The truth of satire

Somehow we have forgotten that idleness, poverty and a persecution complex all are, in the long run, self-destructive.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
There is a wickedly funny a nd enormously sad piece of satire making the rounds about a “Lithuanian” haredi father attempting to explain to his inquisitive child the story of the Hasmoneans and their triumph over the Greeks. On the one hand the Hasmoneans were staunch “Lithuanian haredim” who learned all day, while on the other hand they apparently had weapons, organized an army that they themselves led in actual warfare against the Greeks.
They also engaged in commerce and agriculture, albeit always wearing only white shirts. And, apparently, they wanted to establish an independent Jewish state in the Land of Israel. The child realizes the enormous disconnect between the traditional story of Hanukka and the Hasmoneans and what he has been taught at home, in school and among his peers about the country and society he currently lives in.
The father admits to himself the existence of this savage disconnect, but says one may not state so publicly lest one be accused of being a Zionist.
Here, as in all good satire, there exists more than a bit of exaggeration. But there is no doubt that more than a kernel of truth also exists in this fictitious conversation. The haredi world in the main, especially the “Lithuanian” branch (which I identify myself as belonging to) has yet to come to grips with the realities of today. It is still fighting the battle of the nineteenth century against secular Zionism, a battle long ago ended and not relevant any longer in today’s Jewish world.
Part of the problem is changing this mindset of complete disconnect with reality. We have grown so comfortable over the past centuries of Jewish life as being the persecuted victim that we are frightened to shuck off that protective mantle. We see the world in black and white only – the good guys and the villains. There is no room for nuance or moderation in such a worldview.
If we are involved in rabbinic scandal, financial misdeeds, abusive physical and sexual behavior, violence against police, corrupt elections (and those elected thereby) and are caught by the authorities for so doing, the immediate knee-jerk reaction is that we are being persecuted because of our religious practices, different dress, traditional lifestyle and distinct societal mores.
Somehow we have forgotten that idleness, poverty and a persecution complex all are, in the long run, self-destructive.
These were the conditions that secularized much of Ashkenazi Jewry over the past three centuries. Eventually a system built on declining governmental welfare allotments and unending charity from others – a system decried by Maimonides and other great rabbinic sages and religious leaders throughout the ages – is a Ponzi scheme that inexorably will collapse of its own weight.
And we are ill served by religious political leaders and the handlers of old and revered great Torah scholars who, for purposes I have never really understood, oppose any change of the current miserable status quo. And, there is never any plan advanced to help rescue their adherents from the deepening abyss of poverty and personal despair.
So, a little clever satire can be a good thing for us. A good look at the absurdity of some of our societal practices, at the disconnect with reality, at an educational system that impoverishes its students for life and stifles creativity and different opinions can only help us in the long run to advance the cause of Torah in Israel and in the Diaspora! A middle-aged person recently came to see me before embarking on a trip to the United States to raise money to pay crushing debts accumulated over the years that he has not worked. The irony is that he graduated university and as a qualified engineer is easily employable.
So when I asked him why he doesn’t go to work instead of undergoing the humiliation of canvassing for charity door to door in the American winter for a month, much of it given begrudgingly, I sighed deeply at his answer: “I have daughters to marry off and the husbands they want to marry will not accept daughters of someone who is working!” I wanted to answer him harshly: “But they will accept daughters of someone who begs others for charity?!” However, I bit my tongue and wished him success (?) on his journey. I was impotently outraged all day at how this type of mindset has corrupted such a wonderful people.
Perhaps we need more satire to have the truth of the situation sink into our society.
Shabbat shalom The author is a rabbi, and the founder and director of the Destiny Foundation since 1996. For over 25 years, he has been identified with the popularization of Jewish history through his more than 1,000 lectures heard world-wide.
He blogs at