Last Thursday’s Jerusalem Post carried a particularly nasty attack on the chareidi community by columnist Larry Derfner. Derfner can be abrasive, but would hardly be classified as an inveterate chareidi-baiter.
In a recent response to novelist A.B. Yehoshua’s dismissal of the inauthenticity of Diaspora Jewry, Derfner wrote of his "ultra-Orthodox" brother-in-law and sister-in-law in Toronto, "Judaism isn’t the outer shell of their lives, it’s the core." If asked to choose between a 100% secular state of Israel, with no practicing, believing Jews, and a Jewish Diaspora with Jews like his in-laws, the self-described atheist would opt for the latter. Two weeks later, he wrote a laudatory piece about a chareidi baal teshuva, with whom he had once done reserve duty.
The earlier articles only added to the pain of last week’s, which focused on the recent deaths of two chareidi infants. In the first, a nineteen-year-old chareidi father has been accused of manslaughter in connection with the death of his three-month-old infant. The arrest of the father led to rioting in Meah Shearim before Pesach, and charges of a "blood libel" by the police.
The second case, involving the death of an infant in Ashdod, after her parents allegedly relied on homeopathy to treat an infection, and the subsequent snatching of her body to avoid an autopsy, was the subject of my column last week.
These two cases, according to Derfner, demonstrate that there is "something twisted in the psyche of haredi society." He goes on to compare (not equate) the chareidi community to the parents who poisoned their children at Jonestown – he kindly concedes that chareidi parents are not lining up to kill their children. Chareidim are all "moral collaborators" in the killing of the two children, according to Derfner.
Chareidim, he concludes, are "brainwashed members of a cult, . . . led by absolute spiritual rulers, [which] insists on utter conformity, . . . holds fanatical beliefs, and . . . views society at large . . . as demonic."
About the young father’s "awful brutality," Derfner entertains not the slightest doubt. (He cheerfully dismisses the presumption of innocence as relevant only to the judge.) Relying entirely on early press reports, including one that the baby’s body was covered with bite marks, suggesting a completely out-of-control father and a pattern of systematic abuse, Derfner accuses the father of "bashing and biting" his son to death.
Yet, an examination of the baby, while still alive, by Professor Hiss, the head of Abu Kabir Forensic Laboratory (and a long-time bete-noire of the chareidi community), found no such bite marks or signs of abuse. Another examination by Dr. Shlomo Constantini, one of the country’s leading neurosurgeons, found no basis to conclude that the baby’s injuries were intentionally inflicted. He observed no evidence of abuse or shaken infant syndrome.
Writer Sarah Shapiro spent days interviewing family members who were in the hospital with infant from the time that he was brought into the hospital by ambulance. They claim that the emergency room staff kept the baby under observation for nearly eight hours without responding to their pleas to begin treatment on the baby. According to Dr. Constantini’s report, the baby was still moving his arms and legs and responding well to light when admitted. Eight hours later, an x-ray found that blood had filled the entire brain cavity.
None of this interests Derfner. Nor was he notably more interested in my column from last week’s Mishpacha, which I sent him. That column, at the very least, proved that the chareidi community had not rallied en masse around those who snatched the body of the dead infant from the mortuary in Ashdod, or in favor of denying infants inoculations or antibiotics (a practice equally widespread in the secular community.)
Derfner’s responded that he doesn’t suspect me of membership in the "cult," and does not consider me chareidi. Fine, I hear that all the time from all sides of the spectrum. But much of my column was quoting an earlier Mishpacha news story and leading rabbonim. Even if Mishpacha were fully staffed by Meretz members, most of its readership defines itself within the broader chareidi community. Were the views expressed in my column and in the Mishpacha news story beyond the pale of acceptable opinion to that community, economic interest alone would have dictated their censorship.
Derfner partakes of two familiar journalistic tropes when writing about the chareidi community. The first is treating a very diverse community as a monolith. The second is the myth of chareidim marching in lock-step conformity to orders from above.
Whenever one points to evidence showing the wide diversity of opinions, attitudes, and practice among those who broadly describe themselves as chareidi, one hears that those cited are not really chareidim. The question is: Who is left after all the exceptions?
In a private communication to me, Derfner accuses the gedolim of "basically" declaring the father in the first case innocent. Actually the Kol Koreh to which he refers does nothing of the kind. Rather it says that the father’s family and rabbis are working with all their might to prove him innocent, and calls upon the community to assist them in their efforts.
Anyone who contributes to the fund, Derfner wrote me, is a chareidi; anyone who did not isn’t. By that standard, there are very few chareidim indeed. How many people contributed to the defense fund? A few hundred? And of those, how many were outside the Meah Shearim community in which the father lives?
I would be surprised if anyone in the yeshiva minyan, in which I daven, contributed. True, those I spoke to all hoped that no avreich could kill his own son. But none dismissed out-of-hand the possibility of someone dressed in chareidi garb doing something horrible. Nor did they automatically assume that the police investigation was nothing more than a blood libel, or to burn garbage cans on that basis. To do so, they reasoned, could only result in a massive chilul Hashem, especially if the prosecution succeeded in adducing overwhelming proof.
Ironically, far from being the cultish, blind followers described in Derfner’s article, the broad chareidi community suffers as much from too little emunas chachamim as too much. Providing financial assistance to help the family with legal expenses was not only an act of chesed for the accused and his family, but an act of self-defense for hundreds of thousands who will inevitably find themselves tarred by the act of any member of the community.
More of us should have heeded the call of the gedolim, but, at least, by failing to do so we proved that we are not members of a cult.