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?