No worse, but no better

Though sometimes we'd like to believe otherwise, Jews are not immune to corruption of conscience or soul.

mental illness (do not republish) (photo credit: Avi Katz)
mental illness (do not republish)
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
IT MADE THE HEADLINES IN New York City. A Jewish 8-yearold boy, Leiby Kletzky, was kidnapped and chopped into body parts.
An Orthodox Jewish man, Levi Aron, a hardware store clerk, who lived in a nearby neighborhood, was charged July 13 with the murder.
This followed the much publicized trial in 2009 of Mazoltuv Borukhova, who was convicted of hiring her cousin to kill her estranged husband at a playground in Queens as he was delivering their 4-year-old daughter for a visit. That tabloid story started as an ugly custody fight and ended with a screaming child, a convicted mother, and shock running through the Jewish Bukharan community.
There have been leaks to the newspapers about sexual abuse by rabbis within various Hasidic sects. There are stories in the Jewish press and in the general press of child abuse that was covered up and denied.
Jews, even secular Jews, are made uncomfortable by these nasty crimes. We still think that we should be better than that. Many of us believe that our history of suffering at the hands of others, our Torah, our commitment to God’s word, and to each other will prevent the brutal evil we know exists among other peoples. Most Jews are not surprised by the primitive ways of peasants, Cossacks, czars, monarchs, inquisitors and SS guards. We tell the story of our misfortunes at the hands of the cruel and unthinking, the rumor mongers and the gentile killers. We believe that Jews are essentially good people who give more philanthropically than others of equal income, who tend their own sick, shroud their own dead, and build and support hospitals and museums and orchestras.
There is truth in this view, but not the whole truth. A Jewish man has confessed to killing Leiby Kletzky before his ninth birthday and to butchering him, leaving his head in one place and his feet in another.
This Jewish man may have been hallucinating. He may have been hearing voices. That is for the court to decide but he certainly had lost his mind and acted out of rage and confusion and probably sexual perversion. Jews have their madmen, too.
The mind is a delicate organ with so many fine connections, nerves and synapses that wrap the soul in its earthly shape. Things go wrong. We have manic depressives, paranoid schizophrenics, bipolar sufferers, phobics and psychotics. We have the same share of mental illness that haunts all other groups. And these mentally ill people will do damage to their families, to their neighbors and sometimes to strangers, lost little boys they meet on the street.
It is true that members of the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox world tend to view the troubles of the mind as a stigma and a shame for the family of the afflicted. It is thought to limit the marriage possibilities for a daughter or sister or son if it becomes common knowledge that mental disease has been found in this household or that.
It may be beautiful and morally and religiously correct to repeat the prayers of other centuries in the same manner as they have been said throughout the centuries but it is dangerous to us all to repeat the misunderstandings and the prejudices against the illnesses of the brain that determined attitudes in other times and distant places. Levi Aron might have been helped by psychotropic drugs, by hospitalization, by a therapist who became his friend in his fight against his demons.
But for that to happen, the illness would have to be recognized and the sadness of it absorbed and the family shame overcome so help could be sought, if the illness were publicly admitted and help sought. Aron did not wake up one morning insane. Those who knew him must have seen that he was aflame with an anguish that could become dangerous at any moment.
Mazoltuv Borukhova, too, was in trouble. She needed help in her relationship to her daughter and her husband and while the matter ended in the courts, it should have begun in a therapist’s office and it did not. The papers in New York treated the story as an exciting murder tale from an exotic closed world that remained foreign even on American soil. Primitive Afghan tribes send out relatives to avenge or kill someone who threatens a member of their family.
Primitive Appalachians feud for generations with each other but modern-day Americans are less locked into their family and will bring a personal problem to a counselor, to a kind social worker, to a friend who will keep the rage of wife against husband in a place where it can be understood.
Jews understand when they are being honest with themselves that we have in our midst crooks and embezzlers, gangsters and gamblers, hoodlums and con men. Whether they live in Scarsdale or Jerusalem, they embarrass us all in front of the goyim – but they shouldn’t. We are human beings. Our members are ill or healthy, damaged or not, honest or not, kind or cruel, just like all other peoples.
We are not immune to corruption of conscience or soul. We are no worse than other peoples but no better either. •
Contributing editor Anne Roiphe is a novelist and journalist living in New York.