“Our children know they’ve got extended family through our community,” they explained. “All the adults are known as their aunts and uncles. We always pitch in for each other’s simchas and crises.”
Whether a family experienced sickness, birth, divorce, moving, or any other life upheaval, they received the full support of the community. And it really was heartwarming to see how they would pitch in to help—and give real help—without even being asked.
Many were committed to a kollel lifestyle—or at least a partial kollel lifestyle. Many didn’t have a computer or if they did, it really was for work and the children had no access to it.
So it was a community with a serious commitment to Torah and chessed. Very nice!
The Snake Slithering through Gan Eden
Furthermore, they weren't always so nice to each other or talk about each other's kids so nicely.
For example, one of the teenagers clearly suffered some form of mental retardation. And she was a nice and friendly person too.
Yet the other girls her age responded stiffly or rudely to her when she approached them to chat. And the minute her back was turned, they doubled over with repressed laughter, their hands clutched over their mouths and exchanging looks with each other that clearly said, Omigosh—such a freak! Right?
Of course, people can be very uncomfortable around those with special needs. It’s pretty normal to be stiff or awkward when you aren’t used to them.
But these girls had all grown up together and were family, right? Also, you’d think their parents had spoken to them over the years about how to behave with this very nice yet mentally challenged girl.
Yet they didn’t seem to know how to behave and they didn’t seem very compassionate either. Where was the unity and warmth?
And yes, I realize that people like to dismiss such behavior as “Teenagers!” But I’ve seen so many teenage girls behave with sensitivity and refinement in so many different situations to know the difference between youth and a display of poor middot.
Anyway, there were several things like that. That’s just one example.
We are (a Fragmented) Family
What a strange thing to happen when there is such much support and so much “We are family!” feeling...
Some people who noticed this high divorce rate remarked that the community didn’t have a firm hashkafah and therefore lacked the stability a firm hashkafah gives. And that can be true. And the rav to whom they were wholeheartedly committed lived in a faraway city, so he wasn't right there with them, which can be a problem.
But to this extent?
No, it didn't make sense that hashkafah or the rav's location were the major factors in the high rate of shalom bayis issues.
What came out over time was how involved they were in each other’s personal lives. They knew so much of each other’s marriages. Open discussions took place with each spouse facing an entire community of shalom bayit advisers.
This is a problem because the halachot of lashon hara do not allow this at all.
Both spouses openly discussed their issues with—well, everybody.
So everyone knew all the dirt on everyone else.
And some of the couples were getting divorced over problems that were indeed problems, but not the kind of thing you’d necessarily get divorced over. And not problematic enough to divorce in your son’s bar mitzvah year (as happened in one case).
Revenge & Abandonment
It was like there was all this repressed resentment and anger suddenly bubbling to the surface.
By the way, I’ve known women who’ve gotten divorced from verbally or emotionally abusive husbands and these women just want him OUT. They never want to see, speak, or deal with him again.
That’s normal, as far as I can tell.
And in this community, many of the women were very angry at their husbands. And yes, some for good reason.
But one even developed an elaborate plan of how she was going to torment her husband via the court system after their divorce. She wanted to milk him for all he was worth—which puzzled everyone else because he’d been in kollel the entire time and had no money of his own. So what was she trying to do? It was obviously pure animosity on her part because there was nothing there to milk.
Yet that elaborate plan of vengeance didn't seem like a normal reaction. Like I said, most suffering wives want him out of their lives; they don't want to keep up after him with all sorts of nasty plots.
Also, while she had a lot to complain about him, he didn’t have much to complain about her. In fact, he even justified her complaints about him. (He wasn’t very communicative within the marriage.) But admitted that he wasn’t sure how to be more communicative with his wife. He said that he just froze up when dealing with her—something he didn’t do with other people and he honestly didn’t know why nor how to solve the problem.
Fortunately, Hashem put a stop to the wife’s plans for revenge by causing her to remarry within months after the divorce and then having that marriage go on the rocks, which between that and dealing with her kids and the stepkids, absorbed her too much to carry out revenge.
Her ex-husband kept quietly about his business and within a year, was remarried to a very nice divorcee with her own home, several young children, her ex-husband totally out of the picture—a very nice woman who wanted nothing more than to support a husband in learning.
And she was fine with the fact that he was quiet as long as he was nice (which he was).
Other women just picked up the kids and went back to Europe or North America, stranding their Israeli husband as an older and suddenly childless bachelor.
In one case, I think he deserved to be abandoned because he’d consistently made poor decisions to the detriment of their children (among other stuff)—and he refused to improve.
But in another case, it seemed more vindictive--especially when she came back after a few years to dump the child on the ex-husband and go back to her life (and new marriage) in chutz l'Aretz. (Fortunately, the ex-husband was very happy to have his child back in his life again, even though the adjustment was a challenge.)
So you had avenging or abandoning wives in situations that didn't seem to really call for such measures. (Although like I said, it seems that at least one husband deserved to be abandoned.)
What are the Real Laws of Love & Honor?
Yet just under the surface, there are a lot of shalom bayit problems. (And not all those suffering unhappy marriages get divorced.)
So the community has support and unity (at least on the surface), but the actual married couples don't?
I can’t help thinking that with all the emphasis halacha places on respecting one’s spouse and not exposing the flaws of family members—especially family members that halacha obligates us to honor, such as parents, parents-in-law, and our spouse—that this well-meaning community is blocking itself from blessing.
We know that refraining from lashon hara earns us unimaginable light in worlds we cannot see. But we also know that indulging in lashon hara brings about the opposite: terrible din.
It was really the Pele Yoetz that brought the severity of this to my attention.
Despite modern society’s penchant for joking around about one’s husband or wife or in-laws, the Pele Yoetz strongly opposes any kind of negative comment about people you’re commanded to honor.
Today, it’s amazing how much dirt people spill about their spouse while chalking it up to “normal” masculine or feminine behavior—as if that makes exposing it okay.
People do the same about their in-laws—again, downplaying their lashon hara as talking generally about normal tensions with in-laws.
But the Pele Yoetz exhorts us to do the opposite.
He says we should davka cover up the flaws of our spouses and in-laws (both parents-in-law and children-in-law) and praise them to others.
Why? Not because we are big fake liars, but because that is the proper thing to do according to him.
Let’s look at what other truly great people say about all this:
Rav Levi Yitzchak Bender explains in Words of Faith, page 376 (emphasis mine):
"Meaning that the tikkun of sin is only through confessing before Hashem Yisbarach or the true Tzaddik. For few are those who are able to hear confess without it causing the confessor to be discouraged."
Rav Bender further advises (page 373):
"Know this: To join a friend in personal matters, especially in sins and iniquities, does much damage."
And then on page 376, he cautions listeners against "digging after mistakes, even if you mean well." He advises such well-intentioned listeners:
"In practice: Do not desire to know another's personal matters for it is only the work of the yetzer and his seductions. And it is the complete opposite of why friends bond."
And in a nutshell, that explains why this seemingly close-knit community wasn’t actually close at all: “…it is the complete opposite of why friends bond” and "the work of the yetzer."
In efforts to help each other and figure out what people needed to do to improve their situations, they ended up joining "a friend in personal matters" and "digging after mistakes."
And this is a very easy mistake for a well-meaning & compassionate person to make.
How would we know without Rav Bender to lay it out for us?
On page 4 of The Laws of Interpersonal Relationships: Practical Applications in Business, Home, and Society, Rav Ehrman elucidates the mitzvah to love one’s fellow by the following principles (culled from the Ramban, Shaar Hatevunah, Shemirat Halashon, and the Gemara)
- Speak only in a positive manner about others.
- Show the same concern for their honor as your own.
- Camouflage their flaws in same way you’d want them to camouflage your own flaws.
- Be as protective of their money and property as you are of your own.
- Assist them to the best of your ability (emotional, financial, and physical support whether large or small)
- Try to diffuse a person’s anger at another.
Dissecting your spouse’s flaws with an entire community (or inserting them into casual conversation with friends or relatives) obviously violates the above precepts, especially the first three.
Having said all that, if your spouse is awful in some way and you need outside help, then halacha allows you to get it. Just as one example: The Pele Yoetz praised as “a great mitzvah” the act of assisting a Jewish woman married to a “snake” to get divorced if she wanted.
It’s admittedly to difficult to observe the above principles because our society deems acceptable the mentioning the flaws of people we’re obligated to honor and love—as long as we do it humorously or we hide behind the veneer of gender stereotypes or in-law stereotypes.
Look, I didn’t know it either until I read the above books.
Live and learn, eh?
So hopefully, we’ll all keep learning and improving—and be the kinds of Jews defined by Chazal and not by society.
The Real Purpose of a Home & Family
The Best Marriage Counseling: Tefillah, Teshuvah, and Tzedakah
The Pele Yoetz on Family Relationships: When Honesty Stops being a Virtue, Part II