The choice is ours
Shortly after Shavuos, the Jerusalem Post published an op-ed “Two windows on hareidim.” The piece began promisingly enough, as the author described walking with his 11-year-old daughter to the Kotel for the first time on Shavuos morning and how impressed they had been by the “extensive hospitality offered by the chareidi community to those making aliya baregel.” They were particularly “struck by the extent of the refreshments and other items offered along the way to both observant and secular walkers passing along the capital’s Rechov Shmuel HaNavi, [which provided] a window onto a world of good deeds that too often gets overlooked by the non-chareidi Jerusalem public.”
Just as I was settling down to savor the piece, however, it abruptly switched direction, and the author’s real point became clear. Eighteen hours after his walk to the Kotel, and at least 20 minutes after the end of Shavuos, his holiday cheer turned to fear and frustration when his car’s side window was smashed by a rock thrown by some young chareidi kids, about nine or ten, as he drove through a chareidi neighborhood. A week earlier, he had hit a rope drawn across the same street after Shabbos.
The author struggled to remind himself that the chareidi community, like any other community, is comprised of individuals of many types, and that it would be wrong “to tar them all with the same brush,” despite his anger over “a random act of violence that could have easily cost me my life and injured others.” Nevertheless, he found himself casting mean glances at chareidim passing by on the street the next day, as he spent four hours filling out police forms and replacing his window.
My first reaction upon reading this op-ed was anger at both the author and the Jerusalem Post. I knew that the author is a shomer Shabbos Jew, and that he formerly served as an editor at a respected chareidi weekly, where he worked closely with dozens of chareidi Jews for whom nothing could be more antithetical to everything they stand for than the stone-throwing at his car. And I was also irritated with the Jerusalem Post for devoting an entire column broadcast around the world to one or two incidents of misbehavior by chareidi kids. How many other acts of violence and vandalism by secular youth on the same night went completely unreported? I wondered.
But as I thought about it, I decided that the author had posed a fair choice to our community: “Chareidim need to decide which window onto their public they want opened to non-chareidi Jerusalem residents: one that focuses on their many acts of charity and goodness, or one that forces us to focus on acts of intolerance and violence.”
THERE IS IN FACT a struggle for the soul of the chareidi community. On the one side, are those who think of themselves primarily in terms of their own sub-group, the more narrowly defined the better. They tend to view their own neighborhood as something like an Indian reservation, into which, ideally, no outsiders would ever venture, and which must be protected at all costs. About what takes place outside its confines, they have little interest, as long as the purity of their existence is not affected.
Within these neighborhoods, the children are instilled with many beautiful middos – a degree of modesty in the young girls found nowhere else, devotion in prayer, concern for one’s neighbors. But one thing is not emphasized: the interrelationship of all Jews, and the responsibility of Jews for one another. Kol Yisrael areivim zeh l’zeh is not one of the fundaments of their chinuch.
On the other side of the great divide, are those for whom the spiritual state of the vast majority of the Jews in the world who are not Shomer Torah u’mitzvos is of primary concern. The chinuch that they provide their children follows Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv’s dictate that the chinuch imperative of our time is: she’yehei Shem Shomayim misaheiv al yadecha — the Name of Heaven should become beloved through you.. Their children are never allowed to forget that they are ambassadors for Hashem and His Torah wherever they are, especially among non-frum Jews.
I should make clear here that I speak of ideal types – two extremes – that may not conform to any actual individual or group. Some of the greatest ohavei Yisrael of our time have grown up in the most insular communities, and others who have brought disgrace to Torah Jews are products of much more open environments.
Each approach has its own dangers. Those who focus on being drawing close Jews who are far from Torah are susceptible to unwarranted compromise of halachic standards. And it is possible to become overly concerned with the impact of every action in the eyes of secular Jews, to the point of being desensitized to other great evils.
The recent Parade in Jerusalem provides an example of the danger. The Talmud teaches that all the curses of Bilaam that Hashem transformed into blessings reverted to curses due to the immorality of the Jewish people at Shitim, except for the blessings of the batei knesset and batei midrash (Sanhedrin 105b-106a). Our final exile is that of Edom and Yishmael together – one representing idolatry and the other immorality. The two always go together – “Do not stray after your heart or after your eyes” – like two legs marching in tandem.
If we worry overly much about non-religious Jews and whether we can make our opposition to the Parade intelligible to them, we could find ourselves forgetting that the Parade represented a threat to the physical and spiritual safety of all Jews. The directive of our gedolim that the proper response to the Parade was not to confront the marchers head-on, but with tefillah and intensified Torah study represented an effort to prevent that desensitization.
On the other side lies the danger that the introduction of weapons of violence that are foreign to us will become commonplace in our camp – another form of desensitization. The potentially lethal (and ultimately ineffectual) stone-throwing on the Ramot Road that did so much to make the entire chareidi community anathema in the eyes of the broader Israeli public thirty years ago eventually led to the use of violence for far less noble goals – e.g., stone-throwing at Egged buses in Ramat Beit Shemesh hours after the end of Shabbos.
Little kids holding ropes across the road or throwing stones at cars passing through their neighborhood is just the end of a process that once unleashed is hard to keep under control.
Appeared in Mishpacha magazine today.