Orthodoxy Looking Inward

By Mandell I. Ganchrow, M.D.

As the Yomim Noraim approach, Jews the world over begin the sometimes painful, but much needed, process of introspection, cheshbon hanefesh.  As vital as individual self-examination is, the Jewish community must not neglect its responsibility to do the same.  We are proud to be Orthodox Jews, but we must set that pride aside and search our collective soul to see how we can better ourselves as a community.  In order to be able to assess ourselves honestly, we must look inward and examine not only what we do, but how what we do affects other Jews and, equally important, how our fellow Jews perceive us.

These are difficult times for all Orthodox Jews who interface with society at large, and particularly for Orthodox leaders who represent our way of life and hashkafah in umbrella organizations.  The Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture, on whose executive board I represent the Orthodox Union, is a perfect example.  (The Foundation uses reparation funds to assign scholarships and grants to religious and cultural projects and institutions to recreate what was lost in the Holocaust.)  What is remarkable about the Foundation is that a broad range of representatives, from World Agudah to leaders of Reform and Reconstructionist Jewry, sit at the same table without rancor.  The meetings are congenial and devoid of theological rhetoric.  This makes the following story even more important, since it represents open and honest discussion by a cross-section of world Jewish leaders.

In preparation for a group discussion, the Foundation, which has always been supportive of all expressions of Judaism, distributed a paper designed to present an overview of American Jewry.  Among other things, the paper listed “charges” brought against Orthodoxy by the non-Orthodox streams.  Written by an Orthodox Jew, the paper, and the ensuing frank discussions, were eye-openers.

Part of our communal cheshbon hanefesh requires that we look at each charge and criticism of the Torah community and analyze, objectively, if it is true and, if so, what can we do to improve ourselves.  The following is a personal analysis based on the prepared paper and the discussions.

Charge: “Orthodox triumphalism is a major cause of religious polarization.”

Orthodoxy of the 1950s, the author writes, perceived itself as “defensive,” but in the ’90s, it is guilty of an “almost smug self-confidence about its future.”  Statements by Orthodox leaders to the effect that “we have won” or “you will not have Jewish grandchildren” is viewed by others as gloating.  While it is true that we are proud of our statistics, in fact, the sentiment behind our statements is often deep sadness.  Though I travel the country and visit many wonderful communities, it is easy to forget that Orthodox Jews represent less than 10% of the American-Jewish community.  Furthermore, more than 50% of American Jews are not affiliated at all.

How can we be smug about an 80% intermarriage rate in San Francisco and Las Vegas last year?  Can there be any satisfaction in facing the prospect of losing over 50% of our American co-religionists to ignorance and assimilation?  Perhaps some Orthodox Jews accept these facts and are indeed pleased that they and their children have been spared.  But a concerned Orthodox Jew, and certainly the Union, cannot be satisfied if even one Jewish soul is in danger, let alone when millions are threatened.  Since our goal is kiruv, we must avoid haughtiness as we examine the numbers that illustrate the failure of the non-Orthodox movements to guarantee their futures, because the failure is also ours – we have failed to reach more of our non-Orthodox brethren.

Charge:  “Orthodox Jews live in a ghetto and they won’t allow their children to play with our children.”

I look to my own life for answers to these charges.  Having lived my professional life as a surgeon with academic affiliation, the first charge is hardly credible.  Over the years, my partners were of Irish and Italian heritage, as well as non-Orthodox Jews.  My involvement in pro-Israel political action committees and AIPAC brought me into contact with numerous political, civic and religious leaders on the local and national levels.  However, it is true that I live in a community of like-minded individuals who need an Orthodox synagogue within walking distance for Shabbat prayer and who require the support system provided by an Orthodox community.

As to the second charge:  all children play with peers and classmates who live nearby, often within walking distance.  In that sense, Orthodox children are like all children.  But Orthodox children do differ in that they attend shomer Shabbat camps that combine Torah education with a full range of camp activities.

A reporter recently asked me, “Why don’t the Orthodox declare or teach that parents instruct their youngsters tolerance?”  Specifically she suggested that we should tell our young children, “We (the Orthodox) keep the Shabbat, but that child across the street who rides on Shabbat is still a good Jew or good person.  But his family has made a different life judgment.”

I have given much thought to this because in this age of liberalism and tolerance, it certainly sounds like a reasonable approach.

Yet to the reporter, and to others who may agree with her, I must respond:  Rearing a Jewish child requires that we teach the child our heritage in full, unequivocally transmitting our Torah values from generation to generation. At the same time, we teach our children to respect all human beings, Jewish and non-Jewish, religious and non-religious, while understanding that their lifestyle is unacceptable to Torah Judaism.  We do not, and should not, transmit the confusing message that “in our family we don’t hit or steal, but it might be acceptable if done in a different life situation.”  To inform a child that there is another acceptable standard means that the child is free to adopt that standard.  On the contrary, we explain that most of our fellow Jews come under the category of tinok shenishbah, i.e. like children taken into captivity at an early age and raised without the benefit of a Torah education.  Their wrongdoings are to be understood in that light.

Our future mandates preserving social barriers.  However, within a controlled environment, such as our National Conference of Synagogue Youth, we welcome children of all backgrounds who wish to become familiar with their heritage.  We do so without judgment or criticism. In fact, public school students make up 25% of our Efrat Summer Kollel and 100% of our new Jerusalem Journey program.  When our young people venture into the world, they must be prepared to interface with all people, yet understand their unique roles as Torah Jews.

But there are pertinent questions that each Orthodox Jew must ask:  Does my shul reach out to the community by offering beginner’s services?  When did I last invite a non-Orthodox colleague from work to join my family for Shabbat dinner?  If the answers to these questions are “No” and “I can’t remember,” then this might be the time to act.

Charge: “Orthodoxy is rigid and Orthodox Jews refuse to compromise.”

Every segment of society is enslaved to some degree.  Some people are slaves to fashion, others are slaves to politics.  Orthodox Jews are ovdei Hashem, enslaved to God.  Whereas other powers to which people enslave themselves are ephemeral and fleeting, we are bound by a millennia-old tradition which comes to us directly from God and has been passed down through the generations.

Observing the Torah is more than a religion – it is a way of life.  Torah dictates not only our relationship to God, but also our relationship with mankind.  Our ethics and morals emanate from God.

This does not make Orthodox Jews rigid, but rather provides us with a consistency of purpose that we can transmit to our children.  The Torah way of life has and will continue to far outlast any political, social or other fad to which others have enslaved themselves.

And contrary to the charge above, many Orthodox Jews go out of their way to interact with others in a spirit of cooperation and compromise.  Orthodox leaders participate in umbrella organizations where the agendas include the U.S.-Israel relationship, Jewish poverty, anti-Semitism, anti-terrorism, civil rights issues, school vouchers, immorality in society and the plight of disadvantaged Jews around the world.  However, the revered Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, zt”l, taught many years ago that while it is important to cooperate “klapei chutz” in matters of universal responsibility, theological discussion cannot be on the agenda.

Charge:   “Orthodoxy is anti-female.”

This is, at best, a relative charge, often leveled by those who believe that equality means sameness.  The Torah recognizes the critical role of women as the guardians of family life and has given them unique mitzvot.  Unfortunately, these mitzvot are often interpreted by our non-religious brethren in a contemporary vein and are therefore misunderstood.  The halachah is protective of the special status and respect our mesorah accords to Jewish women.

Orthodox women who are committed to halachah understand and accept the separation of the sexes during prayer.  The phenomenon of women clergy is not of Jewish origin and may have been introduced to bolster lagging attendance at temple services or to increase interest, but not because of a devotion to authentic tradition.  Women in the clergy is an expression of secular liberalism, but not of Torah from Sinai.  Our cheshbon hanefesh task in this generation is to preserve authentic halachic Judaism while seeking ways and means to meet the needs of today’s spiritually-searching women.

Toward that end, the Orthodox Union has begun a serious educational initiative for women in the form of seminars, shiurim and yemei iyun.  We need to listen carefully to what the community is telling us and commit ourselves to better meeting these challenges.

Charge: “Confronted with the image of Orthodoxy as obscurantist, politically reactionary and triumphalist toward non-Orthodox Jews, liberal Jews react with disdain and even disgust.”

The author also suggests that “non-Orthodox hostility is nothing more than a reflection of resentment towards Orthodoxy’s success.”

Webster’s 20th Century Dictionary defines obscurantist as one who advocates obscurantism, i.e., opposition to human progress and enlightenment.  That depends on how one defines progress.  Yeshiva University’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine, for example,  is second to none.  And Orthodox-established social services agencies are de rigueur in many Jewish communities.  These all represent contributions by the Orthodox to societal progress.  Our outreach efforts to disseminate Torah to all is the essence of enlightenment.

Why are Orthodox Jews sometimes labeled political reactionaries?  Perhaps because some of us are politically conservative and are not guided by political correctness.  Maybe it’s because we don’t trust Yasir Arafat.  Or is it because we believe in meritocracy over affirmative action?  Or is it because we accept aid for our causes from political conservatives who don’t meet the political correctness “litmus test?”  To any of these charges, I can plead guilty, with no apologies.

If segments of  the Jewish establishment are unhappy with our stand, it should be viewed by us all as the normal political give and take of the democratic process.  It should not engender “disdain.”  Those who react with “disgust” should examine their own souls as to whether the source of this vehement feeling is purely political disagreement or embarrassment by their co-religionists who differ from their views.

Yes, Orthodoxy has an image problem – some of it deserved, some beyond our control.  But let us not reject criticism in a knee-jerk reaction.  If, in our hearts, we believe there is some merit to the criticism, then we are obligated to correct our behavior.  And let us be mindful that for every success, for every individual we reach, we must remember that we have only begun.  To truly be successful we must continue to look inward in order to be able to reach outward.

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This article was featured in the Fall 1999 issue of Jewish Action.
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