Tuesday, January 30, 2007
It’s only a few steps from what passes for ‘normal’ in this corner of the world. The border isn’t clearly defined. But once you’re inside, you just know you’re there. Here live people who never heard about Louis Pasteur or Louis Armstrong (either one), people who don’t know the difference between Barchetta and bruchetta, many of whom never even ate meat - not only tenderloins and similar delicacies, but even pre-packaged Meal-Mart stuffed peppers. They never heard of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley or Pink Floyd; most oblivious even to Mordechai Ben David or Avrohom Fried. Many of them never traveled in a vehicle of any kind, most only rode buses. There are cars and cell phones, but technology stops pretty much there. Life here streams at a different dimension. And wonder of wonders, they don't become fatally ill from not watching the Sopranos, they do not expire of not knowing CO2 from H2O, and the fact that they are ignorant of recent world history doesn't turn them into monsters. Although they despise a culture in which the biggest promoters of smut become billionaires, they do not slam airplanes into buildings, and do not decapitate anyone. To the best of my knowledge, this abysmal ignorance hasn't brought them to die of hunger, epidemy, or to break out in tribal warfare. They do not slaughter each other, neither the adherents of different cultures and religions. There are many "open houses" here - houses in which anyone can step at any time, and will be fed and accommodated, no questions asked. They are peaceful people who spend most of their time learning, davening and engaging in simple craftsmanship or trades.
Yet, for some reason, these are among the most hated people on planet Earth. Not only by the secularist-communist kibbutz movement, but even by many torah-observant Jews. How can anyone call these people, despite their flaws and faults, “stormtrooping tsnius nazis” and similar epithets? Is it a subconscious recognition that authentic Judaism –inasmuch as such a thing exists today- lies within a two square-blocks area in Yerushalayim that generates such animosity?
The times when a majority of Jews had a clear idea about what Judaism really is, and actually practiced it, were unfortunately short, few and distant. To dismiss anything that doesn’t confirm to the strict confines of Old Jerusalem life would be foolish at best, yet denying that they carry the rest of the Jewish world on their shoulders – even if indirectly – is equally foolish. After all, their seclusion from modern life and its scientific and technologic advantages is largely possible because they themselves rely on it. Many of their supporters, suppliers and other providers of assistance are religious Jews living a very different life. The fact of the matter is, however, that any ideological deviance from the strict traditional consensus resulted in total severance from the Jewish nation. The Reform and Conservative movements today can be considered ‘Jewish’, only by strict racial definition – if at all. At their beginnings, these movements had no significant practical differences from the original national nucleus. But after a relatively short time, any semblance of Judaism was altered beyond recognition. It may sound as a vicious cheap shot, but sadly, it is hard to deny that Modern Orthodoxy and the Mizrahi movement are headed in a similar direction. And the general Haredi society is practically moving toward Modern Orthodoxy. Does this explain the rigid blockade and seeming detachment of contemporary Yeshivish leadership? Is it possible that they deem, for the long-term benefit of the klal, better to erect seemingly irrational walls around a minuscule lodge in order to protect its integrity? I can’t answer these questions. I can only theorize that just as an onion bulb has layer upon layer protecting the core, so too our nation has a core protected by numerous “layers”. At a certain point the layers become dry and brown – beyond that everything clinging to the onion is either dirt or parasites. Whether “true Yiddishkeit” inherently demands a strict Nietzschean “only the fittest survive” type of rule is debatable. Maybe in the times when the entire klal Yisroel lived on their land this was the case, as we find in the times of Chizkiyahu, that even young children were experts in hilchos tum’ah vetaharah, and the Jews were regularly castigated at every misstep. After the destruction it is perhaps impossible to achieve such levels, and our mere survival possibly relies on incorporating a more tolerant approach and a wider range of outlooks. There still is, however, a red line not to be crossed. Once Toraic principles are distorted or explained away, with all the good will, falsifiers have to be identified as such, and ties have to be severed with them.
Regardless of the segment one was born into or chose to adopt, it seems to me that denigrating and putting down the ‘purists’ who distance themselves from any other culture is self-destructive. There may well be a wide range of legitimate claims against this ideology/lifestyle – nevertheless, this should be done while bearing in mind that the precious core, small and fragile, is the reason for the “outer layers’” existence. The hurt over the “hesderniks’” death on the battlefield while others sit and learn in Yeshiva is legitimate and understood. However, if the reason for the soldier’s fall is to afford a secular, spoof-Western state with gay bars, rather than letting Jews sit in batei midrash, he not only died in vain, but for a bad and abortive clause.
We rely on Jerusalem far more than we’d like to consciously admit. Whether going to see B.B. King in NYC, annihilating a gourmet meal or davening on Yom Kippur in shorts and T-shirts in Kibbutz Sa’ad, we tend to forget that the reason we can do all this with a relatively clean conscience and transmit Yiddishkeit to the next generation, is due to the hundred and one years old blind Yerushalmi who walks for over an hour from his phoneless apartment to shul - less than a thousand feet away - sits down, asks someone to read him the Gemore, corrects him if he misses a word in toisfes, and asks for another cigarette.