The controversy in Emanuel has certainly generated acrimony but even more confusion. What exactly happened is itself disputed, as is the essence of the dispute. What is certain is that this event illuminates some of the most pressing issues in the Jewish world, is not easily resolved, and might be a watershed moment. Or not. What follows is a preliminary analysis, because the true story has not fully emerged, and might never.
The thumbnail sketch certainly sounded awful. As reported in the secular press, Ashkenazi parents in Emanuel, a largely Charedi settlement, refused to allow their children to study or socialize with Sefaradi girls in the same school. They even built a wall that divided the campus, and decreed there be separate lunch hours and recess time lest any mingling took place. After a lawsuit, Israel’s High Court ruled that the school must be integrated, and held in contempt (and jailed) parents who refused to comply with the Court order. Immense demonstrations ensued, by Charedim against the court, mainly in Yerushalayim and Bnai Brak, against the intervention of the secular court system in a Torah-education matter.
Obviously, the secular media, willfully or not, followed the template of the American South, and trotted out terms like “separate but equal,” “segregation,” Bull Connor,” “racism,” and the like – and so got the story wrong. It seems that the dispute was not at all Ashkenazi v. Sefaradi; three of the families whose parents went to prison were Sefaradim. The “offensive” school in question has roughly a 27% Sefaradi population, and the school “discriminated against” has roughly a 33% Ashkenazi population. So racism was patently not the issue, although the accusation is so trite and familiar that it alone is tantamount to a conviction and sentence, and provoked a stream of lamentations about racism in the religious world. Good penance for the self-flagellation, or anti-religious, set.
The real issue, apparently, is troubling for a different reason: the segregation was mandated because of religious differences between the parent bodies and hashkafot (world views) of the two schools. Parents who wanted their children to attend the “Charedi” school had to abide by a series of personal restrictions in their home life. The precise nature of those restrictions is unknown to me, but I can easily guess most of them – dress code, television, etc. The inability to create two completely separate schools led to the physical divisions on the school property, followed by the parental complaints about discrimination, the lawsuit and decision, and protests. Charedim do not take kindly to being ordered to compromise their religious practices, and especially by those – and Israel’s High Court is notorious in its disdain for the sanctity of Torah and the world-view of religious Jews (charedi, modern, or right-wing) – who do not share their core values.
All sides are to blame for this fiasco, and the black eye given to Torah. The High Court’s involvement was a typical mistake; its tolerance for Torah is so infinitesimal that its decisions in this realm could never be accepted, no matter what they decided. They simply have no credibility, justifiably so, and most religious Jews – Chareidim or not – challenged to follow the Torah’s mandates or the dictates of this Court – so relentlessly anti-religious for many years – will obviously choose to obey the Torah, and not really think twice about it.
But, what exactly was the great religious principle at stake here ? Certainly, parents have the right to create their own educational framework and insist on even very restrictive behavioral norms – but not when the school is publicly funded. Private schools have greater flexibility, and even if this particular Charedi school is somewhat autonomous, the government that provides the funding has the right to expand the student population, within reason.
And there is the crux of the problem as I see it: were the differences between the religious standards in the two “schools” sufficient enough to warrant two separate schools – and to build a wall between the schools – as if the less rigorous group is ritually impure ? Shouldn’t Jewish education encompass the notion of “love of all Jews” – not in theory but in practice, and especially all Jews who are committed to halacha ? Jewish law and practice are not so monolithic (to be sure, neither is it completely open-ended) that it cannot tolerate slightly different standards of practice, and even lower standards. Must we identify and isolate from religious schools children of parents who have a television or internet access in their homes, or whose the mothers don’t cover their hair or whose sleeves expose their forearms, or eat Rabbanut hashgacha, or serve in the army, or don’t serve in the army, or plan on learning full-time, or plan on working full-time ?
One of my great teachers once said that there are Jews who act as if there are only 12 or 13 Jews in the whole world – only their tiny group constitutes the “true believers” – and everyone else is either illegitimate or inferior. But that is not how we were created; G-d formed us as a nation with all types of people, who would interact, learn from and try to better each other. That is why we were divided into twelve tribes, and why those tribes included great Torah scholars, farmers and craftsmen – and pious people, learned people, impious people and ignorant people. But we remain a nation, and that is best fostered by integration, not segregation.
Saddest of all is that the protests, even if warranted, bring to the fore the great flaw of Charedi life and lifestyle – and interpretation of Torah. Advice in a nutshell: it is impolitic to bite the hand that feeds you. With an unemployment rate of close to 65% of males between the ages of 25-65 (astounding, and the highest in the industrial world), Charedim are financially sustained by a larger community that is growing more and more resentful of their antics, even as they are ignorant of their enormous contributions. Chesed is great, and Chevra Kadisha is wonderful, but those are not jobs that put money on the table. To vent against a society that works and fights for Charedim, when they largely absent themselves from these nation-building tasks, is imprudent, to say the least.
To say the most, it puts the Torah in a negative light, broadcasting to the world – Jewish and general – that the Torah is incompatible with life in a modern state. It says, in essence, that a modern state cannot defend itself or support itself according to the laws of the Torah, and the Torah’s ideals can never be the foundation or governing policy of a real nation. That is heresy, but it is difficult to refute the charge that the Charedim are primarily responsible for fostering that heresy in our world.
I understand their grievances, their antipathy to the High Court, and their fears of eroding the high standards they seek for themselves by interacting with society. But you can’t build a wall in a schoolyard and expect the insulted to pay for it and guard it. You can’t withdraw from the world because of fear. You can’t educate your children to be unproductive in society and expect others to foot the bill in perpetuity. Great acts of personal kindness cannot substitute for “you are praiseworthy when you eat the fruits of your own hands” (Psalms 128:2). Dedication to Torah study must accompany the obligation to love all Jews, especially when those differences are nuances and not fundamental principles of Judaism (and even in the latter case, the obligation remains to love those Jews as well). Otherwise we run the risk of disassociating ourselves from other Jews based on the minutiae of hat size or shape, following this Rebbi or that one, or other small things that become magnified amongst people that are so similar but do not at all define the individual’s spiritual state.
We should remind ourselves that there is a prohibition to be poresh min hatzibur (separate oneself from the community), and that tzibur includes – as the acronym would have it – tzadikim, beinonim v’resha’im – the righteous, the intermediates and (even) the wicked. There are no “wicked” in this tale, and that should make it easier for all involved to co-exist, to build together, and to live and learn together, all for the glory of Hashem, His Torah and His people.