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Social Issues Raised by the Recent Tragedy

Leiby Kletzky's Funeral

The Mishna teaches us, חיב אדם לברך על הרעה כשם שהוא מברך על הטובה. “One is obligated to bless the negative the same way one is obligated to bless the positive”.

The Rambam understands this to mean that since we do not know what the end of the story will be, it is not rational to be angry or upset when things go wrong. The isolated moment may seem too difficult to bear, but that is because our vision is limited to the moment.

This can be understood one of two ways. One is that we may never know why bad things happen, but we can know that we cannot understand them because our vision is limited. Therefore we should bless the bad with the good and trust that it will be good eventually. I believe this is a difficult position. What good can come from a vile murder and what good can come when the murderer is from our own community?

There is a second approach. This approach holds that we can write our own ending to the story. The horrible events are part of a larger picture, but that picture is not complete. We can finish that picture, write our own ending. Sometimes the greatest redemption comes from the most difficult times. We bless the bad with the good because we believe that the terrible tragedy that occurred will bring about change and improvements. It may hurt a lot. But it is something worthy of blessing.

This is what I referred to when I wrote that there is a silver lining in dark cloud**.

I believe there is an opportunity for our community to refocus on one broad issue and one specific issue that arise from this nightmare.

The broad issue requires some background. Ashkenazik Jews, for the most part, were persecuted mercilessly by their overlords. For 1000 years Jews lived in fear of their non-Jewish neighbors, were picked on by their local and national governments, were the scapegoats for major events and eventually it all ended with the Holocaust. That is the 1000 year legacy of Ashkenazik Jewry. It has had a major effect on the collective psyche of the Ashkenazik Jew. It leaves an indelible mark of victimhood and fear of the outsider. It has spawned the insular Orthodox Jewish communities of Boro Park, Flatbush, Williamsburg, Monsey, Lakewood, Kiryas Joel and others. It has fueled an anti-Semitism paranoia where the “other” is to be feared, possibly loathed but always looked upon with skepticism. It has created a social system that works hard to prevent the “outside” from coming in because the outside is scary, the inside is safe. Social issues within the orthodox community are frequently blamed on the outside influences and have become, in an ironic twist, the scapegoat for the community’s problems.

However, this has had two negative side affects. First, it teaches us that we need to fear the outside, and if we don’t shut it out, we will lose what we have. This is not a true statement. Many of our great rabbis and leaders since the times of the Mishna were active on the “outside”. They held jobs, interacted with the people of their day who were not from their community and taught their communities how to appreciate their beautiful Jewish tradition, live a committed life and still be a participant in the outside world. But 1000 years of hate and persecution has created an environment where we focus less on what is special and unique and worthwhile on the inside and more on what is wrong, corrupt and evil on the outside.

We definitely lose something with our collective reticence to participating in the outside. I have quoted LeAnne Tuohy as saying that the cure for cancer may be in our inner cities. But it may never be discovered because of all the great minds we lose to inner city culture and violence. A similar thought might be said about the insular Jewish communities. Who knows what we might be losing by limiting our opportunities?

The second, perhaps more nefarious side effect, is that it creates a level of comfort on the inside that falsely promises that everything inside is safe. If all the evil is outside then the inside is completely safe. While the inside is generally made up of wonderful, charitable, righteous people, they are not the only people on the inside. Nothing could be more wrong. There is evil in our midst as well. There is abuse, there is crime, there is corruption, there is bigotry, there are some rotten people. They are few and far between, but they are there. But by focusing so much on the evil on the outside, we have come to allow, and by implication, give tacit approval to the evil on the inside. Feeling that we can trust anybody with the orthodox Jewish uniform is a shaky proposition. It always has been, but now it is more clear than ever before.

The inside has a history of protecting its own. Even when its own are bad people. The over-emphasis on how bad it is on the outside has given a virtual playground for the predators among us to thrive on the inside.

And so, the Leiby Kletzky nightmare has us waking up in a cold sweat. The challenge for us is to manufacture our own silver lining. We need to write the end of the story by righting the ship.

I believe that we can learn from this horrible incident that the current social structure and strictures in our insular communities may be beginning to harm us as much as they have helped us. Broadly, it harms us because it limits our opportunities and specifically it harms us because it has allowed us to protect the most dangerous people in our communities.

Turning for a moment to Levi Aron, I believe we failed him and ourselves as a society. His mental illness went untreated, his anti-social behavior raised no flags, his “creepiness” was not something to consider but one thing above all is what allowed this to happen. In an environment where everyone is presumed safe, a man with the right uniform isn’t considered a stranger. A man who invites a different child into his car earlier in the day is not reported because it does not even occur to people that the man may be dangerous. I am not saying that Aron was clearly dangerous, but I am saying that warning signs existed. In a community where warning signs are ignored because they can’t possibly be warning of something calamitous, because the inside is always safe, we can find ourselves in the middle of a nightmare.

It is my sincere hope that my words have not offended anybody. I don’t place any blame on anyone involved in the story not name Levi Aron. A social structure and community are not choices that individuals make. They evolve and sometimes we need something to shape the next stage of their evolution.

Let’s hope this will be a start.

 

**Please see this post to understand my usage of this idiom: Silver Linings: An explanation and an Apology


14 Comments
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  • Shlomopill

    Another take on that Mishnah – one not inconsistent with your idea – could be gleaned from R. S.R. Hirsch’s translation of the word baruch.  He relates baruch to b’reicha – a brook that propels itself forward, eventually cutting through even stone to reach its goal – and briechayim – knees, the essential anatomical component that enables us to navigate through the challenges of our environment, climbing over obstacles to reach our destination.  Mevarech al hara’ah k’shem shemivareich al hatovah.  We must use both he seemingly bad and the seemingly good events in our lives to encourage us, to propel us to better ourselves and our condition.  God challenged us to see how we will respond to his challenges – whether we will recoil into inactive depression, or instead use each difficulty as a springboard for further development.  In this way, the “bad” really can be a brachah - it can be a motivating force that encourages us to use our innate human potential and creativity to overcome the challenge, learning from it to better achieve our ultimate objectives.

  • Anonymous

    This is what I referred to when I wrote that there is a silver lining in dark cloud.

    There is no good that can come out of such a senseless murder of a child (or of anyone). Sorry, no silver lining here. There’s a reason Chazal said that killing a person is like killing the world.  
     
    In fact, maybe more new evil will come out of this. I wouldn’t be surprised if Boro Park (and other places) starts to ostracize (I mean more than they already do) single men over age 30 especially if they are a little “weird”, nebachs, or just simply march to the beat of a different drummer. They could be entirely harmless having never harmed a person in their life, and not having the capability to maliciously harm another person, yet they may all be tarred with the same brush. Meanwhile, as usual, the Rebbe (with wife+7 kids) that molests will be reported to the nearest Gadol who will sweep it under the rug so the community “doesn’t look bad” (bad for shidduchim, communal power brokers, etc).  
     
    I’m not going to bless evil things. I won’t even bless any possible good that can come from evil things because that good should have been done without the evil thing occurring. And I surely won’t bless anything about this particular evil thing. If our overly insular community repairs itself, maybe I’ll bless the result, but I wouldn’t deign to connect this evil act (in any way as good) with that positive action.

  • richard friedman

    Very beautifully spoken Rabbi- As someone who has been directly affected by this horror Isimply could not agree more with your rational perpesctive

    • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

      Thank you Richard, it means a lot to me to hear you say that.

  • Menorahnorth

    Excellent response to an incomprehensible tragedy, Rabbi.  I worry, though, that the insular communities will, as a result of this, become even more reclusive, not only spurning the “outside” world but, as you allude, those in their midst who are not on the exact derech they seek.  Must every male there wear a white shirt?  Of course–but now not only the blue-shirt-wearers, but anyone earning the adjective “creepy” will likely draw suspicion.
    Thank you for your blog, Rabbi. You are astute and articulate.

  • Shazjhb

    In our society not recognizing and then treating the individuals who are possible “sick”, “creepy” creates tragic circumstances.  Until this horrible murder it is unlikely Levi Aron’s behavior was questioned.  Teaching children to engage in the world but remain on guard is a challenge.  Thought provoking discussion.
    shazjhb

  • Anonymous

    I’m still a little too raw to look for any good to come from this.

    But if this is a teachable moment, one where the community can examine its behavior, and how to better protect itself and its children, well and good. I don’t know. I was very upset by Shmuley Boteach’s article on this, where he seems to be having trouble distinguishing between protecting children from ‘corrupting social influences’ and protecting them from psychopathic killers.

    But right now, I’m not sure we really have all the information on what happened and what led up to this…and many an insular community has missed the killer in their midst before. I’m not sure this is something that can be fully protected against, ever.

  • Yaakov & Miriam Boim

    th and the fact that we are told that child molesters  should not be reported to the police and to ask a rav first and in a few cases i know personally the victims parents were told by their rabbi that the molester would do teshuva and not to report them this story should be a wake up call to these rabbis to stop tryng to keep things quiet and seek action.

  • yisroel

    Rabbi-
    I disagree with your takeaway from this episode.
    I assume there will be an investigation. At this point we should not be blaming people for ignoring “warning signs.” Nor should we be indulging in historical or sociological explanations for an “anti-Semitism paranoia” in support of unfounded accusations of criminal negligence.
    This much is clear. The murderer is mentally ill and this tragedy is thus a “natural disaster.” According to the Rambam our response should be to do Teshuva, not criticize the Torah centers of the Jewish people.
     
    Yisroel Gordon

    • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

      Reb Yisrael, thanks for stopping by.

      The investigation has shown clear errors on behalf of the frum community in repeated failures to see warning signs.
      No one made any accusations of criminal negligence.

      I did not criticize Torah centers of the Jewish people. In fact I even provided a reasonable explanation for the current situation as it exists in the New York area. But it does exist and it is the cause of many social problems including an environment that may have contributed to this murder.

      I believe modifying our general approach and lifestyle is a form of teshuva.

      • Anonymous

        Claims of attempts by the murderer to pick up kids have been discredited.  I am not saying there weren’t warning signs at all, but there were none that would have alerted something of this nature.  The investigation did not show any clear signs of error on behalf of the frum community.  You call yourself an optimist yet you are focusing on many perceived ills of the frum community.  As an optimist you should be seeing the 90% full and good of the frum community not the 10% you perceive as having caused and/or permitted this to occur.  There is no need nor reason to blame, the takeaway is that our communities suffer from the same ills and we must wake up and deal with it.

        • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

          Claims of attempts by the murderer to pick up kids have been discredited.

          No they haven’t. http://www.foxnews.com/us/2011/07/17/ny-man-charged-with-murder-boy-reportedly-had-history-strange-behavior/

          I did not say there was “clear error”. I said that in a community where there is a long history of victimhood and evil is assumed to come from the “outside”, warning signs can be missed.

          I did not blame.

          Your last sentence is exactly what I said just explained why we may not realize it sometimes and how, perhaps, if we change the way our communities are structured, warning signs won’t be missed in the future.

          • Anonymous

            “The investigation has shown clear errors on behalf of the frum community in repeated failures to see warning signs.”  this was your reply.  Secondly, although I cannot cite the source, because it was on the radio, wcbs 880 quoted the police commissioner in response to people coming out and saying that there were other attempts that there were none.  That does not mean there were no warning signs.  There are always warning signs, it is a matter if we catch them.  Most of the time, we look back and say, “oh, that was a warning sign”.  It is like that with illnesses, marriages that fall apart, etc… We can always look back and kick ourselves for allowing something to happen by saying we should have caught it.  Your approach does just that by looking at the reasons for why it could have happened.  Instead we must head the wake up call and leave the debating on how or why it happened to those who are not interested in becoming more astute to our communities’ problems.
            Our communities are structured as insular because we are fighting incredible forces that are drowning our people.  This is not putting our heads in the sand, it is a form of protection. It is a dangerous trade you are asking for, and a losing one at that.  But your stance is that orthodoxy benefited from reform, so it is not a far cry to say that orthodoxy will benefit form embracing the immoral culture (although I believe you agree this is quite different).  It is too dangerous to ask that we open our culture, rahter we must learn to fight the dangers we already have in our midst.

          • Anonymous

            “The investigation has shown clear errors on behalf of the frum community in repeated failures to see warning signs.”  this was your reply.  Secondly, although I cannot cite the source, because it was on the radio, wcbs 880 quoted the police commissioner in response to people coming out and saying that there were other attempts that there were none.  That does not mean there were no warning signs.  There are always warning signs, it is a matter if we catch them.  Most of the time, we look back and say, “oh, that was a warning sign”.  It is like that with illnesses, marriages that fall apart, etc… We can always look back and kick ourselves for allowing something to happen by saying we should have caught it.  Your approach does just that by looking at the reasons for why it could have happened.  Instead we must head the wake up call and leave the debating on how or why it happened to those who are not interested in becoming more astute to our communities’ problems.
            Our communities are structured as insular because we are fighting incredible forces that are drowning our people.  This is not putting our heads in the sand, it is a form of protection. It is a dangerous trade you are asking for, and a losing one at that.  But your stance is that orthodoxy benefited from reform, so it is not a far cry to say that orthodoxy will benefit form embracing the immoral culture (although I believe you agree this is quite different).  It is too dangerous to ask that we open our culture, rahter we must learn to fight the dangers we already have in our midst.