Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Non Existent War Against Charedim

Typical sight at a Yeshiva like Mir
I certainly have to give this fellow an A for effort. In a somewhat rambling essay about who they are and what they do, (published in Arutz Sheva and republished in Matzav) Rafi Neuman has attempted to explain the Charedi way of life and defends its opposition to forced conscription  He sees the draft as some sort of declaration of war against Charedim. 

First let me say that picture he paints about the dedication of the students to learning Torah and doing Chesed in a Yeshiva like the Mir (which he attends) is true. I do not have a doubt in my mind about it.

In order to understand the scope of that dedication, all one needs to do is step into their main Beis HaMedrash and one will see thousands of students poring over texts of Gemarah, Halacha, Rishonim and Achronim. Every corner of that Beis HaMedrash is filled with students.  There is no question that these young minds are being filled with Torah knowledge daily.

I will even concede that the amount of retained Torah knowledge may very well exceed the amount of secular knowledge of those who study other subjects in universities over the same period of time. I will also concede quite readily that the majority of these students are very willing to sacrifice materially in order to maintain their life of devoted Torah study. They are determined to continue doing so. They eat determination for breakfast.

Mr. Neuman provides us with ample examples of all of the above. I am 100% sure they are true. But here’s where I part company with him. What Mr. Neuman fails to understand is the same thing that just about every apologist for the Charedi world fails to understand. It isn’t about fulfilling a need. It is about sharing the burden. This means that if all non Charedim have an obligation to serve, there should be no special exemption for an entire class of Israeli citizens or residents.

He does seem to concede that the draft will allow Charedim to fufil their military obligation by doing community service (Chesed). But he claims that not only isn’t it unnecessary, but would detract from the far superior way in which their own community does it.  That seems to be an arbitrary attack. I see no evidence that the Chesed done by non Charedim is any less caring than the Chesed done by Charedim. Even though that seems to be his foregone conclusion. While part of being a religious Jew means doing Chesed – that does not mean that Non Charedim do not share in that ‘burden’.

It should also be noted that just because he argues that given the same period of time to study (say 6 – 7 years) Yeshiva students have more knowledge of their subjects than PhDs will have of their subjects - that does not mean that PhDs have nothing to contribute. Nor does it even mean that PhDs will always contribute less to society than Yeshiva students. The fact is that both worlds contribute – each in their own way. One should never minimize the contributions of other. In fact the reality is that some students of Torah contribute more than some PhDs. But some PhDs contribute more than some Torah students. Even if they did not accumulate the same amounts of knowledge in their particular fields over the same period of time.

Contributions made to society are varied and are difficult to measure by objective standards. For example, I don’t think anyone can doubt the contributions made by Rav Moshe Feinstein in the area of Halacha, or a Rav Aharon Kotler in the area of rebuilding the Torah world in America. They had few if any peers in their respective fields. By the same token can anyone doubt the contributions of a Jonas Salk or Albert Sabin in their field? Their vaccines wiped out polio - one of the most dreaded diseases affecting mankind.

It is ridiculous to try and compare these four individuals and ask who contributed more. They were all great people. Two in Torah and two in science. I am not trying to equate Torah accomplishments to scientific accomplishments. All I am saying is that Mr. Neuman’s emphasis on the amount of Torah knowledge his community has compared to what PhDs have fails to recognize the importance of what PhDs like Sabin and Salk have contributed.

Another issue he addresses is the fearful or condescending way the secular world reacts to Charedim. Here is how he puts it:
The pervasive and incessant fear of the chareidi-religious, albeit unfounded and baseless, is openly visible.
When, for example, I get on a bus: I see fear in the people’s eyes; the men clench their fist, the women’s eyes widen with fear. They fear me - not because they know me. They fear my outward appearance, immediately discarding my non-intimidating and friendly smiling persona but rather immediately judging the contents of my character by the appearance of my clothes, panicking that I might at any given moment, scream, spit, revile, or perhaps perform an exorcism on their soul…
When I walk into Hebrew University’s library to find some rare Biblical text unavailable elsewhere, people actually ask me if I am lost or give me a look meaning “what am I doing here?”
Although I remain silent, my gut reaction is to pontificate: I am a Jew who dresses as Jews did for centuries, believes as Jews believed for Millennia and devotes my life to the eternal Torah.
What Mr. Neuman fails to see is the reason those people react to him that way. He actually hints at it. Why does he think that by the appearance of his clothing, someone might at any given moment think that he will scream or spit at him?

He thinks its baseless?!

Of course the vast majority of Charedim don’t do that. But he has to realize that responses like those from a secular public are based on the multitude of times these acts were actually committed by people who have his ‘outward appearance’! That he laments this reaction kind of shows that he doesn’t understand it. But that he uses those descriptions means he does know about those who do those things.

Instead of blaming the secular public for their reaction, he should look inward – at his own rabbinic leadership for not responding forcefully enough to those ‘spitters and screamers’. Instead of tepid condemnations often followed with apologetics about their noble motives, they ought to be fighting a war against them! Because short of that, those tepid condemnations without any consequences just encourages them to keep spitting and screaming. Add to that the vile rhetoric coming out of some of his leadership about the evil government and their eveil edicts. And they will not only continue spitting and screaming, they will escalate it.

I would suggest that instead of pontificating about how wonderful his Charedi community is compared to everyone else… and complaining that others see him as a spitter and screamer because of how he looks, that he petition his rabbinic leadership to be more proactive in battling the real screamers and spitters; acknowledge the contributions made by those outside the Charedi community; understand that this is not war - that the secular government is not the enemy; and realize that doing government service will not destroy the Torah world and is certainly not Shmad! That would go a lot further than an essay like this.