Who Has the Keys to the Kingdom?
(June 4, 1999)
by Naomi Ragen
Years ago, straight out of a haredi women's seminary in Borough Park, Brooklyn,
I used to think that only those who wore the right outfits, and had the proper wigs and
beards, had the keys to the kingdom of Heaven. And why not? That's basically what we were
That, and that all the other kinds of Jews out there were mistaken, misguided, even
dangerous. Not to mention the non-Jews.
Now I read the very polite, seemingly reasonable column of a haredi apologist and the dark
head of prejudice and narrow-mindedness pokes through the educated prose, revealing that
heart of darkness I put behind me so many years ago.
Yes, the writer nods, it's so wrong for haredim to throw things at other Jews praying at
the Kotel. It gives all of us good-natured, well-meaning haredim a bad name. And it's
against Halacha, too! In fact, it might even prevent some misguided Jews from joining the
fold of us true believers.
However - and here the head comes rearing up, as ugly as the sin it is - don't those who
visit the Kotel dressing and behaving in a way unacceptable to us, the "over 99% of
those present," have their guilt to bear for provoking the violence?
I have come a long way from Borough Park. Not only physically, but mentally as well. And
so this argument spurs me to ask the following questions:
Why should a woman in a prayer shawl and kippa on her way to pray be considered any more
provocative than a Jew who chooses to pray in the black medieval garb of a Polish
If anyone would suggest our black-garbed brethren's equally distinctive attire was
"scoffing street theater" and thus an invitation to physical abuse, would we not
all be absolutely appalled?
Why is such a woman any less worthy of respect than those who insist their deceased rebbe
is the Messiah who will soon rise from the dead, and who go on celebrating his birthday
instead of his yahrzeit?
Why is she any more dangerous to Jewish continuity than those who have institutionalized
the oppression of women by ignoring the halachic obligations in the ketuba - in
which a man undertakes to support his wife? Any more awful than those who ignore the
Talmud's admonition that a man should teach his son a profession so that he will not
become a burden on the community? Any more in error than those who ignore the Torah's
clear designations of who is to get an army exemption, adding their own dubious category
of full-time yeshiva student to shirk their God-given obligations?
This same apologist once revealed that as a college student at a prestigious university,
he so hated the Habad missionary who had stationed himself at the dorm entrance to
encourage students to don tefillin, that he climbed out over a back fence, nearly
impaling himself. As a result, he decided to embrace that which he was fleeing.
He studied; he became part of the most right-wing religious establishment. And now, he
rejects and vilifies and excoriates everything that doesn't fit perfectly into his new -
equally narrow-minded - little world, with the same fanaticism that had once sent him
climbing over fences in the opposite direction.
Is this progress? I don't think so.
I reject the notion that only a few bad apples in the haredi world are embarrassingly
violent, abusive to women, or sexually deviant. The haredi world has exactly the same
share of such people as everybody else. Not a percentage less, for all their high-blown
What sometimes makes them worse, in my opinion, is that their leadership denies it, hides
it, or uses apologists to write soothing prose to encourage their members to feel they
don't have a problem that needs solving.
There is a problem. A serious one.
It is not the handful of bottle-throwers: It is the hundreds of onlookers giving tacit
It is the rabbis and leaders, who watch this - and other shameful spectacles - repeat
themselves, year after year, in incident after incident, and say nothing.
What we need are rabbis with the courage to take a firm, public stand against the
violence, and against the insularity that is turning what was supposed to be a little
corner of holy light into a vale of darkness.
What we need is an overhaul of the antiquated system that forces every son to learn Talmud
full-time for reasons of prestige, even though he may be neither interested nor
What we need is a new system in which all boys and girls are taught a profession in
addition to Torah, so that learning will once again be "for the sake of Heaven
alone," without stipends from the government, without a bride's parents killing
themselves to supply all the groom's financial needs and desires.
In those changes lie some of the true keys to the kingdom.
And anyone who tries to avoid facing this truth by climbing over fences in the opposite
direction is likely to be impaled.