I love you. You are my brothers. I am tied to you by history and covenant in the past and destiny in the future.
No matter how much we Modern Orthodox Jews and Religious Zionists write manifestos and hold conferences showing how our way of integration is superior to your Torah-only view, when we sit down with a pen and paper to draw “a Jew,” he isn’t wearing jeans and T-shirt, but rather he is wearing a beard and peyos (hair sidelocks) and looks like you. When asked to imagine a rabbi, he isn’t clean shaven with khaki pants; he looks like you. We still look over our shoulders to you as some sort of barometer that we haven’t gone too far with our embrace of secular culture, that we haven’t strayed too far from Yisrael Saba (the spirit of the Jewish people throughout their generations). Your commitment to Torah and Jewish continuity is unbounded.
When I was a kid in the 1980’s, I needed tutoring in Talmud. My parents used to take me to the local haredi yeshiva, The Yeshiva of Staten Island, to learn with the boys there. I must have stuck out like a sore thumb, but I was welcomed by the students very warmly. Students went out of their way to introduce themselves to me and get to know me. These boys would walk miles to our small local synagogue to help boost our struggling minyan. There was a soda machine there that did not accept dollar bills at the time. In those days a can of Pepsi cost 50 cents. There was an empty coffee can there filled with quarters. You would put your dollar in the can and take out four quarters to make change to put in the machine. I remember being shocked that you can leave a can of money out and that there was no fear that someone would take it. But then I thought, “Oh! This is a yeshiva! Of course everyone here is honest!” That was what characterized a “black hat” or haredi yeshiva in my mind: integrity and love of their fellow Jews.
As a rabbi and educator myself, I can unequivocally state that I wouldn’t be an observant Jew today if not for the haredi education and influence I received. They were quite literally the determining factor in my understanding of my place as a Jew in this world and my relationship with God. My own decision to be a rabbi and teacher was born out of the need to be the next link in the chain of Torah that you represented to me. Every student of mine is in debt to the haredi rabbis and institutions that have formed my soul.
But either I misunderstood you all these years or something has profoundly changed. I had thought that your commitment to Torah was to preserve Am Yisrael (the nation of Israel). I thought that your commitment to Jewish continuity was to the whole. I now understand during this terrible pandemic that your goal was not to keep Jews Jewish but to keep haredim haredi. You have demonstrated time and again by both your actions and inactions that you completely abandoned the idea of Klal Yisrael (the entire Jewish people). You are so afraid of losing your sons that you sacrificed your fathers.
Your community knew the risks of opening your schools and holding mass weddings/funerals and yet you insisted on doing so to preserve your haredi way of life: not Judaism, mind you, but your haredi way of life. The irony of the funerals being held for victims of COVID-19 was completely lost upon you. You refused to give real credence to the experts in public health so as not to give any authority to them in the eyes of your children. You could not and will not allow a secular person, or even a non-haredi Orthodox Jew serve as any source of authority in your community. So afraid are you of losing your children, that you dismiss anything that doesn’t come from your camp to make sure your children think there is nothing outside of their haredi community to look for.
Your actions have prolonged the lockdown which is killing businesses and destroying families. You have needlessly increased the load on the public health care system, endangering the lives of the entire country.
Why do you not feel a responsibility to the nation as a whole? Why have you abdicated Am Yisrael in favor of your own communal needs? Your refusal to enlist in the army has already made you a target for not caring about the nation as a whole; why are you exacerbating the situation during this pandemic?
I just paused to reread my words and can see that they can be read with an angry and accusatory tone. I do not mean them that way. I offer them in soft sadness and with an offer to please correct my understanding if I am wrong. There are whole political parties here that refuse to sit in a government with you because they too see things this way. People see you on the streets and instead of getting a warm fuzzy feeling of meeting a beloved relative, they have fear and scorn for you. And because of your distinct look their scorn and fear is for Torah and Judaism as well. This cannot go on. I care too much about you and too much about Judaism to remain silent.
I am acutely aware that Modern Orthodoxy isn’t perfect. I can point to many problems in our community that our embrace of secular culture has caused. I see our failures and can see how having televisions in our homes, going to the army and university alienate some of our youth from religion. But we believe the good far outweighs the bad. And our ability to admit to the problems allows us an avenue to address them.
Can you admit you have failures and that your way of life isn’t perfect either? Can you honestly say that the good outweighs the bad? I am not asking you to answer me, I am only asking that you answer yourselves. But what I am asking is for you to please be more sensitive to the rest of us and start taking responsibility for others outside your camp as well.
The writer holds a doctorate in Jewish philosophy and teaches in post-high-school yeshivot and midrashot in Jerusalem.