Saturday, December 26, 2009

A Haredi Criminal in Training

I spent this past Shabbos with some of my Haredi cousins in Monsey NY. Over the course of the Shabbos I got into a conversation with a Haredi individual (not a relative of mine) about the differences between law and public policy. I argued that beyond the simple legalist framework of permitted and forbidden there is the realm of policy where we decide how far we will go in enforcing a law either in encouraging what is permitted and discouraging what is forbidden. This is a realm in which one cannot hold onto straight legal categories and must begin to make ideological decisions. For example, traditional Jewish law has certain standards of dress for women and married women are supposed to cover their hair. Saying that married women should cover their hair, though, does not tell us how we should react to women who do not cover their hair. In theory, from a traditional Jewish perspective, one could justify responses ranging from "winking and nodding" to taking out a gun and blowing the woman's brains out. (This woman has "violated" the sanctity of the Jewish people and is tempting men into sinful actions which deserve of death.) Of course, the decision to wink or shoot is going to depend on one's personal meta-legal theology, philosophy, and moral values.

I challenged the person whether he would rather have improperly dressed women in the street or goon squads. In a secular free society, it is going to be difficult if not impossible to force women to cover their elbows or their hair even on a neighborhood level. If one wishes, at all costs, to be able to walk the street without "temptation" one is going to have to consent to extra legal forces like goon squads to "politely" "explain" to women why their mode of dress goes against Jewish law and that they should change their sinful ways. To my surprise, the person said he would rather have the goon squads. I then asked him how he would deal with problems raised by goon squads. Allowing the existence of goon squads challenges the very structure of Jewish law as we bring into play rule by goon squad in addition to rule by rabbinic authority. (I would see the concept of a goon squad acting under rabbinic supervision as a contradiction in terms.) In addition to that, there is also the problem of rioting, smashing street lights and burning trash cans that seem to naturally result from such a culture. (This is all besides for any harm to the woman, which we may or may not be of concern.) This person asked me in all seriousness what was wrong with smashing traffic lights and burning trash cans. I responded that it constituted an act of theft from the government. The person said that he was not sure there was anything wrong with stealing from the government.

For me, respect for the law and property are basic parts of my being. To hear someone talk about stealing from the government as something at least theoretically justifiable struck me as morally offensive. Whatever differences and disagreements I may have with my father, this is one thing that he deserves credit for. I know this person's parents; they are decent people. Where did he get such a concept in his head? I believe that this is important and not just a theoretical issue of maybe opposing something versus being completely disgusted by it. What will happen when this person is faced with the temptation when the money is on the table and he has to decide whether to take it or walk away? I would never wish to be put in the path of temptation and do not know ultimately if I would succeed. I am enough of a legalist to concoct all sorts of excuses if pushed to it. I believe, though, that I would pass. There is no way that this person would pass. If, when the issue is theoretical, you are already playing games of maybe then you will take the money when it becomes real. If I were to wave a cheeseburger at this person he would turn in horror. What if I stuck non-kosher money into his face and rustled the bills?

According to the rabbis when Joseph was tempted by the wife of Potiphar he was tempted to give in. He was saved by the vision of "the face of his father." If Joseph was a gunslinger from Stephen King's Dark Tower series we might say that he did not "forget the face of his father." I understand this idea in non-mystical terms. Normal people, no matter their theoretical principles, are not going to put themselves in danger in order to turn down an act of pleasure. It requires growing up in a home like Jacob's and being raised with a sense that there are certain things that you will not do no matter the consequences. It is not enough to just believe that certain things are wrong; it has to be something rooted in your very bones.

I fully expect to see this person, from a respectable Haredi family and educated in elite Haredi institutions, on the wrong end of some scandal within the next few decades, either beating up a woman for what she is wearing or "cutting some corners" in order to fund the Jewish institution of his choice. At the very least he will be one of the people turning a blind eye and winking and nodding at the whole affair. I was raised to not particularly concern myself with whether other people were dressed appropriately, but with an absolute horror at the prospect of taking money that did not belong to me. That is part of my meta-legal theology, philosophy, and moral values. What sort of moral values did the Haredi institutions that produced this person raise him with?


Vox Populi said...

I share your opinion in this regard, but am unsure what the theoretical obstacle to goon squads is. Or rather, I don't know why you would think a Charedi would be opposed to it.

If you're a Charedi who believes that women covering their hair is a moral and legal imperative (and to a devout halachist, they are always both), then it stands to reason that you would favor coercion to ensure that the law is observed.

It's not like their is some larger value that would override coercion of observance. In secular legal systems, you have strict black letter law and you have guiding principles (which are often, but not always, enshrined in law). There are times when enforcement of laws (and even the creation of laws) which would create conflicts with our values would lead to us not creating or enforcing those laws.

In ultra-Orthodox circles, you have laws and you have... laws. (You have minhagim, but they can only supplement laws.) The only limitation you have on a law, is if its application in a certain context would conflict with the application of another law. But freedom of expression, or freedom of association (or whatever) are not values in and of themselves. Would a goon squad lead to the detriment of liberty? Sure, but why is liberty important if it leads to sin? There is no liberty for the sake of liberty. To a Charedi, a "goon squad" does not have a negative connotation - they're not goons, but Pinchases. It's a Zrizim Squad. It's like in Iran, with their Basij, or Saudi Arabia and its Mutaween. Being in the goon squad would be relatively prestigious, you know, for a job after kollel. Or maybe for kids who don't learn so well. There wouldn't be any damage of government property, because they'd be arm in arm with the government. The only thing holding them back is that it's illegal in every country with Charedim.

Izgad said...

“I share your opinion in this regard, but am unsure what the theoretical obstacle to goon squads is. Or rather, I don't know why you would think a Charedi would be opposed to it.”
I think I kept to issues that are, or at least should be, of concern to ultra traditionalists, particularly the question of authority. We are supposed to be a religion of the Talmud, Mishnah Torah and Shulchan Aruch as interpreted by your local Orthodox rabbi. Bringing in goon squads represents a challenge to this model.
To use the analogy of Islam, Osama bin Laden is a threat to even the most west hating burkah loving conservative mullah in that there is nothing in Islamic law to give bin Laden the authority to hand out fatwahs. If every Zayid and Umar can hand out fatwahs then you have no more Islam regardless of how modest women dress.

Garnel Ironheart said...

I wrote about this a while back in terms of picking and choosing.

Most "talmid chachams" generally read the Mishnah Berurah and selected parts of Yoreh Deah (kashrus, niddah) and that's pretty much the extent of their exposure to practical halacha. As a result, when they reach a situation not covered by those two volumes, they tend to improvise even though somewhere else in Shulchan Aruch there may be rules dealing with their problems.

For example, a Rav told me last year "You know why no one learns Choshen Mishpat anymore? Because no one wants to know what's in it. It would cut into their illegal activities too much so it's better to remain ignorant".

In addition, there is a permanent emphasis on gemara and no real learning of Navi which is a horrible mistake.

Thus you have a society in which, as you said, a cheeseburger horrifies someone far more than a handful of stolen money. If they had read Navi, they would know that Yerushalayim was destroyed because of murder, violence and theft, not cheeseburgers. If they read Shulchan Aruch, they would know that self-appointed goon squads are against the rules and that stoning non-believers and trashing their property is not allowed. But they don't, so they continue to conduct themselves like barbarians happy in their ignorance.

Miss S. said...

Do those outside of the kiruv circles know that part of the role of being a Yid w/yiras h'shamayim is to "refine" yourself -- to move closer to the state of living that Hashem has intended for us? It is not so that you can justify your moral and interpersonal shortcomings and continue to be a bad citizen of the planet.

Forget halacha (well not's just an expression here...); we need to get back to basics, and learn how to be kind human beings.

The Bray of Fundie said...

I know this person's parents; they are decent people. Where did he get such a concept in his head?

From Satmar Ideology. It may be OK to steal from the ISRAELI government because they are illigitimate and enemies of G-d.

Izgad said...

The funny things is that these people are far from being Satmars. They are quite Litvishe. This is a good example of what my uncle, Rabbi Dovid Landesman has argued that “the Satmar has become mainstream.” (

Garnel Ironheart said...

I think Miss S is right on the mark. FFB's generally go through life doing "the routine" without realizing there's a bigger picture, probably because no one has ever told them.

Vox Populi said...

>Bringing in goon squads represents a challenge to this model.

Why? Just let the goon squads operate under the authority of rabbis.

Izgad said...

“Why? Just let the goon squads operate under the authority of rabbis.”

To put that into practice rabbis would need to act much in the same way that civilian review boards act for police (Granted that even these are not particularly effective at times). Rabbis would need to construct an elaborate protocol as to how to approach immodestly dressed women and what sort of recourse may they turn to in specific situations if a woman refuses to comply. Keep in mind that all of this is meant to create a counter to the secular government which is not enforcing the desired dress code in the first place. I am sure you can see the sort of legal trouble we are setting ourselves up for once our rabbis stick their necks out formally on paper to act as this goon squad review board. This leaves us with having to run our goon squad off the books, without formal policies and without any meaningful supervision.

Vox Populi said...

I'm not talking about a goon squad that operates either within the confines of secular law or without. I'm talking about a hypothetical ideal Charedi world. I don't know, Mashiach has come or something. In such a world, there'd be no reason for Charedim to oppose the formation of goon squads, would there? The Mutaween and the Basij are part of the state apparatus.

I'm sure if the Rabbis are capable of setting up elaborate protocol for how to cut one's fingernails, they could manage creating an elaborate protocol to govern goon/gooned relations.

Izgad said...

“I'm talking about a hypothetical ideal Charedi world. I don't know, Mashiach has come or something.”

Agreed. I was talking about a world in which we still have to worry about some “immoral” secular government that will not let us beat up improperly dressed women. If we have the Messiah here than we can have goon squads to our Haredi heart’s content.
This puts an interesting spin on “the Sages did not want the days of the Messiah to rule the world.” We can now end the line “rather so that they could engage in Torah law and its wisdom to merit putting a measuring rod to lady’s skirts.” Think of the interpretive chance the Miami Boy’s Choir could do to this new version.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

Obviously I don't know the guy you were debating, but it's quite possible that he was sort of pulling your leg. Allow me to explain. There is a certain type of yeshiva guy who enjoys nothing more than playing devil's advocate in a debate; never in an unpredictable direction, never in a more liberal fashion. But in a more conservative, more zealous fashion than the views he truly holds. Pilpula be-alma. Assuming he is that type, it was probably especially gratifying for him to shock and chagrin you with his seeming contempt for your morals and ethics, which he probably thinks are rooted in non-Torah sources and therefore not worth taking seriously.

The result may wind up being the same, because someone who plays like this probably deep down really does have some measure of the contempt that he acts like he has, but I wouldn't be surprised if he was playing you a little bit.

Izgad said...


I agree that he may have been joking, though he did seem very serious to me. That being said the mindset he was playing at is precisely the sort needed to create our present day criminal problem. Furthermore, as you point out, the mere fact that this game is being played is part of the problem. In that since there really is no such thing as a joke.