Guest columnist: Don’t call me Orthodox

What acts of societal or spiritual goodness qualify someone as a man or woman of faith?

Leibby Kletzky 311 (photo credit: NYPD)
Leibby Kletzky 311
(photo credit: NYPD)
Years ago, when I served as a chaplain at a large Chicago hospital, I would often be asked by patients, “What kind of rabbi are you?” Knowing that this was a loaded question – the answer to which would almost certainly limit my ability to serve all those in need of pastoral care – I would simply reply, “I’m a Jewish rabbi!” It served me well, and considering what has been happening out there lately in the Jewish world, it is an appellation I may again wish to employ.
It began earlier this summer with the tragic death of Leiby Kletzky, the eightyear- old hassidic boy brutally murdered in Brooklyn’s Borough Park. The press reports screamed that his killer, Levi Aron, was an “Orthodox Jew.” Excuse me? An “Orthodox” Jew?! Can we really say that a monster who kidnaps, strangles and dismembers a young child – stuffing his body parts in a garbage dumpster and a freezer – is “Orthodox”? And then the murder two weeks later of Rabbi Elazar Abuhatzeira of Beersheba, grandson of the mystic Baba Sali.
The murderer, Asher Dahan, was described in the news accounts as a “religious” Jew. “Religious”?! Are you serious? Do you mean to say that you can stab a defenseless person six times and still be deemed “religious”? Just a few days later came word that a “cult of polygamous Breslav Hassidim” had been arrested in Jerusalem. Three men were taken into custody and their six wives and 15 children placed in separate shelters across the country. The men were indicted on a variety of charges that included enslavement, physical and sexual abuse of their multiple spouses and children, and extreme acts of violence. Among the items found in the cult’s headquarters were stun guns, electric cables and wooden rods.
Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t the term hassid literally mean “one who practices acts of kindness” – hessed – and refer generally to those pious individuals who follow a particular rabbinic leader or dynasty? Just what “acts of kindness” were these perverse perpetrators pursuing? And which “rabbinic masters” served as their inspiration? Word to the villains of the vocabulary and the legislators of the lexicon: It’s time to clean up the terminology.
WHAT, EXACTLY, defines a Jew as Orthodox, hassidic or religious? If one eats a cheeseburger on Yom Kippur, or publicly smokes outside the shul on Shabbat, he is secular and irreligious; yet if he observes ritual practices but murders a child or abuses several wives, he still remains within the observant fold? When does one actually cross the line from frum to frei? What crimes does one have to have to commit before he is deemed to be “non-Orthodox”? CONVERSELY, AND perhaps even more importantly, what acts of societal or spiritual goodness qualify someone as a man or woman of faith? If a soldier puts his life on the line in defense of the people of Israel, is he not beloved of God? If a person conducts his business affairs with honesty – which, according to the Talmud, is the first question one is asked in Heaven – is he not righteous? And if an individual volunteers weekly at a soup kitchen and greets all those around him cheerfully and graciously, is he not a “hassid,” emulating the Almighty’s virtue of loving-kindness? Who among us owns a “theological Geiger counter” that can measure spiritual worth? Labels, as we all know, are much better suited to pants than people. Labels serve mainly to divide us, to brand and constrict us, as if we human beings can be neatly classified and defined in just a word or two. The fact is, we are complex creations that defy short and simple characterization. Scratch the surface of a Jew – any Jew – and you will discover not only a touch of the Divine but, as the rabbis say, a world in and of itself.
Part of our problem, I suggest, is an almost obsessive fixation on the outer trappings of apparel and appearance. We judge others instantly by the clothes they don, the styles they employ, the costumes they wear. Clothes are indeed important guardians of modesty, but they do not necessarily connote religiosity.
Aron sported a beard and black kippa; Dahan – who carried his murder weapon in his tefillin bag – wore a black suit and black hat; the boys of Breslav had side-curls and large white kippot.
Beware instant identification via dress code; it may have little or nothing to do with the kind of people we really are.
It is, rather, the actions, deeds and moral behavior we exhibit that are the real yardsticks of spiritual excellence.
My Bubbie of sainted memory used to sum it up with the perfect Yiddish phrase: A galach ken zein frum; uber a yid darf zein ehrlich – clergy of any denomination can be religious, but a Jew must aspire to be a person of integrity.
If there is anything that I think I know about God, it is that He has total x-ray vision. He sees right through the clothes, as if they are not there at all, as if He is looking at Adam, the first, unclothed man. As He told the Prophet Samuel in so many words, God sees not the hat, but the heart; not the suit, but the soul. Second-guessing God is a dangerous and generally fruitless enterprise, for God has His own criteria for quality, and His choices for Jewish leadership – from the outcast, maligned young David to the unaffiliated, assimilated Herzl – confuse and confound us. In fact, true faith may more readily be generated when we accord everyone, including and especially those from whom we differ, the status of “holy,” created in God’s image.
The hassidic master Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev was an advocate par excellence for the general Jewish public, regardless of their level of observance.
He would often say, “The Almighty gave us a mouth for two purposes: to pronounce prayers and verses, and to find merit for each and every Jew.”
In this season of approaching the High Holy Days – we have now begun the month of Elul, the traditional “training ground” for the Days of Awe – we would do well to understand that finding merit in others is the surest way of finding it in ourselves.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana.