Mishnah Avot 1:11 warns us to “be careful with your words.” Advice, it turns out, that I have not heeded adequately and, therefore, I hurt someone’s feelings carelessly and also demonstrated some sloppy thinking.
Months ago, in a post about the forbidden temptation of the contemplative life, I made a glancing reference to the controversy in Israel over exemptions for Torah scholars from military service. The post wasn’t about that subject; it was about my own struggle with the time/money question. In that context, I made reference to Orthodox yeshiva scholars who are able to devote themselves to Torah without distractions—a situation I regard with more than a little envious yearning.
I recently learned though, that my careless throwaway reference to a complex issue had caused some real pain to a colleague at the school I attend, the Academy for Jewish Religion.
One of the most wonderful things about my school is its diversity with regard to hashkafa. Our faculty represents a great swath of the Jewish spectrum, including people with ties to the Orthodox, Conservative/Masorti, Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal movements and the tendencies and counter-tendencies within them, and the student body mirrors that multiplicity. There are Hasids and Litvaks, mystics and rationalists, people who are steeped in popular culture and people who avoid it, political leftists, rightists and centrists. Women in sheitels pray with women in tfilin.
Some of my favorite teachers have been Orthodox thinkers and rabbis, not only for the depth and breadth of their Torah learning, but also for the complexity and practical sense of their thinking—and the humor and pleasure with which they infuse their classes. In fact, our Academy recently chose one such teacher, Dr. Tamar Frankiel, our former Provost and faculty member to be our President. Dr. Frankiel is a living example of how Orthodox women are a vital force today’s living Judaism.
I have learned just how broad and diverse the Orthodox world is, and my colleague who rebuked me for the casual reference I made in my post reminded me of how unhelpful it is to use the word as a single descriptive adjective. She reminded me that, even with regard to the question of the yeshiva military exemption, the Orthodox world in Israel contains people associated with a range of positions and choices.
So I apologize for referring casually to “Orthodox men” in the context of a controversial issue without making that complexity clear and in a way that served to reinforce a cliché, not to shed light.
My encounter with my Orthodox colleagues continues to teach me a great deal. We still don’t agree about some key issues (to be discussed in later posts). But I am becoming a better Jew for having known them.