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The use of labels

by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen - Last updated: 2004-08-27

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Last week in Belgium the papers were full of the story of three young Chassidim from America who were arrested for using fake credit cards to pay for luxury car rentals and five-star hotel rooms.

When the news of the arrests leaked out, a group of Chassidim demonstrated outside the local police station against ‘police brutality.’ Apparently the police were refusing them kosher food because, according to the young men’s credit card records, they had been feasting at several well know non-kosher establishments in town and didn’t seem that much committed to kosher food.

Several months ago a young Chassid in Antwerp was pulled off his bike and stabbed by North African thugs. The community organized a demonstration against the increasing violence directed at young Jews in Antwerp from manifestly Muslim sources. According to friends who attended and the press photographs, there were no more than one or two Chassidic demonstrators amongst the hundreds who turned up. Yet anyone familiar with Antwerp will know that the Chassidic community accounts for over half the Jewish population.

Why weren’t they there? Here are the possible theories. Chassidim in general do not identify with the wider Jewish community and, as in Britain, they withdraw from association with non-orthodox movements. It wasn’t THEIR demonstration. European Chassidim (coming predominantly from Eastern Europe, where the mentality was ‘shut up and don’t provoke your enemies and they’ll go away’) are infected by European neuroses. In the United States, the Chassidim would have got together and organized their own defence brigades and given the opposition a really good drubbing.

To me, this all goes to show that Chassidim are like all other Jews--they keep certain rules and uphold certain values, but they reject others based not on halacha but convention. I am not saying this to denigrate Chassidim, but simply to underline the fact that they are the same as anyone else, with their fair share of saints and sinners. The three young men from America are known delinquents with criminal records, the exceptions that prove the rule. There is a myth that anyone who dresses like a Chassid or proclaims that he is Charedi is more religious than other Jews and automatically represents Judaism or guarantees its survival better than others.

This is nonsense. They do not necessarily keep more of the Mitzvot of the Torah. They are selective, like everyone else. All Jews adhere to their own preferred standards and selected rituals and morals. Some are more successful than others. Some succeed in passing on their values and practices to their offspring and some do not. There is no guarantee at all that living a particular way of life is an insurance against having kids who will behave badly or abandon their family traditions. And there is no guarantee that being brought up a Chassid makes you any more holy, moral or law abiding than anyone else. All Jews are holy, says the Mishna, but obviously some are holier than others and it does not depend on how you look!

This is obviously what Rabbi Yosef meant when, according to the Talmud, he had a near-death experience and reported on his visit to heaven, ‘Up there those at the top were those who were on the bottom (on earth) and vice versa.’

However the Talmud and, indeed, Maimonides both assert that the gravest of human sins is Chillul HaShem, Desecrating God’s name by behaving in such a way as to discredit God. Nothing is a greater Chillul HaShem than when someone proclaims outward loyalty to God’s laws and then publicly flouts them. Not even Yom Kippur atones for this, according to the Gemara. So, in the scale of things, committing a crime that brings odium to Jews is a far greater offence than failures in matters of ritual observance. It is possible that these three young men will be found to be absolutely innocent. I pray so. But, sadly, this sort of thing is now becoming more and more common on both sides of the Atlantic.

It is fashionable nowadays to describe the outwardly very Orthodox as ‘Charedi.’ The expression literally means ‘Trembling’, as in the biblical quote ‘Trembling before the word of God’, as in Isaiah 66. It has come to replace ‘Ultra-Orthodox’, which for some reason was seen as derogatory (actually, as a lover of modern design I take ‘ultra-modern’ to be a great compliment). But the term ‘Charedi’ is misleading, because it is a value judgement, not just descriptive. It is wrong to assume that any group is made up automatically of more God-fearing people than another. I know plenty of so-called Modern Orthodox Jews who are very God-fearing and tremble far more before the word of God than quite a few very, very Orthodox criminals I know of. Indeed, I know some Reform Jews who are incredibly sensitive, caring and God-fearing despite their heterodox attitude to ‘The Law.’ But, then, how is that different to an outwardly observant Jew who also flouts laws?

If it is acceptable to use a label like Modern Orthodox, which I find a meaningless oxymoron, then why is sauce for the goose not sauce for the gander? ‘Ultra’, to me, means those who hold to an extreme position, like Ultra-Nationalists. Insisting on adhering to customs that are way beyond the demands of the Talmud and later codes of law and insisting on excessive strictness is the prerogative of those who wish to live a strict life, but it does not automatically make them better or more God-fearing, and it does, indeed, make them Ultras. There is nothing wrong with being an Ultra. I am an Ultra, even a fanatic in my belief that Torah should co-exist with the best of secular knowledge. But I am not that arrogant as to suggest that I am more God-fearing than anyone else. That is for God to decide.