Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Invisible Kipa

Image from Ha'aretz
Every once in a while there is some good news to report. This was the sentiment of Rabbi Moshe Grylak in his Mishpacha editorial  (of the same title) this week. I agree. He noted a phenomenon that I was not aware of at all. It appears that there are some successful secular Israelis - who Rabbi Grylak calls the ‘secular elite’ - that are becoming ‘closet’ observant Jews. 

This phenomenon is not what has been described as an Israeli population the majority of whom are traditional but not fully observant.  These are actually secular Jews that have gone from almost no observance to almost full observance. Including the sine qua non of religious Jews, Sabbath observance. I only wonder just how wide spread this phenomenon is? What are the actual numbers? Rabbi Grylak quotes a source that indicates that it is more widespread than it seems. Nonetheless the fact that it is happening on any scale is quite extraordinary, 

What makes this particular phenomenon unique is that they hide their observance. Which is one reason that the numbers are hard to gauge. In service of that - the one thing they will not do is wear a Kipa – the identifying mark of an observant Jew. As far as their public personae are concerned, they are as secular as they have always been. So much so that in one instance - an individual who became observant in this secretive way - put on teffilin every day in his closet for a full year – lest his family find out about his new found observance.

There are many questions that arise. The most obvious one being why successful people who ‘have it all’ have chosen to become observant? What happened to them to make them do that? Rabbi Grylak quoted one individual who seemed to be saying that he was looking for meaning in his life. And he found it in his own heritage. He somehow became convinced that the purpose of life is to serve His Creator.

 How did they decide that becoming an observant Jew was the way to do that? Perhaps they surmised that as a Jew following the dictates of the Torah the way their ancestors did. They might recall memories or stories they heard from their parents about their grandparents observances and used that for a model.

Perhaps they look at the survival of our people. Is there a better indication of God’s providence than to look at our survival throughout the millennia? Despite being a small persecuted minority living among the nations? All while great once great civilizations are now a extinct – or a shadow of their former selves?  Where is the mighty Rome, today? While there are many rational explanations that can be offered for their demise, what explanation can be given for our survival against all odds?

A bigger question in my mind is why are they hiding their new found observance? Rabbi Grylak answers that. They do not want to be associated with religious Jews. Why? Because they live in neighborhoods where religious Jews are not looked at favorably. They have established their lives, their family, and their friends there and don’t want to change or give up those friendships. Especially if they are the only ones in their families that have become observant. So they continue to maintain their secular lifestyles and friendships in public while at the same time maintaining their observance without showing it. They want to maintain their friendships and their basic lifestyles while at the same time being observant privately.

It is a sad commentary on the religious community that a newly observant Jew has to hide his observance because the secular world looks so unfavorably at us. At the same time it should not be a surprise that this is the case. Religious Jews in Israel have not endeared themselves to the secular public at all.  There are just too many instances that our behavior has done the opposite and caused secular Jews to resent us. One does not have to look too far to see some examples of that. 

Just to cite a few examples. There are the rock throwers in Meah Shearim, Or protesting a government decision to leave a a street in Jerusalem open on Shabbos. Or extremists that attack women who sit in the wrong section of a bus. Or incidents like the one where a little girl was called a whore because she did not live up to the more extreme modesty standards of people living nearby. Or the erasure of women from the public square. Or the extremist religious Zionist settlers that commit violence against the Palestinians on the West Bank. Or that 2 of the biggest murderers in Israel’s recent history were observant religious Zionist Jews. Or the fact that one of Religious Zionism's most prominent rabbis was convicted of sexually assaulting a male minor? And I’ve only scratched the surface.Who wants to be associated with people  like this?! I wouldn’t. 

That there is much Chesed in the religious world is drowned out by the extremists that ruin it for everyone else. Added to that is the apologetics one hears in some religious circles - while mildly condemning it. Not a way to win friends and influence people.

But it’s more than that. Even moderate religious Jews that would agree that the above mentioned examples are indeed very off-putting and strongly condemn them the way I do, do little to otherwise reach out to their secular neighbors and show them our good side. There is a degree of segregation between religious and secular Jews that perpetuates the above negative images. Which is the red meat mainstream media reportage. And who can blame them? They are true stories - and those kinds of stories sells newspapers.

There are sincere Jews who have found Judaism and follow Halacha not because of rote religious behavior many of us do - but because they believe it is the right way to live. And yet they refuse to be a part of us that live have lived that way all of our lives. This is not only a loss for them because they could learn a lot from us. It is a loss for us. We could learn a lot from them. They are inspiring role models whose sincerity is to be admired and should be emulated. Too bad it’s not like that. But it’s our own fault!