When Violent Criminals Are Orthodox

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We were all shocked by the horrific murder of an 8-year-old boy just a few weeks ago. Like everyone else, I’m sure you asked, “How could that man be Orthodox and kill another human being? Isn’t murder against the Torah?” Our best answers boil down to, “Yes, murder is against the Torah. Therefore, he must not be Orthodox.” So we put the word Orthodox into quotes when we describe the murderer, and it makes us all feel better.

However, there is something more here. This is not the first time we have seen violence from people who live an Orthodox or frum lifestyle. We were also shocked a few months ago when a young Skverer man threw a firebomb into the home of a neighbor who preferred to daven elsewhere, and not at the main synagogue in New Square. The victim was badly burned and narrowly escaped with his life. His family was also lucky. But we all asked, “Who DOES that? So they daven at a different shul—big deal. We would never try to burn down a man’s house—and certainly not with the people inside!”

But the violence doesn’t end. This past week, a disgruntled advice seeker in Israel came back to kill the rabbi who gave him advice. He showed up and just stabbed him to death. Why? He said the rabbi had failed to solve his marital problems. Let me tell you, if this guy had that kind of murderous rage in him, believe me, he had more problems than just marital problems.

Speaking of marriage, why was that rabbi and his wife holding that guy hostage in their Lakewood home, beating him and threatening him? Yes, the Torah suggests we should “beat” a man until he gives his wife a get, but who really does that? And well, last time I checked, assault was a crime in this country. And yes, that rabbi and his wife were arrested.

What is going on? It’s hard to say it, or even accept it, but it appears that we are seeing an upward trend in violent crime among those who live an Orthodox lifestyle.

Yes, there was always the isolated story here and there, but these stories just don’t sound that isolated any more. People are angrier, and they aren’t afraid to show it.

But, you may say, “Jews are the ‘People of the Book!’ We’re a gentle nation, we’re always the victims, and we wouldn’t hurt a fly!” Not so. We need to open our eyes to the violent among us. Leiby’s murder was a rude awakening. If we were naïve before, we are no longer naïve. We can no longer trust a person by virtue of the fact that they lead an Orthodox lifestyle.

So why this upward trend? What’s going on in the Orthodox world that wasn’t going on before?

My theory is that the pressure to “get married/stay married/have kids/marry them well,” has become way too strong in the Orthodox community. It has reached insanely high levels. It is a prescription that not everyone will, can, or should follow. For many individuals and families, the shidduch crisis, homosexuality, divorce, infertility, illness, and death are realities closer to life.

But the pressure stays on. Get married. Stay married. Have kids. Marry them well. And the mental health issues in the community keep growing. We’ve all heard about eating disorders in the Orthodox community, alcohol abuse in the Orthodox community, domestic violence in the Orthodox community, and kids “at risk” in the Orthodox community. This new trend of outright violence is only another piece of this bigger picture. It turns out that we are a complex group of people, and we unfortunately share many ills with the general society in which we live.

As our community’s mental health is frayed, so is our educational system. We put all our stock in Jewish Education, but it keeps failing us. There are the kids dealing drugs a block from the school, the ones texting on shabbos, and others always getting kicked out from one yeshiva or another. And we keep paying through the nose for it all, hoping, hope upon hope, that our kids make it out okay, and, well, marry well.

And though we can’t afford the lifestyle, we somehow scrounge around enough money to impress our neighbors. So now, we’re not just trying to keep up with the Joneses. We ARE the Joneses.

And to top it all off, we have the added pressure of learning Torah, supporting Torah, living a Torah-lifestyle, and making sure that people know we’re doing it. Because if we do it, but nobody knows, we don’t get credit for it.

Our lifestyles are way too twisted to make any sense.

If they don’t make sense to us, they certainly don’t make sense to our kids. We’ve put ourselves between a rock and a hard place and then we wonder why we can’t get out. We wonder why our community is failing, why our schools can’t improve with all the money we’re putting into them, and why our mental health is in a downward spiral.

We need to relax the pressure to get married/stay married/have kids/marry them well. We need to realign our values such that life is not a show of money and frumkeit. We need to show our kids authentic Jewish experiences that make sense to them. And we need to realize the message we send our kids when we’re confused ourselves.

We need to come together to address serious issues in the community’s mental health. The events organized by Chai Lifeline after Leiby’s passing were a great first start. But the issues run deep, are worldwide, and they require ongoing attention.

These terrible acts of violence are indicative of a community at a breaking point. We need to unite not just in shock and horror, but in proactive efforts to make Orthodoxy viable as a lifestyle in our generation and the next.

May the Torah be a comfort to us, may we seek peace among our neighbors, and may each of us sit under our date trees in tranquility.

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