Facing Reality, Moving Forward
Non-observant Jews cry out against what is happening, because they see these fringe and not-so-fringe groups of Ultra-Orthodox as representing all Jews, or maybe it's more correct to say all observant Jews. And they use these terrible behaviors--and I do believe they are terrible--to reinforce their secular way of life, and to reinforce their rejection of the Jewish religion as "fanatic."
Here are two articles addressing these issues, both published in the Forward, the authors of which express views 180 degrees opposed to each other. There are elements of truth in both, but I personally believe that the problematic issues are not being addressed by Jonathan Rosenblum in his rebuttal article in the Jewish Daily Forward.
The first, by Jay Michaelson, talks about the dangers of Jewish fundamentalism--and the fact that the mainstream Jewish community is supporting them--to Judaism in general:
American Jews are actively supporting a demographic trend that threatens the fabric of American Jewish life: the unchecked growth of Jewish fundamentalism.
Call them what you will — ultra-Orthodox Jews, “fervently Orthodox” Jews, Haredim, black hats. They will soon become the majority of affiliated Jews in the metropolitan New York area, and the religious majority in Israel. The results will be catastrophic.
We’ve read stories recently of Haredim in Israel comparing Israeli politicians to Hitler and throwing stones at women praying at the Kotel; of Haredim in New York fighting to restrict the prosecution of sex abuse claims...
And that is just the tip of the fundamentalist iceberg. In recent months, the Forward has depicted the coercion and ignorance prevalent in American ultra-Orthodox communities: in brilliant essays by Judy Brown and Shulem Deen, in exposés of Hasidic money laundering and longer ago in its award-winning coverage of the Agriprocessors meat processing plant. And of course, “fervently Orthodox” leaders have defended, justified, covered up and explained away sexual predators in a way that would make a Vatican official blush.
What has emerged from all this is a picture of a subculture that looks more like “The Sopranos” than like “Fiddler on the Roof” — a world in which a small elite maintains power at the expense of thousands of serfs.
Read both articles (click on the links above). I believe there are many elements of truth in both of them. There is definitely loving-kindness, goodness and spirituality in the ultra-Orthodox way of life, but I am a strong believer in "live and let live," and many are not practicing that at all. Instead, they are policing their fellow community members and adding stringency on top of stringency. And the terrible problems written about by Mr. Michaelson, such as the tzniyut police (written about on sites such as this one) and covering up yeshiva rebbeim who are pedophiles are real and they need to be addressed. That in and of itself, is a sign that some of the Ultra-Orthodox have themselves lost sight of their purpose--gone off the derech while still ostensibly religious, so to speak. But in the opposite meaning of that term.
Let me try to describe the attraction of the community that induced my wife and I to dramatically alter our life trajectories. Though I admired various qualities of my professors at Yale Law School, it never occurred to me that any of them was a model for what a human life could be.
I had not yet been exposed to role models whose lives were of a piece, and not divided by all the familiar dichotomies of modern life — work and play, work and family, public morality and private morality. That quality of living a unified life, which I could not define but found lacking in everyone I knew, most of all myself, has its source in the knowledge that whether we are in solitude or among a multitude, we are before God.
In my opinion they have lost the forest for the trees; they obsess about checking for bugs with bug lights and magnifying glasses, condemn women for having a hair show out of their tichels, refuse to allow them to sing in public (or even zemirot Shabbat at the Shabbat table) because it's like "nakedness," throw plastic bags of garbage on modestly dressed 15 year old girls (as they did to my daughter and her group on their first visit ever to Me'ah She'arim in Jerusalem) because there were two boys in the group from a slightly more modern religious school in Yavneh, Israel--but hide pedophiles in their midst, defraud the government by lying in order to get funding for yeshivas, and ostracize their own who try to report these crimes.
This, to me, is a far cry from true Judaism. It is approaching radical Islam and its treatment of women, and its disregard for humanity in general. It is fanatical, authoritarian, and obscene. In my view, those guilty should read and reflect on the last line in Jonathan Rosenblum's article:
whether we are in solitude or among a multitude, we are before God.
But then again, if you really want to, need money, and you haven't been guilty of any aveirot such as those mentioned above, you could always auction off your portion in the world to come, Olam Habah, as this man did. Or tried to, on eBay...