Monday, February 16, 2009

Habinyan Hamekulal (The Cursed Building)

This past February Ynet ran an article about whether or not a particular building in Jerusalem was cursed. The article immediately drew my attention because it reminded me of the Binyan Hemkulal in the Jerusalem Mahane Yehudah area on Rechov Agripas. About thirty years ago a contractor had the idea of building an office building at the corner of Agripas and Shiloh. The building was never a success. For decades the building stood empty and people referred to it as the “bayit hamekulal”. So naturally when I was scanning the different news outlets, this particular headline Jerusalem – Is This Building Cursed?, jumped out at me.

According to the article disaster had struck the Jerusalem apartment building three times in the past year, when three people died of cancer. All three happened to have been fathers and heads of households. The apartment complex tenants concerned that the building may be cursed sought advice from none other than Harav Aharon Shteinman (one of the leaders of the haredi Degel Hatorah political party and formerly the head of the kollel of Ponovezh), explaining to him their concerns that the building may have a hex on it, thus seeking to remedy the problem. Harav Shteinman reassured the tenants that “buildings do not kill people”. However, he did add that the tenants should do some soul searching to assess why it was that disaster struck so close to home. The implication being that perhaps they were in some way responsible for the misfortune striking at heir building. They then consulted another rabbi, Menachem Fuchs for help on how to begin the process of soul searching and he suggested that they attend instructional classes on “shemirat halashon.” This I found terribly troubling.

It assumes the worst. It assumes that God is cruel and punishes good people for one reason or another. It’s suggesting that the punishment is proportionate to the misdeed. Theologically this is uncomfortable because it presents a series of assumptions that aren’t necessarily black and white. Reward and punishment, collective punishment and collective guilt are serious matters as well as the concern of where does evil originate. Is evil of God or is it as a result of his absence? These are all legitimate questions and concerns in Jewish philosophy and there aren’t any easy answers. It also assumes that we are responsible for our own destiny. It assumes that if we behave and do all the right things everything will be ok. It assumes that if we follow all the teachings of our rabbis and are punctilious in following the mitzvoth than we will be protected from bad things.

Of course, this approach begs the question why is it that so many wonderfully good people suffer from tragedies, while others who seem to be not terribly righteous thrive? There are no answers, nor do rabbis Shteinman or Fuchs have the answers. Their insinuation that those tenants need to do some soul searching or pay closer attention to shemirat halashon is part of the haredi rabbinic culture of manipulation and control. By suggesting that they do some soul searching automatically assigns guilt to these people. That because their behavior fell short of righteousness heavenly retribution was brought upon the building.

Keeping people in a state of guilt is a classic method of maintaining control over them. It sort of reminds me of the three visitors who came to console Job with advice that wasn’t too well received not by Job and certainly not by God. Job was tormented but he didn’t blame himself or others around him. He challenged God. His consolers on the other hand used the classic means of guilt and self recrimination – that it is “us who must have done something wrong”. If nothing else, rabbis Shteinmen and Fuchs ought to study the Book of Job and worry less about shemirat halashon.