All that has been said about the scandal emanating out of Brooklyn and Deal, N.J. is true. Yes, it’s time that (especially) Orthodox schools and communities focus our educational attention on instruction in ethics. Yes, we have to make sure to distinguish between Judaism – which teaches honesty and uprightness - and individual Jews – who too often shamefully neglect these teachings. And maybe even yes, we should be outraged over this Chilul Hashem, though frankly I’ve begun to doubt whether there is much left of God’s name to publicly desecrate any longer. Having conceded all of this, I still believe that the main issue is not being addressed, that of root causes.
Everyone seems to be scratching their heads about why scandals like these are occurring with such regularity in our community, given how ostensibly learned and religious the main players are. A huge part of the answer, I think, lies in the basic strategy for confronting modernity that most segments of the Orthodox community adopted in the 19th century, and still intensely practice today.
Given the choices of exploring the wider world that the dawn of modernity made accessible to us, but risking the dilution of our values and our numbers, or doing everything possible to shut out that world and its inhabitants in the name of preserving out precious inheritance, we have massively chosen the former. We have generally chosen to minimize or altogether avoid meaningful contact with the ideas, the books, the cultural trends of the wider world (though we seem to have recently absorbed its materialistic tendencies and its styles in music). And this policy has in turn necessitated our minimizing or altogether avoiding meaningful contact with non-Jew people and non-Jewish society. It is the norm in most of our Orthodox communities that outside of commercial or professional contexts, adults have no significant personal relationships with non-Jews, and children have no such relationships period.
Our strategy of consciously building insular societies has achieved some remarkable results. A century ago, who could have believed that the US would become the home to one the largest, most developed and institutionally successful Orthodox communities in the world? We have to credit our strategy of insularity in large measure for this. And while we have also paid the price for our insularity in many ways (we are probably the religious community that positively impacts the least on our wider society’s pressing social and economic ills), the price that is most embarrassing is the too-frequent involvement in illegal activity.
What’s the connection between the two? There is a subtle mind game that we need to play in order to justify our insistent insularity. We, and our children, do encounter non-Jewish people and non-Jewish families in the simple contexts of everyday living- in stores, in parks, at medical and dental offices. And most often, they are nice people. They aim to be helpful, are frequently intelligent and cheerful, and have nice families. And the questions occur to us and to our children: Why then do we draw such impermeable social lines between us? Is there anything so wrong with they way they live? In order then, to justify our strict insularity, we cultivate a somewhat vague – and usually benign – sense that the others, outside of our world of Torah and Miztvot, are somehow lesser. They are – and hear the word as I’m writing it – goyim. And as such, it must be that our way is better than their way, our God is better than their God (we avoid even having to deal with this issue by consistently substituting “Hashem” for “God”), and our communities are holier than their communities. That’s how we justify our decision to keep ourselves socially and intellectually at arm’s length. And with only one more step, this mindset moves from being overly simplistic but benign, to being very dangerous. That step? That our Laws are better than their laws, and not only better, but are the only laws that really matter. After all, what ultimate significance could goyishe laws have? Of course the justification for the strategy of insularity need not produce such a dismissive attitude toward secular law. But as we’ve seen over and over again, it frequently does, and this price of the strategy of insularity gets paid on a regular basis.
The solutions before us are straightforward. They are either to find a more sophisticated and honest way to understand and explain why we choose our social and intellectual insularity, or to embrace all that is good and valid in God’s wider world, not only without compromising our own religious integrity, but as an expression of our religious integrity. The latter is of course more challenging. But as the headlines are screaming to us, it is the path whose time has come.