Sunday, March 10, 2013

A View of Observant Judaism by a Non Observant Jew

David Brooks - photo credit New York Times
I must say that I am both surprised and disappointed at the negative comments about David Brook’s op-ed column in the New York Times. And they weren’t few. They were many. The Forward, DovBear, Failed Messiah, and the many people who commented in the New York Times itself - all of them could not have been more upset about a positive article dealing with Orthodoxy.

I am upset too. Not by the article. But by all the negativity - some of it venomous!  It is almost as if the entire column was some sort of a made up lie by an Orthodox cheerleader.

The fact is however, that David Brooks is not Orthodox. Nor is he a cheerleader.  He is a respected journalist reporting on his impressions of a community which he is not a part of.  Mr. Brooks took a tour of a Pomegranate, a ‘luxury’ kosher food store in the Midwood section of Flatbush a large mostly Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn. His guide was my old (…well maybe not so old) friend from Chicago, Rabbi Dr. Meir Yaakov Soloveichik.

The article was very positive. Brooks describes rather well what it means to be an Orthodox Jew living in the modern world. He explains quite nicely the primacy of Halacha in our lives even among the upscale Orthodox Jews who shop at a store like Pomegranate.  

Expanding on his encounter with Pomegranate - he makes Orthodox Jews look like role models for all... suggesting that one could do a lot worse than following our ‘countercultural’ model.  For example he quotes  Rabbi Soloveichik on the Jewish approach to marriage:
Marriage is about love, but it is not first and foremost about love,” Soloveichik says. “First and foremost, marriage is about continuity and transmission.”
He seems to praise our “deeper sense of collective purpose”:
They are like the grocery store Pomegranate, superficially a comfortable part of mainstream American culture, but built upon a moral code that is deeply countercultural.
He ends with the following paragraph:
All of us navigate certain tensions, between community and mobility, autonomy and moral order. Mainstream Americans have gravitated toward one set of solutions. The families stuffing their groceries into their Honda Odyssey minivans in the Pomegranate parking lot represent a challenging counterculture. Mostly, I notice how incredibly self-confident they are. Once dismissed as relics, they now feel that they are the future.
I think he’s got that right. Even if one looks only at the statistics he cites one can see a very bright future for Orthodox Jewry versus other denominations. At least in terms of population growth:
Nationwide, only 21 percent of non-Orthodox Jews between the ages of 18 and 29 are married. But an astounding 71 percent of Orthodox Jews are married at that age. And they are having four and five kids per couple. In the New York City area, for example, the Orthodox make up 32 percent of Jews over all. But the Orthodox make up 61 percent of Jewish children. Because the Orthodox are so fertile, in a few years, they will be the dominant group in New York Jewry.
British historian Arnold J. Toynbee must be rolling in his grave. This is how he explained our survival: The Jewish people are an ancient relic of a dead past. (He was corrected by Dr. Eliezer Berkovits who successfully challenged him on that notion.)

I felt really good about this article. But it did not take long for all the naysayers to come out of the woodwork - bashing it.

It’s not that any of the claims they were making against it weren’t true. Many of them are. In fact these problems are discussed right here fairly often.

No one screams louder than I do about the miscreants in our midst. Indeed these people are the cause of so much Chilul HaShem – it is a wonder how any objective person could ever say anything positive about Orthodoxy. And no one complains more about how some of the more extreme segments of our world could use some serious tweaking.

Nor is Orthodoxy uniformly observed as one might erroneously conclude from this article. Indeed, there are Chasidic, Yeshivish,  Lubavitch, Modern Orthodox, and Sephardi communities whose lifestyles are in most cases quite different from each other. Additionally each one of these has their own subgroups. And just like the non observant world, socioeconomic conditions play a very important part in how any of us live.

But the bottom line is that the Orthodoxy Mr. Brooks describes does exist and the values he attributes to it are pretty much mainstream. We are a good people with good values. Values that are found in the Torah and in our Mesorah.  Most of them common to all segments of Orthodoxy.

Ours is a positive message that should not be knocked down by naysayers in response to a positive article about us.  Yes, there are problems. Yes, there are issues that need to be resolved. Yes, some of our values are countercultural. And yes there are opinions and disagreements – including some major ones – about the best way to practice Judaism. Both here and in Israel. Two Jews – three opinions the saying goes.

But to tear down a positive article like this because of the problems we have is to give lie to the truth and the beauty of observant Judaism.  Lived the way it should be - is to live an inspirational life. I believe with complete faith that the observant way of life - which is mandated by God through His Torah - is the best way to live. That’s why we are commanded to be a light unto the nations. Not by teaching Judaism in a classroom. But being living examples of it.  To the extent that we sometimes fail is to the extent that some of us are human. And the truly criminal element among us are the sociopathic exceptions that prove the rule.

David Brooks saw us in a positive light. But if one reads all the criticism one could easily conclude that living an observant lifestyle is the not only- not - the best way to live but the worst. Nothing of course could be further from the truth. There are far more observant Jews who live good and decent lives with exemplary values which they practice daily than there are those who don’t. 

Most of us do not cheat or steal, or sexually abuse little children. Or protect enablers. Most of us follow the law of the land and appreciate the great bounty this land has to offer. Most of us know right from wrong and live as though it matters – because it does. This is what David Brooks saw. This is what David Brooks reported. To undermine it because of the bad behavior of a small minority among us does a disservice to our people and is in my view a Chilul HaShem.