Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Chareidi Violence

A great number of commentators from all points in the spectrum have written about the recent brutal attack on a woman riding an early morning bus to the Kosel. I would like to add my two cents to the brouhaha, as it seems to me that nobody has struck the nail on the head in terms of identifying the root of the problem.

Before I do that, however, a few general remarks about some of the erroneous commentary I’ve seen already. First, despite the surface similarities, this incident really has little in common with Rosa Parks, and the comparisons only serve to cloud the issue with vague emotions. Yes, she was a woman asked to find another seat on a bus. But the one who asked her to move was motivated by legitimate religious concerns, even if things spiraled out of control, and regardless of whether or not the bus was really “mehadrin.” If we’re going to give in to the temptation of the “wink wink, we all know Chareidim are really misogynistic,” we’ll never find clarity here.

Second, some claim that this woman is committing a grievous error akin to mesirah by publicizing the incident, especially to the Leftist press. After all, Chareidim don’t even read the popular Israeli newspapers – what good will her report do other than exacerbate hatred against religious Jews in Israel? However, this line of thinking seems erroneous. I’m not justifying her actions – this is one case where the ends do not justify the means, and there is no question that she has caused damage to Orthodox Jews of all stripes in Israel. But it is a fact that there is a trickledown effect that drains into the Chareidi media. The truth is, it is very likely that the publicity will help stir positive discussion in Chareidi quarters. Since the cat is out of the bag, for good or ill, we might as well use the opportunity for some introspection. Ditto for the question of this woman’s “feminism.” Even a direct provocation shouldn’t justify violence, and enough of these incidents have happened to prove that this isn’t an isolated event.

On Cross-Currents, Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblum offered the following analysis of the incident:

I keep coming back to the same sociological insight: The more insular we are - the more cut off from any Jews not exactly like ourselves - the less we are to think of Torah in terms of hora’a, teaching, and ask ourselves how our actions comport with the teachings of the Torah and what impression our actions are making on those who will judge the Torah by our behavior.

Unfortunately, I’m forced to respectfully disagree. Yes, it is true that Chareidi society is insular, all the more so in Israel. And yes, a modicum integration would help solve certain issues. But I don’t see mingling with other types of Jews forcing or causing any introspection, or preventing this violence. And some of the most vicious attacks have been directed against other Chareidim – Ponevitch and Satmar spring to mind. I think the problem goes beyond simply focusing on what others think.

What is the problem? Why are these attacks happening? The answer is, in a word, zeal.

Every character trait of the human condition can be utilized for good or ill. This is the point of the sefer Orchos Tzaddikim. And Chareidim are zealous in their service to G-d. Nobody denies it – this burning zeal is one of the reasons that even the greatest detractors of the Chareidi world admit that Chareidi Judaism is the wave of the future.

People keep pointing to this or that act, saying, “See! It only happens with the Chareidim!” Well, of course it only happens in Chareidi circles – they’re the only ones that care enough to act when they perceive a wrong being committed in their midst.

In fact, I know of another story that hasn’t been publicized on the Internet yet.

It involves a very respected Rabbi. He was walking along in the market some time ago, when he noticed that a woman was wearing an ostentatious, scarlet garment. Without even asking of she was Jewish, he immediately ran up to her and literally ripped the garment off. Quite the scandal, no?

Oh, wait. It’s a gemara.

Rav Adda bar Ahavah saw a certain Cuthite woman who was wearing an ostentatious garment in the market. He thought she was Jewish, so he arose and tore it off her. It was later revealed that she was a Cuthite woman. They evaluated [the fine for her embarrassment] at 400 zuz. (Berachos 20a)

But that’s not the interesting part. The truly fascinating part is the context. The gemara earlier asks a question: Why did the earlier generations merit miracles, while the later ones do not? The gemara answer that the earlier ones sacrificed themselves for kiddush Hashem, while the later generations do not. Need an example? There’s the case of Rav Adda bar Ahavah…

Yes, in the conclusion of the gemara, Rav Adda seems to regret his impetuousness. But the gemara still labels this type of act as stemming from a person who was willing to sacrifice himself for kiddush Hashem. The explanation is just as I said above. Only a person who really cares about Torah and mitzvot would have ripped the garment off of the woman. And only a person who is zealous in his defense of the Torah merits miracles.

Note that I am not even justifying Chareidi overzealousness. I am simply explaining why this is happening.

I do not mean to minimize the problem. The lack of discrimination in the application is a troubling, even appalling phenomenon that must be dealt with. But it is just as important to understand that these actions stem from a society that is headed in the correct direction, in a general sense. It seems to me that with more public awareness, and an educational focus on the evils of violence – both at home and in the yeshivos – that things will improve. I need only turn to American Chareidim (and American Chareidim living in Israel) for an example. They too, are zealous in their performance of mitzvos. But that zeal is tempered with a certain discrimination, and a strong distaste for violence.

I also don’t want to oversimplify – this is a sociological problem that we’re talking about, and like most sociological issues, there are many causes at work. What I do not want to see are strong calls for a “complete overhaul” of the Chareidi world, which I feel would be counterproductive at best. Chareidi society is not decadent – it has not lost the end and purpose of existence. It places primacy on Torah and mitzvos, even if those high standards are not always fulfilled. This last point probably deserves elaboration, but I’ll have to save that for another time.

In summation, I feel that (1) regardless of what happened, I think that we should focus on introspection. (2) The problem is one of zealousness, an admirable trait that is being misused in certain circumstances. (3) There should be increased education aimed at decreasing violent tendencies. (4) Chareidi society is not decadent, and therefore slow and gradual change is indicated.

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