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yesh omrim

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They do not speak in my name, nor I in theirs

29 December 2011

As the Midrash says, there are seventy faces of Torah. I have chosen to follow a certain path within Orthodox Judaism, but I’m willing to admit that other paths are also valid. In particular, if other Jewish men and women find spiritual benefit from practicing a higher level of gender segregation than I favor, they should live and be well. To paraphrase a certain Chinese sage, I tolerate those who are tolerant; I also tolerate those who are intolerant.

Up to a point.

Vandalizing an elementary school and harrassing eight-year-old girls is not, by any reasonable construction, a face of Torah, or for that matter, a face of ordinary human decency. I am glad to see that the Rabbinical Council of America and the Orthodox Union (the mainstream American Orthodox rabbinic and lay organization, respectively) have condemned the violence and called on the Israeli police to suppress it.

Some people in the wider Jewish and secular worlds, seeing that both I and the kanna‘im [zealots] identify ourselves as “Orthodox”, might think that they are acting on behalf of my own principles. Not only do I want to disassociate myself from them, but I feel that they, along with the regular charedi1 leadership, want to disassociate from me. Look at how Agudath Israel of America, the most prominent American institution representing charedim, comments on the events. Condemning the violence is their warm-up act, but the main event is condemning something else:

Lost in all the animus and ill will, unfortunately, is the concept ostensibly at the core of the controversy: the exalted nature of tzenius, or Jewish modesty. Judaism considers human desires to constitute a sublime and important force, but one whose potential for harm is commensurate with its potential for holiness.

In a society like our own, where the mantra of many is, in effect, “anything goes,” many charedi Jews, men and women alike, see a need to take special steps – in their own lives and without seeking to coerce others – to counterbalance the pervasive atmosphere of licentiousness, so as to avoid the degradation of humanity to which it leads.

Reading that statement, you’d never know that the girls in question—primary-school students being called “shiksa” and “perutza [slut]” by grown men—are, themselves, Orthodox. The kanna’im would be just as despicable, of course, if they directed their insults at secular Jews or, for that matter, Gentiles. But the Agudah’s press agent compounds the insult by treating this as an affair with only three parties: the regular charedi community, who are good guys; the kanna’im, who are bad guys; and the smutty secular folk, who are also bad guys, but for a different reason. So which team, in this formulation, do the victims belong to? Hint: not the regular charedi community.

1 The term “ultra-Orthodox” is often used to describe these folks. Many of them consider the phrase pejorative, and I myself am not fond of the implication that a community is “more Orthodox” than my own just because its members are outwardly more distinct from the mainstream.