“Who Really Runs Chareidi Israel?”
Writing on a blog that I read regularly, one commenter asked, “Who really runs Chareidi Israel?”
The topic that spawned this question was the recent demonstrations in Jerusalem, protesting the opening of a parking lot in the Holy City on the Sabbath day. The presence of parking lot would enable—and thus encourage—more people to drive on the Shabbat.
According to media reports, the demonstration of several hundred Jeruselamites chanting, “Shabbos, Shabbos” turned violent, with some throwing stones, and a female reporter for ABC News claiming she had been cursed and spat upon.
This naturally, and deservedly, set off a firestorm of criticism in America, with pundits to the left and to the right decrying the massive desecration of God’s Name that this behavior brought about. Though many defended the Chareidi community in general and were careful to single out the scofflaws, others were less charitable, indicting the entire Chareidi community—their members, their leaders, and even their beliefs.
It was in this light that the question was posed: “Who really runs Chareidi Israel?”
I found the question naive, because it displays a fundamental misunderstanding of how societies function, and troubling, because it was asked by an educated person who ought to know better.
To presume that Chareidim are “run” reflects an ignorance of how they live, attributing to Chariedi society a monolithic structure that simply doesn’t exist. The perception of the Modern Orthodox world appears to be that the Chareidim all think and act alike, and that they are “handled” by someone, be it a Gadol or a kano’i.
None of those responsible for the actions being reported are doing so so under the advisement of their Gedolim. Think about it: If a pulpit rabbi can’t get his own congregant to stop talking during Chazoras Hashatz, how do we expect a rav, Godol or otherwise, to stop someone from acting like an idiot? The fact that the idiot dresses his violent behavior in Chareidi “levush” is not a reason to assume that he is doing so with the blessing of his rebbe. In his mind, he might even believe he knows better than the rebbe (If Parshas Korach didn’t teach us anything else, at least it should have taught us that much).
Many of the critics are saying that the numbers don’t matter—and that’s true. Even one boy throwing one rock is enough to create one front-page photo in the New York Times, and initiate a massive Chillul Hashem.
However, one person's behavior does not impeach all of Chareidi society. That some would indict all Chareidim based on the actions of a few says more about their personal prejudices than about the education of Chareidi youth, which they rush to impugn. Destructive behavior has nothing to do with Chareidi Judaism and everything to do with human nature. A thug is a thug.
It is good and necessary for the rest of us—Chareidi, Yeshivish, Chasidish, Modern Orthodox—to react against this behavior with a loud and unequivocal voice, by protesting against the protesters through blogs, emails, and letters to the editor, insisting that this behavior is not representative of Torah or its leaders.
However it is also important for us to recognize that the media do blow this out of proportion. It’s not necessarily anti-religious sentiment (though I believe that plays a role); it's simply what the media is trained to do. A journalist taught me long ago the mantra of journalism: Dog Bites Man isn’t news; Man Bites Dog is. So journalists are often, if not always, willing to sacrifice truth on the altar of melodrama.
I'm not here to defend the despicable behavior of certain Jews in Jerusalem. However, it behooves one to recognize that the number of such people is limited.
The Jerusalem Post reported that "several hundred haredim" protested this past Shabbos. That was in contradistinction to the "largely peaceful Friday night prayer vigil attended by tens of thousands of participants" last week. Notice the difference in numbers? Something like 20-to-1.
And what of those hundreds? When I heard the story of the reporter from ABC news, I went to its website to read it for myself. The account is reprehensible, a disgrace to anyone who is Torah observant. I was mortified, and scared to hit "play" on the accompanying video. But I did, and was relieved to see that the video painted a different picture. The Chareidim involved are not pushing, but being pushed. They seem to be chanting more than screaming, "Shabbos, Shabbos." No one looks violent, and no one is throwing anything.
None of which is to say that screaming, cursing, spitting and throwing rocks did not occur. Someone was hospitalized last week by a falling rock, so clearly the rock was thrown. But: if that video is representative of what occurred, it's quite tame.
Similarly, I saw another photo, a picture of a photographer walking past a crowd of Chareidim. The caption insisted he was being pushed. I studied the picture carefully and my eyes insisted otherwise.
Bottom line: Chareidim are “run” by God’s Holy Torah. When they have questions about the Torah they seek the counsel of scholars and leaders. Those who violate the law and spirit of the Torah, and in so doing shame the Chosen People are the exception and not the rule. The media would like to believe, and would like everyone to believe, that these exceptions are the rule. I hope the media will listen to the voices of Torah Jews who speak clearly, emphatically and proudly about what the Torah really demands from its adherents.
(The ABC video can be accessed at: http://www.abc.net.au/reslib/200907/r394610_1846815.asx)