I found this older post from when I was still at shul and less angry. Bit out of date now but not irrelevant I hope.
After my usual complaints about the view from the centre-Left it’s time for a contrast with the “Right”.
One of my ongoing kvetches concerns “polarization”, whether in politics, religion or social issues and the manner in which it destroys a traditional and holistic way of life, instead replacing it with extremism. This isn’t exactly new, but we do seem to be in a time where it’s very obvious that even the most neutral territory is becoming politicized.
Today’s Canadian Jewish News contained an editorial by Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz, and his longer blog version of it is Who Is Your Bad Jew? in which he bemoans the current strife in the Orthodox world as a well-known Haredi Rabbi denounces Jews who wear knitted kippot as “Amelek” (the enemy who fell upon the Jews out of the blue during the Exodus and has arisen periodically to destroy them ever since) and asks if they are even Jews. Now that their own kippot are the enemy, the Modern Orthodox are finally ready to talk about how this sinat hinam (baseless hatred) is getting out of hand.
It’s a good article, with Emile Durkheim quotes et al, but it doesn’t quite grasp the nature of the beast. It ISN’T just about our need to define insiders and outsiders on steriods: it’s about it being it being on LSD. The notion that you can tell the good guys from the bad guys by their hats belongs on reruns of Bonanza, but that’s what polarization does. It replaced concern for the REAL elements of piety, and mitzvoth of universally agreed weightiness for bickering over minor mitzvoth, stringencies and customs that are unique to certain groups and not binding on all Jews everywhere.
From the kippah on your head to the way you wash your lettuce and pronounce your Tavs, minor differences that fall well within acceptable law and practice take on an importance that posits them as marking pure good from pure evil in a battle of apocalyptic proportions….."and the 5th seal was broken and a palamino was set forth upon the earth, his rider bearing a crochet hook and several skeins of 4ply fingering-weight 100% cotton yarn. And, he was more terrifying than Conquest, War, Famine and Death put together"
Though Rabbi Steinmetz points out an example of Reform radicalism, it can’t be avoided, this particular fault of extreme stringency on ritual matters while ignoring all other considerations….such as lashon hara, humiliating people in public etc….is more often seen on the Orthodox side. While some Christian is somewhere muttering about “whitened sepulchres”, this fault exists across the lines of religion, and contradicts the Jewish notion of sin as rooted in actions, rather than in states of being that mark people as good and “saved” vs bad and damned.
Wherever polarization is found, the two sides take up remarkably similar positions regardless of what religion it is. Side A takes up social justice, side B takes up personal morality and responsibility. A wants universalism, B wants particularism. A emphasizes internal states (often dubious ones), B stresses external acts (often petty ones). Side A becomes lovey-dovey and forgiving of everyone except those on side B, who become critical and judgemental of everyone, but especially side A. Side A can’t control its own members and falls apart, while side B starts an internal battle against heretics and tears itself apart. At first they seem opposite, but the more extreme they get, the more strangely alike they become. Politics exhibits the same tendancies. Problem being that G-d requires a balance of both sets of traits, and that we use them to create a WHOLE religion.
The reason I’m not Orthodox, is that, in my community, this polarization is very much in evidence and the Orthodox are having their own issues. Certain elements with power to implement their worldview have taken up hardline positions on ritual matters that previous generations did not. That’s fine, in itself, any individual or group can agree to take on the machmir (strict) interpretation or practice for themselves, but it does not permit those who take on the strict to insult, harass or bully those who prefer the mekhil (lenient) ruling. In fact, the opinion is that on matters of doubt on Torah Law, one must adopt the strict ruling, but on matters of doubt on Rabbinic Law, one must adopt (for the community) the lenient ruling.
Being not a member of that synagogue, I can’t speak to my personal experience, or confirm or deny anything I’ve been told, but it suffices to say that when one hears similar stories from multiple unrelated sources it is more compelling than any one instance might be. And when it fits with an overall pattern that repeats in many places and times, you get the sense that there is some accuracy to them, in the gist, if not the details.
People are leaving that synagogue, that is to say, those who aren’t being actively pushed out or kicked out are leaving and some of those still there are whispering. With all the strictures on lashon hara (evil tongue, gossip) and speaking ill of others, it takes quite a big problem before people become willing to speak out….indeed it’s usually reached the proverbial Elephant in the Living Room stage, except that imagine that the Elephant fills the main Sanctuary. As much as I admire the strictures on misusing speech, I’ve seen too much of how refusal to speak on both sides can allow dysfunction to accumulate to the blow up point. The only difference between the two sides is the reasoning behind the lack of speaking up, and the topics on which speaking is forbidden. The explosion and aftermath are identical.
I’ve been fortunate to have no problems there, and everyone has been most welcoming…and others have also felt warmly welcomed as well….so I hardly think it’s endemic and widespread but the simple fact is that a small but vocal or powerful minority can really make many others miserable. It promotes a sort of cliqueishness and accompanying powerstruggles over who will “rule the school”, so to speak. When listening to the complaints, I am strongly reminded of my first highschool, where who you knew was everything and shallow matters like your hair, clothing and music mattered more than that the content of your character…to say nothing of your grades, which was meant to be the whole reason we were there.
No, it’s a small group there, I think, but it’s got a nasty streak. The “rules” meant to guide life are being used to punish some people while others can get away with anything. I’ve seen that one before: my old work had rules it never enforced until it was time to get rid of people that management just didn’t like. The people it liked could do as they pleased.
But the consequences of silence are piling up. When the community lost it’s only kosher restaurant, people grumbled about “politics”, but didn’t eat there any more. When the school lost a good teacher because some students called him a nigger, a few people moved their kids to public school while the rest wondered what sort of jobs their kids would have so they could afford their own kids’ tuition in future. When a visitor was called a “half-breed” by a total stranger, and has since not prayed anywhere, people shook their heads, wondering if Orthodoxy truly believed everything it preached about the need for all Jews to be Orthodox, or if it was just a club for people with the right yichus (genealogy, descent), friends, and money.
The consequences hit me when my teachers, ultra-Orthodox Hasids, were kicked out of their rented home for daring to teach Orthodox Torah at a mixed Shavuot event (meaning mixed denominations). It was strange, because they had done more to promote Orthodoxy, and good feelings toward Orthodoxy, than anyone else in the community. They had the ears of people who formerly had sneered at the Orthodox, calling them everything from controlling fascists to an exclusivist in-club. No, they would probably not have converted them all into Baalei Teshuvim, but they had opened a few minds….minds which promptly snapped back shut when they were fired a week or so after the event. The opinion on Orthodoxy has since fallen even lower than it was, which does not bode well for my own traditionalist streak.
The couple will be sorely missed within, as well as without….so why does no one speak?