Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Of Hate and Introspection

Forward Editor-in Chief, Jane Eisner
I must give credit to Forward editor, Jane Eisner. In her critical editorial about Rabbi Yaakov Perlow’s address at the recent Agudah convention, she had a moment of true introspection. When people are honest about themselves and admit their biases, it goes a long way toward Achdus.

Understandably, as a member of the Conservative Movement, she was quite upset about Rabbi Perlow’s words. Who wouldn’t be upset when a rabbinic leader said the following about their denomination? 
“They’ve become oblivious, and they’ve fallen into the pit of intermarriage and assimilation,” he said. “They have no future, they almost have no present.” 
In a statement released by Agudah after the avalanche of criticism by the media of what seemed like the disparagement of the vast majority of Jews in America, Rabbi Perlow’s remarks were clarified: 
“Rabbi Perlow’s focus was on Reform and Conservative Judaism, not on Reform and Conservative Jews — on ideologies, not on people,” read a statement later issued by Agudah. (The emphases were in the statement, so I repeat them here.) 
“Rabbi Perlow, and the community of Orthodox Jews who look to him as a leader, have nothing but love and concern for all Jews, regardless of their affiliation, regardless of how misled they may be by their religious leaders.” 
Ms. Eisner took offense at this too: 
This is a defense that reeks of arrogance and superiority — as if those of us who choose to be Reform or Conservative Jews do so only because we are misled by our religious leaders, who surely would be thrilled to know they have such power. And the broadside against Open Orthodoxy, which currently occupies a smidgeon of space in the spectrum of religiously devout Jews, seems oddly defensive. Perhaps Agudah is more worried about these insurgents than we thought. 
She’s right about the latter part of that statement. Open Orthodoxy is a far greater concern than either of those movements for reasons I have stated elsewhere. But that is beside the point of this essay.

I will grant that Orthodox leaders believe that Orthodoxy is superior to other Jewish denominations. I will go further and say that Orthodoxy considers heterodox movements as illegitimate! Nothing new here. But I do not see it as necessarily arrogant to express a long held view that movements that accept things like biblical criticism are an illegitimate form of Judaism. This is certainly not the first time an Orthodox rabbinic leader has publicly stated this .

I say this not to cast aspersions on Ms. Eisner. I say it only to point out that it is not arrogant to state what you believe is true - and what you believe isn’t true. But as I said I understand why she is upset. 

What is more important to me is what she said after that. In a moment true introspection she said the following: 
How often do we say, or imply, “love the Haredi Jew, hate Haredi Judaism?” How often do we profess our belief in Jewish pluralism but allow that belief to expire when we brush up against those with whom we simply don’t agree? 
We say that Haredim are misogynist, perhaps homophobic, possibly corrupt, unduly swayed by their rabbis, all too eager to game the system to obtain public money undeservedly, even fraudulently.
There is some truth in all of these statements. That’s how hurtful stereotypes are built — by a modicum of truth embellished to the extreme, to encompass an entire group rather than a wayward individual. 
Furthermore, if we non-Orthodox Jews are honest, we’ll admit that there is some truth to Rabbi Perlow’s statement that the Reform and Conservative movements have “become oblivious, and they’ve fallen into the pit of intermarriage and assimilation.” Last year’s Pew Research Center report found that more than four-in-five Reform Jews marry non-Jews. Yep, that’s intermarriage and assimilation. 
This is quite an admission coming from a journalist.  As the editor of a widely read Jewish newspaper, she has a bully pulpit. She could have taken umbrage at what Rabbi Perlow said and left it at that. But instead she took her understandable but misplaced (in my view) anger and used it to re-examine her own feelings about Charedi Jews.

She has admitted her own bias. A bias that many feel is reflected in the way her newspaper reports stories about Charedim. (Not that I have ever seen them that way - but now in light of her admission perhaps there is some merit to those accusations.)

The truth is that the misdeeds of a few Charedi Jews are often used to paint the entire community in a negative light. I see it here all the time. And that is the furthest thing from the truth. Although I have strongly condemned those misdeeds I have never said – nor do I believe that the vast majority of Charedim are anything but fine and decent people, most of whom abhor those misdeeds same as I do. 

What I have suggested is that there may be something lacking educationally in some segments of the religious community that allows people to do those kinds of things and think they are OK. Which of course they are not - and end up being a big Chilul HaShem.

Ms. Eisner’s message is that ‘hating the Jew but not the Judaism’ is wrong. That we ought to not be hating entire streams of Judaism. I actually agree with her.  I don’t hate the Conservative movement or even the Reform Movement. I just think they are wrong. Saying something is Apikursus is not a statement of hate. It is a statement of belief.  Nor is Rabbi Perlow’s prediction of their demise hateful. It is just a conclusion based on a trend suggested in recent polls.

But when it comes to introspection, Ms. Eisner is exactly right. I think we ought to take a step back, look at her very wise observations, and examine our own prejudices .