Ever since the Weberman trial, something has been bothering me. It’s something I’m having a very hard time reconciling. I find myself trying to shoehorn lyrics about this conundrum into the melody of How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria. How do you solve a problem like Williamsburg. Or New Square. Or Lakewood. How do you catch a cloud and pin it down. It’s a rude awakening the day you realize that the world you idealized, the people you looked up to, respected, aspired to, perhaps, were so much darker than the rosy images they projected. Kind of makes you just throw your hands up sometimes, and wonder how reality could slip past you and degenerate without you noticing.
I look around my community and see wonderful people. People who learn all day, or who work and learn to both provide for their families and still make time for spiritual improvement. I see people in hospitals giving of their time and resources to make sure that families visiting loved ones have where to sleep, what to eat, chargers for their phones, and someone to talk to. I see organizations devoted to making women with fertility problems able to have children. I see a free ambulance service that’s not only entirely volunteer, but faster, better, and more reliable than 911. I see free loan societies, and free wedding gown rentals, organizations that take care of burial and shiva from start to finish. I see so much good. And then I see the bad.
I see people who stand hand in hand with child abusers, abusers who have ruined the lives of tens if not hundreds of children respectively. I see rabbonim—people we refer to as gedolim—vilifying the father of a child abused by his rebbi, calling him a moser, besmirching his name publicly, despite the fact that the father had a ruling from an equally prominent rabbi allowing him to go to secular authorities. I see a woman driven to suicide by people who turned her children against her, and those same people taunting and harassing the people who came to mourn her. I see men who would torture another man for the right price. Olam hafuch ra’isi.
I can’t reconcile it, and it’s driving me nuts. I don’t understand how people, who claim, by their claim of being Jews, to be rachmanim b’nei rachmanim, could be capable of such cruelty. I don’t understand how they can harbor the empathy that would compel them to perform such kindness for people they don’t know while simultaneously thinking nothing of such barbarism. The worst part is that they don’t even think they’re doing something wrong. A child picking the legs off a spider knows that what he’s doing is wrong, but does it anyway because he finds it satisfying. This is different. This is such a subtly constructed, and heavily justified cruelty that its perpetrators don’t even understand that it’s wrong. To the contrary, they believe they are doing God’s will—fighting the good fight, so to speak.
Am I being too idealistic when I expect people who can be so kind to understand that despite differences in religion, race, upbringing, or circumstance, we are all created in the image of God? That they should see good, and be able to distinguish it from evil and cruelty?
When I was in high school, I made a flippant joke about a natural disaster that had claimed the lives of over one hundred people. I thought it was funny. My classmates thought it was funny. My rebbi didn’t. I asked him later what the problem was with what I had said; I mean who cares, right? They’re goyim anyway.
No, my rebbi said. They are fellow creations made in God’s image. They are human beings with emotions, and feelings, and thoughts just like me, people who feel joy and sadness, pain and pleasure, worry and satisfaction just like me. They are creations like me, and what kind of person could I possibly be if I could so easily dismiss the suffering of my fellow creation simply because of a difference in religion and circumstance. It jarred me. It changed my worldview. I had been brought up thinking of goyim as “shkutzim,” as something beneath me. Unworthy of me or my empathy. Of people who had gone off the derech as unfortunates, something between misguided and mentally ill. Of baalei teshuva as never quite good enough. I had been chosen, not them. God favoured me, not them. I was better because I proudly called myself frum, whereas they had chosen to rebel against their heritage. I had forgotten that God created them in His image, just as he had created me.
It made me approach the world and its diversity differently. I learned that just because someone might not be of my faith, or of my belief, that doesn’t make them any less of a human being worthy of my empathy. I can disagree with their beliefs or actions, but that shouldn’t make me disagree with their existence. Opinions, beliefs, and faiths can change, but underneath it all is a person just like me.
I think that’s what has to fundamentally change, the approach that these puzzlingly dichotomous people take to the world. They need to be shown the value of a human being beyond what they’ve been brought up believing. I don’t think they believe that they’re doing something wrong, because they believe they’re doing it to someone who never had the same right to existence as they do; They don’t believe that people who don’t fit into their worldview are quite as valued by God as they are. They believe the world was created for them, and that anyone else ranges from extra to someone who should, by all rights, serve them. They need to be taught that we all exist for a purpose, that we all have value, that we were all created in God’s image, from Jew to Non-Jew, religious to irreligious, Reform to Charedi, and everything in between. Then the reality perceived will actually be reality, without the dark layers hiding just below the surface.
To be honest, I have no idea how to get this message to the right people. Most of the people who read this will probably already agree with it; it will sound like nothing new. The target audience of this piece is unfortunately not the audience that needs to read it. But who knows, it might come to the attention of someone who does, and that person might consider these ideas, and might even improve. A man can hope. And if it changes even one person, then that’s a very good start.