Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Thursday, 5 June 2008

The Clothes Make the Man

I've always been bothered by the role simple external qualities play in the way Jews judge each other. If you see someone walking down the street with peyos, a shtreiml and a bekisher, you autmotically assume he lives an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle. If you see someone with a large knitted kippah and a trendy shirt, well he must be national religious with all the implications attached.
If various religious groups in the Jewish world actually respected one another and didn't feel that the difference between them are the justification for being condescending and dismissive, this wouldn't be so bad. Unfortunately this is not the case. How you dress tells the outside world how religious you are. Or, at least, how religious you want people to think you are.
In Rav Yonasan Rosenblum's latest piece, on a recent chilul HaShem where ultra-Orthodox boys were caught trying to smuggle drugs into Japan, the problem with this approach becomes very clear. However, one of the potential answers to it that he brings (to his credit, not his answer) shows that there are still those in the Chareidi world who can't bring themselves to accept that members of their community can have any bad characteristics at all:
In his column last week on the chareidi teenagers recently charged with smuggling drugs into Japan and the criminal who sent them, my esteemed colleague Rabbi Moshe Grylak referred to them as "Jews of chareidi appearance." His reasons for doing so are easily enough discerned. First, he wanted to remind us, just in case any such reminder is needed, that smuggling is not proper profession for Jews who tremble before G-d.
This is too easy an answer. There are Chareidi Jews, and then there are sinners who dress like them. Why, it's almost the same as when Arabs in Israel dress like army soldiers or Chasidim in order to sneak around and kill Jews without arousing suspicion until it's too late.
Except that it's not. When Arabs dress up, it's not because they want identify with that group, either soldiers or Chasidim, and want to share their values. It's because they want to kill them. When "Jews of Chareidi appearance" dress up, it's because they are trying to identify with that group and take on their values. As Rav Rosenblum himself notes:
They would never have knowingly put anything treife into their mouths. (Not eating non-kosher food, unfortunately, may no longer be possible for them. Unlike American prisons, Japanese prisons do not routinely make provision for kosher food.) Even the cruel person who dispatched them to their fate probably does not eat treife.
These are people who will wear only the finest tefillin, daven in only the strictest shuls, will only associate with people who look and think exactly like them and marry only those girls from families exactly like theirs. If you ask them why they will tell you they are trying to adhere to the highest Torah standards in their behaviour and that to do less would be to let God Himself down.
But if that's the case, why commit crimes? There is no allowance in Torah law for this. Rav Rosenblum's suggested answer is actually emblematic of the problem:
Yet the potential chilul Hashem if they were caught smuggling, no matter what they were smuggling, did not enter their calculations. Yet chilul Hashem is much more severe than eating treife.
I would disagree with that. Chilul HaShem is something boys like this would be scared to death of committing. It's something they calculate their every act around, from dress to speech to daily activity to life choices. If they did what they did knowingly (and it seems possible from the account that they were simply "drug mules", unwitting dupes) then it was because they don't consider what smuggling drugs into Japan chilul HaShem.
Consider all the negative news out of the Chareidi world over the last few years. The rioting, the violence on buses, the story out today of the secular girl who had acid thrown on her face by the so-called Modesty Patrol of Beitar Illit. Are we to believe that all these people are "Jews of Chareidi appearance?" Are we to believe that when they are acting as they do, it's not with the thought that this is what a good Chareidi does?
I doubt one will find a single Chareidi leader who would hold that actions like this are acceptable or even tolerable. The leadership of that community holds itself to the highest moral standards and although many of their underlings fail to reach that level, the rabbonim at the top have always been examples what they have expected of their followers. Yet the message isn't getting through. Even Rav Rosenblum, in what I consider a brave statement, dismisses this flimsy excuse:
THERE IS ANOTHER REASON why any attempt to downplay our connection to those involved in smuggling by describing the latter as "Jews of chareidi appearance" won't wash. Sadly, the willingness of some youth to engage in criminal behavior and of adults to use them as couriers derives, in part, from attitudes that are too widespread. For some, our designation as the "chosen people" does not primarily refer to our higher level of obligation and our role in showing the world what individuals and a society shaped in accord with Hashem's will would look like. Rather the Kuzari's description of the Jewish people as the highest level of creation is somehow twisted to mean that we are completely removed from the rest of humanity: We need not feel any obligation to obey their laws or concern ourselves with their well-being. Only such an attitude can explain the willingness of those who dispatched these youths to traffic in drugs whose destructive impact is well known.
The trap of power and knowledge has always been that a sense of loosening of moral responsibility comes with it. Bill Clinton, in a famous example, got away with what he did with other women and his various acts of corruption because of the power he wielded. Instead of being a moral example to his electorate, he felt his power put him above the laws the unwashed masses had to obey.
The Chareidi leadership knows that with greater spiritual levels come greater moral responsibility. It is high time the unwashed masses of the Chareidi community learned this as well.


Nishma said...

A fine piece although I must comment on your comparison to Bill Clinton. That was, as you rightfully describe, a personal problem of hime personally feeling that because he was President, he was above the law or above a basic morality that should really apply to all people. That was a person misperception. In the case of the charedim, though -- and I don't want to imply that this implies to all charedim or is inherent to charedi thought -- the problem is not personal but rather a reflection of a weakness in the teaching of the social moral fabric of this ideology. It is not that the individual thinks he/she is above the law. It is a perception that emerges from a belief that anything outside of Torah ultimately lacks value. The charedi finds value solely in the observance of mitzvot and, as such, any ideas that do not, as they see it, emege from Torah lack value. They do not perceive themselves about the law for that would imply that there is a standard called this law that the just feel is not applicable to them. They do not even recognize the standard. They are not above it per se; there is nothing to be above so why bother even considering it. How, then, can it even be a chilul Hashem for there was not reaons to abide by this law in the first place? This is not to say that Torah observant Jews have to consider any secular law or moral statement to have value. There are times when our value system, i.e. Torah, may call upon us not to respect a secular value. I am sure that there are people who would attack me for my views on homosexuality -- that, though, is Torah. But, at the same time, I believe that one of the outgrowths of being involved in Torah is a sensitity to thought, truth and legal/moral undertakings. That is because Torah is not isolated from the world but to exist in the world. The result is that I can consider society;s views of drugs, eventhough it is not stated in the Shulchan Aruch, because the Torah itself has made me sensitive to such considerations for I don't learn Torah in a limiting, narrow fashion but in a broad and ever expanding fashion (lehagdil Torah u'l'hadiro). The sad truth is that while I am not saying that such negative behaviour is condoned by charedi Judaism or that all or even the majority of charedi Jews will adopt such a view, this negative behaviour is, in my opinion, an outgrowth of the narrowness of many people's perspective within the charedi world. It is not, like Bill clinton, as result of people feeling they are above the secular law. It is a result of a fundamental weakness in an approach to Torah.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Michoel said...

"for being condescending and dismissive"

you are the king of this.