pulsing, all-encompassing way of life, not an artifact for nostalgic viewing in some museum.
Haredim too are injured by their exclusion from the national debate. First, they are not forced to present traditional Judaism in terms that are understandable to those who start from different presuppositions.
But the problem goes deeper than that. Of necessity, the education of haredi children involves instilling them with a deep revulsion to all that is antithetical to Torah values in the surrounding society. It is not an education that starts from the premise that all truth is relative, and then tells the young, 'Choose for yourself."
The danger for haredim in the negation of the surrounding society, however, is that in the process they will forget that society is composed of fellow Jews. For the haredi Jew, his role in life is to reveal the beauty of God's Torah through his words and deeds. But when haredim are consigned to their own enclaves and not allowed to speak to the broader public, the danger increases that they will forget about their audience.
Finally, the perception that the secular media will eagerly seize upon any lapses in the haredi community, but never allow that community to present itself in a favorable light can lend itself to a situation in which pressing issues within the community are not adequately addressed. The fear of 'washing our dirty laundry in public" stifles the open discussion necessary to finding solutions.
While haredim believe that the Torah is the blueprint for the perfection of human society, they are under no illusion - contrary to what much of the secular public thinks - that they have achieved that perfection.
Self-criticism is deeply engrained in the haredi mindset. The calls for collective repentance, for instance, that issue from the haredi world after every national tragedy are directed inward not outward. They are not, as is frequently charged, attempts to lay the blame for all that befalls us on the secularists.
The prophet Jonah's declaration 'because of me is this great tempest,' even though he was surrounded by idol worshipers, is an expression of the classic Jewish view: Our collective fate is determined first and foremost by those with the greatest awareness of God. Thus when haredim refrain from addressing their own shortcomings because of fear of a hostile media, they are being deterred from an essential spiritual task.
Both the haredi and secular worlds would benefit from a situation in which a column like this is not an anomaly, and a haredi writer for a general audience did not have to worry that he is being judged, to paraphrase Dr. Johnson, by the standards of dogs walking on their hind legs - the amazing thing is not that they do it well, but that they do it at all.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics
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