Vengeance Is Whose?

Yoram Kaniuk, 9/17/2003

On Channel Two's news magazine Friday night, Shelly Yachimovich spoke very wisely about our attitude toward the ultra-Orthodox and of their strength in times of distress. I've been thinking about thi since the day the bus exploded in Jerusalem. The bus was packed with Haredim. Most of the casualties - the dead and the wounded, some of them critically - were Haredim or their children.

If this type of tragedy had happened to secular Israelis, messianic Jews, members of the Chabad movement or Mizrahi Haredim, their cries of grief would have immediately sought out the guilty parties: the government, the bu company, the lack of security guards. And, of course, the usual crie of "Death to the Arabs" and the terrible and justified anger against the human agent that brought the tragedy down upon them.

But the Ashkenazi Haredim do not hold anyone to blame. With a sort of nobility devoid of pathos, they live in a world that lies outside of history. What is true in our world is not real truth for them. They live in a world in which the Blessed be He loves the Jewish people and whatever befalls a person is God's handiwork. God instructed his chosen people to fulfill his commandments and to do what is good in his eyes. God does not need to explain what this good is.

The Haredim do not believe that calamities occur at random. God run this world and he knows what he's doing. His knowledge is not the same as human knowledge, and a believer ascribes himself to God and live within the Torah.

When I saw how they stood and prayed over their own blood, with terrible grief and restrained horror, begging God to forgive them, I could only be envious that my forefathers were like them. When I said Kaddish over my father's rag-bound corpse, as it was about to be plunged into the earth, and was compelled to praise and extol God — in Aramaic, no less — I hated every moment. I felt contempt for my forefathers. But in the eyes of my forefathers, my hatred would have been perceived as a misreading by a distorted mind.

We have no God in heaven. We cannot conceive of life as a narrow bridge. We have a reality in which trademarks are a reality within a reality. We are Israel and we are also Sony televisions. We are the cars we drive. We are the general human culture that we are part of and that is a part of us.

The Haredim are not involved in this. They are not interested in Immanuel Kant, Bach, Beethoven, or the question of how much a pair of Reeboks cost. When a tragedy hits them, they seek to understand within their hearts, through prayer, what evil might have been committed by those who have never sinned. How could an 11-month-old child be guilty of anything? This is a difficult world view.

Zionism was supposed to return the Jews to history. Their religion seemed ridiculous to us with all its prohibitions — why is it forbidden to turn on lights on Shabbat? And why can't you smoke on Shabbat? Many of us scorn those who — because of their faith — wear warm coats in the summer, mimicking the landed gentry of Poland, and who don the hats of the cossacks in the desert heat because that was what the aristocratic goyim wore. They only have seen the goyim and us through their books.

Perhaps we cannot live this way. Maybe it is ridiculous to live outside of history, and outside of physics and math, believing that the world was not created through science, but with a word. But their strength to withstand curses, terror and calamities is a strength that we, with all of our teachings, do not know. We disparage them, but they pity us.

I never believed that at the age of 73 I would write an article praising the Haredim, who live as my grandfather and great-grandfather did, praying for the messiah. But the moments after the tragedy in Jerusalem made me realize something that I had not fully appreciated. And it would not hurt us to try to understand the nature of their elegant and pained stance at a time when the soul cries out for vengeance.

The word vengeance does not exist in their lexicon, with the exception of a few sentences like "Pour out your fury upon the nation (goyim) " — which none of them takes very seriously. After all, the Haredim never killed goyim or Jews, but the others did.


The writer, Yoram Kaniuk, is a novelist.