A letter to my haredi brethren

They say the opposite of love is not hate – it is indifference.

May 9, 2013 15:00
Orthodox Jews listening to a speech in Jerusalem

Sea of Haredim 370. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

I love you. You have to realize that.

I am bound to you not just in the esoteric sense of a shared soul, but with my very kishkes. They say the opposite of love is not hate – it is indifference. If I didn’t love you, I could easily dismiss you, or just ignore you. My love for you will never allow me to disregard you. Together we stood at Sinai, wandered the desert, built the Temple and were twice exiled from our land. Together we withstood the vicissitudes of the long night of galut (exile), and the together we died in the camps.

But it was not together that we built this land, nor a shared effort that created a Jewish state. While we welcomed you here and begged you to make it your home, you refused to do so.

Instead, you acted as a guest, and kept your distance. Often, you have even disdained the state and spat on its very institutions.

And yes, while I do really love you, you make it difficult for me to like you.

You dismiss me with every chance you get. While I vehemently disagree with your retreat to your own neighborhoods – trying to recreate through invented traditions an idyllic shtetl existence that never existed in the first place – I believe in your right to be wrong. What angers me is you don’t afford me the same right.

There is no room in your world for me. You cannot and will not create a space for me, neither as a secular Jew nor as a Modern Orthodox Jew. In fact, you seem to have no place in your community for anyone who doesn’t look, act, or even talk exactly as you do.

When I was a boy in the mid-1980s, I went once a week to a haredi yeshiva called the Yeshiva of Staten Island, to be tutored in Jewish studies. While I went to a Jewish day school myself, I was falling behind.

When I arrived at yeshiva, the older boys there instantly realized I was from outside the community and flocked to me to say hello. They were some of the friendliest people I had ever met and went out of their way to make me feel comfortable. Never did they make me feel inferior or out of place. Perhaps it was only to make me more religious, I don’t care; it was the fact that they treated me so nicely that impressed me.

In those days in the mid-’80s, soda machines did not accept dollar bills. I remember that in the yeshiva, next to the soda machine, was an empty coffee can filled with quarters. You were supposed to put your dollar there and take change on your own. I remember being surprised that you could leave a can of money next to a soda machine and no one would take it. But then I realized, “Oh! These are really religious Jews.

That’s just how they behave.” They set a model for me for what a frum Yid was. You have proven that model to be naive at best.

The model that is being set for us today is of men dressed in black who at best ignore us, and at worst scream and spit at us. I used to think that this was just a few fanatics, but fanaticism has become the mainstream. I don’t think you realize how scary you look to people.

We are afraid to even say hi to you on the street out of fear offending some sensibility of yours.

WHILE I have been feeling these things for years, what caused me to write this letter to you was your blurring out the faces of pictures of women who died in the Holocaust. When you did it to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton I was angry, but when you did it now, I was sickened. Unlike Clinton, these women have no memorial to them, save for those pictures. There is no other record of their existence on this earth than the photographs you violated. You have literally desecrated their graves and erased their memory.

I get it. We live in a society in which sex pervades and bleeds into almost every facet of our lives. You want to shield yourselves from immodesty. I respect and admire you for that. But you lose all of your points when it is not bikini-clad women who are avoided, but six-year-old girls who are harassed for being “improperly” dressed.

When the separate seating foolishness started at weddings a few years ago, people joked that one day there would be separate sides of the street for men and women. This is no longer a joke – you have made it a reality.

You have turned stringency, something once reserved for the especially pious, into the norm. By turning it to the norm, you have created a situation in which anyone who does not comply is “sinning.” Thus, observant Jews who think differently than you are no longer deemed religious.

I too believe in stringency, but like a fence placed haphazardly, it can do more harm than good. I believe we need to be stringent when it comes to other people’s money, and other people’s reputations. We need to be very stringent with regard to love for fellow Jews. It appears to me that if there is one mitzva that you have neglected, it is the all-encompassing love you are supposed to feel for all Jews. In this sense, my love for you feels unrequited.

I stand in awe of your birthrate. You are creating generations of Jews! But how can my 2.6 children support your 6.9 if they refuse to work? I stand in awe of your hessed organizations! You are helping countless people with your selfless work! But who sees that when all they see are dirty diapers thrown at people you dislike? I stand in awe of your devotion to Torah study. You have succeeded in creating more Torah scholars in one generation then ever existed in all of Jewish history! Yet, the light that is supposed to shine through is dulled when you force women to sit in the back of the bus. (Perhaps, I too could devote more time to Torah if I wasn’t working so hard to subsidize your yeshivot?) My students often ask me for advice on how to share their newly acquired mitzva observance with their friends and family. I tell them to try to be the nicest person they can be. Be the first one to offer to help around the house.

Call when you are near a grocery store to ask if someone needs something. Torah learning is not supposed to be informative, it is supposed to be transformative. If your Torah learning does not translate into being a better person, you have in fact learned nothing.

I know too many wonderful haredim to fail to realize that these are blanket statements and gross generalizations. But they are not exaggerations either.

When you fear to let my kids play with your kids, you do not allow anyone to realize that there is in fact nuance in the haredi community. When you shelter your kids from my kids, you do not let them get to know the many fine individuals in your community. When there is no haredi opposition to the fanatics, you are at best tacitly agreeing with them and at worst, desecrating God’s name.

As a great gentile scholar, Edmund Burke, once said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” ■

The writer is a doctoral candidate in Jewish philosophy and currently teaches in many post-high-school yeshivot and midrashot.

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