What Are Haredi Jews Doing to the Jewish Community?
I do not want to come across as a rabbi-basher, or an opponent of Haredi Judaism. Much like other things, there are parts that I love and parts that I do not. But something happened this week that I simply cannot let go without comment. It is not the fact that Haredi families in Lakewood, New Jersey, were arrested for million-dollar frauds relating to Social Security, welfare and Medicaid. That’s too commonplace to mention anymore. This is about Haredis abusing Haredis — and one Hasidic rebbe in particular.
Last week, an independent-minded, mystical Hasidic rebbe scandalized the Hasidic world.
It is a well-established Hasidic custom to have a Mitzvah Tanz — a special dance at the end of a wedding, in which rabbis, male family members and close family friends dance with the bride, while holding opposite ends of a kerchief or gartel.
Last week, the rabbi of the Karlin-Stolin Dynasty made headlines in the ultra-Orthodox media when he actually held hands with his daughter and son-in-law at their wedding in Tel Aviv.
The rebbe said that doing so was an old custom that was accepted in his family (which hailed from Eastern Europe). So he decided to reintroduce it. The rebbe held hands with his daughter, her new husband and the groom’s father — and the four of them danced for several minutes in a circle. Hardly a dance, actually — more like a shuffle.
Thousands of Hasidim attended the wedding, including rabbis and leaders of other Hasidic sects. There were 8,500 meals ordered and 130 buses for the guests. Inevitably, therefore, word and cellphone pictures immediately got out about this stunning break with Hasidic custom.
The trend in the Haredi world is that you have to get stricter by the day; you can’t get away with anything that is more lenient. Never mind that the Talmud says that the ability to permit something is preferable to the ability to forbid it
Ours is a world where there are plenty of crazies who have nothing better to do than attack Orthodox soldiers who are praying in synagogues — or to push old ladies off buses and planes because they do not want to sit next to them. Many of these zealots also throw stones at cars — thus endangering lives — because the vehicles venture too close to Haredi ghettos on Shabbat.
Many such crazies were shocked by what the rebbe had done, and wrote angry comments to the Haredi press expressing their outrage at this public display of mixed dancing. A crowd of howling furies also gathered in the hundreds around the rabbi’s center in Jerusalem, and prevented him leaving for 11 hours.
Perhaps this is poetic justice. The Karlin-Stolin rebbe himself has said some pretty denigrating things about those he does not agree with. Maybe this is his comeuppance. But what disturbs me most is the awful infighting — this lack of respect for difference. I understand theological battles over ideology. I understand the need to protect one’s own culture and customs. But not at the price of denigrating and attacking others. That’s what others do, not us — yet once again, that is precisely what is happening.
We Jews have lots of different customs, on many issues. We should welcome these varieties, not try to expunge them.
We are about to enter a period of mourning and fasts known as the “Three Weeks,” which starts with the 17th of Tammuz and goes through the 9th of Av. The 17th of Tammuz, which falls on this coming Tuesday, records the beginning of the process of conquest that led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in both 586 BCE and 70 CE, combined into one.
I am the rabbi of a Sephardi congregation — originally a term used for Spanish Jews, but now used for all those who came from eastern, Arab and Muslim cultures. Overwhelming, Sephardi opinion follows the Talmud and the Medieval Code– the Shulhan Aruh. For Sephardis, only the week in which the 9th of Av falls is the period of mourning. But our custom later developed to include the nine days from Rosh Hodesh Av.
The Ashkenazim have expanded this period into three weeks of mourning. During that period, one cannot have weddings, eat meat, or engage in other activities.
Yet what happens when an observant Ashkenazi marries an observant Sephardi, and they want to get married during the last half of the month of Tamuz? Half the guests will attend, and the other half won’t.
The Talmud keeps returning to the theme that we lost the Temples because of our own in-fighting, corruption, and the failure of our religious leadership. Sadly, things have not gotten any better since then.
I wonder if this might be a tipping point. Perhaps the responsible leaders will realize that they are encouraging these crazies. Perhaps they will realize that such heresy hunting and neurosis is destructive and self-defeating. Remember the popular saying: “Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.”