The notion that Orthodox Jews are no more moral than anyone else could be catastrophic.
By SHMULEY BOTEACH
Orthodox Judaism has reached a moment of truth. Many people no longer believe that Jewish learning and observance make you a better person. They no longer believe there is any correlation between keeping Shabbat and keeping honest, between wearing tzitzit and avoiding adultery, or between lighting Shabbat candles and seeing the light of God's grace in every human being.
And we Orthodox have no one but ourselves to blame. We are often "religious" without being spiritual, prayerful without being humble and ritually precise without displaying the same punctiliousness in business.
I am a passionately Orthodox Jew; not even the threat of death will come between me and the God of Israel. But Orthodoxy without morality and basic humanity is a religion without God. It is cold, harsh, an abomination.
The notion that Orthodox Jews are no more moral than anyone else could prove to be the single most catastrophic event to ever befall religious observance. Simply put, if learning and honoring God's will doesn't make us better people, then most will choose to discard Judaism as an empty relic of a superstitious past.
PICTURES OF five handcuffed New Jersey rabbis had already rocked the American Jewish establishment when the even more gory news of a double murder in a gay Tel Aviv community center gave Orthodoxy an even greater challenge. To be sure, no conclusions can be drawn about who did it or why before the facts are in, but what is undeniable is that many Orthodox Jews vilify gays, thereby sowing seeds of hatred.
We can reverse all this. We the Orthodox have it in our power to restore the true light and love of Judaism by demonstrating the power of our faith to shape outstanding ethics and inspire righteous action. Indeed, most Orthodox Jews live lives of exemplary honesty, hospitality and communal devotion. But now is the time for that truth to shine. Now is the time to demonstrate that resting on the Sabbath and studying Torah actually do make people less greedy and more noble.
Our children must be taught not only the rituals that will make them good Jews, but the underlying values that will make them good people. Children in yeshiva should learn not only the correct blessing before eating an apple, but that the purpose of all such blessings is to instill gratitude. That when a boy with tzitzit and a yarmulke passes a soldier in uniform, he should thank him for protecting him and allowing them both to live openly with their faith. When our sons don yarmulkes, let us remind them that it's not only a symbol of identity but a reminder of constant supervision. God is watching us at all times, even when the FBI is not - especially when the FBI is not. When our daughters light Shabbat candles let us teach them that the purpose is not only to continue the tradition of Sarah but to illuminate the dark places of the spirit.
Sometimes those dark places are in the hearts of suicidal gay Jews who write to people like me because they're afraid to go to their Orthodox parents. I'm not suggesting that we compromise the Torah's clear laws on homosexuality, but that we simply demonstrate love and humility when we see any of God's children in pain.
Second, there should no room in Orthodoxy for people who preach hate. In 1993 I was ordered by the leadership of Chabad UK to dismiss all non-Jewish members of our Oxford University student society. I refused because the Rebbe (who had just died) loved non-Jews and regularly reached out to them. Chabad fired me.
I continue to love Chabad and raise my children in the Chabad tradition, but I have had to endure a steady stream of painful attacks like that of Rabbi Levi Shemtov, a nephew of the head of Chabad UK, who wrote on a super-secret global Chabad Web site that I "desecrate" any Chabad House I visit and should not be invited to speak. I shudder to think that a man of such extreme opinions is Chabad's representative to the US government.
Or consider the equally strange criticism leveled by Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin, who felt the need to inject this insight into a New York Magazine cover story praising my work in bringing Jewish values to the non-Jewish world: "We have no right to bring the Torah to them, to water it down and change it. I don't think writing these racy - these books. I don't think that is the way to 'bring people to the Torah.'"
The man is entitled to his opinion, but one struggles to comprehend how the official spokesman of Chabad believes we can ignore our destiny as a light unto the nations.
Finally, let us Orthodox Jews extend ourselves, as we say in the Kol Nidrei prayer of Yom Kippur, to "pray with sinners." The best way to destroy the myth that we are insular, judgmental and disrespect secular authority is to invite the secular into our homes, where they will see that our daughters are raised to comport themselves with dignity and become scholarly, our sons are raised to read books rather than watch television and that we work not to put money in the bank but to host guests and do good deeds.
Of course, a relationship is a two-way street. Too many secular Jews look at religious men in long black coats and religious women wearing wigs and see something primitive. How sad to be so dismissive of people who live lives distinguished by piety and fidelity to tradition.
When will we finally learn that we are all one people?
The writer is the founder of This World: The Values Network. He is about to release his newest book The Blessing of Enough: Rejecting Material Greed, Embracing Spiritual Hunger. Sent from Rabbi Shmuley's Blackberry.
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