Monday, December 19, 2011

"Cool it!"

Yom sheni, 23 Kislev 5772.

I am an Orthodox Jewess.

I use the word "Jewess" purposefully, because it is under-used and accurate.  As princess is to prince, it speaks of my unique role, which I find beautiful.  I don't want to be marginalized by being lumped in with Jews as a group.

I don't believe that I have the right, nor do I gain anything, by telling other Jews how to dress and where to sit.  (This excludes my own children, and certain young guests, who actually come to my table to hear me say "One more button, Shimon."  I kid you not.)

While I am not part of the Israeli Hareidi scene, I have respect for their culture.  I tend to dress just a little more modestly when I go into their neighborhoods, out of respect for their sensibilites.  I do not see a need to upset them.  While theirs is not my personal way of expressing my Orthodoxy, I do not find any value in offending them on their turf.

I find it offensive when I see a caption under a photo of shoppers willingly separated by a mechitza in a Hareidi store that intimates that they are extremists.  Men and women have chosen this way to express their interpretation of G-d's demand for modesty within their own community.  Having lived and visited in both the American and Israeli Hareidi communities, I know that most Hareidi women value this version of modesty as much as do the men.  And these are not oppressed women.  They are very strong proponents of their view of Orthodoxy.

That said, I am hurt and offended when non-adherents of these views are harassed, threatened, or even merely embarrassed.

Years ago, before I made aliyah, I experienced some of this maltreatment.

I boarded a bus for a neighborhood unfamiliar to me, on my way to request a blessing from a great Torah luminary.  A man in his thirties began to berate me loudly in Yiddish.  I had no clue what I had done wrong.  Eager to end this embarrassing situation, I explained to him that I could not understand what he was saying.  I tried in my meager Hebrew, and then resorted to English.  Finally, a woman a seat or two behind me explained that I was sitting too far toward the front of the bus.  As I looked around me, I acknowledged the separate nature of the bus.  I got up and sat behind the woman.  But before I left my seat, I explained to the man, in English, that his approach was terrible, and was surely more offensive to Torah than where I unintentionally sat.

I am not a woman who needs to make a point of sitting in the front of the bus to prove a point.  I have lived among normal, healthy Hareidim long enough to know that most Hareidi men don't think of woman as second-class citizens.  (You have only to be inside their homes to know this first-hand.)  So there is no reason to go all Rosa Parks.  She did have something to prove, as blacks in those days in America were indeed relegated to using separate facilities due to discrimination.

But I am highly offended when someone teaches through intimidation, rather than through patiently explaining.  Whether the young man was correct or not -- and since the bus was a public rather than private bus, and therefore he was not correct -- is beside the point.  The Torah forbids embarrassing a fellow Jew.  Had he given me the benefit of the doubt and assumed that I did not know this cultural convention, he could have said his words gently.  Or, better yet, he could have rolled his eyes to his male seatmate and endured my presence.

There is an old Japanese kōan about a couple of monks walking through the village, talking of philosophical concepts.  They approach a giant puddle in the road, before which is standing a geisha, who cannot cross without soiling her beautiful garments.  Without pausing in his dialogue, one of the monks breaks tradition, and picks up the geisha, carrying her across the puddle.  He sets her down, and continues speaking with his fellow monk.  After some time, he realizes that his companion has been silent since the puddle.  "What is going on in your mind, my friend?" he asks.

"I cannot believe that my friend and colleague broke our tradition by touching the woman," the second monk responded.

His friend looked at him, astonished.  "Oh -- are you still carrying her?"

For all of the avowed modesty of these loud, rude and sometimes violent Hareidi individuals, methinks they protest too much to be truly following the laws of modesty.

If Orthodox Jews feel a mission to bring our fellow Jews closer to our interpretation of a Torah life, we certainly do not bring them closer by berating them, by putting up offensive signs, by threatening those who do not keep whatever level of religiosity we deem appropriate.  (And, in fact, my friends in the Hareidi community also disagree with the intimidation approach.)

We are enjoined by most normal, healthy rabbis to set an example by how we live our lives.  And we still have a lot to do in the realm of exhibiting acceptable Torah behavior with our own bodies, minds and actions.  We should display the highest standards of ahavat Yisrael, honesty in business, politeness and purity of speech, among other character traits demanded by the Torah, rather than wasting our time and G-d's time by demanding that others live as we see fit.

Professor Alan Dershowitz and I have virtually nothing in common politically.  But I have to agree with a statement he made in a recent interview.  "The debates in Israel have become so extreme, with Israelis calling each other facists, and predicting that Israel will become a facist country, and will eliminate all democracy... My suggestion to Israelis is: cool it.  Calm down.  Stop calling each other names."

We will most successfully bring the harmony we seek by respecting rather than condemning each other.

Post a Comment