The following is an article I wrote, on the events that transpired a few weeks ago when various rabbis were arrested in New Jersey and Brooklyn. Your comments are most welcomed.
(The article appeared, originally, in the Jewish Tribune (Toronto) and can be seen on line at http://www.jewishtribune.ca/TribuneV2/index.php/200908111949/We-must-ask-ourselves-What-can-I-do-to-affect-change.html)
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We must ask ourselves: What can I do to affect change?
I was – as were so many others around the world – truly stunned, embarrassed and troubled by the recent arrest of a group of Orthodox rabbis in Brooklyn and New Jersey. How could this have happened? How will antisemites use this information to cause further harm to the Jewish community? What will people say about Orthodoxy? These were questions that I heard asked and that I read in numerous articles. Comments further abounded: these rabbis profaned the Name of God; they caused a great chilul Hashem; they reflected so much of what is wrong within their specific communities. They did this and they did that – yet it still is we who will all suffer the consequences of their behaviour.
On the theological plane, we could ask: if they are the wrong-doers, why must we all suffer? If antisemitism is, lo aleinu, strengthened because of the actions of these few individuals, the entire Jewish community is the potential victim. We can thus wonder about the Divine justification for the many to suffer because of the actions of the few, of the very few. My issue, however, is not theological; it is much more practical. Whether we like it or not, we all still suffer the consequences. What then is the benefit of simply responding by solely distancing ourselves from the perpetrators of these acts? Yet, the responses I kept reading in regard to these events were developed with just this agenda. The overriding motivation seemed to be this desire to distance oneself from the accused parties – that’s them, that’s not me or not us. As if the antisemite will distinguish between you and other Jews, especially such visible Jews.
If we all suffer together, we are all in it together. This is not to say that we should not identify evil and the roots of this evil, yet maybe our response should also include a reflection of this reality of our interconnectedness.We may ask: to whom were these individuals – with their attempts to distance themselves from the perpetrators of these crimes – directing their comments? We may also wonder about a possible hidden agenda behind some of these variant statements. In the most basic sense, those attempting to distance themselves from the perpetrators are attempting to tell others not to include them in any negative responses towards the perpetrators. Does one really think, though, that proclamations that you are not part of this villainous group will cause another, who originally sees you in this light, to change his/her perspective? In the broadest context, do we actually think that by proclaiming that Jews who do criminal acts are not representative of the greater community, we can actually change the mind of the antisemite who already views the Jewish community with contempt and thinks that all Jews really are criminals? Even as we know that the truth is that there may be a wide divide between the general Jewish community and its few members who act with criminal intent, we cannot let ourselves be satisfied with stating the obvious, believing that it will solve all the potential problems. We will all still face potential consequences together, as a we. Thus, we must respond to the problem as a we.
This also applies within narrower contexts, when we attempt to distance ourselves from perpetrators such as these by declaring them members of a particular sub-group within our people and distancing ourselves from that sub-group. They are Orthodox, it’s a problem in Orthodoxy; of course, I am not Orthodox and, thus, not part of the problem. They are ultra-Orthodox or haredim, it’s a problem in ultra-Orthodoxy or the haredi culture; of course, any critiques are inapplicable to me since I’m not haredi. This is not to say that we should not identify negative behaviour emanating from certain groups within the Jewish world or that we should not be virulent in promoting the expression of values in which we believe in the Jewish world. But how often do we turn to such a solution, choose an explanation built upon distancing ourselves from the other, because it promotes our specific group? And how often do we not, thereby, recognize that parts of the problem may arise, to some extent, because of our own inherent friction? Declaring that a negative event may reflect, specifically, a haredi problem, for example, may have some legitimacy yet such an answer may also allow non-haredi individuals to ignore any challenges to themselves and their viewpoints as well, because they simply found the answer in blaming the other.
There is another potential consequence in this process of attempting to distance oneself. I read of one person who stated that people should not judge the entire Syrian Jewish community by the actions of these men. I never even thought of this possibility, that these actions were potentially reflective of a possible moral weakness within this particular community. These comments, presented as a defence for the community, actually made me start to contemplate what the possible problems are, within this community, which would make people think that the actions of these men were indicative of this community’s general mores. If there is a perceived need to defend a community from specific attacks, the problem is not simply the attacks themselves, but also, the very perception that such attacks could be justified.
There is a classic tale of Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, the saintly Chofetz Chaim, in which an accusation of wrong was made against him by some evil individual. The story, though, continues that it was immediately rebuffed because of the very ridiculousness of such an accusation. That must be our communal goal. It should be that there is not even the need to distance ourselves from the perpetrators because it is obvious that these perpetrators were deceiving everyone by representing themselves as members of the Jewish community – for everyone knows that Jews, committed to their Jewishness, do not act in this manner.
My argument ultimately is not that there is no need to distance ourselves from perpetrators of such criminal acts nor to identify weaknesses within specific sub-groups within our people that may be, advertently or inadvertently, spreading a message that may give rise to such behaviour. While the antisemite will not hear such arguments, it is important to present such messages to ensure that naïve individuals within the greater population do not become fodder for these racist pronouncements.
Similarly, it is important to identify weaknesses within various sub-groups so that they can, and hopefully will, confront and rectify them. Unfortunately, the actual response will, rather, often be to simply grow defensive and ignore the challenges, as one often notes only the attack. In any event, what is the very purpose of this process of distinguishing? Does the average member of our society note the distinction between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews? Does the average secular Jew note the distinction between haredi Orthodoxy and non-haredi Orthodoxy? We all suffer the consequences of such events as those that transpired in New Jersey together. Our response must reflect this reality of interconnectedness.
In more specific terms, there are challenges we all face when attempting to maintain a strong and identifiable Jewish community within a broader, open society. This demands a balancing of forces of inclusion with forces of exclusion. Sometimes the desire for strength in Jewish identity can, though, yield a negation of the mores of the broader society. When the law of the land is broken, it can reflect such a weakness – the result of a view that the standards of the general society need not be respected because they are not Jewish. Our response, though, cannot simply be to attack those within the Jewish world who we perceive as advocating such a “solution” to the challenge of finding our balanced place in society. The broader need is to further articulate this challenge and advocate how we must all be careful to ensure that we properly balance the necessary respect for the greater society with the necessary respect for our Jewish uniqueness.
Of course, realistically, there are still “bad apples” within the Jewish people who, sadly, can wreak havoc on our community’s image and, regarding which, we can do little or nothing. The majority can suffer because of the acts of the minority, even the miniscule minority. Yet, when we attempt to find something that we can do, we empower ourselves. We must ask: how do these events identify weaknesses that I tolerate within myself and my community; and what can I do to affect change? No matter how difficult it may be for us to ask this question, it is one that we must face – and answer.
Rabbi Ben Hecht