Jack Abramoff's black hat

Say you're an Orthodox Jew about to be sentenced for a crime. Should you downplay your identity?

abramoff, jack 88 (photo credit: )
abramoff, jack 88
(photo credit: )
In the course of human events there are religious people who do wrongful things. When reporting their acts there is a simple guideline for the media to follow when determining whether the religious aspect is to be included in the story. If the wrongful behavior involves a religious institution - fraudulent contributions and money laundering are examples - or was committed by a clergyman, it is appropriate to note the religious angle. If neither factor is present, the religious connection does not belong in the story. The media generally adhere to this approach. Persons of various faiths, including Jews, have been implicated in major corporate scandals in the US. Yet the accused were not identified by their religious affiliation. Their church or synagogue membership was regarded as irrelevant. But a different journalistic path is often taken when appearance identifies the accused as being of a particular faith. Let's face it, Orthodox Jews tend to be distinctive. When one does wrong, the entire community is fair game to those in the media who play unfairly. This journalistic sin is not benign because, as a consequence, people come to believe that there is a higher incidence of wrongdoing among the Orthodox than among others, particularly among the other 90 percent of American Jews, despite definitive statistical evidence to the contrary. As with African Americans, appearance begets a particular emotional dynamic. In the case of blacks, we call this racism. For Orthodox Jews, the result is bigotry. While racism is widely condemned, bigotry against the Orthodox is considered kosher. WHICH BRINGS me to Jack Abramoff's hat, the dark fedora he wore when he came to court to plead guilty to corruption charges involving political influence-peddling. Such hats are worn by no more than half of Orthodox men, and generally not by the modern Orthodox, the subgroup Abramoff identifies with. They are also worn by men who aren't Jewish. But Abramoff gave reporters an opportunity they could not refuse, and so bigotry poured out of their journalistic pores. Sadly, liberals led the way, meaning that hypocrisy was added to bigotry, with Frank Rich of The New York Times once more striking a rich lode of anti-religious sentiment. As far as I know, none of our defense organizations have protested against the linking of Orthodox Jews to Abramoff's wrongdoing. Because it is convenient for reporters to call attention to religious identity, when an Orthodox Jew does wrong and is called to account, I wonder whether the wrongdoer should take care to limit the religious factor. Beards cannot be cut off, but what about a kippa or dark fedora? Is it preferable to come to court bareheaded? Should Orthodox Jews try to divert attention away from their religious identity? There is no one answer to such questions because much depends on the circumstances that are peculiar to each situation. It's best to consult a rabbi or some other respected authority. If a religious Jew chooses to cover his head, that's his right, and his right must be respected because it arises out of a sincere religious commitment. FOR MANY Orthodox, the headgear question raises other issues. The American (and British) job market is a prime example, as it remains a place of serious discrimination against religious Jews. For all the US legislation, federal and state, prohibiting workplace discrimination against religious persons, there are employers who refuse to hire Orthodox Jews. Fact: Male Orthodox graduates of Columbia Law School who went to job interviews bareheaded fared far better than those with yarmulkas perched on their heads. Even when a job is not at stake there are questions about head coverings. Should an Orthodox public school teacher cover his head in class? Is it perhaps best to avoid any possible invitation to students to focus on his religiosity? Much the same can be asked of others in authority. Although wearing a yarmulka may intrinsically be of little halachic significance, it is a symbol - an important one at that - and its removal may be regarded as an expression of discomfort or shame over one's religiosity, and therefore inappropriate. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the preeminent authority on Jewish religious law, dealt with this issue in several responsa. Younger Orthodox Jews tend to be more comfortable with their religiosity and more resistant to going bareheaded. AS A COLLEGE student, I wore a yarmulka in class. At NYU, where I did my graduate work, I co-authored scholarly papers with professors Joseph Tanenhaus and Albert Somit. They had authored an important study of higher education, and when James Hester came in as NYU's president he asked them to recommend a graduate student to serve on his staff. I was their candidate - but the yarmulka turned out to be a barrier. When I began teaching at Hunter College in 1962, the yarmulka came off because I regarded it as a possible diversion. My older son, now a deputy attorney-general of New York, proudly wears a black yarmulka on his head, even when he is in court. Again, the choice has to be the individual's. In a country that prides itself as tolerant it's time that religious choices were respected. Is it too much to expect that when a religious Jew acts wrongfully the media will not put their instinct for hypocrisy on full display? Is it too much to ask that Jack Abramoff's hat not be a signal to those who traffic in bigotry that it is acceptable for them to follow their baser instincts? The writer lives in New York and is president of The Rabbi Jacob Joseph Yeshiva.