Last week, a Beit Shemesh resident was brutally beaten in front of her small child, apparently for wearing a skirt that only reached her knees. The Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) young man who beat her was heard yelling that her skirt “brought out the Yetzer HaRah (Evil Impulse)” in those around her. This wasn’t the first attack of its kind, and sadly it probably won’t be the last.
Many in the Haredi community might quickly highlight their aversion to this disgusting incident. They’ll say that the aggressor acted wrongly and does not represent most Haredi Jews.
Though this angry young man may indeed have been an extreme outlier, I feel that his actions and words highlight a larger problem in Haredi circles: the tendency to attribute evil to others, instead of searching internally for its source.
I’ve seen this well-entrenched trend in speeches, articles, and private conversations. Just a few weeks ago, at a festive meal in the relatively Haredi synagogue that I frequent on weekdays, a visiting rabbi got up and gave a lengthy speech citing all the troubles that the Jewish people face in the world today. ‘It’s those Amalekites,’ he pronounced passionately, ‘with their cynicism, immodesty, and lack of religious life.’ He wasn’t referring to the ancient Amalekites, the brutal enemies of the Jewish people, but rather to his fellow Jews. It is a common refrain in the Haredi world: non-Haredi Jews are no better than the historical oppressors of the Jewish people, the Nazis, the Czarists, or the Amalekites. Haredi newspapers are filled with dramatic accusations against non-Haredi Jewry. Those other Jews are “raising their hands against the Torah” they write. It’s always about “them” and what they do, never “us” and what we do.
Yet, as Jewish tradition makes clear, and as any true spiritual seeker knows, spiritual and societal development is derived only from internal investigation into our own selves. We each live intensely private lives. Our inner-world is an unknown and exotic landscape to others. Therefore, no man can judge another, for no man truly knows another. As the famous Talmudic teaching goes, even the sinners of Israel are filled with good deeds as a pomegranate is filled with seeds.
Just as we all have our own internal good that others cannot see, we also all have our own Evil Inclination, a private force as complex and unique as each of the minds in which it resides. No one causes us to have immoral impulses. Such impulses are simply a fact of our material existence. Perhaps the tendency to judge others is a tool of the intelligent and manipulative Evil Inclination, a way of disarming our frustration at our immoral cravings, of deflecting this frustration and preventing it from initiating true inner growth.
Inner growth happens when we each look into ourselves, to examine how we think, how craving and hatred work, and why we sin even when we don’t want to. Introspection, cheshbon nephesh, an accounting of the soul, is the heart and practical cornerstone of Judaism. This introspection can take place on an individual basis as well as on a community-wide basis.
Sadly, it all too often seems that the essential practice of accounting for the self is completely lost to the Haredi world. Though very few Haredi Jews would do something as absurd and nauseating as beating a woman over her skirt length, many grow up in an environment where judging others over external matters is a daily norm.
The irony of writing an article criticizing another community for criticizing other communities is not lost on me. Yet, I write this article not as an “other”, as a “non-Haredi”, but as a Jew writing to my fellow Jews, my brothers and sisters. I care deeply about this issue, because I see a judgmental mindset, a mindset that we are all plagued with at times, as the greatest obstacle to our progression as a Jewish nation.
Few if any groups or individuals within the Haredi community strongly condemn the self-righteous environment that drove this young man to deliver a beating. It is an environment that is spiritually toxic, one that desecrates the Jewish faith and all that it stands for. I yearn for the day when a strong Haredi leader will stand above the angry rabble and lead his community away from the Evil Inclination to sit in judgment of others and towards true self-examination.