The lifestyle of many Charedim has become incompatible with Judaism

Those who have attended illicit weddings under lockdown represent a self-indulgent sect that should be disowned by the rest of the Jewish world

January 28, 2021 15:34

I have seen some surprisingly intelligent commentators support the idea that the Charedi world requires special consideration in relation to compliance with Covid-19 regulations in the UK, Israel and elsewhere, because those regulations are so challenging to their core lifestyle practices. 

This is ridiculous: and offensive to everybody else whose lives also revolve around meeting people in lots of different contexts and gaining social, professional, spiritual and other support from them, and who have suffered in dignified silence for the benefit of the health of the public.   

There is no reason why Charedim should have more need, or be any more entitled, to gather together than any other community.  The idea that their day revolves around learning and praying adds nothing: both of those activities can be carried out alone, assisted to some extent by remote communication. 

What Covid-19 has actually taught us about many members of Charedi communities is something that many of us have suspected for some time: that they have no connection whatsoever with Judaism in any meaningful sense. 

As Chief Rabbi Mirvis powerfully put it in commenting on a large Charedi wedding in Stamford Hill broken up by the police for flouting Covid-19 regulations, this a staggering denial of the fundamental Jewish emphasis on health and safety. That is so much the case that it is difficult or impossible to recognise these people as practising any kind of Judaism that I recognise. 

But the reality is that this is just a new emergence of something that many of us have known known or suspected for some time, and which now perhaps needs to be articulated clearly and publicly: much of the lifestyle for many Charedi communities is completely incompatible with the fundamental principles of Judaism. 

In the UK, benefit fraud appears to be endemic in parts of chareidi communities, with housing benefit in particular being manipulated through bogus shell companies and the like in order to support an otherwise unattainable lifestyle. This is incompatible with the fundamental Jewish principles of truth, yashrus (being straight) and avoiding falsehood of any kind.   

And it is also inconsistent with seeking the right to coexist as a community within a decent rule of law society: as the judge said in the case of Kliers v Schmerler in 2018: "to be confronted by a plan of this nature [a purported tenancy agreement in order to obtain housing benefit] which, on the evidence, is common practice amongst esteemed and respected religious and community leaders, is one which must cause very great concern to any court seeking to administer the law and the process of justice and legal remedy in this country if not elsewhere".   

Even where benefit is obtained without fraud, the Talmud emphasises the importance of people being trained to earn their own living: bringing people up to be dependent on charity is again contrary to fundamental Jewish principles. 

Perhaps most important of all, an ancient talmudic concept of not handing fellow Jews over to the non-Jewish authorities, based on times and places without rule of law and with arbitrary and largely antisemitic criminal and civil authorities, has been increasingly turned into a kind of theological support for refusal to wash dirty linen in public, despite the fact that there are no effective private laundries. 

It came sadly as no surprise to many of us when in 2013 the rabbinic leader of a major Charedi organisation in London was "outed" on television in secret film footage telling an alleged victim of abuse that it was forbidden to report the alleged offender to the police.   

There is no foundation for this in Jewish law whatsoever, and it is based on nothing but the wish to preserve the reputation of the community at the expense of the pain and suffering of the individual. It is not surprising that there is abuse of various kinds, including child abuse and other domestic abuse, within Charedi communities, which consist of human beings: but it is not just surprising but appalling that any community should institutionally refuse to address abuse through the only effective mechanism, the criminal courts. 

I admire many people who count themselves as Charedim. Some of them are deeply inspiring people. There are aspects of some Charedi lifestyles and communities that I find inspiring, although I would not want to share all of them.   
And there are other aspects of Charedi life that I do not relish but to which I believe they have a protected legal right in the UK (something that has frequently arisen in my advice to Charedi communities over the years about the place of yeshivahs within the educational regulatory system, for example). 

But when the three things most publicly known about the Charedi world become benefit fraud, covering up abuse and breaking public health law, it is time for the rest of the Jewish world - including those Charedim to whom these things are abhorrent - to stand up and say clearly and loudly that any community that tolerates these three things has no connection with Jewish law or values and has become simply a self-indulgent and dangerous sect.   

The biggest problem in all this is that Charedim look so very Jewish. Their obsession with the externals means that to themselves, to the outside world, and even to many other Jews, they appear to be the quintessence of Jewish life. In fact, many of them are the antithesis of fundamental Jewish principles in so many ways.  

It is time for the rest of the Jewish community to disown those individuals publicly and allow them to go their own mad and dangerous way, and turn to the task of publicly representing a more balanced approach to Jewish practice as being the real continuation of the Jewish heritage in all meaningful ways. 

Daniel Greenberg is a barrister specialising in legislation. His novel A Tale of Two Rabbis - Faith and Fraud was published on Amazon in 2020. He was made a Companion of the Order of the Bath in the New Year’s Honours

January 28, 2021 15:34

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