There is nothing new about criticism of Charedi society. It is heard often enough in mainstream media, in Israel and abroad. Such critical takes, however, mostly come from outsiders, and as such have but limited weight among Charedim themselves. In the present article, I would like to express a different kind of criticism – criticism from within the community. My words do not represent myself alone. I am trying to give voice to what many of my friends feel in the face of current Charedi public conduct: an awkward feeling that lies somewhere between loyalty, anger, and disappointment.
The following sentences do not mean to condemn the God-fearing community in which I reside, God forbid, but only an attempt to make some modest contribution towards elevating our standards. I am convinced that internal criticism, “Let us search out and examine our ways, and turn back to Hashem,” should be a habit of a society that wishes to do Hashem’s will and follow in His path. After all, if we do not know how to examine our actions and mend our deeds, how can we return to God when we falter? I am not seeking to highlight our flaws but rather to examine how we can change our ways. I wish to do so out of concern for the good within us, with a deep-set knowledge that this good is there and that we need to cultivate it.
I am convinced that internal criticism, “Let us search out and examine our ways, and turn back to Hashem,” should be a habit of a society that wishes to do Hashem’s will and follow in His path. After all, if we do not know how to examine our actions and mend our deeds, how can we return to God when we falter?
Earlier this week – I am writing in October 2020 – I was present at one of those places where people behave as though there is no corona in the world at all. Despite my anger at their behavior and my fierce debate with them on this subject, I did not feel alienated from my Charedi peers. I will always belong in the Shuls and study halls, whether they follow corona guidelines or not. However, the present situation does not allow me to remain silent. We must think together about how we can improve our ways.
Can we justify our behavior in these times?
At this stage, it is fairly clear to all of us that the Charedi community has not succeeded is cooperating guidelines meant to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Of course, there are parts of the community for whom this is particularly true and even reflects their official policy, and there are others for whom it is only true to one degree or another. Either way, we cannot point to particular slices of the community and claim it is solely their fault. All parts of the Charedi community are ignoring the guidelines at least to some extent, and their behavior endangers them and the rest of the country. In the Lithuanian community to which I belong, Shuls, Torah schools, Kollels, and yeshiva institutions have largely reopened, and the same is true for parts of the Sephardi community. This, at a time when the state is still in lockdown, trying to prevent the spread of the virus.
There are many justifications for this situation: the unquestionable importance of communal life and the difficulty in shutting it down even temporarily; the dropout rate from yeshiva; the importance of teaching Torah to young Jewish children; the vitality of Torah study generally. But despite this, many belonging to the Torah community will state outright that none of these reasons justify the present conduct of Charedi society. Is refusing to wear a mask also part of the mitzvah? Is it so hard to pray in the square next to the shul – as is done in many other places? Can we not open our elementary schools with at least minimal adherence to safety procedures and regulations? In addition, “corona denial” is widespread, though we all know some of the pandemic victims – members of the community whose death could have been prevented if there was greater attention to guidelines. I am yet to hear a rational explanation for this behavior.
In sum, even if there is much logic and some truth in the various justifications being offered, I feel something very precious is being damaged, and no excuse will avail us here. Our moral image, both in our own eyes and in the eyes of others, has been dealt a devastating blow.
The Moral Superiority of the Torah Community
The strength of the Charedi community has always been its moral superiority. Uncompromising adherence to Torah and mitzvos has indeed produced a wonderfully moral community. This result, we always believed, justifies the cost of separation from the rest of society, despite such thorny issues as exemption from military service and unequal participation in the workforce. In the end, the Charedi community raises good people – God-fearing, kind, protected from the lower elements of the world, cherishing their families. What more can we wish for?
Even Charedim with many grievances against the system share a basic understanding that the Charedi way of life is morally upright and that the flaws one encounters are of a secondary nature. We believe that the values of the Torah community are the values of Judaism and that they direct us to be the best people we can be
Our community’s success in raising a generation faithful to the tradition of their forefathers rests on its moral caliber. We were taught that we are an elite society, maintaining the values of old without compromise; we live in the world as God would want us to, and we always strive to be better. Those raised on this tradition need a very good reason to leave it. Even Charedim with many grievances against the system share a basic understanding that the Charedi way of life is morally upright and that the flaws one encounters are of a secondary nature. We believe that the values of the Torah community are the values of Judaism and that they direct us to be the best people we can be. This sense was so powerful that it is hard for some Charedi individuals to differentiate between being Jewish and being Charedi. Charedi lifestyle serves as the framework for how we defined our identity.
The morality of the Charedi community was also a source of inspiration that attracted many to join its ranks. The teshuva movement and the tendency of the Charedi-Leumi community to adopt Charedi norms demonstrate that we are indeed a beacon of light for many. This matter has always been an integral part of Charedi propaganda; the fact that there is no police station in Bnei Brak was trumpeted as a contrast to rising crime rates among Israelis in general, and our well-bred and devout youth was favorably compared to secular youth. I still remember old caricatures of Yoni Gerstein, himself a baal teshuva, which cleverly (and sometimes aggressively) expressed this idea.
This morality was not just a matter of image, as the community’s detractors might allege, but rather a simple reflection of reality. The Charedi community succeeds in maintaining Torah values at the highest level, and this leads to welcome results. Therefore, even if we had to criticize negative phenomena such as ethnic discrimination, we understood that such flaws have no place in a moral society and that we must strive to eradicate them. However, none of the acknowledged flaws convinced us that leaving Charedi society is the solution. For the quality Torah community, what decided in favor of “Charedism” was its moral strength. This, more than any sense of community or social cohesion, is what made the Charedi community so resilient.
Wherever he is, a Charedi person represents an identity. Even if his behavior is constantly under scrutiny, he has virtues that most would readily acknowledge: gentleness, integrity, honesty, Jewish literacy
Wherever he is, a Charedi person represents an identity. Even if his behavior is constantly under scrutiny, he has virtues that most would readily acknowledge: gentleness, integrity, honesty, Jewish literacy. I remember an encounter with a non-religious child who tried to catch me on what seemed to him to be an impolite behavior, and he cynically remarked: “You do mitzvot, good deeds, huh?” It was clear to me he heard this expression from his parents, and mockery aside, such words reflect the fact that we are perceived as a moral society, committed to the good. Criticism hurled at us is often an effort to crack this image and expose it as false. But I truly believe that there is nothing false here. A life centered around Torah and mitzvos necessarily produces better conduct.
Can we give an honest account of ourselves?
Unfortunately, this moral image has weakened over the years for various reasons. The expansion of the Charedi societal margins, the materialism that has seeped into our community, internal struggles, modernization – all of these have cracked the moral image of our society, both in outsiders’ eyes and in our own.
The peak of this rift was reached during the pandemic. We always took pride in being a society that looks after its own members, a responsible society that also demonstrated solidarity towards others in times of emergency. Now, it turns out that we do not even care about our own – or at least so our opponents claim. At best, each subgroup takes care of its members, and at worst, Charedim fail even at that, demonstrating callousness towards the elderly while blaming the police and the state for everything gone wrong.
Thus, long-standing complaints against Charedi society have received sudden and unexpected support. To arguments concerning serving in the army and not taking responsibility for the state, we could counter that we are serving the state and protecting its citizens in our own way. But the pandemic proved otherwise: we don’t really take responsibility at critical moments and even when we do so we engage in doublespeak. They told us we are a society that does not help bear the economic burden, and we argued in response that our values are those of thrift and making do with little. Yet now, in the middle of a painful lockdown crushing the economy, including collapsing businesses and many thousands struggling to make ends meet, mass events (such as tishes) and semachos are going ahead as usual.
Can we still consider ourselves a moral and responsible society in the face of such conduct? Of course, there are many individuals who are diligent in following the rules, but the public atmosphere broadcasts a different message. The explanations given for this irresponsibility are insufficient; none of them justify such anarchy.
The question that troubles me most is simple: Will we be able to teach our children in the same way our parents taught us? Can we tell the next generation that we are indeed moral and upright, a beacon among human societies that cares first and foremost about helping others? It seems to me that today, we are making do with the “kippa and tzitzit” proof for our moral integrity
I fear our behavior will have consequences in the long term, not just at the social and political level, but also for us internally. Can we still morally account for our behavior? Can we convince ourselves that the criticism directed at us is unwarranted? Can we still consider ourselves a model society? Can we bask in our educational successes, given the painful questions we willfully ignore?
The question that troubles me most is simple: Will we be able to teach our children in the same way our parents taught us? Can we tell the next generation that we are indeed moral and upright, a beacon among human societies that cares first and foremost about helping others? It seems to me that today, we are making do with the “kippa and tzitzit” proof for our moral integrity. We are so good and great, that we no longer need to be considerate of others who are not “one of us.” On the contrary, others should be considerate of us and give us special treatment due to our superiority over them. Is this our new idea of moral education? Does our fear of God allow us to ignore our faults? Why is it that we allow ourselves improper public conduct in the name of Torah and mitzvos?
To Learn Humility
As I have repeatedly said, our ability to criticize ourselves is not a sign of weakness or feeling of inferiority towards non-Charedim. I do not think that every internal criticism seeks to flatter outside bashers. On the contrary, internal criticism indicates real strength, demonstrating that we are not so weak as to fear accountability. As a society, we need to believe in our own path and goodness, while also meeting the challenges that require change and improvement. This hour of crisis is an opportunity to learn that lesson. But what do we need to fix?
We need humility. This does not mean that we should humiliate ourselves before others, but rather that we should develop the humility appropriate for those who wish to walk with Hashem. […] We feel we “deserve it all.” The good in us, which originally derived from our sense of deep moral commitment, has become a tool for demanding rights rather than a call for duty
We need humility. This does not mean that we should humiliate ourselves before others, but rather that we should develop the humility appropriate for those who wish to walk with Hashem. Our failure begins with the sense that thanks to mitzvah observance we deserve more; the feeling that “we” Charedim are the true “Nation of Israel”, while “they” who are not are lesser who ought to support and serve us. This view is so commonplace in our community that we always automatically cry “antisemitism” in response to criticism from without. Charedi apologists will always claim that our detractors do not recognize our contribution to Israel and the world. Well, I was taught that rights are received, not taken. Our community seems to have forgotten this. We feel we “deserve it all.” The good in us, which originally derived from our sense of deep moral commitment, has become a tool for demanding rights rather than a call for duty.
Beyond the fact that a haughty attitude leads us to a social dead end, it is also deeply opposed to the spirit of the Torah. Before we entered the Land of Israel, Moshe warned us: “Not because of your righteousness or because of the honesty of your heart, do you come to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations, Hashem your God drives them out from before you, and in order to establish the matter that Hashem swore to your forefathers.” He reminded us, lest we forget, that our place in the covenant does not entitle us to privileges. On the contrary, it is a constant trial. A position of belief includes humility, and as Rabbi Yochanan says in Pirkei Avot: “If you have learned much Torah, do not claim credit for yourself, because you were created for such a purpose.” Pride, even if justifiable, is the great distancer from God. I once heard from Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburg – I hope I am quoting him accurately – that when engaging in conversation with non-observant Jews, we need to remember and say that both of us, the religious and the secular Jews, are distant from God, even though we have tools helping us to move closer.
Cultivating humility does not mean that we should not have faith in the justice of our cause. Indeed, it is a source of in the healthy sense of the term – not feeling inferior to those with worldly power. But I believe that such confidence can exist only where there is self-criticism and the ability for course-correction. A defensive society, which cannot accept criticism and which always needs to pat itself on the back, is not a society assured of its path. We cannot constantly point to the bad parts of secular society as the primary vindication of our choices. If we believe in the Torah and its path and are convinced it leads us to live better lives, we need to be genuinely open to criticism.
The humility that I am referring to includes the understanding that we are not a sector with rights; we are Jews faithful to Hashem and His Torah, and we seek to maintain our way of life – a way of life we believe strengthens and empowers this commitment – within the Jewish State. This is the just but modest demand underlying the Chazon Ish’s request at his meeting with Ben Gurion. He certainly did not speak to the first Israeli prime minister about fat budgets and political earmarks. He sought out a modest place for leading a Torah life as part of the Jewish State. To my understanding, this is the message Rav Aharon Leib Steinman constantly tried to reinforce. He cried out on many platforms that we simply need to be Jews who are faithful to Hashem. Without a puffed-up chest, and without the disdain for others that has unfortunately become so common.
Perhaps the coronavirus period will help us internalize this lesson.