Before I begin my remarks I wish to say that I have spent most of my spiritual life nurtured by Chareidi teachers, mentors and friends. I have sat at their feet and studied their teachings. I have eaten at their tables and experienced the Sabbath and the holidays with them. I have lived among them and together we have shared happiness and joy, tears and sorrow. I will say emphatically that they are the most gentle and caring community of Jews that I have ever met. Their concern for their fellow Jew cannot be appreciated by most. They have saved more Jewish souls, fed more Jewish patients and inmates; they have reached out to small enclaves of Jews and provided Rabbis, teachers, books and pamphlets to Jews in obscure and isolated communities and campuses. And in relationship to their size, a handful of misguided zealots have undone so much of the ongoing good that they practice.
A few weeks ago, 7 year old Na’ama Margolis while walking to her MaMlachti-Dati – National Religious School – was yelled at and spit upon by an extremist Chareidi (ultra-orthodox) boor, for not dressing in a Tzni’us (modest) manner. A Tzni’us dress-code is a foundation stone of a Torah lifestyle for both men and women. While we supposedly live in a free society and people have freedom of choice, certain behaviors set off highly volatile emotions in sects who live by other standards.
When these outbursts and acts of violence over infractions of the Tzni’us dress-code occurred in Mea She’arim, it was foreseeable, wrong though it may be. This neighborhood was exclusively Chareidi and though it may have been seen as a quaint peek into nineteenth century Shteitel life, entering the neighborhood while dressed inappropriately was an intrusion on their lifestyle and values. However Beit Shemesh is not a Shteitel, and until recently it was a homogenous community consisting of all spectrums of Israeli society.
In recent years, with the cost of apartments in the Jerusalem corridor skyrocketing in price, Chareidi families have found a number of housing alternatives outside of Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh is one of them. The massive influx of Chareidi families in recent years has placed a strain on the Beit Shemesh infrastructure. Chareidim (plural of Chareidi) tend to live separately, they have separate schools and live by separate rules. There are enough articles, blogs and video interviews available for the reader to become better acquainted with the many reasons for “the problem.”
Meanwhile, the Jewish and international press can’t seem to let go of the incident. Everyone is talking about the “big picture,” the overall affect this will have on Jewish and Israeli society, we even have both sides of the argument – the ultra-orthodox and the general Beit Shemesh community – claiming discrimination.
I very much believe that the real issue is not being addressed in these op-ed articles and interviews. It is clear to the leaders of all streams of Judaism, even the general Chareidi stream, that this type of behavior is abhorrently wrong and anti-Halachic. The demographics of Beit Shemesh are rapidly changing and will continue to become more Chareidi as time goes on. It is clear that the municipality and the State cannot keep up with the needs of this community now coming into the forefront. While we are presently focused only on Beit Shemesh, there are other small communities outside of Jerusalem that are experiencing or about to experience a similar phenomenon. The Chareidi community is the fastest growing Jewish community in Israel. A large percentage of immigration to the State of Israel comes from this community and it also has the highest birthrate in Jewish Israel. Israel will become a Chareidi society in 2 to 3 decades unless a large influx of non-Chareidi Jews move to Israel and begin having 5, 6 and 7 children (how it will manage the day to day issues of physical, political and economic survival in the middle-east is a separate issue).
My problem with this whole debate is on its focus. Everyone is fixated on blaming the other side over this affair. The secular and non-Chareidi religious world are all pointing fingers at the Chareidim and crying “Gevalt,” don’t you realize that you have stepped over very significant boundaries? The Chareidi world defends itself by pointing their fingers at the rest of the Jews and cry, “Gevalt,” how are you any different from the gentiles? You dress as them, you eat like them, and you live by their moral standards. What do you want from us, we just want to be Jewish?
What everyone has lost sight of is their own behavior. While we take sides and begin blaming each other for intolerance, our own intolerances are left by the wayside unchecked. The Sinat Chinam (free-flowing hatred) is moving so rapidly between the camps that it has become invisible. This is the issue that I wish to address.
As a “religious” Jew, I try to view issues through the eyes of the Torah. I am not a sociologist, nor a politician, I don’t focus only on the specific issue at hand, I try to view the problem from a Torah perspective. The entire Book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) is devoted to how we can live successfully in the Land of Israel. Over and over again Moshe tells, cajoles and threatens the Israelites with a single message, your future and well-being upon the land depends on your behavior. Proper behavior will lead to the blessings of prosperity, equality, contentment, peace with our neighbors and social tranquility. Improper behavior will lead to the curses of poverty, disparity, disgruntlement, tension on our borders and inner turmoil and exile.
Whether we are speaking about the misguided super-religiosity of the Chareidim or the lax adherence to Jewish principles by others, a tension has been created that will not allow a peaceful solution to ease these already strained relations. If we don’t find a solution, then the social, political and economic disintegration will continue that will ultimately lead to exile. To look at social instability, religious coercion or economic disparity as sources of the problem is to miss the point; these flaws in our society are a result of our own misbehavior. This may not be true in Australia or Belgium, but it is historically true for the Jewish people and all we have to do is look back at what lead up to the various exiles of our people to see this actuality.
Let me give you an example. When a Jew helps a little old lady across the street because it is a Mitzvah (it is the will of HaShem), rather than just being a good person, then HaShem has helped her across the street. When you see your enemy’s donkey carrying an overbearing load and you help your enemy because it is a “command,” then HaShem has brought equity between people. The function of doing positive Mitzvot (thou shalt) and not transgressing negative Mitzvot (thou shalt not) is to manifest HaShem’s presence in the world – “so that all will know that I am HaShem Elokim in the heavens above and the earth below.” This is called Kiddush HaShem – sanctifying HaShem’s Name. The opposite is true, when we live by standards that may be “good” but are not according to our mandate, then we create a Chillul HaShem – a desecration of HaShem’s Name. Even the great Moshe and his brother Aaron could not escape the reality of exile as a result of not sanctifying His Name. When Moshe struck the rock twice instead of speaking to it, HaShem responded with one sentence: “HaShem said to Moshe and Aaron, ‘Because you did not trust in Me enough to sanctify Me before the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land that I give them’.”
This is what we are experiencing today on many fronts. “V’Ahavta L’Rei’acha Kamocha – And you shall love your neighbor as yourself” has been forgotten. Neighbors, literally neighbors are being spat upon, accused of terrible crimes, not given respect and are discounted as being irrelevant. Altruistic slogans may be used to prove points but both sides are creating a Chillul HaShem which will lead to a devastating reality.
Enough of the rhetoric, enough of the position taking, enough of justifying one’s own lifestyle by showing the inconsistencies of anothers. If we truly wish to live in a Jewish State side by side with Jews of all streams and customs then we must be able to sit at one table and hear and digest criticism and make the amends necessary to achieve our goal, to create a heavenly society.
“Henai MaTov U’Mah Na’im Shevet Achim Gam Yachad – How good and pleasant it is when we can sit together in brotherhood” is more than a song, it is the key to our very existence.