Machlokes / Controversy

Jewish World Review Feb. 4, 1999 / 18 Shevat, 5759

Jonathan Rosenblum

Those ornery Orthodox: Myth and Reality

"WHY, WHEN THERE IS SO MUCH ANTI-SEMITISM in the world, must fellow Jews hate us as well?" a sixteen-year-old girl wrote recently to a Reform journal.

An Orthodox Jew who happened to read that statement called her up and told her that it was simply untrue that Orthodox Jews hate Reform Jews. "And if you don't believe me, he added, go with your parents to any Orthodox shul on a Friday night, say you are Reform Jews looking for a Shabbos meal, and see what happens.'' "You sound like a nice man and I'd like to believe you," the girl replied, "but I can't because all my teachers have taught me differently."

The lie that religious Jews hate non-religious ones does more than any other to poison the air between Jews. It serves as a convenient justification for the venom regularly aimed at the Orthodox. But its ultimate victims are those non-religious Jews, who usually have had no personal acquaintance with observant Jews, and who left more estranged than ever from their heritage.

Fortunately the claim of Orthodox hatred is easily refuted.

Two months ago, I participated on a panel on the secular/religious divide in Israel at the annual convention of Agudath Israel of America. Everything said was for internal consumption of the entirely Orthodox audience.

According to the theory of Orthodox contempt, the discussion should have been devoted to talking about how secular Israelis are nothing but Hebrew-speaking goyim. Yet in nearly two hours of speeches, there was not one word denigrating or condemning the secular public.

The first speaker, Rabbi Yosef Raful-Harari, spiritual leader of the Syrian-Jewish community in Brooklyn and a native Israeli, pounded home one message: Once religious Jews return hate with hate and forget the imperative to love their fellow Jews, they have lost no matter what the rights and wrongs of the situation.

Rabbi Shmuel Dishon, director of the operations of Stoliner Chassidim around the world, began by explaining the Halachic (Jewish religious) concept that every Jew is a guarantor for every other Jew. One Jew can, for instance, make kiddush for another Jew who does not know how. Why? Because as long as one Jew in the world has not madekiddush, the kiddush of every other Jew in the world is lacking. So when we talk about secular Jews, he said, remember we are talking about brothers who are bound to us as one body.

He then proceeded to analyze a number of the hot-button religious issues in Israel from the point of the view of the secular public. Not every word or deed of a religious Jew deserves our defense, Rabbi Dishon noted.

The final speaker, Rabbi Zev Leff of Moshav Mattisiyahu, did not speak of the secular public at all. Rather he stressed that the Orthodox world must constantly reexamine the clarity of its own ideals and whether it is living up to them.

Last year a new mikve opened up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Nothing remarkable about that --- until one considers that there are less than 30 women in Bucks County who regularly use a mikve and $300,000 was raised from Orthodox Jews all over America to build this one.

At the dedication ceremony, the rabbi responsible for raising most of the money made clear: We did not build this mikve for the 30 observant women in Bucks County. They could have continued to commute a half an hour into Philadelphia. We raised the money for the 50,000 Jews in Bucks County who have never heard of a mikve.

A few months after the dedication of the mikve, I spoke in the adjacent shul. Driving with me from Lakewood an hour away was a young man whom I remembered from yeshiva more than a decade ago. Even then, he was a budding scholar and he has been learning continuously since then in Lakewood Yeshiva. He was going to Bucks County to teach aleph-beis to a group of Jews.

Imagine an MIT math professor trouping off to nearby Roxbury to teach ghetto children addition and subtraction. Well, that is effectively what this scholar was doing. There were Jews in Bucks County who wanted to know how to read and maybe pray someday, and he was willing to help them. They, not he, decided what they wanted to learn.

Other groups of married men from Lakewood teach similar classes within a seventy mile radius of Lakewood every night. More remarkably, in a half a dozen nearby communities, full-day kollelim have been set up to provide access to the full-range of Jewish learning to anyone who is interested.

Much of the chesed done by religious Jews has nothing to do with religious observance and is totally anonymous. Health care organizations like Yad Sarah and Ezer M'Tzion, or Zichron Menachem for young cancer patients, are good examples.

Some years back, a mother of 13 in Mea Shearim, heard of a new mother whose baby could only digest mother's milk and who was unable to nurse. She went around among her neighbors collecting mother's milk, and eventually established a milk bank for other such cases. Because of the prohibitive expense of AIDs screening, only in the haredi community could such a milk bank be established today.

Over the years, most of the beneficiaries of the milk bank have been non-religious. Their benefactors -- all residents of Geula and Meah Shearim -- have, in some cases, gone on nursing after delivering their own stillborns or adopted rigorous special diets for babies that required it.

All this has been done according to Maimonides' highest level of chesed --- where both the benefactor and the beneficiary are unknown to one another.

Even where Jews fight over the definitions of Torah, they do not do so out of hatred. The Satmar Rav was well-known as the fiercest critic of Zionism in his day. Someone once challenged him: "Avraham Avinu prayed even for the depraved people of Sdom and Gommorah, so why are you forever castigating your fellow Jews?''

The Satmar Rav replied, "Do you know what Avraham said to the people of Sodom themselves? The Torah only records what he said to the Ribbono Shel Olam (Master of the Universe).''

Then, with tears in his eyes, the Satmar Rav said, "And how do you know what I say to the Ribbono Shel Olam?''

JWR contributor Jonathan Rosenblum is a columnist for the Jerusalem Post.


02/01/99: Keep the money

©1999, Jonathan Rosenblum