Friday, July 17, 2009

More Fear and Loathing in Jerusalem

This year we had three children changing schools - these periods of transition cause us alot of anxieity, as I imagine they do for any chozer b'tshuva, that is, any one who has come back to Judaism. It's a time when - you imagine - the world which you've entered is judging you. And you wonder whether you're living up to their standards and expectations.

One of my sons had a particularly rough time in his last school - a combination of bad circumstances and mismatched personalities. I spent three years playing defense - trying to maintain the status quo until the next stage. Given the unhappy - but ultimately stable marriage - we decided to find a new place on our own, a yeshiva a bit unconventional and off the beaten track (such is our family).

To my surprise, a few days later, I received a call from my son's Rosh Yeshiva. This was a different voice on the phone - not the bearer of bad news, of imminent catastrophe, of predictions of a dour future. But rather, he was now telling me that my son had chosen the wrong yeshiva (a place, as he described it, for hefker boys - boys on the street): my son, he explained was much 'too stark' - serious and disciplined - for a yeshiva like that.

'Hmmm,' I thought. For the past several years, the Rosh Yeshiva had been hard-pressed to find a single encouraging word to say about him, and now - all of a sudden - he was 'stark?' He went on to recommend three other places - all of which I knew about, and two of which a person who knows my family, my son, and the institutions in question said, 'they are absolutely lo matim' - not suitable.

So how to explain? Though King Solomon says that a child should be educated according to his own path - and that each path is necessarily different and individual, the Rosh Yeshiva - so it seems to me - was more interested in the reputation of his yeshiva than the educational well-being of my son. It's not that all of a sudden my son had transformed in his eyes, but rather, he did not want alumni of his yeshiva going to the unconventional place we had chosen (and which turns out, by the way, not to be as he had described it). But money is tight, choices multiply; pressures abound: the Rosh Yeshiva was simply playing defense.

So the needs of the individual - what the Torah so much emphasizes are sacrificed. Sound familiar?

No one needs to be told of the riots in Jerusalem - brought on by the arrest of a dysfunctional woman, taken into custody by Jerusalem authorities for child abuse, likely for starving her child. So while we always maintain our skepticism about the press and the State - though it seems to me some turn on their skepticism selectively - the fate of the child is ignored, as the right-wing forces in the charedi world use the opportunity to stoke the flames of the culture wars. The parking lot has not worked to get our children into the streets; but perhaps the story of the abused charedi woman (note, the child is not under discussion) will.

Garbage bins have been burned (why burn your own garbage cans?), municipal employees attacked, police wounded. And while all the fires burn, there is not a peep - I keep on waiting - a voice of condemnation from the rational charedi leaders. But nothing. To say that there are no such authorities - as I imagine I hear some of my readers - would be false. I studied with them! and the people with whom they studied! It's their silence which is inexplicable.

Or perhaps they are also - just playing defense. Faced with the culture wars that they have not so much lost but rather mishandled or misunderstood, their defensiveness renders them silent. Or worse. In the library, yesterday, I spoke to a few of the library charedim (such I think of them, and count myself among them), and even they complained that the 'mayor is an idiot,' that 'the press is to blame,' that the municipality was guilty of 'collective punishment.' And on and on... I thought of BBC reports over the past years about Serbia - in which the citizens of a country which has committed the most egregious crimes could only think of the injuries they had suffered: 'we are the victims!'

We are not Serbians (or Palestinians) who also always sing the mantra of 'collective punishment.' We have the book, A Guide for Non-Defensive Jewish Living - it's otherwise known as the Torah; perhaps we might try to start living by it. So this is not the time for recrimination (the flip-side of defensiveness), but rather an opportunity for acknowledgement: the leaders in the charedi world have to speak up. Not only privately - 'my son would never go to such a protest,' a friend related - but in public, so everyone knows. And not only for the sake of our reputation among the eyes of others (that too), but first and foremost for ourselves. Perhaps, if one child saw a poster on the streets of Jerusalem with the name of one of the rabbis whom he holds in esteem, condemning the destruction of property and injury of person, than one less policeman - or one less child! - might be injured.

The charedi stance of claiming to speak only to its own audience -' and you see, our children don't go!' - is not only disengenous, but false. Charedim are happy to use the means of mass communication when it suits them. The embrace of billboards, newspapers and other mass forms of dissemination not only makes the current silence now more thunderous, but, even worse, has had the effect in some parts of the community of undermining one of the mitzvos upon which the Torah is built. Aseh l'cha Rav - make for yourself a Rav - presupposes a personal relationship with a rabbi, or a teacher, or a righteous person. Not a billboard or a newspaper.

In the name of a perverted form of da'as Torah - the right and single and only Torah perspective - the processes of mesora, of creative inheritance, are are thrown by the way side. Here is the irony: modern forms of communication (though certainly, I admit, not the most up to date) are employed by the right-wing fringes in their all-or-nothing fight against modernity. And without a tempered - and public - voice of a Jewish world committed to Torah, the ideological distortion of Torah will prevail. So eliciting that part of us - we are all potential fundamentalists, Freud wrote - which craving only authority, renounces the and freedom upon which mesora is also based.

It's in the culture of billboards and newspapers - where single voices of Torah manufactured by the courtyards - chatzerot - of poster makers and newspaper editors - squelch out any voice of difference of multiplicity. It's in this environment, that charedi boys fill the streets on hot July afternoons - hurling rocks and bottles. And it's in this envirnoment, that school principals - also on the defensive - think more about institutional reputations than the children under their charge.


Mor Alkobi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
wdk said...

This letter from Rav Moshe Sternbuch was brought to my attention:

I also understand that Rav Finkel of the Mir instructed his talmidim - in a handwrittennote - not to attend the demonstrations.

Just for the record.

Spinal Muscular Atrophy - Shira Fisher said...

I've been reading a very interesting book lately titled, "The End Of Faith-Religion, Terror, And The Future OF Reason by Sam Harris. I've never been able to put into words why there is so much struggle in religion and outside religion but from what I have been observing as well as reading about is that you have 21 century people trying to live with ancient dogma. When you really look at the Torah from a literal point of view and compare it to how you live your life you might as well take a box of razor blades and a 100 feet of rope to the nearest bridge because if you don't take your own life you know you will be put to death for your many sins.
I know it seems absurd but lets face it do we take the Torah Literally or do we take it metaphorically speaking? Isn't the problem in this world all the people taking their religions literally believing if they die as martyrs they will go to a land of milk and honey and virgins etc. etc. I'm not going to start pointing my finger at what is wrong in Judaism but fanaticism is alive and well and we are also just a step away from stoning people to death for not obeying shabbos! I don't know how you got so mixed up with this movement which is so far removed from reason.