Thursday, May 10, 2018

An Uninformed Narrative about Charedim

Typical Charedi Yeshiva students taking Torah study seriously
I am not Charedi. I am very proud of who and what I am. I believe strongly in the values of Centrism. But that does not mean that only my values are righteous while everyone else’s are not.

There is an unfortunate stereotype about the Charedi world that is simply not true. But as in all stereotyping there is an element of truth to it.

One of my dear friends is known here as DSF. Even though we might disagree on a few things, he is as honorable as they come. DSF recently made the following comment in a debate about what defines ‘Charedism’. It is typical of an unfair bias that exists among far too many of us: 
Chareidism is a social phenomenon. What separates it from other forms of Orthodoxy is its outward, public shows of piety. To the extent its values, culture, etc., are personal or intrinsic, they are immaterial as they are not part of the show. 
DSF is only half right. Image is a big deal to Charedim. But that is not what really defines them. At least not the ones that I know. While it might be true that some segments are extreme about their interpretation of God’s will, they are by far NOT the mainstream.  

The mainstream Charedi that I know is devout in his piety. Great care is taken in his Mitzvah observance. He is ‘Chareid L’Dvar HaShem. (Hence the name Charedi). This means they are constantly aware of God’s awesome presence. Thereby desiring to fulfill His will as meticulously as possible.  Not only in ritual matters but equally in interpersonal matters. Bein Adam L’Makom and Bein Adam L’Chavero. I see it all the time.

Charedi values  include the primacy of Torah study. Talmud Torah K’Neged Kulom loosely translated means Torah study is greater than all other (Mitzvos). But Torah study is not the only Mitzvah in the Torah and no one is more acutely aware of that than the Charedi.

For example, they are the most charitable group of people I know - donating far more of their income to charity that most other groups of people, even if they don’t have large incomes. They take Ma’aser Kesafim (tithing) seriously and try to give ten percent of their net income to charity. How many of the rest of us can honestly say that we do that too?!

One Charedi individual in Israel that I know well - told me that he does not put his money into a bank. He and his family live modestly and there are occasionally some leftover funds from the dual income he and his wife make. He told me that the interest rates banks pay is almost negligible these days. He therefore prefers to deposit it a GeMach – a free loan society which they can then loan out to those that need it. If he ever needs any of that money he can take it out at will. How many of us would do that? He told me he is not the only one.

The Charedim I know are kind to a fault and would give you the shirt off of their backs if they thought you needed it -  without being asked!

They visit the sick (Bikur Cholim) , they welcome out of town guests into their homes (Hachnossas Orchim). 

They abhor government fraud as much as I do. They despise sex abusers, same as me. They condemn Chilul HaShem. They try to be a light unto the nations with exemplary behavior in public. They are kind and compassionate to all, Jew and Gentile alike.

Most of them value a secular education and have received one themselves. They provide for their families and raise their children well.

Their views about the State of Israel may not be the same as mine. But they understand that Israel allows the Torah world to thrive as never before and even subsidizes it to some extent. And agree that gratitude should be expressed.

So yes, it is true that their ‘black hat uniform’ is important to them - and that is how they are identified by others. But that is not what defines them. They are not all show. They are mostly about substance - trying to understand and do God’s will to the best of their ability even when it involves sacrifice.

Occasionally a story about a Charedi Jew that makes a huge Kiddush Hashem is published. It makes the news for the same reason a Charedi making a Chilul HaShem does. It is unusual. It makes the news - not because most Charedim wouldn’t do it. But because newsworthy opportunities of Kiddush HaShem do not arise that often.

Let me illustrate. I recall the story of a Charedi fellow that bought a used desk from a non Jew and found a substantial amount of money hidden in one of its drawers. Without hesitation he went back to the seller and returned all of the money. He could have kept it and no one would have been the wiser. He surely could have used that windfall. But he chose to be better than that and made a Kiddush HaShem.  That kind of opportunity does not arise that often. But when it does, I believe that all the Charedim I know would do exactly the same thing.

I am not a fan of uniforms. For me what is on the inside is far more important than what is on the outside.

Charedim feel a bit differently about that. They choose to be identifiable by the clothing they wear. I’m not exactly sure why, but my guess is that they want to separate themselves from a culture they see as morally corrupt which they see as the antithesis to Judaism. We can have debate about the extent of that. We can disagree about the value of secular culture… or how much we must separate ourselves from it. But one thing is clear. They are absolutely NOT about ‘the show’.  Yes, it is important to them, but secondary. They are about the substance of how to serve God best.

When a story is published about a Charedi having defrauded the government; or being accused of sex abuse, or doing any kind of ‘perp walk’, remember they are by far the exception. Not the rule. It is wrong to characterize all Charedim by the actions of the very few. Who unfortunately get all the press.

Unfortunately a lot of people that are not directly involved with Charedim fall victim to that negative media stereotype. Which causes them to judge all Charedim by the deeds of the few.

I have often been very critical of those Charedim that have been involved in behavior unbecoming to God’s chosen people. But one has to see things as they are, and not generalize. The only way to do that is to get to know them by being more involved with them. Without the personal relationships, all one would know about Charedim is what is reported about the very few criminals among them.

So next time anyone wants to paint an entire group by the action of the few, they should step back and realize: that type of thinking is biased, inaccurate, unfair, and just plain wrong!