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Runaway Girls. Deuteronomy 26.

Last updated: 2003-09-11

'The Times' this week under the heading 'Runaway Hasidic teenagers return home all dressed up' (nice English pun on 'dressing' up or down!) reported that 'Two New York girls who ran away to Arizona from the constraints of their Ultra Orthodox Jewish life have returned to their parents.

The two 16 year olds had packed their bags and left their Hasidic homes in Brooklyn in search of a more exciting life.they had planned and saved money and took a taxi to the midtown Manhattan bus terminal asked for coach tickets to the furthest place that they could think of, Phoenix, Arizona, where they rented a room and went shopping, able for the first time to wear teen fashions.

A week later, they telephoned one of their teachers and told her 'We're OK. We just don't want live in the community. We don't want to live by those rules anymore.' Finally they returned home dressed in fashion clothes. They had agreed to return home once it had been agreed how they should live in the future.'

What struck me as I read this was not that two girls had tried to escape a closed society, (though the fact that they were girls, not boys, is very interesting) but that this happens relatively rarely.

The closed communities of the Orthodox world are the fastest growing and exponentially exploding sectors of Jewish life today. Not for them questions about whether their grandchildren will remain Jewish. Not for them conferences about how to keep Judaism alive, deal with massive assimilation and marriage out. Throughout the Western world there are
tightly knit, self supporting and closed communities where most families have ten to fifteen children and even if two per family were to drop out they would be well ahead of the game played by those Jews who may have one and three quarters children (always wondered how statisticians could come up with three quarters of a child).

Whether you agree with their ideology, their dress or their habits or not, the fact is that they are thriving, growing, spreading and doing very nicely. They are totally dedicated to Jewish learning, Jewish practice and the continuity of the Jewish people. And they are absolutely convinced that they are 100% right and everyone else is totally wrong. There is a
lot to be said in favour and there is also a case to be made against.

Of course the same could be said (mutatis mutandes, in other words, substituting different holy texts) about religious Muslims, Christians and Hindus. They live in closely knit communities, are mutually supportive, have lots of kids, retain their numbers and are absolutely convinced that God speaks to them, that their holy texts are Divine, that they are absolutely right and that everyone else is wrong.

We live in a world of Enrons, MTV awards, pornography on State supported Television. It is reminiscent of the fall and Decline of the Roman Empire, with its almost total lack of any value system other than the materialist. I want it, I deserve it, I'm going to get it at all costs and get away with whatever I can.

It is hardly surprising that there will be groups of people who want something different, something deeper and more spiritually satisfying. Most human beings quite like being controlled as Hitler discovered, particularly if they are convinced that they are the Chosen. So belonging to controlling groups is not the unnatural state of human behaviour. If
anything independent thinking is.

The story of the runaway girls illustrates several interesting points.

One is that you cannot keep the lid on everyone. The human spirit defies all attempts to crush individuality. We were given minds of our own and many of us rather like using them. There simply cannot be one system that works for every human being any more than there can be one system that works for all Jews or all Chassidim or all Kabbalists or all, Sepharadim
or all Ashkenazim. Yes, it is true there can be one constitution and I believe that that is what Jewish Law, Halacha, represents. But we all know too well that in practice Judaism is not about Halacha so much as about those who interpret it. Hence someone who drives to an Orthodox synagogue on Shabbat will be treated with respect and honour but someone whose views differ from the norm even if he walks all the way and does not use the Eruv, will not.

The test of a humane system is how it deals with those who do not conform.

It is easy to love your neighbour so long as he agrees with you. But Catholics massacred Huguenots and Shias destroyed Sunni in even greater numbers than they did Jews. And Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, that master of Public Relations, has declared all Mizrahi Jews are apostates who will have no portion of the world to come because they join the Israeli army and embarrass those who don't!

I find it surprising that so few Ultra Orthodox Jews break away and I also find it surprising that in this story the particular community these girls came from seemed prepared to find some way of accommodating them.

Of course this will have ruined their Shidduch chances. Poor girls will have to end up marrying some Modern Orthodox boy, feh, feh. But at least they will have been saved from a fate worse than death, living in Phoenix wearing trendy clothes!

In this week's Sedra we read the 'Tochecha' (The Rebuke), the long and repetitious description of what terrible things will happen to us if we abandon our heritage. And yet we know threats rarely work. They didn't keep the Jewish people on track historically. You have to win people over and even then allow for those who have minds of their own. I believe the function of the 'Tochecha' is poetic, a description rather of the awfulness of a society without standards and values.

The test of genuine spirituality does not lie in whether it creates closed communities or chooses to reject the values of the day. But rather on how it deals with those within who are not able to stay that way and those without who may share many of their values but not all of them.

Ahavas(t) Yisrael, Love of ones fellow Jew, an essential principle of early Chassidism, really means something when he or she is different!

Shabbat Shalom
Jeremy