Monday, April 19, 2010
What is Wrong with a Little Spring Cleaning?
Garnel hit it right on the head yesterday when he commented on my last post: "And that's probably why no "orthodox" publisher would touch his stuff and why Cross Currents recently allowed a free-for-all attack on his latest essay without allowing comments to defend him." This was actually my planned continuation of the piece.
A few days ago, Rabbi Dovid Landesman put up another guest post over at Cross Currents, titled "Spring Cleaning." He uses, as his springboard, his mother-in-law's (my grandmother's) habitual rants about the Jerusalem Post's negative reporting about Haredim (I had the pleasure of reading it to my grandmother in person when she was over here.) to engage in some soul-searching as to how the Haredi community reacts to negative news about them appearing in the press. Of concern to Rabbi Landesman it is not a matter of this or that scandal (there is plenty of that), but the attitude of the Haredi community to such reports. Rabbi Landesman cautions against a "marked tendency to mask many of the deficiencies that exist within our community by claiming that they are no more than the frightened ramblings of the leftist/secular world who live in trepidation of the demographics that might soon create a chareidi majority in Eretz Yisrael." Of concern here is a Haredi triumphalism that is incapable of seeing any meaningful wrongdoing in the community and reflexively delegitimizes any reports to the contrary and anyone daring to be the messenger.
The specific example that Rabbi Landesman offers is the ongoing case of the Emmanuel Bais Yaakov girls' school, charged with discriminating against girls of Sephardic descent. The basic story, so it seems, is that the school created a separate makeshift school for Ashkenazi girls so that they would not have to attend classes with Sephardi girls. (I am reminded of the Mississippi public school that allowed for there to be a separate prom to avoid allowing a lesbian girl to attend with her girlfriend.) Rabbi Landesman raises the challenge:
The Israeli Supreme Court has found the Bais Yaakov in Emmanuel to be in contempt of court for continuing to segregate Ashkenazi and Sefaradi girls in the school. Reportedly [and I use the word with forethought], Rav Elyashiv ruled that the court decision was "dreadful and should provoke a public outcry." Neither you nor I know what Rav Elyashiv actually said, nor am I certain how the facts of the case were presented to him. I will therefore refrain from commenting as to what I think the reply should be to the ruling of the bagatz. Rather, I want to focus on what our reaction should be to the situation itself. What will we do when the secular media takes this statement and uses it to stir up animosity against the chareidi world? Will it be sufficient to simply dismiss it as another example of their anti-religious agenda?
Note that the issue here is not whether the Bais Yaakov is actually guilty of anything. Personally, I oppose all discrimination laws regarding private institutions. (By private I mean not taking any government money. The moment you pocket a government check, you have sold them your soul and they have the right to use their money as leverage to their heart's content.) I see discrimination as a matter of private morality so I am hardly the sort of person, despite my personal opposition to racial discrimination, to defend governments trying to interfere in schools in the name of racial equality. The issue here is can we take the moment for some honest self reflection instead of simply thumping our chests, saying that we really are wonderful and it is just everyone else who is out to make us look bad?
In a sane world, there would be nothing controversial about what Rabbi Landesman wrote. Sephardim are a minority in the Jewish community and, as such, they are subject to various levels of discrimination, particularly in insular communities like the Haredi one. Enter Rabbi Yaakov Menken. This is the same Rabbi Yaakov Menken, who censored my comments this past summer, simply because I dared to say something about Haredim besides for "these are people who regularly have non-Orthodox Jews, people they've never met before, as guests in their homes for Shabbos meals." Rabbi Menken denies the fact that there is any serious problem of self-denial on the part of the Haredi community. Furthermore, he bristles at any accusations of Haredi triumphalism. Why you may ask, because, according to Rabbi Menken, these claims about how wonderful the Haredi community is (so wonderful that any honest study of the data would cause someone to run off and convert to Judaism) are all true. Rabbi Menken gleefully jumps on the fact that, yes, the account of what is actually going on in Emmanuel has been disputed. This, for Rabbi Menken, is evidence that this Emmanuel case really is a product of a sinister secular liberal media and legal system, which really is out to malign Haredim and people like Rabbi Landesman are dupes for taking them at their word. The attack parade continues with Eytan Kobre. Thankfully Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein stepped in with something resembling sanity, offering words of criticism to both sides.
With all of this back and forth about Emmanuel going on, the main point of the article was quickly lost. Are people in the Haredi community too quick to criticize how they are portrayed in the media and are they doing this as a means to avoid any serious self-reflection? I do not expect any society to manage to rid itself of fanatics, kooks, and maniacs. On the flip side, every society will have its clear eyed reformers, willing to face up to what is wrong with that society. The real moral question in judging a society is how the silent majority are oriented? In many respects, this ultimately becomes a judgment of the "moderates." There are always going to be fanatics burning garbage or worse. What, though, is the reaction of the otherwise respectable and supposedly responsible people of influence like Rabbi Menken? Do they honestly come out in opposition or do they dismiss these people simply as a fringe element, get defensive about any indication that this is something more serious, while spouting rhetoric that de facto justifies the actions of the fanatics, in essence giving them a wink and a nod? These attacks on Rabbi Landesman are far stronger evidence for his case than any garbage burning mob.