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There is much to celebrate, as well as criticise, about Haredi life

Shneur Reti-Waks
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PLUS61J 53 (5)

Published: 17 August 2021

Last updated: 4 March 2024

RABBI SHNEUR RETI-WAKS: The ultra-Orthodox flout Covid lockdowns and hold onto archaic beliefs, but TV minimises their inspiring traditions; we need a more nuanced conversation

THERE IS RIGHT now a palpable, legitimate, and understandable outrage in our community. The revelations of secret minyanim and an illegal brazen engagement party have vividly exposed the hypocrisy, arrogance, double-standard, and profound dishonesty within the heart of the religious community.

I spend a lot of time in aged care facilities and contrasting their intense isolation during lockdowns with such flippant disregard, leaves me truly breathless.

But the great irony is that the people I know in that engagement party video clip are really good people. How then, we must ask, do good people behave so badly? My answer: they have some really bad ideas which makes it simply inevitable.

The following is an article I wrote last week before this latest episode. What’s transpired entirely substantiates my analysis. When a community creates a culture which places themselves above everyone else, their interests come first.

Since they also believe that their truth is the only truth and the whole truth, we need not abide by man-made laws prohibiting our minyanim and restricting our celebration of the very young Choson and Kallah, in which god himself is participating. Being two-faced about it is also no biggie. Since this is the work and will of God, the end justifies the means.

Dogmatic anti-rationalism does in fact lead directly to immorality.

The recent Netflix series My Unorthodox Life has sparked a fresh round of the same old conversation. There are the critics of ultra-Orthodoxy who, with righteous indignation, decry the monstrosity of the system and call for its obliteration. And there are the apologists who decry the “Frum bashing” at the merest hint of an alternative perspective.

I even came across a comparison between the US productions of ultra-Orthodox life, which tend to be critical, and the Israeli productions, which tend to focus on the heart-warming elements. The insinuation and conversation it sparked perfectly illustrates this point. Why concentrate on the negative when there is so much positive in Chesed and Tzedekah?

I know nothing about films but I do know the Haredi world. And I think there is a lack of nuance in this conversation.

Having grown up in a most intensely ultra-religious Chabad home, I know there are many aspects of the community and its lifestyle which are beautiful. Every Friday night going to Shul to sing with the whole community, wondering with anticipation which versions of Lecha Dodi the chazan is going to spark up.

Growing up in a Chabad home, we were taught that our egos get in the way of our spiritual connection. Materialism was looked at with contempt.

This was always followed by a ten-course feast with many guests besides my nuclear family of 19, and a whole lot of singing at the Shabbat table. The slow, melancholic Chasidic songs of my youth are still my go-to for open-heart experiences.

The lack of showering on Shabbat, as well as my ironically busy Shabbat morning work schedule earning money layning in different Shules notwithstanding, Shabbat was a profoundly connecting day for family and community, with lots of food and music.

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Even the uninteresting and superficial My Unorthodox Life asks legitimate questions. Why are women not allowed to sing? Why do women have to follow rules made by men?

I loved the fact that from the moment we could read we were competing to memorise pages, chapters, and even books of Jewish learning. While other kids were reading Dr Seuss, our minds were engaged in legal hair-splitting. We were practically enrolled in a part-time law degree.

The intense Olympic-grade mental gymnastics involved in learning the Talmud is hard to explain to those without the experience. It is a freestyle dialogue of law, history, philosophy, psychology, theology, and a variety of other subjects in which you get to fully participate in loud, impassioned conversation with a study partner to whom you are practically wed.

You learn to express yourself more articulately without any awareness of the process because you are entirely focused on the argument at hand. That this was making God happy was the icing on the cake.

I loved coming from such a large family. There was never a dull moment. There were so many options. You could stand in line to play with the youngest baby, make an epic Lego invention using only the basic building blocks, thousands of them. You could have a pillow fight with a dozen participants. Or you could get political, putting in place allies and alliances in a much more interesting game of reality Risk. Basically, life was like summer camp.

And so many of the values resonated deeply. We were taught that our egos get in the way of our spiritual connection. Materialism and consumerism were looked at with contempt. Superficiality was the grossest accusation, being real the highest virtue.

And learning for the sake of learning. Not just ancient law but also many abstract notions, from early morning till late at night. The virtues of commitment, the challenge, and the discipline, shone through at every turn.

And of course, the ubiquitous prevalence of Tzedekah and Chesed. The poor and needy in the community are looked after. Suffering and loss is cushioned by care and love. The myriad of charitable causes on display as tzedakah boxes at the entrance of the Shule is a testimony to the benevolence existing in the Frum community.

But this does not mean that there isn’t plenty to criticise about Haredi beliefs, speech, and action.

Even the uninteresting and superficial My Unorthodox Life asks legitimate questions. Why are women not allowed to sing? Why do women have to follow rules made by men always to their advantage? In what world is it ok for a man to prohibit his wife from wearing pants?

Why are Haredi communities allowed to brainwash their children with beliefs which are demonstrably absurd? The world is not 5781 years old and evolution is the best explanation we have.

Why are Haredi communities allowed to brainwash their children with beliefs which are demonstrably false and absurd? The world is not 5781 years old and the theory of evolution is the best explanation we have. Haredi kids are told the Covid Delta strain is a plague from God rather than a mutated form of a previous biological organism which itself was a result of mutation and adaptation.

And bastardising knowledge isn’t where it stops. Notions we hold dear, such as equality, freedom, women’s rights, children’s rights and truth are distorted. Jews, we were taught, are superior to non-Jews. Chapter 1 in Tanya, the foundation text of Chabad, concludes with the statement that non-Jews are incapable of righteous behaviour. They only do good works which benefits them. Why? Because as Chapter 2 explains, only the Jew has a godly soul.

And the inequality they teach translates into action. I mentioned the Chesed and Tzedekah that happens in the community. It is true that the support in the community is exemplary. But it has a dark side. It is entirely focused on its own.

When was the last time an ultra-Orthodox institution fundraised for anything other than its own institutions? Poor in Africa, Indigenous health, or even the downtrodden of St Kilda in Melbourne?

I want to teach my children to be kind, generous, caring human beings. To everyone, not just their friends and family. I think Australian philosopher Peter Singer is more relevant in such a pursuit than the teachings of Chabad.

And the idolising. So weird for fundamentalists who believe every word in the Torah is the literal word of God, and despite the fact that the Ten Commandments forbid idol worship and having images, the picture of the Rebbe is front and centre; it is ubiquitous.

Consequently, abortion is out, gays need shock therapy, and black people are subhuman. Israel, according to previous Chabad rebbes, should not exist since it was founded by a bunch of godless Zionists.

When was the last time an ultra-Orthodox institution fundraised for anything other than its own institutions? I want to teach my children to be kind, generous and caring to everyone, not just their friends and family.

This is why they don’t celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut and any Chabad rabbis allowing singing of Hatikva at their galas are fired. But now Israel exists and can support Chabad institutions, Israel must rule with an iron fist against the godless Left and subhuman Arabs. One’s good deeds cannot exonerate one from all the harm caused, especially when the harm is easily avoidable. Just teach that all human beings are created equally in the image of God and that absolute truth is not attainable because we are all forever limited to our own perspective.

The Torah is not the word of God verbatim because if it is, then God is a genocidal maniac. (Deuteronomy 25:19). And the ultimate gay-hater (Leviticus 20:13). And really doesn’t worry much about paedophilia (exodus 22:15-16).

For if he did, then how come from all the laws about good and bad sexual conduct, not a single mention of how wrong it is to rape kids. No wonder when the rabbis at the royal commission into child sexual abuse were asked about paedophilia, they kept talking about homosexuality. Their point of reference could only let them see that it was two males rather than the grotesque nature of the circumstance.

And that’s exactly it. Bad opinions, especially when they are all encompassing, lead to such harm. A known paedophile is in charge of security in the school for decades after because he has been cleared by our in-house Torah observant Rebbe-loving shrink and counsellor.

He is even seen as a fitting boarding house opportunity for a most underprivileged vulnerable child for him to rape over years. Why? Because in their worldview, paedophilia is a disease we can handle internally, unlike homosexuality which is an abomination which we must destroy from our midst.

Haredi men donating blood for plasma at the start of the pandemic, April 2020
Haredi men donating blood for plasma at the start of the pandemic, April 2020

And destroy they do. Some literally, as the ultra-Orthodox man did when he killed a gay person in the Pride Parade in 2016 in Jerusalem. For most, it’s slightly more discreet. From the many thousands of international ultra-Orthodox students roughly my age I knew over 10 years in Melbourne, Crown Heights, Montreal, Kfar Chabad, Lod and Tzfat, not one of them was gay. Astounding.

If I come across as passionate, it’s because I am. It is deeply personal for me. At the age of 23 I had to work hard to tear away the heavy layers of nonsensical thought and bad ideas which were indoctrinated into me from the youngest age. And I see many others coming from that community severely damaged by their experience. We as the wider community should be challenging that.

But it’s also personal on another front. The overwhelming reason I quit being a rabbi at an Orthodox synagogue after 10 years was because I gave up trying to change things from within. The royal commission into sexual abuse in the Yeshiva community made a mockery of any sense of morality amongst the rabbis, and their attacks on the victims were salt on the wound.

The arrogance of their homophobic proclamations around the time of the plebiscite was also jaw-dropping. Not that I needed them to say homosexuality is ok because it’s how ‘“God” made them, though it is the only justified position. All I would have expected is that they agree to not impose their narrow-mindedness on everybody else.

If we want our youth to maintain their Jewish identity, then that identity needs to inspire them, not repel them.

I did try to have conversations with my then colleagues. When I was attacked by a leading rabbi as to how I could write that the Torah’s prohibition against homosexuality was not relevant today, I asked him whether he thought intentional killing of children in war was ok. The Torah states that the Jews had to kill the men, women and children, of at least nine nations. (Deuteronomy 7:1-2, 25:19, Numbers 31).

The Midianites because their women seduced us. Amalekites because they were nasty. And all seven nations of the land of Canaan because they were in our way. Even if those nations were comprised entirely of Hitlers, intentionally killing even one baby, let alone every baby, would be the most unspeakable crime.

The rabbi’s pious response was that it is God’s wisdom, we do not understand and can’t expect to. So here we have a leading “modern” rabbi in one of the biggest Shules in Melbourne not being able to categorically say that genocide is wrong because the Torah instructs it and he believes every word in the Torah is literally true.

My philosophy is simple. I want to connect with the wise, the beautiful, and the inspiring, of our tradition, while discarding the archaic and barbaric.

I think being unable to unequivocally denounce intentional baby-killing is bad enough, rationalising it with the mind of God we do not understand is the source of all religious wars and atrocities. It’s the argument of ISIS. God commands it and your Western rational humanist nonsense is mere hubris. 

It is well established that the greatest threat to the Jewish community is the lack of youth engagement. Jewish continuity is our Holy Grail and assimilation our greatest adversary. I’m no scholar of capitalism but I am aware of the theory of supply and demand If a product has no takers, there is something wrong with it.

True, a product needs to have sufficient exposure for this to hold but considering the fact we have ultra-Orthodox institutions as densely as we have McDonalds, it is hardly a marketing issue.

If we want our youth to maintain their Jewish identity, then that identity needs to inspire them, not repel them. And the latest shenanigans, secret minyanim and outrageous engagement parties while the rest suffer, is just the latest instalment. 

As they say in Hebrew, “(I don’t want) not from your honey and not from your sting”. Much better to be an atheist who believes in equality of humankind without any reference to the divine, than to believe in a god who hates gays, is ok with paedophiles, stones to death the blasphemer, and for whom genocide is a way of life.

Or we could recognise our inherent limitations, the context of the Torah and live happily ever after. I want the collective wisdom of my ancestors but also recognise they were of course, only human. And living 3500 years ago. And so I want to embrace the gems and contextualise the bad. I want to have the cake and eat it, too.

This has led me to create “Rabbi Without Borders”. My philosophy is simple. I want to connect with the wise, the beautiful, and the inspiring, of our tradition, while discarding the archaic and barbaric.

What I want to offer is the authentic religion of Avraham who teaches us in generosity and kindness to all humans, to courageously and honestly challenge even the highest authority, and who represents this moment in history when a human being dramatically came to the realisation that human sacrifice is an utter abomination. His sword was raised, about to slit the throat of his bound son when he hears the voice of God telling him to stand down.

That inspiration is what I want to connect with, for myself, my family, and for the wider community. 

Photo: An ultra-Orthodox Jew shows chickens to his children ahead of Yom Kippur, in Mea Shearim, 2012 (EPA/Abir Sultan)

About the author

Shneur Reti-Waks

Rabbi Shneur Reti-Waks was rabbi of the Ark Centre, a modern orthodox congregation in East Hawthorn, Melbourne, from 2010-20. He is now an independent rabbi, who aims to connect people to their spirituality minus the dogma.

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