Why many Jews might feel the Orthodox do hate them

When you tell a Jew his stream of Judaism is unkosher, it is received as a personal attack. How could it be otherwise?

shafran 88 (photo credit: )
shafran 88
(photo credit: )
Rabbi Avi Shafran is a very clever fellow, always ready to defend the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox with one explanation or another. His handwringing over the "defamation" of Orthodoxy, which has been accused of hating non-Orthodox Jews, strikes me as somewhat posed, if not disingenuous. If his shock at discovering such feelings is genuine, then I truly sympathize, but suggest he get out more. Partially because I am the son of a prominent Conservative rabbi and leader, yet travel as well in Orthodox circles, I have been a frequent witness to and subject of accusations, confessions and diatribes concerning denominational sentiments. Some of these arise precisely because my interlocutors recognize the background of my family name, others must reach my ears only because of my personal sensitivities. I vividly recall sitting in a shiur years back at a synagogue one Shabbat afternoon. The rabbi, a man from Iran who got his ordination at Yeshiva University, followed a digression that led him to proclaim, to shout, really, that it would be better to be a Christian than a Conservative or Reform Jew. He cited as support Rabbi Moshe Feinstein's teshuva that an Orthodox air conditioner repairman may not enter a Conservative or Reform synagogue even if only to repair the equipment. It is forbidden, went the logic, to enter a place where one knows a priori that there is no kedusha. I REMEMBER one motz'ei Shabbat when I heard a lecture by the head of a very liberal Orthodox organization. He insisted throughout on the importance of not drawing lines between Jews. Afterward, during the informal conversation some audience members had struck up with him, it turned out that some lines were, indeed, critical. He said, for instance, that a Conservative rabbi should not be given an aliya at an Orthodox synagogue. Why? I asked. Because one cannot be sure that when he says the blessing (no mention was made of women rabbis) that he has in mind the same idea of God. Astounding narishkeyt! Does anyone really believe that the Baba Sali and Yosef Soloveitchik held the same idea of God?! Only a few months ago, a Shabbat guest at our house, the Orthodox son of a prominent Orthodox rabbi, spent most of the meal querying us intensively and insensitively about our religious identity. He had been two years ahead of me at day school. This conversation began because our son had a schoolmate over from his own Orthodox day school and our guest worried that the friend's parents might be misled, thinking that we were Orthodox. Hence our guest's first question - whether I identify myself as Orthodox. Of course, he insisted, he knows that "behaviorally" and "sociologically" we are observant. It clearly troubled him, however, that we attend Orthodox synagogues and schools without declaring fealty to Orthodoxy, as if we were hoodwinking people. We were quite hurt to be subjected to such an inquisition at our own Shabbat table. Ironically - we didn't even know this at the time - the kid and the parents for whose spiritual health he expressed such anxiety are not even observant. I CANNOT refrain from mentioning things like the physical assault by haredim on the minyan of one of my friends - during prayers! - because women carried a sefer Torah; or the time an acquaintance in our neighborhood was shooed out of a particular hashkama minyan because he dressed a little differently and was clearly new to laying tefillin; or the many times I have heard or read the repetition of the Orthodox urban myth that the Reform movement "caused" conversion to Christianity (statistical analysis shows that most of the conversions in 19th-century Poland, for instance, were women, who left the observant fold because it offered little or no opportunity for real participation or advancement). Sadly, I could give many, many more examples. I will not bother to refute the above statements and actions, poor imitations of halachic reasoning (not to mention mockeries of the principle of ahavat yisrael, love for all Israel, or, as expressed in the Torah, not to hate a fellow Jew in your heart). If those who make such statements think they are only expressing hate for forms of Judaism deemed unkosher, let me say loudly and clearly that the Jews to whom they are addressed receive them as personal attacks. How could it be otherwise? Such statements reek of self-righteousness, smugness, condescension, contempt, hatred - groundless hatred, in fact. Of course, not all Orthodox feel this way, while others know better than to ever speak or act this way in public. And, yes, obviously there is all too much gratuitous hatred toward the Orthodox. RABBI SHLOMO Carlebach used to quip, with his pungent insightfulness, that the Reform must be pretty darn holy, seeing as how they need but daven once a year or so, while the observant shleppers, on such a low level, need to daven three times a day. Even this exaggeration contains an insulting kernel, but it is telling that Carlebach, one of the few who truly understood and lived ahavat yisrael, was shunned by the more extreme Orthodox world while he remained alive. On a deeper level, movements such as Reform and renewal are obviously necessary, since otherwise the Jewish world would be horribly and dangerously off balance due to the incessant introduction by certain groups of new stringencies (see Deut. 4:2, not to add to God's law). If Rabbi Shafran and the Orthodox world sincerely want to address the way they are perceived, here is my two shekels worth of advice: In the United States, the Agudath Israel or someone with courage within the Orthodox world should convene a conference on this very topic of ahavat yisrael. Materials for Orthodox rabbis and rosh yeshivas should be produced and distributed in order to help them unlearn unhealthy and unproductive ways of looking at the non-Orthodox, and to teach others to do so as well. If it helps, I promise (not) to attend. IN ISRAEL, the Chief Rabbinate and all official state religious functions institutionalize the above attitudes and daily force them on the entire Jewish population, breeding little other than resentment and hatred of the halachic world. The coercion, authoritarianism, corruption and abuse resulting from this state religion, whose stories we all know through personal experience, friends or the media, make a mockery of the sanctity and authority of our rabbis. Not a single benefit of rabbinic wisdom and influence would be lost with the termination of official state Judaism. The Komarna Rebbe, Yitzhak Eizik Yehuda Yehiel Safrin, relates an incredible story of the Ba'al Shem Tov, the founder of Hassidism, that he received from Yehiel Mikhel of Zlotchev: On the road one day, the Besht went into the forest to pray minha (the afternoon prayer). His disciples saw him strike his head strongly against a tree and shout and cry strange cries and abundant tears. Seeing this they were stunned. They asked the holy man what was going on. He replied that he saw, by means of his holy spirit, the generations which will exist just before the coming of the messiah. He saw that rabbis would be as plentiful as locusts, but that they themselves will be the ones to delay the redemption because they cause separation of hearts and baseless hatred. They will not teach how to recognize the good qualities of others. In particular, they will not prevent insinuations against some tzadik or gadol ha-dor or even against some ordinary Israelite who grasps the commandments. No, they will teach the opposite, how to mock and condemn anyone who does not hold by their own rabbi. THIS SOUNDS all too familiar. I hope the story has it wrong. I suspect that from God's perspective the important difference is not between denominations, but between those individuals who think that Torah means having all the right answers and those who believe it demands never-ending questing and self-questioning. Writing in the 1930s in the face of the same modern problem of Jews "deviating" from Torah, the Pieszesner Rebbe, Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, was honest enough to argue that the fault lay as much with Orthodoxy as with those abandoning it: "Why should we mislead ourselves with empty excuses, saying, 'We want to transmit [Torah] to them, but only they are to blame because they refuse to receive it'... We cannot say, with tranquil spirits: 'Our hands did not spill the blood of these souls of Israel.'" The haftora from the Book of Malachi that we just read for Shabbat Hagadol, the Sabbath before Pessah, reminds us that when he returns, Elijah the prophet will reconcile the hearts of parents and children. Perhaps we should also understand this hope as a plea to the present age. Those who are more advanced in Torah would do well to withhold their condemnation and condescension from those who are still taking their first steps in it or even have yet to take any toward it. May our hearts be united within us and between us, speedily in our day! The writer teaches Jewish studies at Columbia University.