Style or Substance?: A Follow-Up Post

A friend of mine told me that a Conservative Jewish friend of hers said this when she read about the whole Elad Debacle of 5775 today: “You know… we don’t talk about the Orthodox. We’re kind of embarrassed about them.”

After the ED of 5775, I can see why. It seems like the Orthodox approach non-Orthodox Jews like they’re Great-Uncle Mergatroyd who just has to spout his anger and bigoted opinions at the dinner table, and expects everyone to just go along with him, because he’s Great-Uncle Mergatroyd.

It saddens me that an entire branch of the Tree is so willing to prune off all the others to maintain its purity, even when there are obvious examples of people who lived as Jews, raised Jewish children, and yet never went through the formal, rules-lawyer, halachic conversion process. Ruth (whose descendant, if you’ll recall, was King David). Abraham. All the women who were taken as brides during the conquering of other peoples. And yet we would never say that their children or descendants aren’t Jewish.

So why do the Orthodox have such a hangup about “you must fit every one of these exacting criteria or you are not Jewish”, anyway?

I’ve read a number of blogs since starting this journey. Occasionally I’ll run into one written by an Orthodox person who lives in an Orthodox community and never ventures outside of it. And it seems from these blogs that in the “frum” community, specifically, there seems to be an awful lot of fuss over appearances. Are you wearing your tallit katan, is your wife wearing a wig or a veil to hide her hair, that kind of thing. And it just tires me out, and I think I know why.

My mother was all about style over substance. For her, how you looked was more important than anything else. How you looked extended to observable behavior. As a result, I have an allergy to people who prioritize style over substance.

In addition to reading those blogs, I also have friends who have left Judaism because they were raised in a similar, frum, Ultra-Orthodox environment. The abuses they report cannot go unremarked:

  • daughters forbidden Talmud study and forced to dress in concealing clothing
  • boys taught that women were second-class citizens
  • intense shaming of those who are “off the derech”
  • parents sitting shiva for sons and daughters who left Orthodoxy (especially if that involved marriage outside of Orthodoxy) but then trying to get back into their children’s lives when babies arrived so that they could try to turn the grandchildren back to Orthodoxy
  • and, of course, the recent exposure of rabbis who molested children and whose communities covered up for them

Somehow, the Orthodox have managed to set themselves up in the minds of many Jews as the authoritative last word on what “Jewish” means. It happens in frum communities all over the world, but it also happens in Israel (witness the haredi control over the Kotel and how they treat the Women of the Wall, just as an example). Too much of it is about style, not substance. It’s about whether you dress in clothing from the 16th century, not your focus on tikkun olam. It’s about whether you are avoiding carrying anything into your house if it’s Shabbat, rather than whether you opened your home to someone who needed a place and a meal on Shabbat. It’s about style, not substance.

I reject that. I reject that fundamentally. For me, Judaism has to be about tikkun olam, and hospitality, and hesed (lovingkindness) – and that has to be the central focus or it’s all just dust and ashes.

If you wear your black hat every day but reject anyone who won’t wear one too, you’ve completely missed the point.

And this brings me back to Pop Chassid. He isn’t being honest in his struggle with the rules. Instead of checking whether the rules can be realistically applied today, he struggles to find bits of support for the rules so they can stay the way they’ve been for 5700 years. That kind of legalistic nonsense is something I don’t tolerate in my students, so why should I tolerate it in him? If he’s not willing to look out and apply Torah to the world as it is today, why should I take his definitions seriously? If his understanding of Judaism isn’t framed in the central values of tikkun olam and tzedakah and chesed, why should I care what he thinks?

It is not just, or kind, to exclude other Jews just because they don’t fit your definition of what Judaism is. It does not serve the goal of tikkun olam to exclude other Jews – it creates more fractures to heal, rather than healing the ones that are there.

Please note: At no time have I said that Pop Chassid is not a Jew. That’s because he’s using a different interpretation of the Torah. I do, however, take issue with his interpretation, because his interpretation goes against those central values, and that’s uncalled for.

If you want to argue with me about this, do it on your own blog. I will be holding the banhammer at the ready.

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1 Comment

Filed under Identities, Jewish Practices

One response to “Style or Substance?: A Follow-Up Post

  1. Pingback: My Issues With Orthodoxy: A Response to Rafi Mollot | Wrestling With God

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