Think Again: An apology to non-haredi readers

‘... with respect to most people, we would discover much more that is admirable if we did not fall prey to quick judgments and made more of an effort to really know them.’

An Orthodox Jew looks through binoculars 390 (R) (photo credit: Jim Hollander / Reuters)
An Orthodox Jew looks through binoculars 390 (R)
(photo credit: Jim Hollander / Reuters)
Whenever I make a presentation on the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community, my first task is to undermine the common perception of the community as an undifferentiated sea of black automatons who wake up in the morning and receive their marching orders from central command, like something out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
The people with whom I interact frequently are as different from one another as any other group of human beings. As the the Sages of the Talmud say, “Just as each individual’s face is different so are their ways of thinking.”
Like most people, I resent it when I feel I’m being judged by externals. During college, I sported an impressive Afro that would have done Jimi Hendrix proud. I remember being stopped in New York City by someone who noticed my college T-shirt and felt compelled to tell me, “I went to the University of Chicago, and you are a disgrace.” Yet everything that person assumed about me based on my hairstyle – drug use, study habits – was almost surely wrong.
A few months ago, I found myself seated on a flight next to someone reading John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. I attempted to start a conversation by asking him whether he was a professor. A monosyllabic “no” was the response. I commented that one doesn’t find too many people reading Mill on airplanes, but that too failed to elicit any response or ignite a conversation. I felt – though I could be wrong – that he assumed that no one whom he had seen wearing a black hat could have anything of interest to say about On Liberty.
In any event, I recently discovered that I have no right to criticize non-haredim for any stereotypes that may color their judgment of me before I open my mouth.
My eureka moment came on a visit to the Haredi Center for Technological Studies (HCTS), where I was interviewing men studying architecture, computer networking and construction engineering.
The first person I interviewed was a Gerrer Hassid in the architecture program.
He told me he had slept for only two hours over the preceding two days while working on his monthly project. I have only spoken with a few Gerrer Hassidim in my life, and carried a number of negative stereotypes regarding their community.
These stereotypes, common in the circles I travel in, concern their restrictions on contact between husbands and wives beyond that codified in Halacha, their aggressive efforts to advance the interests of their community and the need to stay out of their way when they form a phalanx in front of the Rebbe.
Those stereotypes, it soon became clear, provided me with no useful information about the father of four in front of me.
Indeed, until I put those stereotypes aside I was not able to properly listen to him and absorb what he was telling me, as he described his reasons for choosing this course and the various ups and downs he had experienced along the way. I was surprised, for instance, that his wife worked as a computer programmer in a government office. I had thought that few Gerrer women worked outside the haredi community at all.
After the interview, we joined the class in which the students were presenting their projects. The two lecturers were tearing apart, tag-team style, the model of a shopping center produced by another Gerrer Hassid. As I watched the dissection, I leaned over to my new friend, and asked him whether the one whose project was being critiqued would be able to take the criticism. He replied, “It’s not enough to obtain a degree. We want to work, and for that you have to be good. The only way to become good is to receive criticism.”
When our interview began, I saw only a Gerrer Hassid, as if that were some kind of generic brand. By the end, I saw a person with a full gamut of thoughts, feelings, and hopes – i.e., as much an individual as anyone else.
But if it took me – a haredi Jew – time to adjust to the idea that not all members of another haredi group are alike, how can I criticize any non-haredi person who makes any number of assumptions about me? It is human nature to view strangers wearing distinctive dress of one type or another as if they were all alike. The best that we can hope for is that those stereotypes remain at the level of what lawyers call “rebuttable presumptions.” And that those whom we meet are curious enough and open enough to want to know us as individuals.
One of the reasons that I’m so enthusiastic about the Kesher Yehudi program that has brought together more than 10,000 secular and religious women as study partners is because of the stereotypes broken down in both directions as the relationships develop.
STEREOTYPES HAVE THEIR USES. If you are the 70-year-old owner of a jewelry store in downtown Washington and three dudes, wearing lots of bling, seek to be buzzed in, the decision not to do so may have more to do with potentially life-saving prudence than with prejudice. But in general stereotypes that blind us to the infinite variety of individuals sharing the planet with us impoverish our lives.
Two weeks later, I’m back at the HCTS, this time to interview lecturers, most of whom are not religious. Once again, each interview turns out to be filled with surprises.
All it takes is some show of interest.
For instance, the civil engineering lecturer, a graduate of the Technion, tells me that he is “hiloni l’halutin“ (absolutely secular). Yet in the very next sentence he mentions that he is Shabbat observant, a position he came to as a “man of science” from his awareness of the perfection of the creation and multiplicity of forces that had to be aligned just so for human life to exist.
He even shares with me that after his divorce he wondered how he would ever find a wife: What secular woman would tolerate his Shabbat observance? What religious woman would tolerate his lack of observance in other areas? Yet three months later, he found such a woman, which he attributes to the merit of his Shabbat observance, and now their two children go to local religious schools.
On the way back from the interviews, someone from the morning class I attend gets on the bus. I see from the volume of Talmud that he is carrying that he is learning daf hayomi (the one-folio-a-day study of Talmud that takes over seven years to complete.) I ask him what number cycle this is for him, and he replies it’s his fourth. He adds that he never misses a day, even when traveling back and forth to America where he works half of each month as a neonatologist. Though we have attended the same class for some years, I would never have guessed either his level of commitment to learning or his discipline.
That evening as I’m going down the stairs from the ma’ariv (evening) prayers, a woman who lives upstairs is walking up the stairs to a Talmud class in the adjacent beit midrash. I jokingly remark that I did not know the class was now coed.
She tells me she is taking her phone to put by the teacher so that her husband, a tour guide, who is away with a tour group, can listen to the class. And then she adds with pride that he never misses listening to the class when he is away, no matter how rigorous the hiking that day.
Again, I’m astounded by the level of commitment of someone whom I have lived almost next door to for well over a decade.
Stories of respected people who turn out to have feet of clay are more likely to gain media attention. And they can leave one wondering whom one can really trust. But I’m convinced that with respect to most people, we would discover much more that is admirable if we did not fall prey to quick judgments and made more of an effort to really know them.
The Halacha permits a certain amount of exaggeration of the deceased’s good points in a eulogy. One of the leading commentators explains that limited exaggeration is permissible because it almost certainly reflects the truth, as the positive qualities of most people are at least partially hidden from others. Certainly, they are hidden from all those who do not meet their fellow human beings with curiosity, open ears and expecting to be surprised.
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