Sunday, January 15, 2012

Looking in the Mirror

I fear we are losing the battle. The battle I speak of is over Achdus in Klal Yisroel. There are just some people who don’t care about it. Or worse actively fight against it. And I am not talking about the extremists. I am talking about mainstream Jews.

How can there be when there is division even among moderate Charedim?

The reaction to the events taking place in Israel specifically in Bet Shemesh and Meah Shearim… and to the community from which they come is illustrative of that. On the surface it may not seem like much of a division. In fact on the central issue of condemning the extremists the two sides seem to be on the same page. But if one reads the various articles in the Charedi media there is a subtle but very important difference between the two reactions. Which I am beginning to think is an insurmountable one.

Just to briefly describe the two reactions. There is the way Hamodia publisher Mrs. Ruth Lichtenstein reacted on the front page of her newspaper. Hamodia is a pretty Charedi publication. Her outrage was so great that she broke her own policy of never printing the first names of female writers - to make her feelings known. On the front page no less. A courageous thing to do.

Then there is the way many other mainstream Charedi publications make their condemnations of those events. They always add a caveat. One that gives some legitimacy to the other side even while admitting that it was no excuse for the way the extremists acted.

Typically those caveats are aimed at what they see as a biased secular media and a biased secular government – both of which are treated as virtual enemies of the Torah. It’s almost as if they are constantly looking to blame whatever ails them on anything but the real culprits. And they see any criticism of Charedim from the outside as Charedi bashing – accusing them of painting all Charedim with the same negative broad brush.

The question is why is this so? Why must a condemnation of an obvious evil always be accompanied by counterclaims of evil of the other side? Is there never an instance where a Charedi does not have some ameliorating factor to ‘explain’ why these people act as they do? Why is there always a qualification?

I think the answer lies in the fact that they look at the protesters and even the miscreants and see themselves. They are in effect looking into a mirror. They see people who look and dress just like their version of the ideal Jew. They see a community of people who live their lives in every other way ‘Al Taharas HaKodesh’ - as they put it… a very high spiritual level. Their Shabbos, their Kashrus, their Gidrei Tznius (fences against immodesty) are to be admired and even emulated! How can these people then be criticized without some sort of ‘explanation’ about where they are coming from spiritually? Some of them - they say - may be misguided and even condemnable. But the larger group from which they come are laudable people living pristine and completely spiritual lives.

There was no better example of this attitude than the way Ami Magzaine reported a week spent in Squaretown by their editor. This was after one of its residents was involved in an arson that ened up setting on fire - another resident of that town. Why did the publisher go there? Because he wanted to show and laud those exact values. And that not all Charedim go around setting people on fire ...that this was an anomally done by one sick person.

I realize that was the purpose of Ami. That is all well and good. But by doing so they were guilty of also promoting the very values that may have led to that arson. Why did they do that? Because they see those values only and are blind to the fact that those same values may very well be responsible for the kind of misguided behavior that led to arson and a horrible crime against a fellow human being.

When it comes to the Eida HaCharedis they see the same kind of thing. They can therefore never fully condemn anyone, no matter how vile, without adding how wonderful the larger community that individual comes from. Any suggestion that some fault may lie in the Hashkafos that produces these criminals is seen as painting them all with the same broad brush as the extremists. And label it Charedi bashing.

On the other hand there are moderate Charedim who see things the way I do. They live virtually the same lifestyles as those I described above but make no apologies for the goings on in Meah Shearim. I am not sure why there are these differences but they are definitley there. I see it right here on this blog. Some Charedim completely understand my outrage and the suggestion that their Hashkafos might contribute to extremist behavior.

Other moderate Charedim like those at Ami refuse to make any connection at all - as though the extremists were all raised in a vacuum. They seem to always add the refrain ‘We should not paint all Charedim with the same broad brush!’ …as if suggesting a possible root cause in their Hashkafos was doing that.

I don’t know how many times I have said that most Charedim even in Meah Shearim would not do the kinds of things done by the extremists. But that does not mean we can’t look deep inside their Hashkafos to see if there might be some connection. That is not Charedi bashing. But that they say it is in my view a defensive tactic. Becasue they see themselves or their ego ideals when they see the typical Meah Shearim Jew.

Bearing this in mind I think we can predict the reaction to the latest outrage. There has once again been a protest in Meah Shearim. This time it was about the government investigating some of their residents about illegal activities. From the Ha’aretz:

Israel Police and the tax authorities claim the arrests were made after a long investigation, during which evidence was gathered tying the suspects to felonies such as theft of donations, tax evasion, money laundering and more.

The leader of the Eida HaCharedis sees this only one way. As purposeful harassment of their people by the secular anti Frum Government that is out to destroy Yiddishkeit. Again from the article:

Rabbi Yitzhak Tuvia Weiss said that the arrest of the six is as if he himself was arrested. His followers understood his statement as a call to use all means to protest the arrests.

The question is how will this be seen by moderate Charedim on both sides?

Some will see it as solely a harassment by the government that is being reported in a biased anti Charedi newspaper. And some will see it as I do – Charedi leaders putting their own people ahead of the law – as they did in last week’s protest against the prison sentence of one of a young man convicted of beating up a store owner and trashing his business. The Eida saw him as a hero. And there are moderate Charedim who will follow them in lock step saying the same thing.

This is not be the first time a religious leaders has tried to defend the indefensible. I will never forget the reaction by one such leader that I know personally in Bnei Brak. One of his Chasidim was caught selling illegal drugs to non religious Jews or non Jews. He said, OK, he was wrong but you have to understand. Nebech - he has 11 children to feed!

This too is the kind of mentality that seems to animate much of the response of those apologists. They always find some justification or excuse to defend one of their own – it seems - no matter how condemnable. And it isn’t just the rabbis of the Eida (or like minded people like this Chasidic Rebbe in Bnei Brak) Mainstream Charedim are doing it.

With this kind of attitude there can never the kind of Achdus I believe there should be between a broad range of Orthodox Jews. There can be no Achdus when a huge segment of the mainstream looks at the extremists and their culture - and sees themselves.