Do we ever learn from our past?
We have just lived through the saddest time of the Jewish year, when our collective thoughts turned to the destruction of our Holy Temple, and the root causes for that destruction.
The Talmudic story most often cited as painting a clear picture of that era is the one of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. Briefly, there was an individual who hated Bar Kamtza so much that he refused any offer, no matter how generous, to spare Bar Kamtza public humiliation. This so angered Bar Kamtza that he slandered the Jewish people to the Roman authorities. The greatest source of Bar Kamtza’s rage was his consternation that many great rabbis from Jerusalem were present at his public humiliation and did nothing to protest this travesty.
In Bar Kamtza’s words, “As the rabbis saw everything, and did not protest, they obviously had no objection to my embarrassment.” Not voicing an objection, not protesting when an outrageous wrong is done, can bring about terrible consequences.
The requirement to protest stems from the Torah itself. We are commanded, “Surely shall you reproach your fellow,” “You shall remove evil from your midst,” and many other similar statements.
These admonitions to correct the wrongs of individuals and of groups are the subject of much halachic discussion as to the appropriate time, place, and methods. Nevertheless, there clearly is a tradition of protest and outcry against societal ills, especially in the holy city of Jerusalem, and particularly among those known as haredim, or fervently Orthodox. For many years now, all manner of religious lapses by the surrounding community have been protested. Some of these protests are at hafganot, or large public demonstrations, some take the form of pashkevils, or admonitory posters that adorn billboards decrying this or that breach of standards, and some take the form of cherem, or banishment of the perpetrators.
The subjects of the various protests and bans are wide ranging and have recently included books, concerts, Internet users, and a variety of alleged wrongs. Some of these are accompanied by well-reasoned positions, some are angry screeds. A common denominator is that they seek to buttress their legitimacy by quoting as many great rabbis as possible in support of their positions. Rabbinic approval is crucial in getting one’s views heard, and thus the printed opinion of leading rabbis carries great weight and importance.
Many of the protests undertaken have been important and necessary. Having lived in Yerushalayim for many years, and having attended haredi yeshivas and a number of demonstrations, I am aware that the holiness and sanctity of the city is extraordinary, and that much of that sanctity is due to the resistance the religious community has put up against an encroaching secular culture that constantly seeks to impose its views on that community.
Nevertheless, over the past decade or so, a not insignificant number of haredi protesters have turned what might be defended as a positively motivated expression of spiritual anguish into an ugly spectacle of the worst kind of chillul Hashem. In no particular order, here are some egregious examples of this behavior:
● A few years ago, incessant weekly demonstrations at Bar Ilan Road grew ugly, with many instances of rocks being thrown at cars and police officers, who were called Nazis and pigs.
● Several Modern Orthodox women were severely beaten in Bet Shemesh for not adhering to the recently arrived haredi group’s new demands for changes in their dress code. Women who did not agree to move to the back of buses in Yerushalayim were beaten as well.
● At demonstrations for Shabbos over the past few weeks in response to the opening of a parking garage, violent protesters threw rocks at police officers and called them Nazis.
● Rav Mordechai Asher of Kiryat Yovel was severely beaten by four “avreichim” when he refused to kowtow to their demands for changes in his shul.
● Worst of all have been the recent violent acts in the matter of a haredi mother alleged to have starved her child. These included starting fires in overturned dumpsters, dismantling traffic lights (and bringing public transportation to a standstill), cutting electrical lines, and hurling of stones at the police (while calling them Nazis) – all because of a claim that police and doctors concocted the whole scenario in order to steal haredi children from their mothers and communities.