On Sunday, I was driving on a narrow street in the Meah Shearim section of Jerusalem when suddenly, directly ahead of the car in front of me, a group of young Haredi men in their 20’s were gainfully occupied pulling a huge trash dumpster into the middle of the street in order to block it. I was forced to drive on the sidewalk to get through. What the cars in back of me did once the street was fully blocked is a mystery.
Why did they choose to block their street and inconvenience dozens of innocent people ? I do not know, nor, frankly, do I care. I offer here the general and accurate disclaimer that the guilty are only a relative handful of people, not subject to the control or influence of mainstream Haredi rabbis, and a poor reflection on their milieu, their upbringing and on the Torah itself – walking, talking, breathing (but not working) examples of a Chillul Hashem, a desecration of G-d’s name. But these few are reflective of a broader problem.
These individuals have become, like the Arabs (sad to say), people of perpetual and unassuageable grievances, who are at war with society, and even with the rest of the Torah world that has left them in the dust and successfully live normal lives in accordance with Torah law. Perhaps wearing long black coats and hats on hot, humid days nurtures an intense dissatisfaction with life, and understandably so. Perhaps the lamentable fact (publicized last week) that only 37% of Haredi men between the ages of 20-60 are gainfully employed (as opposed to the 80% employment rate of that bracket in the rest of society) is a source of internal frustration and shame that is projected onto the rest of the society via their anti-social acts. And perhaps, therefore, they should keep in mind the resentment generated in the society that supports them through an extensive welfare network, and remind themselves of the Talmudic adage not to “throw stones in the well from which you drink,” or its secular corollary: “don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”
What galls most are not the pervasive, threatening admonitions of the modesty police that blanket that neighborhood, nor a parking lot in Yerushalayim opening on Shabbat, nor the arrest of a mentally ill, allegedly child-abusing mother, nor sundry other alleged grievances that lead the unemployed and unemployable “activists” to block streets, set fire to trash bins, attack the police, etc. What galls is rather the shame caused to the public face of Torah by a segment of society that is proudly incapable of applying the Torah to the realities of modern life, that boasts of its unwillingness to educate its children to contribute meaningfully to the world around them, and that has therefore emasculated the Torah and made it a dead document that few normal people – seeing the way they live – would want to embrace.
Where a simple outsider sees “piety,” a more astute observer sees scrupulous observance of some Mitzvot and a wholesale disregard of others. The standard accusation against more modern Jews – that they “pick and choose” the mitzvot that suit them –applies with equal cogency to them: they may dress modestly, but many are public charges – violating the Talmudic mandate that one should “rather treat his Shabbat like a weekday than become dependent on public support.” They dutifully rest on Shabbat but treat its corollary – to “work for six days” – with disdain. They are close-knit but only within a narrowly-drawn circle; the concerns of other Jews, and love of other Jews, are not always readily apparent. If it were otherwise, they would not attempt to propagate their views by inconveniencing others, who are unsure of and uninterested in whatever point they are really making. Their study of Torah and observance of mitzvot are often punctuated by superstitions and irrational behavior that have no place among Torah Jews, including but not limited to fetishizing certain forms of dress. They can adopt every minority opinion – every stringency – except in the areas of Kavod habriyot, Ahavat Yisrael (respect for the dignity of others and the love of Jews), and several others as well.
Their attempt in that small enclave to re-create the European shtetl has succeeded, at least to the extent that they have duplicated the grinding poverty that typified European Jews when we ignore the mythology and the nostalgia. And it is poverty that – just like in Europe – has no escape, as the educational constraints they place on themselves deprive them of any realistic opportunity to better themselves economically. And, as I see it, that is the primary source of their discontent – not the secularism, the immodesty, the Zionism that surrounds them – but the happiness, the satisfaction, and the contentment that so many others derive out of life – especially the Torah life – that they are denied. Unable to contribute or even to discourse with others, their sole recourse is to stones, imprecations, and blockades. How sad… To be given an opportunity to re-create a fully-Jewish life in a land of Israel under Jewish sovereignty, and instead to squander it – in the process, antagonizing even other Torah Jews. Many are misguided, and to a great extent, misled by their leaders. And I am unaware of even one Jew who performed even one mitzva or avoided one sin as a consequences of a stone being hurled his way.
Fortunately, the tide is turning for Haredim, as the astute among them have realized that they can no longer afford either isolation or ignorance. Vocational schools for men and women have opened to teach them trades and allow them to earn a living with dignity, the Nachal Haredi has brought hundreds of Haredim into the IDF, the chesed organizations they administer benefit every segment of society (although the creation of more and more such organizations should not substitute for finding gainful employment) and the most prominent voices are decrying the ugliness that frequently emanates from their midst. All these are good signs, and at a most opportune time – as the rest of society (Torah Jews included) is exasperated. The hooligans who give them a bad name should be forcefully ostracized – excluded from shuls, shidduchim, residence in the neighborhood, etc. – just as someone would be if he, say, purchased a television set or some other moral offense. The outrages committed in the name of Haredim today are not any lesser moral offenses, and they must be eradicated – through a new educational curriculum that emphasizes not personal piety but community responsibility and love of Israel. They are in need of a Rav Kook, who can teach them how the Torah can be the foundation of a modern society and not just the basis of an 18th century Lithuanian village.
As the Haredi population continues to grow, its current economic model is 15 years past the point of sustainability. Whether or not they succeed in adapting to new circumstances and the obligations concomitant with constituting a larger percentage of the general population will, to a large extent, determine not only the survivability of that community but also the very success of the enterprise of Jewish nationhood in the land of Israel in the coming decades. And for that reason, we pray for their success in uprooting the terrorists in their midst and adapting to the reality of modern life – in which the Haredim will play a natural role in presenting to the world the beautiful face of Torah.