Last year the city’s Commission on Human Rights issued complaints to Chasidic stores in Williamsburg that demanded that Halachic norms of modesty be followed by a customer or they would refuse service. One can debate their right to refuse service to anyone they choose for any reason. There is a legitimate argument to be made for opposing views on this issue. But one cannot debate the negative image this projects to the world about religious Jews discriminating against non Jews or non religious Jews.
They are pressing for public libraries in their neighborhoods to be open on Sundays at taxpayer expense – since they cannot be used on Shabbos. (Which raises the question about what kind of books public libraries carry that are appropriate for Chasidim anyway… but I digress.) Do they really need the library to be open on Sunday?
And then there is Metzitza B’Peh (MbP) – the practice of drawing out the blood of a circumcision wound orally by direct contact with the mouth. Based on the studies done by national health officials New York city’s health officials consider it a dangerous practice. They wanted to ban the practice. Chasidim believe that without MbP the circumcision would be invalid. Despite the fact that there is an abundance of opinion that this is not so… and that the requirement of Metzitza could be fulfilled in sterile ways. Nonetheless, city health officials decided to allow the practice if it included a warning about the possible health consequences. That outraged Chasidim. Now – some mayoral candidates seeking their vote are in favor of rescinding that requirement.
The Times article puts this issue in a nutshell:
The remarkable rise in the population and the influence of Hasidim and other ultra-Orthodox Jews has provoked repeated conflicts over revered practices, forcing the city into a balancing act between not treading over constitutional lines by appearing to favor a particular religious group and providing an accommodation no more injurious than suspending parking rules for religious holidays.
The bottom line is that Chasidim now use a subtly intimidating approach on elected officials to get what they want. Which can easily generate resentment.
On the one hand something like requesting a female lifeguard for a beach frequented exclusively by Chasidic women does not seem like an unreasonable request. No one is harmed by it, and Chasidic women will benefit. But when taken in the aggregate, it makes for a lot of pressure on an elected government official. New requests no matter how innocuous – now seem like demands.
This enormous power – far beyond their percentage of the general population – can easily feed all the anti-Semites of the world and their canards about Jews controlling the government.
I therefore believe that the Chasidic community should re-think when and how they use their clout. They ought to not seek to satisfy every religious whim they can think of. They should instead deliberate very carefully – weighing need against negative consequences before making a request. Because feeding the anti-Semitism that their clout might generate if used too frivolously could backfire on all of us.
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About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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