A very thoughtful reader, alias “Should Be Working,” a self-described Reform Jew, posted the following incredibly respectful thought on my blog last week about The Danger of Being Orthodox.
“I want to take a risk here and ask a question in ‘outsider mode’, since I’m an outsider to Orthodox Judaism. This blog is one of the very few experiences I’ve had of feeling (not just seeing) the ‘inside’ of your Orthodox lives (in all the variations I’ve learned about here, thanks for all that insight into the differences), and also seen that warmth and caring and humility.
So my risky question is what it feels like from the ‘inside’ of Orthodoxy when you read about Orthodox Jews doing things that do not reflect love and joy with respect to those not in their communities–for instance in Jerusalem Orthodox Jews have spit on Christian clergy. Joy and love for one’s ‘own’ is a beautiful and admirable thing, but when you read ‘bad news’ or at least unflattering news, does it make you wish that other Orthodox people would behave more civilly and respectfully to ‘outsiders’? Does it make you feel like those people are wrong and the exception, or that they are just misunderstood, or that they have failed in responsibilities to what someone (Larry?) recently here described (don’t have the Hebrew term in my head) as representing the Jewish people in a positive light?
Such news reports, to be honest, do alienate me from Orthodox Judaism, but I want to hear from this thoughtful, positive-minded group what you think about such acts. I am, again, asking this with respect, and especially for Ruchi in creating this blog–because I can’t think of any other venue where I could actually ask Orthodox Jews how they view such incidents. (I suppose I could show up at Chabad or something and ask there, but the openness I’ve seen on this blog makes asking the question here easier.) “
A few of my other readers gave some good responses, and I’d like to add a fuller treatment of the question: it’s an important one. Before I answer the actual question, though, I need to put forth a few general concepts.
DON’T JUDGE JUDAISM BY THE JEWS: OH, YES YOU SHOULD
The first thing that most Orthodox Jews will tell you is, “Don’t judge Judaism by the Jews.” This is a cute line, and a nice way to sidestep our co-denominationalists’ disgusting behavior, but it’s just not satisfactory. Can you say “don’t judge New York by New Yorkers”? Don’t judge Islam by Muslims? Don’t judge yoga by yogis? If, indeed, the system is an appropriate one, and a functional one, shouldn’t you, indeed, be able to judge Judaism by Jews?? That’s just not good enough, while true. To some degree, you can’t judge ALL of New York by SOME New Yorkers… but to completely sidestep that degree of accountability simply doesn’t sit right with me. (I credit Rabbi Avraham Edelstein of Moreshet with clarity here.)
Therefore, we have to be able to judge Orthodoxy by MOST of the Orthodox.
ISRAEL IS A PLANET ALL ITS OWN
Item number two on the list: have you noticed that the vast majority of ugly news (Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike) comes out of Israel? Why is this so? Why is life there so fraught, so tense, so violent, so very, very on the edge of normal, polite behavior?? I just came back, and I lived there for five years, and oh, I love it so, but to be honest… it’s one of the reasons I simply could not live there. Is it that Jews in Israel have to fight so hard, sweat so much, sacrifice so often, that simple manners become a luxury? Is it that separation of church and state is a laughable Alice-in-Wonderland dreamworld there? Is it that people live in such close proximity that “live-and-let-live” is for wimps? Is it that Jerusalem has always been a place full of tension, a test of peace? I don’t know, but it’s sad, and bad. I don’t want to speak lashon hara (gossip) about the Land, my Land, the only Land I capitalize in respect and love, but man… it’s a tough place.
On the subject of lashon hara (gossip), it is important to distinguish between news, gossip, and opinion. News is information that the public needs to know for a constructive purpose. Gossip is information that the public does NOT need to know for a constructive purpose, but rather it’s to entertain or denigrate. Opinion that is respectfully worded and deals with ideas is great. Opinion that is personal and vindictive is lashon hara. Not everything that is thought ought to be spoken; not everything that is spoken ought to be written; and not everything that is written ought to be published (Rabbi Y. Salanter). I leave it to you, reader, to sort your reading material into its various categories.
THE TORAH IS PERFECT; PEOPLE ARE NOT
This is my updated version of “don’t judge Judaism by the Jews.” Instead of having Judaism and Jews live in silos, I view the Torah as the ultimately perfect ideal. Everything in the Torah is beautiful and perfect. No, that doesn’t always mean it all jives with the secular values of 2011, but it oughtn’t, because those will change. Torah is immutable. And I know some of you, my dear readers, interpret this in different ways, and I’m glad to discuss that one day. But here’s my point:
To the extent that a person lives according to the Torah’s instructions, will his actions be beautiful, admirable, and noteworthy.
This, of course, transcends denomination. It’s directly proportional. This means if a person doesn’t even know he is Jewish, but is not a gossiper, that person is living in accordance with Torah teaching in this area of his life, and this area of his life will be beautiful and special. If a person gives tzedaka (charity) – his actions in this area are beautiful. If a person observes Shabbat, accepts suffering with serenity and faith, smiles at a stranger on the street, bends down to retrieve someone else’s trash, prays for clarity instead of getting angry… these are all ways to behave in accordance with the Torah.
Which means that when a person behaves in way that is ugly, illegal, rude, embarrassing, or hurtful, he is NOT acting according to the Torah in that area of his life. He may be acting according to the Torah in OTHER areas of his life (Shabbat, kosher), so those parts of his life are beautiful, but the icky stuff is in trangression of Torah.
As well, the obvious Orthodoxy in the garb and external observance just complicates the issue, because now the bad behavior is not just in direct contradiction to Torah, but makes it seem as though “Orthodoxy” sanctions the bad behavior. Double ick!
In short, when Orthodox people behave badly, that bad behavior is CONTRARY to Torah. He’s acting that way despite his “Orthodoxy.” If many Orthodox Jews (however you quantify that) act that way, you have a bad trend that must be addressed from the leadership. On that note I will tell you that every lecture I attend and nearly every article I read in the “very Orthodox” circles are focused on how Orthodox people should and can improve themselves. Introspection and upgrading our behavior, ESPECIALLY in the areas of interpersonal relationships (yes, with outsiders too) are at the top of the list. In fact, the most Orthodox rabbi in the world (my designation), Rabbi AL Shteinman, may he live and be well, has said this publicly many, many times: always seek to upgrade your behaviors with other people.
WHAT’S IN MY MIND WHEN BAD NEWS HITS?
Therefore, with all this information, here’s the chronology of my thoughts when bad news about the Ortho-Jews hits.
It’s not true. It didn’t really happen. That’s insane. How could anyone seriously act that way?? OK, maybe it happened, but probably no one read it except for me. How could anyone find this stuff?? The web is so big; maybe it got buried.
Anonymous (or not) Orthodox person, how could you do this to me??? To God?? Do you know how hard I try to be a good ambassador for Judaism? Do you know how large is the gap that exists between fellow Jews?? Why are you making it worse, harder? Don’t you THINK before you ACT?? Journalist: why? Why are you writing this? Is this to denigrate, to sensationalize? Are you happy you got people to smirk about how the supposedly-holier-than-thou Jews are finally revealed for what they really are: a bunch of no-goodniks? ARRRR!
Let’s say this disgusting behavior really did happen. It’s a crazy fringe group. No one really takes them seriously. You can’t possibly find any Rabbi who would sanction this. None of this is in the Torah. Torah is perfect. There are so many Orthodox folks doing good; don’t they outweigh a few crazies? Sure, their customs might be unfamiliar, their dress a bit different, their culture slightly divergent… so what? I just have to work harder, blog faster, try harder to teach my kids that God wants us to behave with love, respect, and joy to all human beings… oy.
I can’t. Can’t read this stuff anymore. Maybe I need to crawl under a rock and not read the news and DEFINITELY not read any blogs and unfollow a whole slew of people on Twitter. I pretend I have such a thick skin, but I guess I’m kind of sensitive after all… It’s so upsetting, to try so hard, to know so well what Torah living is about, to shout from the rooftops how beautiful it can be… just to be thwarted by a bunch of bizarre crazies who make headlines and journalists who are gloating over the mound of charred hopes. I go through my day like an automaton… have no zip…
“The work is not yours to finish; neither are you free to completely shirk it” (Ethics of the Fathers 2:21). There will always be those, have always been those, that are a chillul hashem (disgrace to God’s Name with their bad behavior). There is no way I’m going to change that. What I can do, must do, is be a kiddush Hashem (elevation of God’s name with good behavior). I can only do what is humanly possible. I need to know enough to be productive, and that’s it. I need to introspect and make sure no trace of bad behavior infects me. I need to keep doing what I’m doing, reaching, teaching, learning, growing, parenting responsibly. I need to to take things both more and less personally.
“A little bit of light dispels a lot of darkness” (Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi).
Yes, readers. These are, not coincidentally, the five stages of grief. This is how I feel when I hear that an Orthodox person has publicly and badly failed in being a good Jew. I grieve the Torah that was transgressed, I mourn the kiddush Hashem that was lost to us, and I wistfully miss the feeling that us Jews can indeed, be one family. It’s hard to grieve so much. But I care that much. I love us that hard. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Thanks for reading.