Leibby Kletzky 311.
(photo credit: NYPD)
Years ago, when I served as a chaplain at a large Chicago hospital, I would
often be asked by patients, “What kind of rabbi are you?” Knowing that this was
a loaded question – the answer to which would almost certainly limit my ability
to serve all those in need of pastoral care – I would simply reply, “I’m a
Jewish rabbi!” It served me well, and considering what has been happening out
there lately in the Jewish world, it is an appellation I may again wish to
It began earlier this summer with the tragic death of Leiby
Kletzky, the eightyear- old hassidic boy brutally murdered in Brooklyn’s Borough
Park. The press reports screamed that his killer, Levi Aron, was an “Orthodox
Jew.” Excuse me? An “Orthodox” Jew?! Can we really say that a monster who
kidnaps, strangles and dismembers a young child – stuffing his body parts in a
garbage dumpster and a freezer – is “Orthodox”? And then the murder two weeks
later of Rabbi Elazar Abuhatzeira of Beersheba, grandson of the mystic Baba
Sali.The murderer, Asher Dahan, was described in the news accounts as a
“religious” Jew. “Religious”?! Are you serious? Do you mean to say that you can
stab a defenseless person six times and still be deemed “religious”? Just a few
days later came word that a “cult of polygamous Breslav Hassidim” had been
arrested in Jerusalem. Three men were taken into custody and their six wives and
15 children placed in separate shelters across the country. The men were
indicted on a variety of charges that included enslavement, physical and sexual
abuse of their multiple spouses and children, and extreme acts of violence.
Among the items found in the cult’s headquarters were stun guns, electric cables
and wooden rods.
Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t the term
hassid literally mean “one who practices acts of kindness” – hessed – and refer
generally to those pious individuals who follow a particular rabbinic leader or
dynasty? Just what “acts of kindness” were these perverse perpetrators pursuing?
And which “rabbinic masters” served as their inspiration? Word to the villains
of the vocabulary and the legislators of the lexicon: It’s time to clean up the
WHAT, EXACTLY, defines a Jew as Orthodox, hassidic or
religious? If one eats a cheeseburger on Yom Kippur, or publicly smokes outside
the shul on Shabbat, he is secular and irreligious; yet if he observes ritual
practices but murders a child or abuses several wives, he still remains within
the observant fold? When does one actually cross the line from frum to frei?
What crimes does one have to have to commit before he is deemed to be
“non-Orthodox”? CONVERSELY, AND perhaps even more importantly, what acts of
societal or spiritual goodness qualify someone as a man or woman of faith? If a
soldier puts his life on the line in defense of the people of Israel, is he not
beloved of God? If a person conducts his business affairs with honesty – which,
according to the Talmud, is the first question one is asked in Heaven – is he
not righteous? And if an individual volunteers weekly at a soup kitchen and
greets all those around him cheerfully and graciously, is he not a “hassid,”
emulating the Almighty’s virtue of loving-kindness? Who among us owns a
“theological Geiger counter” that can measure spiritual worth? Labels, as we all
know, are much better suited to pants than people. Labels serve mainly to divide
us, to brand and constrict us, as if we human beings can be neatly classified
and defined in just a word or two. The fact is, we are complex creations that
defy short and simple characterization. Scratch the surface of a Jew – any Jew –
and you will discover not only a touch of the Divine but, as the rabbis say, a
world in and of itself.
Part of our problem, I suggest, is an almost
obsessive fixation on the outer trappings of apparel and appearance. We judge
others instantly by the clothes they don, the styles they employ, the costumes
they wear. Clothes are indeed important guardians of modesty, but they do not
necessarily connote religiosity.
Aron sported a beard and black kippa;
Dahan – who carried his murder weapon in his tefillin bag – wore a black suit
and black hat; the boys of Breslav had side-curls and large white
Beware instant identification via dress code; it may have little
or nothing to do with the kind of people we really are.
It is, rather,
the actions, deeds and moral behavior we exhibit that are the real yardsticks of
My Bubbie of sainted memory used to sum it up with
the perfect Yiddish phrase: A galach ken zein frum; uber a yid darf zein ehrlich
– clergy of any denomination can be religious, but a Jew must aspire to be a
person of integrity.
If there is anything that I think I know about God,
it is that He has total x-ray vision. He sees right through the clothes, as if
they are not there at all, as if He is looking at Adam, the first, unclothed
man. As He told the Prophet Samuel in so many words, God sees not the hat, but
the heart; not the suit, but the soul. Second-guessing God is a dangerous and
generally fruitless enterprise, for God has His own criteria for quality, and
His choices for Jewish leadership – from the outcast, maligned young David to
the unaffiliated, assimilated Herzl – confuse and confound us. In fact, true
faith may more readily be generated when we accord everyone, including and
especially those from whom we differ, the status of “holy,” created in God’s
The hassidic master Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev was an advocate par
excellence for the general Jewish public, regardless of their level of
He would often say, “The Almighty gave us a mouth for two
purposes: to pronounce prayers and verses, and to find merit for each and every
In this season of approaching the High Holy Days – we have now
begun the month of Elul, the traditional “training ground” for the Days of Awe –
we would do well to understand that finding merit in others is the surest way of
finding it in ourselves.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach
Center of Ra’anana.
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