One people, separate worlds: the sequel

One people, separate worlds: the sequel

In last week’s column I pondered the yawning gap between the haredim, or fervently Orthodox Jews, and the rest of us. I received a number of on-line responses that are worth sharing.

The alienation, I suggested, goes two ways: The haredim have become increasingly estranged from fellow Jews, and the non-haredi Jews have come to look upon the very religious as backward, insular, and even corrupt. American Jews who hesitate to question Israeli politicians when it comes to the Palestinians or Iran are demanding that something be done about the religious exemptions from military duty and the haredi reliance on state aid.

Haredi leaders, I believe, are very much responsible for their bad press. Their withdrawal into a world bound by Torah and Torah only has left many of their leaders, and followers, indifferent to secular law and norms and thus susceptible to scandals, from sex abuse to money laundering to coercion. In Israel, misguided insularity is driving a wedge between haredim and the rest of the Israeli public. Their leaders are missing a wonderful opportunity to share the truly admirable qualities of frumkeit with a broader public.

Yet most haredim don’t deserve the kind of abuse heaped upon them by some fellow Jews, like this commenter: “As far as I’m concerned, Haredim aren’t Jews; they have about as much in common with secular Jews as secular Jews have with Martians. Unlike Martians, Haredim are Exhibit A for justifying every anti-Semitic canard.”

Yikes — intolerance combined with self-hatred. Another reader suggested haredim are Judaism’s “black sheep.” I replied that they can be more like estranged cousins — distant, to be sure, but an essential part of the family.

Another reader avoided invective but still charged that the haredim are “exclusionary and dismissive.” “Haredim tend to vote in unison as directed by their rebbe; they deny women civil rights; and they disown their own family members who choose to leave hasidut,” wrote “NaturaNachum.”

A critic of the haredim’s role in Israeli society nonetheless paused to rebuke his “fellow non-Orthodox” as “narrow and xenophobic” in their distrust of the haredim — before adding that the fervently Orthodox “do distort public policy on education and welfare where they live in large numbers.”

But many readers were full-throated in their defense. “I’m as modern Orthodox as they get, and I have no problem with Haredim or the way they choose to live their lives,” wrote “Abe.” “I have a much bigger problem with secular Jews who think being Jewish is donating to the NAACP and watching Seinfeld.”

Similarly, “Mark” urged non-Orthodox Jews to take a look inside before criticizing others. He pinned their problems with the haredim on guilt. The fervently Orthodox community “reminds them how their Great Great Grandparents were,” he wrote. “When I was in some Godforsaken mountain in Afghanistan with 20 other guys…, who do I see helicopter in? A Chabad chaplain with kosher food for Passover. To see a helicopter land in a dangerous landing zone and see this Chabad rabbi jump out really opened my eyes to the ultra-Orthodox. They gained a lot of respect in my eyes.”

“Gidon,” however, wasn’t buying the guilt argument. “I’m Reform and I’ve never come across that sentiment…ever,” he wrote. “The haredim are an embarrassment. They are backwards and ignorant. Never that we envy them. We feel for their families. We feel for their children. We do not want to join them.”

At this (low) point, it’s important to note a strong defense of haredi ways by Jonathan Rosenblum, who is haredi himself and writes a column for the Jerusalem Post from the community’s perspective.

Like Agudath Israel’s Avi Shafran before him, Rosenblum asserts that the web of haredi-run charities in Israel — serving Jews of all stripes — belies the notion that haredim don’t care about their fellow Jews.

As for Torah learning over army service, Rosenblum insists that the yeshiva world is doing its part. “They believe that their Torah learning is a vital component not only of national security but of national prosperity,” he writes in a recent column. They believe “in the power of Torah learning to arouse Divine favor.” Agree or not, he writes, it’s wrong to say that fervently Orthodox Jews are indifferent to the Jewish people.

It is an interesting distinction, and on a less theological note it’s important to point out how the explosion of Torah learning and the haredi resurgence since 1948 represents a remarkable life-affirming comeback following their decimation in the Holocaust. But there is a big gap between intent and perception. As Rosenblum points out, the haredi world is not exactly known for its “public relations acumen.”

A word about that Chabad rabbi in the helicopter: Chabad manages to defy easy stereotypes about the haredi world, in large part by design. Rooted in the outreach philosophy of its late rebbe, the movement has made engagement with non-Orthodox Jews one of its signatures. As visible as they are, Chabad emissaries remain the exception in the world of the haredim.

That’s too bad. There aren’t too many Jews to begin with. The gap between a fervent minority and the diverse majority is a tragedy in the making.

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