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It Was Never in Our Hands to Begin With

Rabbi Moshe Grylak

At first we were horrified, but it turns out that by drawing so much attention to the chareidim in Beit Shemesh and their intense feelings regarding modesty, the media has stirred up the curiosity of Jewish souls hungry for more knowledge of authentic Torah perspectives

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Incredible as this may sound, the wave of anti-chareidi hysteria that has recently swept over Eretz Yisrael has actually brought some positive results. Once again we see that Divine Providence is ultimately in control of events, channeling them to serve a higher purpose.

The following story will testify to the sublime truth that the Ramchal teaches us in Daas Tevunos: “The will of HaKadosh Baruch Hu is done in any case.” People bring about events as they like, and He puts the events to work to bring about His goals.

Before I tell you about the positive effects of the prolonged uproar over Beit Shemesh, let us note that in our Torah reading, we’ve just completed Sefer Bereishis, ending with the story of Yosef and his brothers. Yosef sums up the whole decades-long ordeal in one sentence: “You calculated to do me evil; G-d calculated it for good.” Events that you see only as the cause of pain, suffering, and anguish were in fact paving the way for something much bigger.

Likewise, the Beit Shemesh story -- with all its scandalous episodes of gender-segregated buses and the rest of the ingredients that the secular media brewed into a toxic mix that they call by the catchword, “exclusion of women.”

It turns out that by drawing so much attention to the chareidim and their intense feelings regarding modesty, the media has stirred up the curiosity of Jewish souls hungry for more knowledge of authentic Torah perspectives. A rebbetzin who is seasoned in kiruv work reports that in the wake of the recent flood of slander against Judaism, which included unabashed mockery of Jewish modesty and family purity, she and her colleagues have received a corresponding flood of inquiries from secular women seeking a deeper understanding of these matters. The media, however evil their intentions, actually sowed the seeds for a Jewish revival that we couldn’t foresee.

You in the media, you in the world of political intrigue, calculated to do evil. You schemed to incite more hatred of Judaism among the public (and we chareidim are still suffering from your schemes, and must ask ourselves why we had to be punished in this way), but we must also discern the ray of light that has shot forth, at an unexpected angle, from the unholy mess you created, and we should take comfort in it. You could not suppress the holiness that was meant to find expression precisely now, for it was present in the seeking hearts of Jews, and the results may surprise you as more families bring a new level of kedushah into their lives. We can only hope that there will be so many families seeking this new path that those who lit the fires of hatred will regret what they did when they see things turning out so differently than they planned.

This amazing turn of events reminds me of another time, when secular society was again feeling threatened by a movement they couldn’t understand.

When the teshuvah movement was in its early years, an Israeli television station decided to film a documentary about the phenomenon, in an attempt to understand what was motivating so many secular young men and women to change direction and seek out their ancestral tradition. Yeshivas Nesivos Olam in Bnei Brak was chosen as the subject of the documentary, perhaps because of its intelligent, articulate student body, which included many young academics and scientists who found their path back to Judaism there.

The filmmakers promised to show the finished product to the roshei yeshivah before screening it. This was a precondition for their agreement to work with the TV station, so that the rabbis wouldn’t find themselves unwitting pawns in an attempt to draw an unflattering picture of the yeshivah or of the teshuvah movement in general. Of course, the film’s producers gave every assurance. Yeshivah students were interviewed, giving their honest opinions on everything they were asked about, telling their personal stories and explaining what had brought them to become religious. They talked about their relations with their non-religious parents in light of their new lifestyle and the conflicts they were experiencing with the secular society they had left behind. On the whole, it was a fascinating look into the world of the baal teshuvah, and the interviewers managed to remain remarkably objective.

But as an Israeli prime minister once famously said, “Yes, I promised, but I didn’t promise to keep my promise.” The filmmakers couldn’t hold back from throwing in a couple of additional elements that soured the whole mix.

They included a talk with a psychologist, who was asked what would motivate a young man or woman to get up one day and start doing mitzvos. He responded with  an analysis of the teshuvah movement as if it were a mass mental aberration, speaking of the new yeshivah students as “inmates” who had themselves “committed to yeshivos (“mitashpezim bayeshivot”) as a patient is committed to a mental institution.

The film ended with a feature of a young woman who had lived as a baalas teshuvah for a certain length of time and then returned to her former secular life. She explained how her friends had “helped” her “to get out of it” and “go back to normal.” Of course, the filmmakers didn’t show the finished film to the roshei yeshivah before broadcasting it.

Naturally, when the staff saw it they were outraged, and naturally, their complaints were met with evasive answers, lame excuses, and scorn.

The yeshivah staff and students felt cheated, duped, and used. They had cooperated in a project that they’d hoped would make a positive impression on the Israeli public, and it had been turned into something geared to have the opposite effect.

But our story is just beginning. A few weeks later, two young men from one of the radical left-wing kibbutzim showed up at the yeshivah, asking to enroll. They wanted to learn more about Judaism, they said; they might even want to become religious.

The rosh yeshivah, still not over the shock of the TV station’s treachery, asked them, “Did you see the film they made about us?”

The young men said they had.

“And despite what that film said about us, you still want to come and give our yeshivah a try?”

Their answer surprised him: “It’s only because of that film that we want to come.”

“I don’t understand,” the rosh yeshivah said frankly.

“Until we saw that film,” the young men explained, “we knew it was dangerous to get anywhere near a baal teshuvah yeshivah. The only way to keep safe was to stay away, because once they got you in their clutches you could never break free. It was scary. But then we saw that girl in the film, the one who described how she was in the religious world and managed to get back to where she was before. So we realized that it is possible to get away; it’s not like stepping into a black hole. And it didn’t seem so scary anymore. Now we feel like we can give it a try.”

One of those two boys found Judaism to be a good fit, and today he is a talmid chacham. The thing the rosh yeshivah feared most about the film — the young woman who talked about leaving Judaism and returning to her former life — had brought a new Torah-observant Jew into the world.

For “the will of HaKadosh Baruch Hu is done in any case.”

Who knows what positive energy will be harnessed out the dust of the mayhem in Beit Shemesh?

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