Charedi leaders must fight to save soul of their community

"The vitality of Charedi Judaism is at stake"


By Naftali Brawer, January 13, 2012
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It is now several weeks since a Charedi man in Israel spat at an eight year old Orthodox girl because he deemed her dress immodest. In response to secular and mainstream criticism, a demonstration was held in Jerusalem where some Charedim wore yellow stars or mock concentration camp uniform, claiming they were being treated by secular Israelis as European Jews were by the Nazis. Many Orthodox Jews and rabbis have strongly condemned, these atrocious acts. Yet even those who, to their credit, have spoken out, have failed to grasp the enormity and scope of the problem.

Many condemnations conveniently marginalise the perpetrators as a lunatic fringe totally unrepresentative of the wider Charedi population. The sad truth is that they are a by-product of the contemporary Charedi community. Failure to recognise this is disingenuous and dangerous.

When Yigal Amir assassinated Yitzchak Rabin the religious Zionist community underwent a painful process of self-reflection. It was understood that while Amir acted on his own accord he could not be conveniently divorced from the society in which he was raised and that those who taught him that land was more important than human life must bear some responsibility. Similarly, in the wake of last summer's riots political leaders and thinkers began asking whether there might be something wrong with wider society.

The Charedi community is insular, highly regulated and extensively influenced by its rabbinical authorities. So how can it shirk responsibility? The zealots did not emerge in a vacuum. Each of these men has a rabbi whose word is law. Where were these rabbis when their adherents were forcing women onto the back of buses, spitting, and protesting in concentration camp garb?

In fact the ultra-Orthodox Eda Haredit communal association, which organised the demonstration, reportedly defended the behaviour of the protesters. An official said that the group had "no regret at all" for the use of Holocaust imagery. "During the Shoah they tried to eliminate us physically and now the Zionists and the media are trying to eliminate us spiritually," he said.

It does not take much courage to condemn grown men for spitting at a child, but it does to admit that such behaviour might reflect a deeper malaise. Sadly too few Orthodox rabbis and spokesmen have been willing or able to concede this.

What we are witnessing is a ripple effect. At the outermost fringe are those who spit at little girls. This group is by all accounts a small minority. Yet it is a ripple created by a swell of consecutive inner ripples that start with disregard for those who adhere to a different lifestyle, followed by intolerance, and then hatred. At the core lies a problematic contemporary Charedi ideology which, like a heavy stone cast into a pond, is the cause of these ripples. If Charedi rabbis and leaders were serious about dealing with the problem they would ask difficult questions about their ideology. Has it become too focused on the details of Judaism at the expense of its bigger picture, on what one believes rather than how one behaves, or on the man to God relationship over that of man to man?

Such critical self-examination is difficult. The Hebrew term for it is heshbon ha-nefesh - taking account of one's soul. At stake here is not the actions of several hundred zealots but the health, vitality and very soul of Charedi Judaism.

The sad thing is that Charedi Judaism was not always like this. Its great 20th century leaders - from Rabbi Moshe Feinstein to Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Aurbach - would have been appalled by what passes today as Charedi ideology. Non-Charedim did not always agree with their worldview, but it was impossible not to be inspired by their deep love and commitment to Torah and to humanity. They embodied the dictum that the Torah's "ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace". They added rich texture to Judaism. Their absence leaves a gaping hole.

Charedi leaders must move beyond strongly-worded condemnations of the symptoms and begin targeting the cause. They must try to recapture what was best about Charediyut while offloading its uglier current manifestations.

For this to happen Charedim need space, not to be faced with hysteria, accusation and name calling. No one is in the mood for critical self-reflection when they are being demonised. It is time to start putting things right. I hope that Charedi leaders succeed at this painful but crucial process not just for their own future but for the vitality they can contribute to the Jewish people.

Naftali Brawer is chief executive of the Spiritual Capital Foundation

Last updated: 2:44pm, January 13 2012