Mending Walls by Orrin E. Tilevitz
Volume 3 , Issue 3 (Jan, 1990 | Kislev, 5750)
there is that doesn't
I built a wall I'd ask to know
Robert Frost, ?Mending Wall?
To an outsider, Borough Park appears to be a
thriving, vibrant, self‑contained (if closed) charedi community.
(For purposes of this article, a charedi, literally, G‑d fearing
Jewish man, is generally distinguished by his garb?a
black suit, white shirt and black hat.) One cannot but be impressed with
Borough Park's array of institutions and variety of religious life. Dozens of
chasidic sects and others cloister their young, from nursery school through
high school and on to ordination or a teaching certificate (but not, of course,
to college). One can pray with a minyan in synagogues of every size and stripe
(Borough Park even hosts a Conservative synagogue and one well‑hidden
Reform temple), nearly any time from dawn to midnight. Private buses (with
separate seating for men and women) connect Borough Park with other charedi
communities and take volunteers to visit the sick in Manhattan hospitals.
Two privately funded social service agencies, Ohel and Mishkan, minister to
troubled families and children. A volunteer ambulance service, Hatzolah,
practices the principle of pikuach nefesh docheh et
haShabbat (one may violate Shabbat to save a life).
Yet, the charedi community feels itself under siege, from both the secular culture at large and the outside Jewish community. In the past, secular culture tolerated or even glorified the drug cult, and today drug addiction infects all layers of society. The secular world has condoned all forms of hedonism and sexual promiscuity, and today, AIDS afflicts thousands. The Reform movement calls gentiles Jews, and even ordains them as rabbis. The Conservative movement lays claim to the mantle of halakhic Judaism, and yet ordains women as rabbis, permits a kohen to marry a divorcee, recognizes or performs conversions of questionable halakhic validity, and seriously considers recognizing as Jews the children of Jewish fathers and non‑Jewish mothers.
To protect itself from dangerous influences, the
charedi community has built high walls, designed to shut itself in and the outside world out. Some of
these walls are evident to anyone with a tangential knowledge of
Separation of sexes.
Every few years, notices in Yiddish appear around New York City, urging religious Jews to avoid public transit because of the proximity of opposite sexes. A Jewish lending library in Kensington, on Borough Park's outskirts, has separate hours for men and women. The Borough Park YM‑YWHA advertises a defensive driving course with separate seating. Girls and boys must be educated in separate schools, at least after the seventh or eighth grade; this is true even when separate schools are not economically feasible (IM, Yoreh Deah, Pt. 3, p. 325).
Barriers against secular culture.
I am told that some yeshivot will not admit a student
whose family owns a television. Other yeshivot reportedly inspect the family's
library before admitting a student. It is forbidden to teach students from
?heretical? textbooks which deny the Biblical story of creation; if other
textbooks cannot be found, one must rip out the offending pages (IM, Yoreh
Deah, Pt. 3, p. 323). A yeshiva may not give students vacation on
Sunday or between December 25 and January 1 (Id., pp. 328‑9).
And it is absolutely forbidden for rabbis to participate with priests or
ministers in interfaith panels or conventions (
Barriers against other religious Jews.
One well‑known Borough Park girl's yeshiva
will not admit students whose mothers do not cover their hair with a sheitl; a
hat or kerchief is not sufficient. (This is a curious position: some authorities
reason that married women must cover their hair because it is attractive to
men, and since a wig is just as attractive as natural hair, it is insufficient
as a head‑covering and a hat or a kerchief must be worn.) One Catskills
summer learning camp will give aliyot to a guest only if he wears a hat.
And, following a decree by the head of a renowned Israeli yeshiva, the works of
the great scholar and Talmudist Adin Steinsaltz, including his translation of
the Talmud into modern Hebrew, have reportedly been
burned or stuffed into garbage cans in
Barriers against Conservative and Reform Jews.
One may not hold an Orthodox minyan in a Conser?vative synagogue, even in a separate room. One may, however, do so in an ?Orthodox? synagogue, even one without a mechitza and which uses a microphone on Shabbat (IM, Orach Chayim, Pt. 4, p. 174). One may not eat meat slaughtered by the shammos of a Conservative synagogue (IM, Orach Chayim, Yoreh Deah, Pt. 2, p. 16). Similarly, a person who holds any position in a Conservative synagogue may not give a dvar Torah in an Orthodox synagogue (IM, Yoreh Deah, pt. 2, p. 180). One may not join a committee or organization which also has Reform or Conservative rabbis, even to oversee charitable or cultural matters (Id., p. 184). While it is preferable not to attend a wedding held in the ballroom of a Conservative synagogue, one may do so; and while it may be improper to hold a wedding in the sanctuary of an Orthodox synagogue, it is quite proper to do so in a Conservative synagogue, ?which has no sanctity at all? (IM, Orach Chayim, Pt. 3, p. 325). The National Council of Young Israel, hardly (one would think) the bastion of charedism, has withdrawn from the Synagogue Council of America, an umbrella group of various denominations (including Conservative and Reform). It is improper, although not forbidden, to work as a teacher or principal in a Conservative day school (IM, Yoreh Deah, Pt. 2, p. 179).
The Mishna tells us (Avot 1:2), ?Assey syag laTorah ? Make a fence around the Torah.? The Rambam (Hil. Mamrim 2:4) adds that it is even permissible for the rabbis to abrogate a minor rule in order to preserve observance of the Torah as a whole. (Ironically, the Biblical support for this principle, a non‑literal interpretation of the verse ?Et la'asot lashem, hepheru toratecha ? It is time to act for the Lord, they have voided Thy Torah? (Psalms 119:126), is also cited by the Conservative movement to support such positions as permitting Jews to drive to shul on Shabbat.) However, more and better fences of the Borough Park type do not always serve their intended function, and do not necessarily ?make good neighbors.?
For Whom are the Fences Meant?
For one thing, ?`Something there is that doesn't love a wall,/ That wants it down.'? Thus, evolution sounds one way from the mouth of a religious science teacher (?The Torah is the truth and science describes a different form of reality; let us see if they are reconcilable?), and another way from the mouth of a secularist (?Biblical fairy tales notwithstanding, we know now that life evolved over a period of many millions of years?). Scientific ?heresy? has a way of penetrating all defenses, and one would think that inoculation against it is a better defense than pretending it does not exist. Also, some of those in charge of mikvaot reportedly have banned Conservative Jews from using them for conversions, so the Conservative movement now talks of building its own mikvaot. (One wonders why the Conservative movement, which does not teach its women to immerse themselves in a mikvah after the menstrual cycle, does not simply use its asserted halakhic authority to permit immersion for a convert in a swimming pool or abrogate the requirement of immersion altogether.)
For another thing, it is not always clear what and whom these fences are ?walling in or walling out,/ And to whom [they are] like to give offense.? Discouraging religious young men from teaching in Conservative schools may save yeshiva graduates from Conservative heresies, while depriving children from nonreligious families of exposure to real yiddishkeit. Also, while in New York City, non‑Orthodox Jews may be the losers in an Orthodox boycott of their rabbis and institutions, outside of New York City or other large Jewish communities, the community acts together or not at all. In these small communities, Orthodox Jews often cannot by themselves support a day school or a mikvah, and the one kosher butcher may survive on the patronage of those who would eat treyf, but who buy kosher to keep the butcher in business. And, broadsides around High Holiday time barring Jews from praying in Conservative synagogues may encourage a handful of Orthodox Jews in small towns to stay home, but primarily serve to generate a passionate and hostile response.
?Fences? to keep Jews from violating halakha may be praiseworthy. But fences are not impenetrable, and not all fences are necessary or even helpful, particularly those which bring ill regard on the religious community. As the Chabad community decided years ago, fences which serve to keep Jews away from religious Judaism must be dismantled, even at the risk of exposing religious Jews to heresy. At the very least, both the charedi community and its non‑charedi sympathizers need to find a more substantial justification for the fences they erect than that ?good fences make good neighbors.??
Tilevitz is an attorney in