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January 27, 2012 11:00 am

Charedim and the Costa Concordia Captain

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

The capsized Costa Concordia. Photo: Roberto Vongher.

The world press had a field day over the sinking of the Costa Concordia cruise liner off the Italian coast. We can now add to the list of popular Italian books, such as the “Short History of Italian War Heroes” and “The Berlusconi Handbook of Underage Girls.” Now we have “The Italian Sea Captain’s Advice on How to Abandon Ship”. Captain Francesco Schettino jumped into a lifeboat ahead of almost everyone else. His excuse was that he slipped. I guess his other excuse was that he couldn’t abandon ship (the lifeboat!) even when he was ordered repeatedly to get back on board the sinking cruise liner! I seem to remember some Law of the Sea that as long as the captain stayed on the ship, salvage companies could not claim it. Which boat was he saving?

Is he a typical Italian? They do seem to have great joie de vivre–singing, drinking, laughing, eating, joking, and seducing each other as the ship of state sinks further and further into debt. They turn tax evasion into an art form and shift all their savings into Switzerland. Italian men treat women like beautiful objects of adoration but have no notion of “faithfulness”. They are amongst the most fervent of Catholics and yet also the most secular. What other country rivals their toxic mix of Medicis and Borgias?

Captain Francesco Schettino typifies everything I have said. He comes across as a vain Lothario. Not only did he ignore the ancient cry of captains of sinking ships, “Women and children first”, he put himself before everyone else.

But wait! Haven’t I just delivered myself of the most spectacular example of crass generalizations and a completely one-sided view of Italy and Italians? Of course I have.

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But doesn’t the press do precisely this all the time? The past month I have been reading a constant flow of silly, dishonest generalizations about the Charedi world, in sources from “Haaretz” to the “New York Times”. I don’t need to reiterate my own anger at the way Charedi bullyboys are tolerated and ignored by those who should know better. The Charedi world really is shooting itself in the foot, the way we Jews of all kinds do. Just take that idiotic Jewish newspaper owner in Atlanta who wrote an editorial suggesting assassinating Obama might be in the cards. Thank goodness he resigned and put the paper up for sale. But not before the damage had been done.

I have often argued that Charedi leadership ought to be making a much stronger effort to rein in the fanatics or boot them out. The view that these religious hooligans are at least keeping our religion alive and represent the most intense form of Judaism is deluded and catastrophic. All they are perpetuating is a distortion, a mutation. But to tar all of the Charedi world, all its scholars and saints, with the brush of the lunatic fringe is no different than taking Captain Schettino as typical of all Italians.

Amongst the crimes placed at Charedi doors is their supposed lack of regard for women. I have seen it said that had there been a Charedi captain of the Costa Concordia he would have forced all the women to go to the back of the line. But the fact is that the strictest of halacha nowadays insists that one does not differentiate between any human beings when it comes to matters of life and death. The current petty discriminatory practices (not laws) are a distortion, albeit a well-supported one. More the result of zeitgeist than tradition.

There is, indeed, a debate in the Talmud about who takes precedence, but this precedence is symbolic not practical. For example in the Talmud Horyot 13a, “A scholar takes precedence over a king of Israel, for if a scholar dies there is none to replace him, while if a king of Israel dies, all Israel are eligible for kingship.” Or, “If a man and his father and his teacher were in captivity, he takes precedence over his teacher and his teacher takes precedence over his father, while his mother takes precedence over all of them.” The overwhelming number of Charedi authorities agree that in such situations as the Costa Concordia, natural tragedies, fires, or life-threatening car crashes, we face a situation of “triage” where a decision should be made on which situation or individual circumstance is more likely to result in preserving life, rather than which person is most important to save.

The context of differentiating between men and women is not a civil one, for in civil damages there is no distinction in Biblical Law between males and females, unlike the nearest comparison, the Code of Hammurabi. And whereas it is true that in ritual matters men and women played different roles, this never meant that their lives were of any different value, even if the prevailing mores of all cultures was heavily tipped in favor of men and wealthy women.

I am extremely proud that thousands of years before the equality of the sexes became an issue, the rabbis refused to differentiate between males and females on this issue of who should take preference (I only wish they had taken a few other steps as well). Yet, for all of that, I am so conditioned by my Western education that it still seems natural that women and children should go into the lifeboats first, even though it is now rather anachronistic, since both rescuers and doctors, secular and religious, use other criteria. Surprisingly, in our egalitarian society traditional halacha (Jewish law) seems to be remarkably fair and modern. Captain Schettino followed neither!

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