A new look at the Haredim
by Jonathan Rosenblum
September 5, 2003
The August 19 Jerusalem bus bombing was the haredi community’s Dolphinarium. The Dolphinarium transformed the Russian immigrants in the eyes of Israeli society from an anonymous mass into individuals with life stories, and the "haredi blast" did the same for the haredi community.
But for the way that her life was so tragically cut short, how likely, for instance, would any secular Israeli have been to "meet" someone like Goldie Taubenfeld, a 43-year-old Chassidic mother of 13 from New Square, New York? Just before her murder, Taubenfeld offered to donate a kidney to a complete stranger. She raised her sister-in-law’s orphaned children as her own, and regularly offered hot meals and a place to sleep to mentally ill people who had no place else to go.
For the first time, secular Israelis found themselves entering the private lives of haredim, not watching haredi MKs on TV. For once the discussion of haredim had nothing to with budgets or coalition politics, but with what is most central to a haredi Jew’s life: his or her relationship with God.
The terrible tragedy brought home that all Israelis – haredi and secular alike – are in this together. The simple act of riding the bus places one on the frontlines, and is an act of defiance directed at those who would drive us from our Land.
Much of the hatred of haredim melted away, at least temporarily. A doctor from Ramat Gan wrote to Maariv describing his emergence for the first time from "an anti-haredi bubble, in which everything was so clear and predictable, and that provided easy answers to virtually every problem facing the country – social, economic, security – answers dripping with hatred and alienation [for haredim]."
The secular public devoured the type of stories of righteous men and women – and there were plenty on that bus filled with worshippers coming directly from the Western Wall – usually confined to the haredi press. Toby Klein Greenwald’s tender remembrance in these pages of her Mattersdorf mikve lady, Mrs. Rochel Weitz, was one poignant example. Secular readers found themselves entering to the lives of women like Mrs. Weitz, who raised eight children alone after being widowed at an early age, and Mrs. Lila Kardi, a young mother in her eighth month of pregnancy, who had undertaken as a 16-year-old to raise her 8-year-old brother after the premature death of both their parents.
Israel radio and TV rushed to interview the usual haredi talking heads on the community’s reaction. But far more powerful and eloquent were the simple, unrehearsed conversations with the friends and relatives of those killed and with the survivors themselves.
Bracha Toporowitch, whose three-year-old granddaughter, was burned beyond recognition while asleep in her mother’s arms, was asked whether she felt any anger towards the suicide bomber. She appeared surprised by the question. Who had time to think about him at all, she wondered. "What is the message for us? What do we need to change to become a better person? How do we reach out to people, how do we connect more closely to God?" These were the only questions, she insisted.
After the Sbarro pizza parlor blast, Israelis were transfixed by the TV interview with eight-year-old Chaya Schijveschuurder, in which the young girl, with no parents left to coach her, gave expression from her hospital bed to the simple faith with which she was raised. After the "haredi blast," they were similarly transfixed by the manner in which haredim reacted with such stoicism to the terrible tragedy.
Novelist Yoram Kaniuk spoke for many when he wrote in Ha’aretz, "When I saw how they stood and prayed over their own blood, with terrible grief and restrained horror, begging G-d to forgive them, I could only be envious that my forefathers were like them. . . . Their strength to withstand curses, terror and calamities is a strength that we, with all our learning, do not know."
As the bus blast brought the hudna to a shattering end, many secular Israelis realized that we all need a strong dose of haredi stoicism. The depth of the hatred directed at us forecloses peace in our generation. We face another 50 years of war. No politician even claims to know the way forward. After the blast, the familiar litanies -- "If only we had done this."; "If only we would do that." – were all absent.
Haredim seemed to offer not only the stoicism that derives from a strong sense of our mission as a people, but also a way of dealing with such terrible tragedies. Haredi Jews do not pretend to understand the brutal murders of so many infants and children, or to know why so many righteous Jews, who had come in many cases from abroad or from other cities in Israel to pray at the Western Wall, were wiped out in a flash. They do not view it as their task to be God’s cheerleaders, offering easy, unreflective acquiescence to events beyond comprehension.
As difficult as the theological questions raised are, they are not new. Moses himself asked God to reveal to him why the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper, and that knowledge was denied to him. At most we can know something of the general rules of Divine Providence, but not their application to a specific case.
Haredim live with an acute historical consciousness. The destruction of the Temple, the Chlmenicki massacres, the Holocaust are present for them, and so are the issues of theodicy that they raise. As Dostoievsky’s Ivan cried out, even the suffering of one innocent child raises the issue of God’s justice, how much more so the slaughter of millions of Jewish children throughout history.
Modern man, intoxicated with the expansion of scientific knowledge, lives by contrast with the illusion that all will soon be known and subject to his control. In the face of cataclysmic events beyond his control, he is left feeling rudderless and afraid. Raised with this acute awareness of the inherently limited understanding available to finite Man of an infinite Creator, haredim are spared that terror.
Yet even as they confess their own inability, in the absence of Biblical prophecy, to interpret the causes of events, haredim still insist that nothing that takes place is random. When events strike so deeply and so close to home, it would be nothing less than a denial of God, from the haredi point of view, to act or think as if nothing were demanded of them. The haredi insistence that everything has a purpose forces them to seek to extract something positive from even the darkest events, and protects them from despair.
At the 20 funerals of the victims, there were no cries for revenge, no mention of the hudna, or Sharon, or Arafat, only exhortations to change ourselves for the better in some concrete fashion. Those exhortations do not constitute forgiveness of the murderer or denial of his evil, much less an explanation of the terrible events, but rather a plea to extract something positive from ruins.
Observing the manner in which the haredi community comes to grips with tragedy, secular Israelis learned more about the lives of haredi Jews than they had ever known. And if they could not yet make the haredi faith their own, many of them wished they could.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics, Israeli Society
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