Kenneth Ryesky
Kenneth Ryesky

The Meron circus

This harsh commentary regarding the tragic Meron fiasco is now ready for posting, now that most if not all of the bereaved families have gotten up from sitting shiva.  The embargo has been self-imposed as a matter of common courtesy; there will be plenty of opportunity for criticism and critique of the multifaceted failings behind the misadventure, and there is a surfeit of blame to go around for what many, myself included, view as the criminal negligence involved.

More compelling than the common courtesy considerations, however, is my personal connection.  Having gotten up from sitting shiva for my mother immediately prior to this past Pesach weekend, my own apartment might well have once again been the situs of another shiva, this time for a senseless Lag B’Omer death in Meron; I am, of course, most grateful that such was not the case.

My son, having twice achieved fatherhood in the past two years, has quite appropriately begun to adjust his thought processes accordingly.  His and his wife’s typical Fridays are spent doing Shabbat preparations which almost always include rearranging furniture, cooking for guests, and general clean-up chores.  Having planned to go to Meron on Thursday evening, and expecting to sleep late on Friday following his return to his Tzfat apartment in the wee hours of the morning, he decided to get a head start Thursday afternoon on the Shabbat preparations so that his wife could better direct her energies towards the needs of their toddler and their infant.

It was past midnight by the time he was ready to leave for Meron, and the bus he was riding reached Meron shortly after the disaster had occurred; his bus was among the first to be turned away from Meron.  Had he gone earlier as in previous years, my son could well have been among the victims of the disaster.

The havoc at Meron exemplifies all kinds of dysfunctions in Israeli government and society.  It no doubt will have lasting effects in the political, social, and, I daresay, religious spheres.  It is my personal conjecture that almost every Jew who abandons religious observance (goes “Off the Derech“) has been invalidated by a rabbi, lied to by a rabbi, and/or abused by a rabbi (or some functional equivalent thereof).  If my conjecture has substance, then the failed implicit and explicit promises by some rabbis that Meron would be safe will no doubt result in future attritions from Jewish observance.

Others will (and indeed, have already begun to) write about various aspects of the events and attitudes leading up to the lethal wrack and ruin, but this commentary will focus upon an event that technically occurred after the deadly pile-up:  The attacks upon the Home Front Command soldiers who came upon the scene to help save lives and control the damage (and who, to their credit, persevered in spite of the verbal and physical assaults to which they were subjected).

These attacks upon the female soldiers who were responding to the disaster seem to have been triggered by beliefs on the part of the attackers that women should not have contact with men.  That Rabbi Kanievsky has responded to the Meron debacle by saying that women should dress more modestly will surely be used by the attackers and their sympathizers to rationalize the unacceptable behavior.  Indeed, the Talmud specifically addresses the issue:

“Who is considered a foolish man of piety? For example, it is one who sees that a woman is drowning in a river, and he says: It is not proper conduct to look at her while she is undressed and save her.”

For the past sixteen years or so, I have basically kept current with the Daf Yomi, the “Page of the Day” of the Talmud; I now usually participate in a Zoom session with others, but when that does not work out I read the portion on my own.  It has always amazed me that hardly a week (and nary a fortnight) passes when the Daf does not make mention of something that is directly relevant to an event in my personal schedule if not in the world news headlines.

Lakhs of Jews worldwide are now studying the tractate Yoma, which, as its name implies, addresses the laws connected directly if not incidentally with Yom Kippur.  Sure enough, there were eerie tie-ins with Meron this past week.  The most obvious one was a discussion of how the Holy Temple miraculously accommodated overcrowding on Yom Kippur and other festivals.  Never mind my skepticism as to the mechanics described in the Talmud (which definitely did not operate at Meron), the fact that the topic even appeared when it did is inherently awesome.

The next day’s Daf made mention of the Eglah Arufah, the ritual prescribed in the Torah whereby the elders of a city outside which an unsolved homicide occurs must sacrifice a calf to confirm that they had no involvement in the murder.  The basic principle behind the Eglah Arufa is that community leaders must promote the good behaviors of their constituencies and are held accountable for any lapses.  Such an ideal is obviously wanting in contemporary Israel (and no less so in America and elsewhere).

The carnage at Meron occurred in the physical province of an area controlled by the Toldos Aharon chassidic sect.  Dovid Kohn, the Toldos Aharon rebbe, needs to be held accountable for the events that occurred in his de facto domain.  Even if the actual attackers were not his own Toldos Aharon people, Rabbi Kohn needs at the very least to unequivocally condemn the attacks upon the Home Front soldiers.

And all the more if, perchance, the attackers were his own Toldos Aharon chassidim, for Rabbi Kohn micromanages every aspect of his people’s waking (and sleeping) hours, and it cannot be said that he is unable to control his boys’ behavior. If the attackers were in fact his own people, then a verbal condemnation would not be sufficient; he would then need to impose visible and meaningful penalties upon the perpetrators.

Regardless of who the attackers were, Rabbi Kohn owns the attacks. The Toldos Aharon compound in Meron is Kohn’s circus, and the people who attacked the Home Front soldiers are Kohn’s monkeys.

About the Author
Born in Philadelphia, Kenneth lived on Long Island and made Aliyah to Israel. Professionally, he worked as a lawyer in the USA (including as an attorney for the Internal Revenue Service), a college professor and an analyst for the U.S. Department of Defense. He's also a writer and a traveler.
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