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August 29, 2015 | 14th Elul 5775

Pluralism VI

Galilee Diary #305, October 1, 2006
Marc J. Rosenstein

Will you steal and murder and commit adultery and swear falsely, and sacrifice to Baal, and follow other gods whom you have not experienced, and then come and stand before Me in this house which bears My name and say, “We are safe”?
-Jeremiah 7:9-10

This year, as part of a larger event at our seminar center, a number of people signed up for a workshop exploring possibilities for those who define themselves as secularists to find meaning in the High Holy Days, the holidays in the Jewish calendar that have been the most resistant to transformation to secular cultural celebrations – and that therefore leave many Israelis frustrated, unable to find a meaningful way to observe them.

Not surprisingly, in the discussion of repentance and introspection, the comment was made that the problem with the Orthodox is that they are obsessed with ritual technicalities – but don't seem to care about moral behavior. This is a common sentiment among non-Orthodox Jews of all types, and one which the popular media do everything they can to reinforce. Of course, the tension - between the "easy" path of acting as though ritual is the most important thing, and the more difficult challenge of living a life of righteousness and mercy - has been a part of Jewish experience from ancient times; it was a major theme in the teaching of the biblical prophets (see above). And we can all cite examples of ostensibly very observant people who have done very nasty things. However, there is something self-serving and self-righteous – and, it seems to me, unfair – in the glib assertion that the Orthodox, and especially the ultra-Orthodox, are somehow less moral than the rest of us, that hypocrisy is somehow built-in in the halachic system. Given the centrality of morality in halachah, and the time-honored and well-developed institutions of social welfare in the Orthodox community (see the recent, popular Israeli movie Ushpizin), it seems odd that so many Jews have adopted the anti-Semitic stereotype of ultra-Orthodox Jews as mean-spirited and dishonest. I think that this perception has several roots in the modern social reality of the Jewish world:

  • It is, after all, possible to find examples of ultra-Orthodox Jews (and of Reform and Conservative and Reconstructionist and secular Jews) who are mean-spirited and dishonest. The traditional concept of "chilul hashem" (profanation of God's name) refers to the reality that the public sin of one Jew brings shame not only on the community, but on the whole religion. When you're a minority, people extrapolate from the behavior of one to the image of the whole group.
  • There are some norms in the Orthodox world that to us who are outside it seem wrong – for example in the area of the status of women, or of homosexuals, or of non-Jews. The question is, is every person who lives within such a community ipso facto an immoral person?
  • We tend to perceive that the ultra-Orthodox perceive us as inauthentic, incomplete, even sinning Jews, and that makes us angry. And, in fact, often they really do see us that way. They also see us as ignorant of our own tradition. And in fact, often we are.
  • They live in a community with a clear authority structure – and that goes against our deeply rooted commitment to individual freedom, so we see them as inauthentic, incomplete…
  • They live in a relatively closed society, to which we are outsiders, strangers, who don't understand their norms, who are not conversant with their culture, who feel out of place and uncomfortable when we find ourselves surrounded by them.

When the religious "status quo" agreement was made in 1947, Ben Gurion believed that the ultra-Orthodox would disappear within a few generations, modernized out of existence. The ultra-Orthodox believed that the secular Zionists would disappear within a few generations, seeing the light and returning to the faith. And now, here we are a few generations later, stuck with Each Other. For both populations the challenge now is how to find a place in our vision of the Jewish state and the Jewish people, and in our own hearts, for the Other.

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