January 16, 2012

Sins of the Fathers.

Haredim confront secular Jews in Beit Shemesh

 “…the wrong that rouses our angry passions finds only a medium in us; it passes through us like a vibration, and we inflict what we have suffered.” –George Eliot

I try, I really do. I always make an effort to be civil online. I’ve even been accused in these very pages of setting myself up as the Right Speech Police for refusing to indulge in snark and rancor in comments. Of course I fall short occasionally, but I always try.

Then I read this in my Facebook feed:

In Best Buy and there’s a HORRIBLE child! Mother keeps saying “Shush! No you can’t have it.” All the while he’s screaming, crying and carrying on “I want this!”. He has to be about 6. If it was my kid, a good spanking on the butt with a “There! Now you have a reason to cry!”

I was appalled at the number of people whose comments expressed regret that a good old-fashioned spanking is now considered abuse by a politically correct world. I knew how the prophet felt when he wrote, “there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.” (Jeremiah 20:9) I simply had to weigh in on this.


Now, I started off slowly, by responding (relatively) positively to the few dissenting comments that were posted.

Well said, Dxxxx. Everyone–teachers, other parents, (etc.)–tell me how well-behaved my children are, and we have *never* hit them, nor would we ever. Hitting a child is barbaric.

Amen to that, Fxxxx. I remember many a beating from childhood, but not a single “lesson” I supposedly “learned” from them. Hitting a child is for people with no self-control who have run out of ideas.

It was at about this time that the originator of the thread admonished me to “be respectful of others.”

Fuck that.

I call them like I see them, including calling bullshit when i hear it. Hitting children is barbaric, period. If that makes me “disrespectful,” so be it.

Which is pretty harsh, for me.

I have now walked around for several days with a ball of fury roiling in my stomach as I obsess over this thread. And what it tells me is that, as much as I have avoided it–as many times as I have talked myself out of it–I simply must write what follows.  

You may have heard of the Haredim–the ultra-Orthodox Israeli Jewish sect that has been clashing with police over what they see as the forced secularization of their close-knit religious neighborhoods. The town of Beit Shemesh in particular has been in the news lately. On January 4, a 19-year-old woman soldier was harassed–called a “slut” and a “shiksa”–for refusing to move to the back of the bus with the other women. (Though not legally binding, many people observe this mehadrin custom on bus lines that pass through Haredi neighborhoods.)

The tensions came to a head over a religious school built on the unofficial borderline of Beit Shemesh’s Haredi enclave. A group of the black-hatted ultra-Orthodox men lined the sidewalk outside the school to spit on, shove and scream at the children, whom they called “whores” and “Nazis” because they found their dress–conservative by most standards–“immodest.”  Eight-year-old Naama Margolese became a cause célébre when her story, in which she described the “tummy ache” she endured each day out of fear of the protesters–appeared in news outlets around the world.

Looking at the rage in the faces of these men at the presence of bare-armed second-graders, it would be easy to dismiss them as one-dimensional, bigoted zealots. And I certainly deplore their tactics, which include spitting and screaming at children, destroying “objectionable” merchandise in stores, and pepper-spraying girls who walk down the street in the company of boys. Though I am sympathetic to their ultimate aim of living a godly life, I find their apparent vision of that life repellant.

Of course, to these Haredim, not only the rightness of their beliefs, but the appropriateness of their responses is axiomatic:

“I think sometimes they’re not sensitive to the impact of what they’re saying because to them, the fact that a woman and a man should not sit together on the bus, it’s so obvious.”

(This, I believe, is why so many social conservatives resent exposure to the news media. The whole “liberal media” canard aside, I think they believe at some level that outsiders–who cannot even see how obvious it is that women and men should not sit together in public, for example–simply cannot possibly understand, and are therefore unfit to judge, their actions.)

Tactics aside, even the content of their belief system is strange to me; what possible harm could there really be in a t-shirted second-grader?  The belief that these children are corrupting the morals of the community is as odd to me as the belief that gay marriage will somehow undermine straight marriage.

But here’s my confession: though I do not agree with what they believe, and do not condone what they do, I understand how they feel.

Let me explain.

My children, like all children, have a repertoire of behaviors that really push my buttons.  (Note: teachers, neighbors, Sunday School leaders, other kids’ parents, relatives, even total strangers–everybody tells us that our kids are exemplary. This is my problem, not theirs.) My eight-year-old in particular has been making exploratory forays into disrespectful teenage behavior that I find it incredibly difficult to deal with because if I had acted like that, I’d have gotten hit. And while I have, thank God, broken the family cycle of physical violence, when my daughter treats me in a way that would have gotten me belted or slapped, I have no tools to use, no inner flowchart to consult, because events in my own childhood simply never flowed past that point.

My parents instilled in me what I, borrowing from Kant, call a Categorical Imperative: children must never defy, or otherwise show disrespect to, parents. Period. And while I have rejected my parents’ ways of enforcing this rule, I evidently internalized the rule at a deep level.

A violation of a Categorical Imperative is something that cannot be, something absolutely intolerable–like anti-matter which, if left alone, will blow up the universe. It simply must be done away with at any cost.  And while both the specific beliefs and the enforcement strategies differ wildly between the Haredim spitting on other peoples’ children and me shouting at my own, I am sure that the emotional content is drawn from the same well. When the irresistible force meets the immoveable object, there is going to be hell to pay.

I’ve been told–and I’m prepared to believe it–that these aggressive Haredim are an atypical minority within their community. And while I haven’t any idea whether the extremists routinely beat their children, I don’t believe the Haredim are merely being stubborn or willfully stupid when they defend their actions—they simply haven’t the mental categories to accommodate any other interpretation of the world or support any other behavioral strategies.  The Categorical Imperative builds a wall imagination cannot penetrate nor thought see beyond.

Most often, we pass along to our children the very same Categorical Imperatives that marred our own childhoods: think of Celie in the Color Purple, advising Harpo to beat his wife Sophia as her own husband beat her, because she had internalized the message that wives must obey their husbands.

Think of parents who bully or reject their children because no son or daughter of theirs is going to be a faggot.

Afshan Azad

Think of Afshan Azad, who played Padma Patil in the Harry Potter movies. Her brother beat her and incited her father to attempt to kill her because she was dating a Hindu. To them, it simply could not be that their sister and daughter would “dishonor” them in that way. And yes, this belief that a man’s honor is dependent upon the behavior of his female relations, and that women who sully it must be dealt with through brutal punishments up to and including “honor killings,” strikes me as nothing more than playground preening writ large and deadly, the cant of backward savages.

But reject as I may the content of their beliefs and their methods for enforcing them, I cannot deny that, in some fundamental way, I know how they feel. I, too, have had it literally beaten into to me that some things simply cannot happen and must not be allowed to exist. I am lucky in that my social milieu does not support corporal punishment; if it did, I may well have visited the sins of my fathers upon my children as much as anyone else. I’d like to think I wouldn’t, but I couldn’t swear to it.

I know I sometimes exasperate people by my unwillingness to sit in judgment even on people whose behavior I find repellant. And yes, I do have my own lines in the sand–obviously, child-beating is one. But who knows what, had I been born into other circumstances, I might myself be capable of? And how can I even begin to understand people as radically different from me as the Haredim–or even people who practice or condone corporal punishment–unless my gaze is “lit up” by love, and a willingness to enter into others’ feelings and the causes of them?

 …surely, surely the only true knowledge of our fellow-man is that which enables us to feel with him—which gives us a fine ear for the heart-pulses that are beating under the mere clothes of circumstance and opinion. Our subtlest analysis of schools and sects must miss the essential truth, unless it be lit up by the love that sees in all forms of human thought and work, the life and death struggles of separate human beings.[i]


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[i] George Eliot, Scenes of Clerical Life









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