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A Haredi Consensus?
by Rabbi Yonasan Rosenblum
This article orignally appeared in The Jerusalem Post

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7/24/09

The lead paragraph of a front-page story in Monday's Jerusalem Post describes "the entire haredi public as having formed "a united front . . . to support the Jerusalem mother who allegedly starved her three-year old boy." That statement is grossly misleading, as the article itself makes clear.

It would be accurate to say that the haredi public is united in its resentment of being tarred with the violence in Meah Shearim. It is also true that few haredim can understand why a pregnant mother was jumped and shackled by police as she left a meeting with her social worker, and then held without bail for three days in the most primitive prison conditions. (The municipal social workers in Jerusalem's Bukharian Quarter social service office were beside themselves over the police action.)

Hadassah Hospital could easily have started with a civil proceeding to prevent the mother from seeing her child, which is what the mother was told was going to happen before her visit to the social worker. The police used imprisonment to force the woman to confess or submit to psychiatric examination by a psychiatrist of their choice (rather than a neutral court-appointed psychiatrist). None of the conditions for a denial of bail applied, especially if she were placed in the home of one of the communal rabbis who immediately offered to house her. She was in no position to interfere with the police investigation, did not present an ongoing danger, and was not a serious flight risk.

But it is absolutely false to state that there is any kind of consensus that the mother is innocent or a categorical rejection of the claims of Hadassah Hospital. In yesterday's Mishpacha, by far the largest circulation haredi weekly, Rabbi Mordechai Gotfarb of the Toldos Aharon community is quoted as saying, "Of course, if she were diagnosed with Munchausen-by-proxy disease, then we would understand that the child would have to be taken away."

Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch, the head of the Eidah Hachareidis rabbinical court, did not reject out of hand police claims in a statement issued last Friday: "If their allegations are true, this woman deserves the appropriate medical treatment, but not to sit in a prison cell, with such subhuman treatment." He went on to categorically reject "any talk of boycotting the hospital," as "against halacha and self-damaging," in light of the fact that "many in our community receive their services with great care."

That does not mean, of course, that every claim of the hospital and police is accepted at face value. Many haredim would still like to know what were the presenting symptoms when the boy in question was placed in Hadassah's children's oncology ward and how his mother could have prevented him from eating under the noses of the hospital staff during the nearly seven months he has been hospitalized. But there is a willingness to wait until trial for the full presentation of the facts.

IF THERE IS ONE THING, HOWEVER, about which there is a nearly unanimous agreement across all sectors of the haredi community, it is condemnation of violent actions, such as throwing stones at police and burning garbage cans. From the beginning of the Shabbos demonstrations, after Mayor Barkat's bombastic announcement of the opening of a municipal parking lot, as if he were the secular Saladin recapturing the city from the haredim, Rabbi Sternbuch has issued countless public proclamations stating clearly, "Anyone who commits acts of violence declares that he doesn't belong to our community."

For weeks a sign has hung in the Mirrer Yeshiva, hand-written by the Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, so there can be no mistake, forbidding not just any violent actions, but any participation in demonstrations at all. "No one can give you a heter (permission)," the sign adds for emphasis.

My editorial in this week's Mishpacha quotes veteran Eidah Hachareidis leader Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim strongly condemning the recent demonstrations, and a long interview with Rabbi Pappenheim appears in today's Mishpacha. He points out that Rabbi Amram Blau, the founder of Neturei Karta, modeled his tactics on Mahatma Gandhi. He and his followers always acted passively, even when being beaten by police. Today, however, inevitably some hot-headed youth will throw a stone at police and trigger a riot.

As a consequence, Rabbi Pappenheim says, the demonstrations do grievous harm to the interests of the entire haredi community, and especially to those who participate in them. But his most shocking criticism is that they push off the Redemption. A stronger condemnation, in haredi terms, does not exist.

Rabbi Pappenheim quotes his teacher Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Dushinsky, the late chief rabbi of the Eidah Hachareidis, to the effect that that the Redemption does not require that all Jews first become fully observant, only that there be some drawing closer to God. The rest, writes Maimonides, Mashiach will do.

Never has the time been so ripe for such a spiritual arousal, Rabbi Pappenheim feels. The "isms" that once drew Jewish youth have lost their appeal. The spiritual hunger of Israeli youth manifested in their travels to the Far East in search of enlightenment was already foretold by the Prophet: "Behold, days are coming . . . when I will send hunger into the Land; not a hunger for bread nor a thirst for water, but to hear the words of G-d. [People] will travel from sea to sea, and from north to east; they will wander about to seek the word of G-d, but they will not find it" (Amos 8:11-12).

Those who make Torah Jews and Judaism appear as something ugly and violent, guarantee that their fellow Jews who thirst for the word of G-d, will seek it in foreign pastures. The burning of garbage cans in Meah Shearim does for the image of Torah Judaism what the Watts and Newark riots of 1964 did for the image of inner-city blacks.

IF THE HAREDI RABBIS and public are so opposed to violence, secular Jews ask, why don't they stop it. That question, however, derives from one of the common misconceptions about the haredi community: that it is led by a half dozen rabbis whose word is law. While it might be true that no haredi MK would openly oppose Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, for example, the latter cannot even command obedience in his own Meah Shearim neighborhood.

Rabbi Aharon Feldman, today a member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Agudath Israel of America, remembers that during the Ramot Road demonstrations of the early '80s, he and a group of some of the most respected young roshei yeshiva in Israel went out to urge the hooligans from Meah Shearim, who were throwing stones, to stop. "They just laughed at us," he told me.

Those hooligans represent a haredi educational failure. Even the fact that yeshiva students, some of them American tourists, participated or went to view recent demonstrations out of curiosity represents another type of educational failure. A Talmudic education is supposed to develop qualities of judgment and foresight.

But the violent few do not represent the values of the Torah or of the overwhelming majority of haredi Jews. That is the only issue on which a haredi consensus exists.



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