Sunday, January 01, 2012

The Meah Shearim Mentality

It is becoming increasingly clear to me that the Charedim of Meah Shearim and Ramat Bet Shemesh Bet (RBS B) on the one hand - and the rest of the Charedi world on the other are as different from each other as are observant Jews are from secular Jews. The Hashkafos of the two Charedi worlds might seem similar, but they are in fact radically different.

It can no longer be assumed that the radicals of RBS B who spit on religious women and girls and call them whores are a small minority of whom the vast majority disapproves. Mainstream Charedim who think that way are making a big mistake. And yet that is the conventional wisdom.

Although there are some in those communities who are in fact opposed to these radicals and not just their tactics - I am becoming convinced that the majority of Meah Shearim and RBS B approves of them. How else does one explain the massive protest in the Geula section of Jerusalem?

Were they protesting the vile and disgusting actions of the radicals that have made headlines around the world? Hardly. This despite the fact that even the most right wing of Rabbanim and organizations in America condemned them in the strongest possible terms - urging that the police do their jobs and arrest those people.

No... they were not protesting the radicals. They were protesting the way the media portrays them. They could not care less about an 8 year old Dati girl in Bet Shemesh. 1500 of them(according to the Jerusalem Post - other estimates vary) were thinking only about their own PR in the media. They clearly support the goals of those radicals. And I’m not sure they protest all that much against their tactics. Don’t think so? From Ha’artez:

The protesters also expressed their solidarity with Shmuel Weissfish, one of the leading activists in the radical Sikrik group. Weissfish is slated to begin his two-year prison sentence on Sunday for vandalizing a computer store in the same Kikar Hashabbat.

It appears that this is their mentality. They value their way of life and will ‘prtotect’ it by any means necessary. And if the media dares to report on it, they see that as Nazi-like behavior which is why people like the ones in the photo were sprinkled throughout the crowd. (The Photo Essay in Arutz Sheva should not be overlooked either.)

From the Jerusalem Post:

Directives from the stage urged protesters not to speak with the press, and at one point men gathered around a camera crew in an attempt to force them to wear yellow stars.

The crew retreated to a police cordon.

Angry crowds also followed uniformed police, shouting at them and calling them “Nazis.”

“It’s like how it started with the Nazis – very slowly,” American yeshiva student Salomon Hoberman said, defending the use of the yellow stars.

“They’re separating us from the Jewish people because we’re following the way of the Torah. They hate us because we’re going the Jewish way.

And there’s only one Jewish way.”

A haredi woman, who declined to give her name, said, “We didn’t come to demonstrate, we came to show our power, and that our power is forever.”

The sentiments that several of the protesters expressed to The Jerusalem Post bore a central theme of religious coercion against the ultra-Orthodox community.

“How can this country be called a democracy when they are trying to force us to adopt their culture and their standards?” asked Shimon Levy, a young haredi man from a veteran Jerusalem family. “We were here before the state [was established] and yet there are people telling us what we may and may not do in our own neighborhoods.”

He asserted that “the hatred and incitement being directed at us because we do not want to take on the ethical standards of the secular [community] is simply intolerable.”

How ironinc it is that the protestors that evening said they were protesting being forced to “take on the ethical standards of the secular [community”]. They seem to be oblivious to the fact that the exact opposite is true. The radicals in RBS B are trying force their standards on the rest of the community. I can only surmise that because of their isolated lifestyles they have no opportunity to see things the way the rest of the world does. They are righteous ones and everyone who is against them is a Nazi.

“There’s only one Jewish way”. This is what they believe. Any version of Orthodoxy that veers from their way is illegitimate. Other observant Jews might as well be secular atheists as far as they are concerned.

It is plainly obvious to me where the real sentiment in this entire community lies. With few exception it lies with the radicals of RBS B. This is why you will not see any residents of that suburb in a counter protest like the one held there last week. It isn’t only that they are afraid of the repercussions -although that may be true. It isn’t only because many of them just don’t want to get involved or don’t care enough – although that may also be true. It is because they actually support their goals more than they oppose their tactics - if they oppose them at all

It is really a shame. On a personal level they can be quite pleasant and welcoming. They are open, friendly, and kind. But when it comes to one of their sacred cows… watch out! The radicals will come out of the woodwork and do whatever it takes to protect it. And the rest of them will stand back and let it happen and probably secretly (and in some cases not so secretly as was the case in Geula) - support them.

The question remains as to why there has not been an outcry by American Charedi leaders against these people? Not just against the radicals but the majority of them - whose views are represented by the protestors in Geula. And even in the case of the radicals they have condemned them but only after agreeing with their goals!

I can only surmise that Agudah and other like minded Charedi organizations who in realtiy are quite repulsed by them - will nevertheless never fully condemn them because frankly they are seen as too Frum. I’ve been told that organizations like Agudah will never fully criticize those to their right - at least not without some sort of apologetics.

I attribute the ‘move to the right’ to this mentality. This is why much of the Yeshiva world - at least in part -has taken on many Chasidic customs and Chumros. Their motto seems to be ‘If it looks frum - do it!’

The following anecdote demonstrates this. Telshe Yeshiva in Chicago used to have mixed seating at their banquets. But when the Vietzner Rebbe (a close confidant of the Satmar Rebbe) opened up his Charedi day school their banquets were sepearte seating. Telshe immediately changed course and followed suit. All their banquets since have been separate seating affairs.

Until they separate themselves from these people instead of adopting their Chumros this kind of thing will never stop. They have to recognize that these people in no way represent authentic Judaism any more than heterodox movements do.

Not recognizing them does not mean bashing all Charedim. It only means rejecting those Charedim whose values as a group have gone so astray that they cannot understand why actions like those that go on in Bet Shemesh and Geula are a Chilul HaShem. It should not matter what they look like – or how meticulous they are in other Mitzvos.

Just to be clear -there is nothing wrong with having long beards and Peyos; and wearing Kapotes and Shtreimals. Some of our greatest rabbinic leaders looked this way. And the majority of Charedim that choose to look this way – even those with whom I have profound Hashkafic differences - are fine people.

But looking Frum is not a free pass. It should certainly not generate apologetics. Instead the constant behavior like that of RBS B and Meah Shearim ought to cause even the right wing to reject their form of Judaism the same way it does Heterodoxy.

Update: See Rabbi Yakov Horowitz's website