Social Issues Raised by the Recent Tragedy
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