General Topics

Going Mad


I do not want to come across as a rabbi-basher or an opponent of Haredi Judaism. Most things are like curates eggs—there are parts that I love and parts that I do not. And I like to vary my subject from week to week. But something happened this week that I simply cannot let go without comment. It is not the fact that Haredi families in Lakewood were arrested for million-dollar frauds relating to social security, welfare, and Medicaid. That’s too commonplace to mention anymore. This is about Haredis abusing Haredis, and one Hasidic rebbe in particular.

Last week, an independent-minded, mystical Hasidic Rebbe of Karlin-Stolin scandalized the Chasidic world. It is a well-established Hasidic custom to have a Mitzvah Tanz, a special dance at the end of a wedding in which rabbis and male family members and close family friends dance with the bride, with each holding opposite ends of a kerchief or gartel (a kind of ritual belt Hasidim wear to differentiate the higher part of the body from the lower) of varying length—depending on the girth of the rabbi involved or the degree of pious fear that he may get too close.

Last week the Karlin-Stolin Rebbe made headlines in the ultra-Orthodox media when he danced by actually holding hands with his daughter and son-in-law at their wedding in Tel Aviv.

The rebbe said it was an old custom that was accepted in his family in Eastern Europe, where his dynasty started, that the father and grandfather of the bride danced holding hands. He had decided that he wanted to reintroduce it. So the rebbe held hands with his daughter, her new husband, and the groom’s father, and the four of them danced for several minutes in a circle. Hardly a dance, more like a shuffle.

Thousands of Hasidim attended the wedding, including rabbis and leaders of other Hasidic sects. There were 8,500 meals ordered and 130 buses were hired for the guests. Inevitably, word and cellphone pictures immediately got out about this stunning break with majority Hasidic custom.

The trend in the Haredi world (both Hasidic and non-Hasidic) is that you have to get stricter by the day. You can’t get away with anything that is more lenient. Even if the Talmud says that the ability to permit something is preferable to the ability forbid. Anyone can say “no”. To say “yes” you have to argue your case.

But this is the world where amongst perfectly normal, healthy pious people there are plenty of crazies who have nothing better to do than to attack Orthodox soldiers praying in synagogues for supporting the hated Zionists. Or push old ladies off buses and planes because they do not want to sit next to them. Or throw stones at cars endangering lives because they venture too close to Haredi ghettos on Shabbat.

Many such crazies were shocked by what the rebbe had done and wrote angry comments to the Haredi press expressing their outrage at the public display of mixed dancing. One pointed out that although the rebbe said it was an ancient custom, the Hebrew letters of the word “custom” (minhag) when written backwards spell “hell” (gehinom). Another wrote that the rebbe had gone astray because he had been corrupted by the Zionists.

Then later this week a crowd of howling furies gathered in their hundreds around his center in Jerusalem and prevented him leaving for 11 hours! Over this scandalous breach of Hasidic convention.

Perhaps this is poetic justice. The rebbe himself has said some pretty denigrating things about those he does not agree with. Maybe this is his comeuppance. But what disturbs me is this awful infighting, this lack of respect for difference. I understand theological battles over ideology. I understand the need to protect one’s own culture and customs. But not at the price of denigrating and attacking others. That’s what others  do, not us, surely? Yet once again this is precisely what is happening!

We Jews do indeed have lots of different customs, on so many issues. We should welcome the varieties, not try to expunge them. We are about to enter a period of mourning and two fasts known as the “Three Weeks”, which starts with the 17th of Tammuz and goes through to the 9th of Av.

The 17th of Tammuz, which falls on this coming Tuesday, records the beginning of the process of conquest that led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in both 586 BCE and 70 CE, combined into one.

I am the rabbi of a Sephardi congregation—originally a term for Spanish Jews, but now used for all those who came originally from eastern, Arab, Muslim cultures. Overwhelming Sephardi opinion follows the Talmud and the Medieval Code the Shulhan Aruh. Only the week in which the 9th of Av falls is the period of mourning. But the custom later developed to include the nine days from Rosh Hodesh Av.

Ashkenazim (originally Jews who moved up into the Rhineland and then across to Eastern Europe) have expanded this period into three weeks or mourning. Probably thanks to the catastrophe of the Crusades. During the period of mourning, one does not have weddings (amongst other restrictions such as not eating meat, which I don’t do anyway, so it’s no skin off my nose).

What happens when an observant Ashkenazi marries an observant Sephardi and they want get married during the last half of the month of Tamuz? Half the guests will attend and the other half won’t. As usual, negotiation and common sense find a solution. Or they should! The trouble is we Jews are such a complex, divided, contrary, stiff-necked bunch that minor problems like this turn into huge issues. The narcissism of little differences.

The Talmud keeps returning to the theme that we lost the Temples because of our own infighting and corruption. And just as important, the failure of our religious leadership. Sadly, it has not gotten any better since then. Wherever you look, in Israel, the diaspora, between sects and denominations one reads about constant denigration, humiliation and yes, violence too.

I wonder if this might be a tipping point. Perhaps the responsible leaders might realize they are encouraging these crazies. Perhaps they will realize that such heresy hunting and neurosis is destructive and self-defeating. Remember the popular saying: “Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.”

5 thoughts on “Going Mad

  1. Hi Jeremy, I fully agree with the thrust of your article, crazy though I am in some respects. I just want to take issue with your use of pathologising terms such as crazy or narcissistic. The behaviour you describe is arrogant, destructive and narrow-minded. It fragments communities. Plenty of us who have mental health problems still manage to treat our fellow human beings with respect. You aren’t the only person who is quick to dismiss unreasonable behaviour as crazy. That lets the perpetrator and the community off the hook and adds to the stigma that we who cope with fragile mental health already experience in abundance.

    Wishing you Shabbat shalom,

    Leonora from London

    1. Leo
      You are far from crazy. At most I might say idiosyncratic! But then I am a kettle!
      But I accept your point that crazy can be understood in unfairly derogatoray ways.
      Arrogant, destructive and narrow minded are certainly correct. But a lot of the malefactors I was referring to, do see to have personal issues as much as theological ones. I don’t know f they are clinical or not but I suspect they are.

      Warm regards from New York

  2. How does the Rabbi of a Sephardi community not know that the custom of all Sephardim is to refrain from weddings in the 3 weeks?
    Also do Ashkenazim really not eat meat for the whole 3 weeks?
    I suggest you stick to writing articles on topics you are familiar with.

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