Monday, June 20, 2011

Does Communal Isolation Breed Bad Behavior?

An alert reader sent me the following question asked on ‘Yahoo Answers’ a few days ago. It describes experiences an African American man had living among religious Jews. I found it both very revealing and very troubling. Here is the question in its entirety:

This has been bugging me for a while. I've bounced around from different neighborhoods over the years, most of which were within walking distance of a synagogue and have taken part in many Jewish activities for fun, so this isn't from an ignorant standpoint. Where I live now, on the other side of the street are a few Orthodox Jewish houses. Here's the issue.

I used to say good morning, afternoon, etc. to Orthodox Jews that would pass by, gave back a set of keys to a man that forgot them at a bakery, and tried helping an elderly Orthodox Jewish lady that fell down, (I love this one) even had a woman tell her child that being black was a disease. They don't say anything back; the man didn't say thank you, he just took the keys from me; the elderly woman refused to let me touch her or help her up she just waited for the group of Orthodox Jews that were coming to her aid.

And if there's a group of them on the sidewalk, there is no way you can get passed without waiting off to the side. As for the woman, obviously she was just racist and I don't hold that against Orthodox Jewish people.I know, some of you are going to say well these are isolated incidents and are just they aren't.

Those are just a few that really stuck out in my mind over the years. I had lunch with a few of my friends and a teacher, some Jewish, and they told me that Orthodox Jewish people don't really associate themselves with people outside of their religious community, they feel that if you don't share the same religious views as they do, you have nothing to talk about, so you wouldn't be able to relate.

That's why they are secluded and have their homes within walking distance of kosher bakeries, deli, supermarkets, clothing/shoe stores, wig shops, Jewish schools, and synagogues. They didn't seem shocked when I told them about what the woman said to her child either, they said that you'll find that because Orthodox Jews are only social in religious community settings, many of them can be and are racist or ignorant due to their lack of exposure to other cultures/ religions.I don't know how accurate that is, because they don't live an orthodox lifestyle, but that makes perfect sense to me. Does anyone else know or can elaborate on why they're like that?

The answer given by a modern Orthodox Jew is the following:

It doesn't sound like you are talking about Orthodox Jews, but rather Ultra-Orthodox Jews. The Ultra-Orthodox Jews also split into two sects the Haredi and the Hasidic.

If you are a Christian you know there are dozens of types of Christians. It is important those who are not familiar with Judaism know there are almost a dozens types of practicing Jews as well.Many Ultra-Orthodox Jews particularly those who live in NYC (mostly Brooklyn and part of Queens) are in fact isolated from certain aspects of society. I would assume that you are talking about such Jews, please know they are a minority of the Orthodox Jewish population.As for the examples you gave, here is a little insight from a modern Orthodox Jew.

According to Ultra-Orthodox tradition women are prohibited from touching males who are not part of their family. It was nothing against you, but she just wasn't allowed to touch you because you are male.

I cannot excuse any racist remarks, but I can tell you that the Ultra-Orthodox Jews I know are not racist, but they don't live in NYC, so that makes them less isolated.As for the man and his keys, there is an Ultra-Orthodox practice of not speaking after one has washed his hands and before one has eat bread. If you gave the keys to this man during that period of time, he would not be able to thank you because he is not allowed to speak. I know that it might be a longshot, but sometimes it is nice to give the other person the benefit of the doubt.

I think that you are a nice person who is troubled by a culture and religion that you don't understand. I hope I was able to give you some perspective into some of the more odd aspects of their lifestyle that can come off as offensive.

Even though he makes a distinction between Orthodox Jews and ultra Orthodox he judges their rude behavior favorably – explaining it as necessarily Halachic with no ill intent. I agree that there was probably no ill intent. But I otherwise do not read this man’s experiences as being necessarily based in Halacha. I am in fact embarrassed by the behavior this man experienced. I see it as indigenous to those segments of Jewry that are the most isolated. The more isolated they are the more they tend to act in this way.

Let us examine what happened.

An elderly woman who falls and refuses to be helped by a black man. Is it because of the prohibition against physical contact? Perhaps. But I wonder if there wasn’t an element of racism attached. She did after all wait for Orthodox Jews to come along after refusing help. Were those Jews only women? Even if so does she not understand the concept of Chasid Shoteh? A Chasid Shoteh is man That the Talmud considers an idiot because of his Frumkeit - refusing to save a woman’s life because of the prohibition of touching a woman.

The explanation about the key incident sounds equally unlikely. There was no mention about a restaurant. A man forgot his keys at a bakery. This ‘good Samaritan’ spotted the keys, grabbed them and ran over to return them. Placing this incident in a restaurant in a circumstance where the Jew had just washed for HaMotzi and unable to talk is a real stretch.

I believe that it was nothing more than simple self- centeredness. It shows that Hakoras HaTov – gratitude - does not exist in that Jew’s life – at least as it applies to a non Jew – or perhaps it was even racist because the ‘good Samaritan’ was black. Where does it say that one may not say thank you to a non Jew? Nowhere! But it is clear to me that when a religious Jew behaves badly like that - it is Chilul HaShem!

The fact that this fellow clearly states that these are not isolated experiences testifies to a larger truth: Jews who live isolated lives separate and apart from the rest of civilization probably don’t even realize how their behavior appears to others. Either that or they simply don’t care – which is much worse.

I understand why the modern Orthodox fellow answered the way he did. He wanted to put the best face on a bad situation. I applaud him for that. But at best his answer is a band-aid to ‘cover up’ a problem indigenous to entire groups of Jews.

Those whose philosophies encourage living in total isolation from the rest of the world will beget the kind of behavior this black man commonly experiences. What this type of isolation gains in spirituality is therefore negated by the Chilul HaShem of the self-centered and perhaps even racist behavior that it breeds.