Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Leadership and Taking Responsibility

It seems things have finally reached a tipping point, all because of a seven year old girl, portrayed on the news as too frightened to walk to school. The news report, posted on the Internet, has spread virally around the Jewish world, to the degree that it has reached both the Chareidi world and the New York Times (that too is the Jewish world.) In truth, the video is disturbing to any reasonable observer. How can anyone justify harassing small children? How do people justify spitting, rock throwing, and other forms of violence and intimidation?
You can't. So instead people claim that it's just a small group of extremists. They claim that they don't speak for the mainstream, or represent the true Chareidi point of view. This may or may not be true. After all, in the news report, it didn't seem like they had to look very hard to find someone willing to justify violence even against children who don't conform to the "accepted" form of dress. So we're left to wonder: Is it just a small group of kooks, as people claim, or a much more widespread phenomenon.
The answer must come from Chareidi leadership, which has been to this point, silent. And their silence, to my mind, is deafening.
Parshat Vayigash chronicles the final reconciliation of Yosef with his brothers. Yehudah's moving speech to Yosef asking that he remain in captivity in Binyamin's place moves Yosef to the point of tears, and brings him to reveal his true identity to his brothers. The Midrash relates that the conversation between Yehudah and Yosef was not one-sided, and involved give and take between them. According to the Midrash, Yosef asked his brother a simple question.
אמר לו יוסף, יהודה, מפני מה אתה דברן? והלא יש באחים שגדולים ממך? אמר לי, אף על פי כן, כולן חוץ לזיקה הן עומדין, אבל אני מעי קמתין עלי בחבל. אמר לו מפני מה? אמר לו הייתי לו ערב...
Yosef said to him, "Yehudah, why are you the spokesman? You have brothers who are older than you? He said to him, Nonetheless, they all stand disconnected [from this matter]. But me - my intestines are tied in knots with a rope." [Yosef] said to him, "Why is this so?" [Yehudah] answered: "Because I am for [Binyamin] the responsible party.
For whatever reason, the other brothers saw the conflict as external to them. They didn't want to get involved. Binyamin had a problem - and not them. Yehudah, on the other hand, had accepted responsibility for Binyamin. He made the promise to his father, and not the other brothers. And yet, the words of the Midrash speak volumes. According to Yehuda, "My stomach is in knots over this issue. I have to speak out." And only because he felt that level of personal responsibility does the family reunite.
Leaders - true leaders - must feel that same sense of obligation. When things spiral out of control, a real leader cannot divorce himself from the situation and convince himself that it's not his problem. Rather, he must feel it in his stomach.
Two weeks ago, the Jewish world was legitimately scandalized by a startling attack against an army base at the hands of a group of Gush Emunim youth. The Israeli public was outraged and startled, and rightly so. An attack against the IDF represents an attack against the core of the State of Israel, and signaled a troubling militancy within the "Settler" movement. Yet, after the attack, I was gratified to see leader after leader condemn the attack. Despite misleading headlines, no rabbi found any justification whatsoever for the activity, and criticized it unequivocally. Is the Religious Zionist community too tolerant of militant attitudes within its ranks? I'm not sure. But when a group of its members stepped over a very clear red line, the leadership of that community spoke forcefully against it.

I wonder: where are the leaders of the Chareidi community? How is screaming at children, calling them "Shiksas" as they walk to school an articulation of a Torah point of view? Can they not see the worldwide Chillul Hashem caused by people that purport to speak in their name - and the name of Torah Judaism? To most of the world which can't distinguish between different types of Orthodox Jews, they speak in my name as well, and I'm sickened by it. My stomach is in knots about it. How is the leadership of the Chareidi community still silent? How is a report on the NBC Nightly News about the Torah discriminating against women not a massive, worldwide Chillul Hashem? How can our collective stomachs not be in knots?
Which can only bring us to one of two conclusions: the really is not any Chareidi leadership to speak of, and it's a rudderless ship steered by the most fanatic, outrageous members within their ranks. Or, their actions and attitudes aren't that different from mainstream Chareidi views.
Either possibility is truly troubling.