On the roof of the Aish center looking down at the Western Wall with Chevra & Davai in 2011

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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Beit Shemesh – The combination of insensitivity and intolerance.

The other day I was speaking with a friend about the incidents going on in Beit Shemesh between the ultra orthodox and others there. According to my friend, the attacks committed by some of the ultra orthodox on people that they deem dressed or acting immodestly are simply unforgivable and they and everyone like them should be held accountable. He went as far as saying that he didn’t consider these people Jews. With some exception, the greater Jewish world seems to have a similar reaction. A bunch of questions come to mind…

1. Should we be blaming the many for the actions of the few? Just because many of the ultra orthodox look alike to us, does that mean they are all the same and the entire community is guilty, because of the terrible actions of the few? What responsibility do we have for each other’s actions?

2. As Ba’al Teshuvas, we are particularly sensitive to words like “unforgivable.” While embarrassing someone, spitting on them or hitting them are crimes… not Jewish values, are they really unforgivable?

3. Even though no physical attack in the name of modesty is justified, should we, the greater Jewish people, be more sensitive to the beliefs of the ultra orthodox? Or, should we just say that they should be more tolerant of us? To take the previous question further, does freedom of expression ever go so far that it shouldn’t be tolerated?

I would hope that we all would agree that if one person sins, it’s their sin alone. They’re neighbor is not guilty. In my article “When is it OK to rebuke someone?” I discuss that one is only permitted to rebuke someone if they believe that their rebuke will be affective. If one believes that their rebuke will not have the desired effect, they are obligated to keep their mouth shut. Just because there are some ultra orthodox are guilty of attacking other Jews does not mean that the greater Jewish community is guilty. We need to try to inspire or educate anyone we see committing a sin to the best of their ability. We do have a responsibility, but it ends with doing the best that we can. Condemning all ultra orthodox Jews in Beit Shemesh would be no different then condemning all Jews of any town if some of their residence sinned.

Rabbi Berel Wein often says “Don’t judge Judaism by the actions of Jews.” There are Jews that sin. Some of the Jews have no kippahs or beards and some of them have very long beards and black hats. It would be nice to think that all Jews who look very religious always act in a kind and pious fashion. The reality is that we’re all people. We have weaknesses, faults, misguided beliefs and we often make mistakes. However we’re commanded to love every single Jew. That doesn’t mean that we have to love all of their actions, but we have to love them as brothers. Keeping in mind that the word Teshuva means “return”, we all should be doing teshuva no matter how long our beard is. Nobody is so far gone that they’re beyond teshuva.

There’s a balance between freedom of expression and taking it too far. The most common adage is that freedom of speech doesn’t give someone the right to scream “Fire” in a crowded theatre. I love America and hold our freedoms dear, but I’m going to ask the following questions….

Should a gay rights demonstration be held outside the Vatican?

Should a religious (Jewish or otherwise) denouncing homosexuality as an abomination demonstrate outside at a gay bar?

Should the KKK demonstrate outside a black church?

Should Nazi’s demonstrate outside your synagogue?

Should women in bikinis have a swim suit competition at the Western Wall?

These are all extreme examples, but I wanted to use them to illustrate the point that sometimes freedom of expression infringes upon the rights of others rights to the pursuit of happiness and peace of mind. Extreme examples are easy for us to identify… what’s harder is things like – Should immodestly dressed women go through certain neighborhood where the residents would be offended? Since I doubt that anyone reading this article will participate in any of these events we’ll leave it to the courts to decide what is acceptable and what is too far.

I do believe that we have a personal responsibility to be sensitive to all of those around us. The whole idea of Derech Eretz (way of the land) is exactly this point. Unfortunately, some of the incidents in Beit Shemesh have been the combination of insensitivity and violent intolerance. We should all strive to find ways to improve ourselves and our relationships with all of those around us until its contagiousness forms one people… Am Yisroal.


  1. First, when it comes to the situation in Beit Shemesh, it would seem that you are not familiar enough with the facts on the ground to comment. The girls attacked and shouted at are dressing modestly in accordance with the standards accepted by the majority of Orthodox authorities. Furthermore the school is not in an ultra-orthodox neighborhood; it merely borders on one. At the time the land for the school was acquired, it didn't even border an ultra-orthodox neighborhood. The ultra-orthodox neighborhood expanded, placing itself next to what might be described in American lingo as a modern orthodox neighborhood. (I've been receiving periodic updates on the situation since September thanks to a local Beit Shemesh resident. Long before the media too hold of the story.)

    Your article, as well as numerous others I've seen online, that engages in a form of apologetics for the ultra-orthodox community, intentionally or unintentionally imply that their was a lack of modesty by the school girls. it is slanderous (Motzei Shem ra) and offers the appearance of agreement with the objective of the hooligans while only objecting to their methods.

    What is being asked is tantamount to an Afghani family moving in next door to you and offering your wife a burka to wear so her husband and children won't be exposed to her lack of modesty. Nay, that would be too polite, it's actually tantamount your new neighbors shouting "whore" at your wife while she minds her business in her own backyard, covering her hair, wearing a long skirt and long sleeves, but not a burka.

    However, I believe the situation in Beit Shemesh was only tangential to the point you wanted to make and were only using the situation and the reactions as a springboard.

    So with that in mind, an analogous question would be:
    "Should blacks go through a certain neighborhood where the all white residents would be offended?"

    I assume all decent Americans would answer "Yes!".

    Let's see why this is more analogous:
    "Should the KKK demonstrate outside a black church?
    Should Nazi’s demonstrate outside your synagogue?"

    In both these examples it's is the intolerant, exclusionary, group demonstrating their hatred in front of the target of their vitriol. We would rather not accommodate the distasteful situation even if we are "forced" to recognize the groups legal rights. However, we would never suggest that Jews or Blacks go out of their way to show sensitivity to these bigots.

    However, that's exactly what you're suggesting the rest of Israeli society do to accommodate the chareidim. Everyone needs to go out of their way to accommodate their intolerance of those who think differently than them and desire to exclude them from their neighborhoods.

    The other questions aren't really parallels at all. If a group of bikini clad girls decided to march down the main road in Meah Shearim in protest, we would have a parallel situation. That's not what's going on.

  2. AHG,

    We has a chance to discuss this further in person, but for the benefit of the readers, I wanted to respond on the site.

    The issue I brought up is not an issure of what's right or wrong according to jewish law or secular law. The point that I made is that we have a group of people that are particularly sensitive to a particular issue. The question that I raised is should we adjust our actions to people with sensitivities?

    If I had a neighbor with particularly sensitive hearing, should I try to keep my radio volume level to a lower degree than I would otherwise. The secular law doesn't tell me that I have to. The religous law doesn't tell me that I have to. Even still, I'm arguing that it's the mentch-like thing to do.

    You can take the same individual scenerio and apply it to a community.

    The arguement of who's there first does hold some weight, but as we discussed, that also adds creditbillity to situations like the Hamptons whose non observant Jewish community protested the building of an Eruv when more othodox Jews moved in.

    FYI There is room for this in Jewish law as well. It's escaping me right now, but halacha as a particular term for a sensitive person and different laws apply.

    Just to reiterate, I called anyone who attacks another person criminal. I'm not defending their actions in the slightest. I am proposing that it's derech eretz for all of us to be more sensitive to the feelings of others whether we agree with them or now.