Monday, July 19, 2010

Medieval Judaism - Uncorked

Witnessing the spectacle of what has become known, as the “Emmanuel prisoners” was an opportunity to experience up close what it must have been like to be a Jew in medieval Europe. I’ve read about it, I’ve fasted and mourned the unspeakable atrocities committed against our people while paradoxically celebrating the ensuing mesirat nefesh and kidush hashem. In fact an entire culture, literature and liturgy justifiably grew out of folk tales of mesirat nefesh. Many of our piyutim introduced into the liturgy were written on the background of mesirat nefesh. But the collective psychological impact resulting from relentless persecution has taken its toll on our nation. Concepts like kiddush hashem and mesirat nefesh over the course of time took on new meaning and were redefined by our rabbis. Indeed the siege mentality, resulting partly from this redefinition was at times a legitimate defense mechanism but unfortunately contributed also to the distortion of the national psyche. An example of this is the recent 11-day imprisonment of the 35 for refusing a Supreme Court order to send their daughters to a non-hassidic elementary school.

The imprisonment and subsequent release of Krimalovski and the pack of 35 has been treated by the haredi community as deliverance; the guiding hand of god intervening once again in history ostensibly justifying their cause. As reported in the Jerusalem Post (July 9 2010), Krimalovski is quoted as saying “the most revered rabbis were coming up to me sobbing, saying how they wished they could take my place in prison, how they envied me the privilege of performing such a great sanctification of God’s word…”

The “Emmanuel prisoners” will be one more link in the long chain of kiddush hashem, representing a classic case of mesirat nefesh. The issue isn’t whether there was any racism on the part of the Ashkenazi haredi toward their Sephardi counterpart. That’s beyond doubt. It is so crystal clear that I defy anyone to seriously challenge that position. After all, racism is part of the culture of haredi Judaism. If enlightened Jews poured out of the ghettoes when the opportunity presented, the haredim preferred a self-imposed ghetto in order to justify their contempt. They are a closed contemptuous community, scorn being a characteristic of their collective nature: scorn for anyone not subscribing to their values, scorn for anyone not being a member of their community, scorn for anyone not having been born into their world, with a reluctance to accept outsiders much less converts. They have an intense dislike, bordering on a phobia for “goyim” viewing them as nothing more than a necessary nuisance to do the dirty work while they do god’s work. If this appears to be a generalization so be it; otherwise how can one explain the massive support of the haredi community in Israel and abroad? What’s fascinating is the prevailing “siege mentality” that has survived even 62 years after we were blessed with a state.

The State of Israel of course is the grist for the siege mentality. Haredim don’t like states or respect their laws unless it benefits their interests. That is why historically they preferred the ghetto. They were barricaded in, minimizing the possibility of a toeva, and contamination from infecting their lifestyle. For them, Israel is just another state. It is a state with laws that are aimed against them (unless of course they can extract money through political shenanigans), and in order to survive they will have to be moser nefesh. So reading about and following the proceedings against Krimalovski and the pack of haredi racists being cheered by their sycophantic acolytes upon their prison release reminded me of all the other “maisalach” tales of haredim being saved or redeemed from prison due to the benevolence of a prince or a miracle.

In light of the Krimalovski Episode my skeptical intuition has been further sensitized. As we pass tunnel through the nine days culminating with Tisha B’av followed shortly by chodesh Elul and its accompanying rich and nuanced liturgy texturing, our tefilot certainly during the Yamim Noraim will take on new meaning. I wonder whether the Krimalovski episode will in a generation or two receive a place of honor in haredi lore and perhaps find honorable mention in the mahzor.