A World Apart -Parsha Blog
People do not know what to make of ultra-orthodox Jews, yet they are often fascinated by them as well. They are one of us, a member of the tribe, yet they seem very different. They are a world apart, yet on some level they are still part of our world because they are part of our people. This fascination, which currently can be fed with the series “Shtisel” set in an ultra-orthodox community and which appears on Netflix is not new. Chaim Potok’s novel The Chosen, written in the 1960’s (film version 1980), about the son of a Chasidic rabbi befriending a non-chasidic Jewish boy was perhaps the first peek into that world. Fiddler on the Roof, a study or the tension between traditional religiosity and modernity, held the record for ten years for longest running Broadway show, and it was the highest grossing film of 1971. And of course with the explosion of Chabad throughout the world, from college campuses to vacation destinations, everyone now knows at least one Chasid.
So what is it about them that fascinates people so much? Maybe it is precisely that difference which creates the curiosity about and interest in ‘hareidim’ as we call them in Israel. The town we live in, Beit Shmesh has a large moden orthodox community, but also a large Hareidi community. So my interactions are daily. And my teacher of many years, Rabbi Yitzchak Schwartz, is part of that community. If one is offered the opportunity to get past the external differences, there is much to be learnt from these communities.
There are several defining characteristics of these ultra-orthodox communities, or Charedim as they are called in Israel. Of course, the one we first notice is how they dress. The long coats and hats, the black and white colors make them stand out, but why do they dress like that? There are two reasons. The first is precisely to look different. Now this is not something new, many elements of counterculture have wanted to look different, from hippies to goths to hipsters. But Charedim purposefully distinguish themselves by what they wear because they believe that by distancing themselves from the host society and culture they can distance themselves from being affected by the values which they consider antithetical to theirs. This is why they live in insular communities, and by and large do not expose themselves to popular culture and media.
The second reason they dress so differently is a because it is a self-conscious effort to dress as they did in Eastern Europe (as is much of their lifestyle, including their food, see the cover picture). This is not merely nostalgia but a purposefully throwback to a past era. What they are trying to recapture, or rather preserve is a life that was and is centered upon service of G-d, tradition, community, family, charity and good deeds and the study and observance of Torah life. It is maintaining a continuity with the past great Torah communities of Europe in order to preserve their Jewish values.
Right before the Torah is given at Mount Sinai, the Jewish people are enjoined to be a ‘Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation.’ What does it mean to be a Kingdom of Priests? It means to be particularly dedicated to bringing the Almighty into this world, and to embodying the Torah’s ideals. Within the Jewish people the Cohanim served that function, and this week’s Torah reading (Pekudei, Exodus 38:1) tells us about the special clothes that the Cohanim wore in the Temple in Jerusalem. They were white, expressing the purity with which the Cohanim served in the Temple. The Jewish view is not that ‘the clothes make the man’, but ‘the man makes the clothes’. No, this does not mean that the Cohanim have to work in garment industry, although I am sure many did. It means that the feeling and value comes from within, and then you wear the clothes that express these feeling and reinforce them, rather than using clothes to impress others. Similarly, the Jews in the ultra-orthodox communities wear their distinctive garb to reflect their dedication to a lifestyle that is focused not on the material and the externals, but on inner values of a spiritual life.
I believe that there is something admirable about the single-minded focus, the intensity, the passion, the clarity of their mission in life, and their dedication to serving the Almighty and living a Torah life of the ultra-orthodox community. One can debate whether the trade-off of being insulated from the larger world is worth it, but one should appreciate the benefits they derive from it. And maybe we can also learn something from it, that sometimes we need to create boundaries to distance ourselves from people, places and situations that do not bring out the best in us.