It has now been several weeks since a haredi man spat at an eight year old Orthodox girl on her way to school because he deemed her dress immodest. This was sadly not an isolated incident but the tip of a large iceberg consisting of segregated buses and sidewalks as well as the banning of posters in hardei controlled Jerusalem neighbourhoods featuring female faces. In response to secular and mainstream Israeli criticism of haredi behaviour a mass haredi demonstration was held in Jerusalem in which scores of haredim wearing yellow stars of David and some in mock concentration camp pyjamas claimed that they are being treated by secular Israelis in the same way European Jews were treated by the Nazis. They even re-enacted the iconic photo of a young emaciated boy holding his hands up in front of a machinegun tooting Nazi storm trooper. Unlike the original, the boy in the re-enactment appeared in rude health.
Needless to say the news stories and images are revolting and they call for condemnation in the strongest terms. Many Orthodox Jews and rabbis have done just that. Yet even those who have, to their credit, spoken out in condemnation of these atrocious acts have failed to grasp the enormity and scope of the problem.
I have in the past two weeks read and heard many condemnations but they all conveniently marginalize the perpetrators as a lunatic fringe totally unrepresentative of the wider haredi community. The sad truth is that they are a by-product of the contemporary haredi community and failure to recognize them as such is disingenuous and dangerous.
When Yigal Amir assassinated Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin in 1995 the religious Zionist community underwent an arduous and painful process of self reflection. It was understood that while Yigal Amir acted on his own accord he could not be conveniently divorced from the society in which he was raised and received his education. When a product of a particular Yeshiva system commits an atrocity in the name of religious ideology the entire system must be examined critically. The lunatic, if you will, is the canary in the mine. Yigal Amir may have pulled the trigger but those who taught him that land is more important than human life must bear some of the responsibility as well. And they have.
Similarly in the wake of the London riots this past August political leaders and thinkers began asking whether there might be something wrong with wider society to the extent that those on its margins could behave so reprehensibly.
The haredi community is insular, highly regulated and influenced extensively by its rabbinical authorities. The question then is how can this tightly regulated society shirk responsibility for the actions of its adherents? The zealots did not emerge in a vacuum. Each of these men has a rabbi whose word is law. Where were these rabbis when their adherents were spitting on children, forcing women onto the back of buses and protesting in concentration camp garb?
In fact an official from the ultra-Orthodox Eda Haredit communal association, which organized the demonstration in Jerusalem, reportedly defended the behaviour of the protesters on Sunday and said that the group had ‘no regret at all’ for the use of Holocaust imagery.
It does not take a whole lot of courage to condemn grown men for spitting at an eight year old child but it does take courage to admit that such behaviour might reflect a deeper malaise in the community from which it emerges. Sadly too few Orthodox Rabbis and spokesmen have been willing or able to concede this important point.
What we are witnessing is a ripple effect. At the outermost fringe of the ripple are those who spit at little girls in the street for not wearing what they deem modest dress. This group is by all accounts a small minority. Yet this outer fringe is a ripple created by a swell of consecutive inner ripples starting with disregard for those who adhere to a different lifestyle followed by intolerance and then hatred. At the core lies a problematic contemporary haredi ideology which, like a heavy stone cast into a pond, is the cause of all these ripples.
If haredi rabbis and leaders were really serious about dealing with the problem they would ask some difficult questions about their core contemporary ideology. Maybe it is has become too focused on the details of Judaism at the expense of its bigger picture? Maybe it has placed too great an emphasis on what one believes rather than on how one behaves? Maybe it consistently privileges the man to God relationship at the expense of the man to man relationship?
It is difficult to undertake such a critical self examination. The Hebrew term for such an exercise is heshbon ha-nefesh; literally taking account of one’s soul. This is an apt term because what is at stake here are not the actions of several hundred zealots but the health, vitality and very soul of haredi Judaism.
The sad thing is that haredi Judaism was not always like this. The great haredi leaders of the twentieth century like Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Aurbach of blessed memory would have been appalled by what passes today as haredi ideology and behaviour. These great leaders and their contemporaries were men of the highest refinement and deep wisdom. While non haredim did not always agree with their worldview it was impossible not to be inspired by their deep love and commitment to Torah and to other human beings. They were a living embodiment of the dictum that the Torah’s ‘ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.’ Such haredim added depth and rich texture to Judaism and the Jewish people and their absence leaves a gaping hole in the fabric of Jewish society.
Contemporary haredi leaders must move beyond strongly worded condemnations of the symptoms and begin targeting the underlying cause of the problem. They must try to recapture what was best about harediyut while offloading its uglier current manifestations.
In order for this to happen Haredim need space. No one is in the mood for critical self reflection when they are being demonized. We must all step back from the hysteria of the past few weeks. Nothing positive will emerge from further accusations and name calling. It is time to start to start putting things right. For haredim this involves a painful but crucial process. I genuinely hope that they succeed not just for their own future but for the vitality they would contribute to the Jewish people.