Jewish Journal


July 10, 1997

Will the Real Orthodox Please Stand Up?

By Rabbi Avi Shafran


The fracas this past Shavuot at the Western Wall, in which a group of Conservative worshippers became the target of epithets and projectiles cast by a group of out-of-control Orthodox Jews, prompted a number of non-Orthodox leaders to hurl some words of their own.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, in the Baltimore Jewish Times, compares the Orthodox with Esau, "the older, rougher, tougher, hairier brother" of Jacob, who, as the "milder, younger, less certain of the self that is aborning" sibling, represents the non-Orthodox movements.

Writing in The Forward, Leonard Fein, director of the Reform movement's Commission on Social Action, calls on his readers to stop supporting haredi (ardently Orthodox) institutions, labeling Orthodoxy's position on the historic definition of Judaism an "offensive doctrine."

In the Long Island Jewish World, Jacob Stein, past president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, describes that same Orthodox stance as "apartheid," asserting that "it appears we [non-Orthodox Jews] cannot worship at the Kotel without the risk of physical attack."

A Vexing Question

What is perplexing to some (and should be to all) non-Orthodox Jews, however, is just how jarringly different are, on the one hand, the images of the Orthodox in press accounts and punditry and, on the other, the flesh-and-blood Orthodox Jews with whom they are personally acquainted.

Many thousands of haredim, of course, were present that Shavuot morning, and the overwhelming majority did not partake in any violence, verbal or otherwise, and simply ignored the pointed flouting of traditional Jewish ritual norms at what they regard as the holiest site in the world. Indeed, though it went largely unreported, Orthodox Jews even came to the defense of the besieged worshippers. The Jerusalem Post, quoting a Reform rabbinical student present, reported that an Orthodox woman "admonished those around her that the [non-Orthodox] worshippers were Jews, and [an Orthodox] man...used his own handkerchief to wipe the spittle off someone's neck."

In Israel, moreover, as here in the United States, Orthodox Jews daily reach out to their non-Orthodox brothers and sisters with unconditional love. Largely as a result of such outreach, 515,000 Israeli Jews, according to a recent survey, have become more religiously observant over the past six years. Most American Jews, too, know at least several others who, though born into non-Orthodox or entirely secular families, have come to adopt an Orthodox religious lifestyle, a choice that could scarcely be imaginable had there not been caring, supportive Orthodox role models all along the way.

In fact, day in and day out, Orthodox chesed (or kindness) institutions minister to the needs of hospitalized, impoverished or homebound Jews, regardless of their affiliations or degree of Jewish observance. These organizations provide their services happily and wholeheartedly, with love and respect.

So what gives? Who are the "real" Orthodox Jews -- the spitters and shouters or the quiet, caring others?

An Answer Obscured

The non-Orthodox leaderships know the answer, but their organizational interests lie in concealing, even obscuring, it.

They know that the epithet shouters are no more representative of Orthodox Jews than the "in-your-face" flouters of halacha and tradition are of non-Orthodox ones.

They know, too, that non-Orthodox Jews are fully welcome by all haredim to pray at the Kotel as all Jews have for 30 years -- in accordance with halacha and time-honored Jewish tradition.

But what the non-Orthodox leaders also know is that they cannot possibly win the war they have loudly declared over the issue of "Jewish religious pluralism" in Israel through any conventional means.

The Unorthodox Quandary

For neither Jewish history nor recent Jewish experience supports the wisdom of granting the non-Orthodox movements parity with halachic Judaism in Israel.

By all accounts, what is today called "Orthodox Judaism" preserved the Jewish people over the millennia. And the acceptance of "multiple Judaisms" here in the United States has only facilitated the widespread intermarriage, assimilation and religious ennui that have blighted the Jewish landscape; multiple standards for conversion, marriage and divorce, moreover, are creating a Jewish sociological nightmare -- the emergence of a plethora of American "Jewish peoples."

And in Israel at present, there is precious little interest in "Jewish religious pluralism," something Israelis regard as a quintessentially American way of being both religious and nonobservant of one's religion simultaneously.

The Way Out

And, so, with history, experience and the Israeli vox populi arrayed against them, the non-Orthodox leaders have resorted to the only weapon that might possibly help them achieve their goal: vilification of "the other" -- in this case, the Orthodox.

Thus, the increasing employment by those leaders of words such as "diabolical," "fanatic" and "ruthless" to describe Orthodox Jews and institutions. And thus, one leader's contention that the Orthodox are not even "authentic" Jews; repeated insinuations that Yitzhak Rabin's assassin is representative of the Orthodox community; and the chorus of official voices identifying Orthodox Jews with venters of ill will rather than with protectors and embracers of their fellow Jews.

As a result, sadly, the tear in the fabric of KIal Yisrael is only being widened, perhaps irreparably.

Looking Ahead

We Orthodox pray that the non-Orthodox laity chooses to reject its leaders' ire.

We pray for the wider recognition that hotheads and vandals are no more characteristic of the Orthodox than Conservative or Reform agents provocateurs are of the well-meaning Jews in their own groups.

And we pray that all of our Jewish brothers and sisters take the step of exploring the wide and welcoming world of Orthodox outreach programs, synagogue classes and yeshivas -- and thereby begin to discover just who we Orthodox really are.

Rabbi Avi Shafran is the director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.

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