Among the anguished messages I received Saturday night after news spread of the horrific deaths of seven young children in a Sabbath fire in Brooklyn was one from a media-savvy colleague at Agudath Israel of America. “We should brace ourselves,” he wrote, “for some Orthodox-bashing.”
What he meant was to expect a slew of criticism aimed at those who observe the Jewish Sabbath laws and customs, which include leaving a Sabbath-stew, or cholent, cooking over the Sabbath. The millennia-old practice allows for a hot dish on Sabbath afternoon, when turning appliances on or off is forbidden by Jewish religious law.
My colleague was right. “Orthodox Jewish custom poses deadly fire danger” read the headline of an article in the New York Post the following day. “A Deadly Plague of Shabbat Fires” was how J.J. Goldberg titled his piece in the Forward that same day.
Mr. Goldberg noted that the recent fire was “at least the fourth deadly blaze in the borough resulting from Sabbath and holiday observance in the past 15 years” and wryly cited the New York Times’ observation that, near the site of the tragedy, “hours after the blaze,” fire officials “hand[ed] out safety literature” but, it being the Sabbath, there were no takers. The very next day, however, the line for materials, according to the same newspaper, “stretched down the block.”
The insinuation that observant Jews engage in dangerous Sabbath practices and are indifferent to the hazards of fire and electricity is a pernicious one. To be sure, smoke detectors – which fire officials suspect were absent on the main floor of the Brooklyn house – are life-savers. But they are not a Sabbath issue. All homes should have detectors on each floor, and, indeed had they been installed on the main floor of this house, where the fire broke out in the kitchen, that might well have prevented the fire from spreading before the occupants became aware of it.
There are additional factors that seem to lie at the heart of this deadly conflagration, including the fact that the wood-framed house was old, built well before the institution of modern fire codes. And then there is the actual device suspected of having sparked the fire: a malfunctioning hotplate.
Presumably, the hotplate, or portable stovetop, was not Sabbath observant, or even Jewish. And while portable stovetops, like regular stovetops, indeed present dangers that need to be addressed, leaving a pot on a low flame on a covered stovetop or hotplate (duly distanced from flammable material and out of young children’s reach) is not inherently dangerous. During the 15 years that Mr. Goldberg cites, literally millions of cholent pots simmered safely over the Sabbath in Brooklyn alone. As did many millions more worldwide.
If a manufacturer’s appliance is prone to malfunction, that is a dangerous matter. But the fingers here seem to be wagging not at any company but at a community.
I don’t mean to minimize the potential hazards faced by observant Jews. Jewish observance, which entails candles on Sabbaths and holidays and food kept on stoves or in ovens for long periods of time, demands special vigilance. Every ultra-Orthodox Jew I know, though, makes sure that burning candles are placed out of reach of children, that smoke detectors are present on every floor and that appliances are used carefully and responsibly. Tragedies like the recent one in Brooklyn will certainly only reinforce such caution.
But there are numerous casualties every year in non-Jewish neighborhoods, too, from fires caused by things like barbeque grills, frayed or overtaxed extension cords, overloaded power strips, portable heaters, irons and other electrical appliances. People have been seriously scalded by malfunctioning coffee makers and fatal home fires ignited by Christmas lights. Yet Keurig culture and Christian customs somehow haven’t merited the sort of alarmed editorials we’ve seen of late about Jewish observance.
Why is that? I have a theory, and it’s not a pretty one. It seems to me that there is an amorphous, sort of default, resentment of Orthodox Jews and Jewish observance underlying much of “enlightened” society today. It doesn’t generally express itself; that would be uncouth. But when an opportunity arises for it to bubble up and belch forth, it happily does so.
Maybe I’m right, maybe I’m wrong. But I feel secure in suggesting the following:
Observant Jews should be spurred by the loss of seven precious children to make sure that their own homes are safe places, on Sabbaths and every day.
Others should feel the community’s pain, offer their condolences and refrain from indicting us for our observances.
And all of us, if we are believers, should introspect and try to understand what Divine message to us about our own personal and communal lives might be hidden in the recent communal calamity, and endeavor to do what we feel we need to do to improve ourselves.
Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as Agudath Israel of America’s director of public affairs and blogs at www.rabbiavishafran.com. His most recent collection of essays is entitled “It’s All in the Angle” (Judaica Press, 2012).
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