Monday, March 01, 2010

The Price of Orthodox Isolationism

I don’t know David Klinghoffer. But based solely on an article he has written in the Forward I am a huge fan. I have read his articles in the past. He is a pretty astute observer of Orthodox Jewish life and I don’t think I have ever disagreed with him on anything. But never has he been so right about an issue as he is now. He has pretty much nailed it.

He calls it a failing of all of Orthodoxy and mentions many Charedi examples as well as a modern Orthodox one. But it is clear to me - and I think to him - where the fault really lies. It is in the extent of our separation from the rest of society. Charedism and in particular Chasidism is where that separation is the greatest. It is an integral part of those philosophies. Just about every problem that has hit the fan in recent memory has been one that has involved members of the Charedi world. From the article:

The past year has brought what seems like a never-ending stream of financial or sexual scandals. Prominent rabbis have been charged with money-laundering. The scandal unleashed by accounts of mistreatment of workers and animals in a kosher meat facility continues to reverberate. An influential rabbi specializing in conversions allegedly conducted a squalid relationship with a woman wishing to convert. There have been repulsive accounts of molestation of boys in yeshivas. Most recently, a prominent rabbi and communal powerbroker was charged with trying to extort money from a hedge fund.

Why are those who claim to be the most religious among us - the ones who seem to be getting into the most trouble? Mr. Klinghoffer has an answer:

The answer, I think, lies in the nature of Torah that has allowed its adherents to persist for millennia. While liberal Jewish movements inevitably fade into the broader gentile society, traditional Judaism survives thanks to a hedge of religious laws that keep Jews somewhat separate from others: “Behold! It is a nation that will dwell in solitude and not be reckoned among the nations” (Numbers 23:9). Paradoxically, our ministering to and illuminating humanity as the “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6) that God calls us to be is conditioned on this apartness from other people.

Survival of Judaism indeed has been due in large part to maintaining our own identities. That necessitates a certain amount of separation. Shabbos and Kashrus help assure that. We are a people apart.

But that doesn’t mean isolation. That would prevent us from an important mandate God has given us - that of being a light unto the nations. We cannot accomplish that via insularity and isolation.

The Charedi world emphasizes ritual laws. That makes many of its adherents feel that this is enough. It is ritual law that makes us a kingdom of priests. We need not look over our shoulders. We need not worry about what the Goyim think! We can do as we please in our own world. Civilization? That is Goyishe ethics. Not our concern. By dint of the Torah and our observance of ritual Mitzvos we are a holy people. That is all that matters in the eyes of God.

But that’s wrong.

Mr. Klinghoffer cites no less great a rabbinic figure than Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch to make this point.

“The sanctification of certain persons, things, times or places can very easily result in the pernicious idea that holiness and sanctification are limited to these persons, things, times and places. With the giving over of these things to holiness, the tribute has been paid, and the demand of holiness for everything else has been bought off.”

The result is:

The highest ethics and values to be found in the wider society — which Judaism praises as derech eretz — are then minimized or even discarded as somehow goyish.

This is what makes Charedism in general and Chasidism in particular so seriously flawed in ways that result in Chilul Hashem. The more insulated and isolated an individual or group is from society the more likely one is to act in a manner that is a Chilul HaShem.

Just to be clear, I want to emphasize - as I always do - that most Charedim do not think this way. But significant numbers of them do - especially in the Chasidic world.

I do not mean to say that the Modern Orthodox world has cornered the market on authentic Judaism. They have not - which is evident by their own problems via a slide to the far left by some of them. But clearly in the area of being an Or LaGoyim Charedim do not measure up to even the most leftwing among modern Orthodox.

As always there are exceptions. Clearly there are many Charedim that have made a Kiddush HaShem and Modern Orthodox who have made a Chilul HaShem. But as the list of scandals Mr. Klinghoffer shows, Charedim are winning in the Chilul HaShem department. I firmly believe that Modern Orthodox Jews simple care more about what their non Jewish neighbors and secular Jews think. And that’s because they interact with the more.

Illustrative of this is point is the way Martin Grossman’s execution was treated. Even though most Charedim condemned it - those who created the biggest Chilul HaShem by harassing the victim’s mother - all came from those with Charedi backgrounds.

Another more subtle illustration of this can be seen by a new innovation in Charedi circles - the personal Mechitza. It is designed to wrap around your airplane seat so as to avoid looking at people who are not dressed Tznius or watching an in-flight movie. Charedim are either clueless about the laughter this provokes in the civilized world- or they don’t care. They dismiss it comments like, “I’m not going to let Goyim dictate what my values should be!”

Mr. Klinghoffer, a Baal Teshuva, is frustrated by this situation. I don’t blame him at all. He says has no answers. But there are answers. I’m just not sure they can be implemented in those societies where isolation from the rest of society is the highest ideal.

I have said this many times. The answer is that we must be a part of the world. We cannot isolate ourselves from it. Isolation is not the answer to saving our souls. It is merely trading in one problem for another. We must instead learn how to deal with the problems presented by living in the real world. That is what the Torah is for.

I don’t expect Charedim to embrace modernity. But I think they ought to reconsider the radical separation from the rest of society they now promulgate. It is overtaking them in every sphere. The more they continue down this path the bigger these kinds of problems will get. That should be abundantly clear by now.