Measured Insularity Does Not a Monk Make

This article appears in the current issue of the New York Jewish Week and is shared here with that paper’s permission.

Haredi Jews have become accustomed to their portrayal in a variety of negative ways over the years, the result of our stubborn refusal to assimilate Western values and mores into our lives, our rejection of the notion of a multi-winged Judaism-bird (and, perforce, of conversions of non-Jews to “new Judaisms”) and, to our shame and chagrin, the inexcusable actions of some individuals in our community.

Still, it was eye-opening to read Rabbi Eugene Korn’s recent indictment of Haredim (NYJW, April 17, “In The Name of Judaism, Haredim Have Turned Inward”) on a new charge: embracing an isolationist worldview “adopted by early Christian monks and ascetics… in stark contrast to rabbinic Judaism.”

Who knew?

As the rabbi charges, Haredim do indeed inhabit “a universe far removed from society at large” – at least if society at large is defined as the sort of things that are the bread and butter (and mud) of popular tabloids and magazines.

But is it really accurate to see Haredim as, in his words, “a version of Christian monks, albeit with families”? Or to characterize the rabbis of the Talmud as embracing the broader societal mores of their times?

To anyone truly familiar with Haredim and the Talmud, both contentions are risible.

As is Rabbi Korn’s further assertion, that much of the Haredi community has “lost interest in relating to the entire Jewish people.”

Let’s start with asceticism. Jews, to be sure, are enjoined by the Torah to focus on their inner lives, i.e. their spiritual self-improvement. That is nothing to criticize; it is what all of us, no matter our vocation or degree of interaction with the wider world, are obligated – indeed privileged – to do as Jews. And Torah study as the center of a Jewish man’s life is, to understate the case, not something foreign to “the rabbis of the Talmud.” In dozens of places, the Talmudic rabbis extol Torah study and all who make it their mainstay.

And they repeatedly warn, too, of absorbing negative influences from surrounding societies. They certainly interacted with others outside of the Jewish community when it was necessary or prudent. As do Haredim today, something readily evident to any open-minded observer of the community.

But seeking to live among members of one’s own religious community and trying to avoid the effluence of a coarse popular culture does not a monk make. Prudent, measured insularity is not medieval Christian asceticism.

As to the alleged Haredi loss of “interest in relating to the entire Jewish people,” tell that to the beneficiaries of the innumerable “community kollelim” nationwide whose fellows’ dual purpose is to study Torah in depth and to be a resource to members of their respective broader Jewish communities. Those Haredi kollel members interact in conversation, friendship and study with Jews of all affiliations, or of none. Tell it to the thousands of tri-state area Jews – of every conceivable background – who, hospitalized in Manhattan, have been visited daily and provided hot food by the famed “Satmar ladies.” Tell it to all the Reform, Conservative and unaffiliated Jews who have weekly phone-partners with Haredi men and women as part of Torah Umesora’s “Partners in Torah” project. Tell it to the untold numbers of non-Orthodox Jews who have been befriended and assisted in countless ways by Chabad emissaries.

Tell it to my colleagues at Agudath Israel of America, among them lawyers who interact with Jews and non-Jews daily in the interest of promoting truly Jewish values and all Americans’ religious rights. Tell it to all the thousands of non-Haredi participants who were invited to, and participated in, the Daf Yomi Siyum HaShas seven years ago (and to all those who are planning on attending the upcoming one, at the Metlife Stadium on August 1).

Tell it to the Jewish cancer patients and their families, whatever their affiliations, who have been assisted by Chai Lifeline – or, in Israel, by Zichron Menachem. Or, speaking of Israel, beneficiaries of Haredi social service groups like Meir Panim; medical resource providers like Ezra L’Marpeh; or of patients at the famed Laniado Hospital, in Netanya, under the direction of the Sanz-Klausenburger Rebbe, which serves the entire community (and has the distinction of being the only hospital in Israel that has never closed due to a strike).

All those efforts are not antithetical to the Haredi world’s focus on Torah; they derive from it, are informed by it, concretize it.

Rabbi Korn’s judgment of contemporary Charedim was sparked, he explains, by his experience on a flight from Israel where his young Haredi seat-mate was studying Mishnayos and, after exchanging pleasantries, seemed more interested in resuming his learning than in conversing. Rabbi Korn shouldn’t have been offended. The young man likely didn’t intend to be rude, or even monkish. One day he might surprise Rabbi Korn with the fruits of his internalization of the Jewish religious heritage.

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