Coping Without Community?

Response Article To "Coronavirus: The Charedi Response"

whatsapp-image-2017-03-14-at-15-25-53
Eli Stern Surveyor of ancient books and texts; founder of Notrikon blog

We are used to the community providing us with our identity, with our stability, and even with our religion. But what happens when community institutions are closed down, and we gather into our homes? In these times, we are challenged to face ourselves and our families, and to constitute religious and meaningful lives on our own. The challenge is not light; yet if we make it, it can be redemptive.

Nissan 5780; April 2020

The corona plauge has undermined the world order and has changed our lives on many levels. It has created a wave of inflation in Internet traffic, and has provoked copious quantities of texts and writing. It has also sparked much religious discussion. Rabbis and religious leaders have been called to the flag (or have called themselves to the flag), each one presenting his own religious take on the situation, whether in offering support and encouragement or becoming God’s mouthpiece in giving rebuke and chastisement. Some even purport to know exactly why the plague struck our world, making claims that are nothing less than bizarre. These are indeed trying times; and like trying times in general we are pleasantly surprised by exhibitions of greatness from people we would not have expected them from, and by the smallness of mind from some we would have expected more from. Such is the way of the world.

I will share my thoughts on the processes that I, my family and friends are going through. I hope that these will be beneficial even for others.

And despite all this, I wish to add my own take on the situation and how it is impacting us. Certainly, I will not write as a prophet; I cannot speak in the name of God. Moreover, I am certainly not one to instruct others on what to do, on how best to respond to the crisis we face. My contribution will focus rather on how the corona experience has affected me on a personal level. I will share my thoughts on the processes that I, my family and friends are going through. I hope that these will be beneficial even for others.

Undermining the Social Cushion 

One of the most prominent symbols of the corona crisis is empty roads. The greatest and most densely inhabited cities of the world have become deserted. To see Times Square without its myriad tourists; London, Paris and Berlin have become ghost towns. It is the time of the home. We, so used to living outside our homes, have been compelled to enter our private above and remain there for days and for weeks.

The corona crisis undermines the cushion we so often rely upon to sooth our inner anxieties. We find ourselves alone at homes, far from neighbors, from our community framework and from our collective identity. And suddenly we are faced with multiple question-marks

The intensive meeting with homes raises many thoughts and many challenges: relationships, education, and just being alone – all of these challenge us deeply. Many are uncomfortable with their own company, which places them in a condition of stress and discomfort that is hard to cope with. Being at home places a mirror in front of us – a mirror that does not necessarily reflect our successes in the public domain. Many people’s self-image is a product of the world outside – work, community, synagogue, yeshiva, and so on – to which they escape each morning as we leave home. The home is not always our “comfort zone.” Now all this is undermined. Now we are forced to return home, to return to ourselves, to touch our own foundations, our roots and our nerve endings. This can be painful. We are exposed to our weak spots, to our boredom, to being alone without incessant distractions.

The corona crisis undermines the cushion we so often rely upon to sooth our inner anxieties. We find ourselves alone at homes, far from neighbors, from our community framework and from our collective identity. And suddenly we are faced with multiple question-marks: What will happen when we are disconnected from all of these? Are we lonely? Are we defined by what we do outside or even by what happens inside? Are we defined by our group or as individuals, as families? Do we have answers to these questions?

 

What is Left Without Community

Our entry into the home belies an additional aspect. Over the last year it seems that our homes have become our secrets. They are the place in which we are free to do as we please, released of the shackles of social and political correctness. Many talk of the “walls” that Charedi society has built to separate itself from the world outside. Today, we all know that those walls have fallen, and that in the palm of his hand a person holds his entry ticket to all that lies beyond the fence – the good and the bad, the high and the low. The only walls now are those of a person’s home, which hide him from his own community and afford him exclusive control over his private world. In his own home a person is responsible for himself, and must build his safety fences on his own.

In one fell swoop, the plague has relieved us of our community institutions: the cheder, and the yeshiva, the shul and the community center. We are suddenly called to find the Shechinah at home, to turn our houses into a Mikdash Me’at (a microcosm of the Temple) – a task usually fulfilled by the synagogue

This is of course something positive: a man’s home is his castle and his kingdom, where he can express his abilities and dispositions freely. He can both set the parameters of the framework and supply the content. His social status and belonging lose their significant, and he is able to build his internal home by the values in which he believes and the principles he holds dearest.

But though the home is the sanctuary of a person’s independence and autonomy, it is not the main pillar of his identity. Our identity is more related to community institutions, which proivde us with the raw material for our self-definition. The group identity provides us with personal stability and with a the comfort of a rigid social order. It sets our boundaries and outlines the basic values that we must aspire to realize. While beneficial in many ways, this social reliance exempts us of personal responsibility, and often lulls us into a sweet forgetfulness of what we actually hold dear and what suits us best – as individuals and families rather than as communities.

In one fell swoop, the plague has relieved us of our community institutions: the cheder, and the yeshiva, the shul and the community center. We are suddenly called to find the Shechinah at home, to turn our houses into a Mikdash Me’at (a microcosm of the Temple) – a task usually fulfilled by the synagogue. We must hallow the ordinary, to find spirituality even among our human failings of anger, frustration and impatience. Our outside achievements, whether Torah or professional, are all erased and we become equal in facing the tantrums of kids with no outlet for their energies. At home all of our facemasks are removed. We return to our basic humanity.

For some, this can constitute no small slap in the face. Used to seeing themselves in the eye of the beholder, whether in rabbinic garb or in the professional work-clothes, they are forced to see themselves naked. But on the other hand, the situation present us with remarkable opportunity to rectify and to grow specifically in these areas – the simple, human, home environment. To engage derech eretz that must come before Torah.

Something has happened that we have never before experienced: People who spend precious little time at home are forced into their own houses, while the public sphere is closed down. And by contrast with other periods of trial and difficulty, there is no shortage of food supplies, or medicines and of other basic needs

As I mentioned earlier, I am not pretentious enough to give instructions or even advice to others. Moreover, I appreciate how difficult the current sitaution is for many, both medically and emotionally. Some are lonely, some have lost their income, some suffer from handicaps that are amplified by the need to stay home. Certainly, some will experience this period as a reall time of crisis, making the adoption of a positive approach eminently difficult. I only mean to speak from my own world, to highlight the points of light we can gather in the darkness, and to emphasize the singular opportunities that come our way. Something has happened that we have never before experienced: People who spend precious little time at home are forced into their own houses, while the public sphere is closed down. And by contrast with other periods of trial and difficulty, there is no shortage of food supplies, or medicines and of other basic needs. Other than the medical aspect, our main challenge is simply being at home.

Can we make ourselvse more “homely”? Can we, used as we are to identifying with communities and experiencing ourselves through their lens, touch the inner chambers of our own selves?

 

Be a Jew In Your Home

Our Judaism has for the most part become a matter of institutions. We have the shul and the shtibel, the yeshiva and the kolel and the study hall. And now the question becomes: Can we constitute religious lives outside of the institutions we have come to identity as religion itself – without the rabbi and the mashgiach, without the community and its expectations?

Yet the reach of community envelopes is limited. To use the Talmudic expression, one hundred lashes cannot match the effect of a single mardus, a single experience of humility and resignation before Hashem (Berachos 7a). And now we are left without choice. There is nobody to give us lashes. Either we find the religious fortitude within ourselves, or we are left without. This is true even of educating our children. We can no longer rely on our institutions, on the “educational outsourcing” we so depend on. Our predicament is our opportunity, to stop a moment and instill in our children values of Torah, of Emuna, or derech eretz and of personal responsibility. As parents, we can do this far better than any institution.

If somebody would have asked me some months ago how I would act to mend the world, I would have suggested (in all honesty) a temporary halt to the incessant sprint of our world: to take a break from the frenzied shopping, from the pressures of world, from all the bills and flights and stuff to sort out, even from education, and just to think

And now that everything has stopped, perhaps we can take these thoughts one step further. Perhaps we can look, from the inside out, at our community, its institutions and its structures, and reflect on how we can improve and refine it for the time when our community life will return. And perhaps we can even think of those individuals who are feeling better for their release from the shackles of the community. How can their lot be bettered.

If somebody would have asked me some months ago how I would act to mend the world, I would have suggested (in all honesty) a temporary halt to the incessant sprint of our world: to take a break from the frenzied shopping, from the pressures of world, from all the bills and flights and stuff to sort out, even from education, and just to think. For a moment. To redirect and recalibrate ourselves to our Father in Heaven, to pause our race (which is often our escape) and to simply face ourselves. Of course I would have been scoffed at the impossibility of such a suggestion. Yet now it has happened. Unfathomable as it is, the world has come to a standstill, and we have the pause to meet ourselves, to spead time with spouses and families, and to rethink the path ahead. Should we not grab this opportunity with two hands? Would it not be a shame if we were just to go back to life as it was, without nothing in our lives changing for the good?

 

Take for Yourselves

The global crisis we face brings us much tragedy, yet it is also latent with kindness. Our homes are our sanctuary, and aside from keeping us safe they also give us a chance to think. We are given an chance of freedom from the burden of our labors – as the labors of Egypt that imprisoned the consciousness of our forebears – which allows us to imagine a better humanity, one that prefers the inner to the superficial and knows how to limit the excesses of the human treadmill that prevents us from thinking.

If we only tune in, the home makes us better people: we listen better, we care more, we empathize with others, first in our intimate circle and then beyond it. The house redeems us, and it has the power to redeem the street, the shul, the community. The private redemption becomes a public redemption

Let us – of course I speak to myself – give a chance to our inner lives, to strengthening them and to consider what really infuses them with meaning and significance. Let us consider how we can improve our relationships, beginning from those closest to us, and working our way outwards. It is not always easy, and the long period of being together at home can also raise tensions; but it is certainly an opportunity to augment closeness and love, empathy and care. An opportunity for change. A wake up call to listen to our inner voices, to understand what moves us and what disturbs us, and to face that which we so often escape from – ourselves.

If we only tune in, the home makes us better people: we listen better, we care more, we empathize with others, first in our intimate circle and then beyond it. The house redeems us, and it has the power to redeem the street, the shul, the community. The private redemption becomes a public redemption.

Pesach is the festival of faith, the festival on which we pass down our Emuna from father to son – and not from rabbi to student. It is a festival that celebrates the home, from the miracle of “and our homes He saved” and through the Pesach offering which is a “lamb for the home.” We hope and we pray that we will emerge strengthened from our home meeting, and that it will bring us blessing and redemption. As our Pesach houseguest, Eliyahu Hanavi promises to “turn the hearts of the fathers to the children and the hearts of the children to their fathers.” There is no time for this like the present.

Write a Comment

Please write down your comment
Name field is required
Please fill email