My first encounter with the legendary Rabbi Moshe Sherer, z”l, the late president of Agudath Israel of America and the man who hired and mentored me as the organization’s spokesperson, was an unexpected phone call offering praise and criticism.
It was the mid-1980s, and I was a rebbe, or Jewish studies teacher, in Providence, Rhode Island at the time. Occasionally, though, I indulged my desire to write op-eds, some of which were published by the Providence Journal and various Jewish weeklies.
One article I penned in those days was about the bus-stop burnings that had then been taking place in religious neighborhoods in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Israel. Advertisements on the shelters in religious neighborhoods began to display images that were, to put it genteelly, not in synch with the religious sensibilities of the local residents, for whom modesty was a high ideal and women were respected for who they were, not regarded as means of gaining attention for commercial products.
Scores of the offensive-ad shelters were either spray-painted or torched; and, on the other side of the societal divide, a group formed that pledged to burn a synagogue for every burned bus-stop shelter. It was not a pretty time.
My article was aimed at trying to convey the motivation of the bus-stop burners, wrong though their actions were. Imagine, I suggested, a society where heroin was legal, freely marketed and advertised. And a billboard touting the drug’s wonderful qualities was erected just outside a school. Most of us would never think of defacing or destroying the ad but most of us would probably well relate to the feelings of someone who took things into his own hands. For a charedi Jew, gross immodesty in advertising in his neighborhood is no less dangerous, in a spiritual sense, and no less deplorable.
Rabbi Sherer had somehow seen the article and he called to tell me how cogent he had found it. But, he added – and the “but,” I realized, was the main point of the call – “my dear Avi, you should never assume that the culprits were religious Jews. Never concede an unproven assertion.”
I was taken aback, since hotheads certainly exist among religious Jews. But I thanked my esteemed caller greatly for both his kind words and his critical ones. I wasn’t convinced that my assumption had really been unreasonable, but, I supposed, he had a valid point.
To my surprise, several weeks later, a group of non-religious youths were arrested for setting a bus-stop aflame, in an effort to increase ill will against the religious community. How many of the burnings the members of the group, or others like them, may have perpetrated was and remains unknown. But Rabbi Sherer had proven himself (and not for the first or last time) a wise man.
What recalled that era and interaction to me this week were the reports from Israel that arrests had been made in the 2009 case of a gunman who entered a Tel Aviv youth center for homosexuals and opened fire on those inside, killing two people and wounding 15 before escaping.
Both Israeli and western media freely speculated at the time that the murderer was likely a charedi, bent on visiting his idea of justice upon people who live in violation of the Torah’s precepts.
What has apparently turned out to be the case, though, is that the rampage at the club had nothing to do with either charedim or religious beliefs. It was reportedly a revenge attack in the wake of a minor’s claim that he had been abused by a senior figure of the club. A family member of the minor allegedly went to the club to kill the suspected abuser but, unable to find him, opened fire indiscriminately. (Unsurprisingly, but worthy of note all the same, none of the media pundits or bloggerei who laid the shooting at the feet of charedim have offered apologies.)
There are, to be sure, unsavory people in charedi communities, as there are in every community. Religious dress and lifestyle are no guarantees of what kind of person lies behind the façade. The Talmud includes a difference of opinion about how “Esav’s personification,” the angel with whom Yaakov wrestled, appeared to our forefather. One opinion holds that the malevolent being looked like “a mugger”; the other, “like a religious scholar.”
But for anyone to assume that any particular crime must have been the work of someone in the charedi community – or in any community – bespeaks a subtle bias born of animus, whether recognized by its bearer or not.
And such assumptions are criminal in their own right.
© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran