Sunday, November 20, 2011

What I'm Thinking When The Orthodox Make Headlines

A very thoughtful reader, alias "Should Be Working," a self-described Reform Jew, posted the following incredibly respectful thought on my blog last week about The Danger of Being Orthodox.

"I want to take a risk here and ask a question in 'outsider mode', since I'm an outsider to Orthodox Judaism. This blog is one of the very few experiences I've had of feeling (not just seeing) the 'inside' of your Orthodox lives (in all the variations I've learned about here, thanks for all that insight into the differences), and also seen that warmth and caring and humility.

So my risky question is what it feels like from the 'inside' of Orthodoxy when you read about Orthodox Jews doing things that do not reflect love and joy with respect to those not in their communities--for instance in Jerusalem Orthodox Jews have spit on Christian clergy. Joy and love for one's 'own' is a beautiful and admirable thing, but when you read 'bad news' or at least unflattering news, does it make you wish that other Orthodox people would behave more civilly and respectfully to 'outsiders'? Does it make you feel like those people are wrong and the exception, or that they are just misunderstood, or that they have failed in responsibilities to what someone (Larry?) recently here described (don't have the Hebrew term in my head) as representing the Jewish people in a positive light?

Such news reports, to be honest, do alienate me from Orthodox Judaism, but I want to hear from this thoughtful, positive-minded group what you think about such acts. I am, again, asking this with respect, and especially for Ruchi in creating this blog--because I can't think of any other venue where I could actually ask Orthodox Jews how they view such incidents. (I suppose I could show up at Chabad or something and ask there, but the openness I've seen on this blog makes asking the question here easier.) "

A few of my other readers gave some good responses, and I'd like to add a fuller treatment of the question: it's an important one.  Before I answer the actual question, though, I need to put forth a few general concepts.


The first thing that most Orthodox Jews will tell you  is, "Don't judge Judaism by the Jews."  This is a cute line, and a nice way to sidestep our co-denominationalists' disgusting behavior, but it's just not satisfactory.  Can you say "don't judge New York by New Yorkers"?  Don't judge Islam by Muslims?  Don't judge yoga by yogis?  If, indeed, the system is an appropriate one, and a functional one, shouldn't you, indeed, be able to judge Judaism by Jews??  That's just not good enough, while true.  To some degree, you can't judge ALL of New York by SOME New Yorkers... but to completely sidestep that degree of accountability simply doesn't sit right with me.  (I credit Rabbi Avraham Edelstein of Moreshet with clarity here.)

Therefore, we have to be able to judge Orthodoxy by MOST of the Orthodox. 


Item number two on the list: have you noticed that the vast majority of ugly news (Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike) comes out of Israel?  Why is this so?  Why is life there so fraught, so tense, so violent, so very, very on the edge of normal, polite behavior??  I just came back, and I lived there for five years, and oh, I love it so, but to be honest... it's one of the reasons I simply could not live there.  Is it that Jews in Israel have to fight so hard, sweat so much, sacrifice so often, that simple manners become a luxury?  Is it that separation of church and state is a laughable Alice-in-Wonderland dreamworld there?  Is it that people live in such close proximity that "live-and-let-live" is for wimps?  Is it that Jerusalem has always been a place full of tension, a test of peace?  I don't know, but it's sad, and bad.  I don't want to speak lashon hara (gossip) about the Land, my Land, the only Land I capitalize in respect and love, but man... it's a tough place.


On the subject of lashon hara (gossip), it is important to distinguish between news, gossip, and opinion.  News is information that the public needs to know for a constructive purpose.  Gossip is information that the public does NOT need to know for a constructive purpose, but rather it's to entertain or denigrate.  Opinion that is respectfully worded and deals with ideas is great.  Opinion that is personal and vindictive is lashon hara.  Not everything that is thought ought to be spoken; not everything that is spoken ought to be written; and not everything that is written ought to be published (Rabbi Y. Salanter).  I leave it to you, reader, to sort your reading material into its various categories.


This is my updated version of "don't judge Judaism by the Jews."  Instead of having Judaism and Jews live in silos, I view the Torah as the ultimately perfect ideal.  Everything in the Torah is beautiful and perfect.  No, that doesn't always mean it all jives with the secular values of 2011, but it oughtn't, because those will change.  Torah is immutable.  And I know some of you, my dear readers, interpret this in different ways, and I'm glad to discuss that one day.  But here's my point:

To the extent that a person lives according to the Torah's instructions, will his actions be beautiful, admirable, and noteworthy.

This, of course, transcends denomination.  It's directly proportional.  This means if a person doesn't even know he is Jewish, but is not a gossiper, that person is living in accordance with Torah teaching in this area of his life, and this area of his life will be beautiful and special.  If a person gives tzedaka (charity) - his actions in this area are beautiful.  If a person observes Shabbat, accepts suffering with serenity and faith, smiles at a stranger on the street, bends down to retrieve someone else's trash, prays for clarity instead of getting angry... these are all ways to behave in accordance with the Torah.

Which means that when a person behaves in way that is ugly, illegal, rude, embarrassing, or hurtful, he is NOT acting according to the Torah in that area of his life.  He may be acting according to the Torah in OTHER areas of his life (Shabbat, kosher), so those parts of his life are beautiful, but the icky stuff is in trangression of Torah.

As well, the obvious Orthodoxy in the garb and external observance just complicates the issue, because now the bad behavior is not just in direct contradiction to Torah, but makes it seem as though "Orthodoxy" sanctions the bad behavior.  Double ick!

In short, when Orthodox people behave badly, that bad behavior is CONTRARY to Torah.  He's acting that way despite his "Orthodoxy."  If many Orthodox Jews (however you quantify that) act that way, you have a bad trend that must be addressed from the leadership.  On that note I will tell you that every lecture I attend and nearly every article I read in the "very Orthodox" circles are focused on how Orthodox people should and can improve themselves.  Introspection and upgrading our behavior, ESPECIALLY in the areas of interpersonal relationships (yes, with outsiders too) are at the top of the list.  In fact, the most Orthodox rabbi in the world (my designation), Rabbi AL Shteinman, may he live and be well, has said this publicly many, many times: always seek to upgrade your behaviors with other people.


Therefore, with all this information, here's the chronology of my thoughts when bad news about the Ortho-Jews hits.

1. Denial
It's not true.  It didn't really happen.  That's insane.  How could anyone seriously act that way??  OK, maybe it happened, but probably no one read it except for me.  How could anyone find this stuff??  The web is so big; maybe it got buried.

2. Anger
Anonymous (or not) Orthodox person, how could you do this to me???  To God?? Do you know how hard I try to be a good ambassador for Judaism?  Do you know how large is the gap that exists between fellow Jews??  Why are you making it worse, harder?  Don't you  THINK before you ACT??  Journalist: why?  Why are you writing this?  Is this to denigrate, to sensationalize?  Are you happy you got people to smirk about how the supposedly-holier-than-thou Jews are finally revealed for what they really are: a bunch of no-goodniks?  ARRRR!

3. Bargaining
Let's say this disgusting behavior really did happen.  It's a crazy fringe group.  No one really takes them seriously.  You can't possibly find any Rabbi who would sanction this.  None of this is in the Torah.  Torah is perfect.  There are so many Orthodox folks doing good; don't they outweigh a few crazies?  Sure, their customs might be unfamiliar, their dress a bit different, their culture slightly divergent... so what?  I just have to work harder, blog faster, try harder to teach my kids that God wants us to behave with love, respect, and joy to all human beings... oy. 

4. Depression
I can't.  Can't read this stuff anymore.  Maybe I need to crawl under a rock and not read the news and DEFINITELY not read any blogs and unfollow a whole slew of people on Twitter.  I pretend I have such a thick skin, but I guess I'm kind of sensitive after all... It's so upsetting, to try so hard, to know so well what Torah living is about, to shout from the rooftops how beautiful it can be... just to be thwarted by a bunch of bizarre crazies who make headlines and journalists who are gloating over the mound of charred hopes.  I go through my day like an automaton... have no zip...

5. Acceptance
"The work is not yours to finish; neither are you free to completely shirk it" (Ethics of the Fathers 2:21).  There will always be those, have always been those, that are a chillul hashem (disgrace to God's Name with their bad behavior).  There is no way I'm going to change that.  What I can do, must do, is be a kiddush Hashem (elevation of God's name with good behavior).  I can only do what is humanly possible.  I need to know enough to be productive, and that's it.  I need to introspect and make sure no trace of bad behavior infects me.  I need to keep doing what I'm doing, reaching, teaching, learning, growing, parenting responsibly.  I need to to take things both more and less personally. 

"A little bit of light dispels a lot of darkness" (Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi).

Yes, readers.  These are, not coincidentally, the five stages of grief.  This is how I feel when I hear that an Orthodox person has publicly and badly failed in being a good Jew.  I grieve the Torah that was transgressed, I mourn the kiddush Hashem that was lost to us, and I wistfully miss the feeling that us Jews can indeed, be one family.  It's hard to grieve so much.  But I care that much.  I love us that hard.  And I wouldn't have it any other way.

Thanks for reading.


  1. Ruchi you are so talented. I must say my feelings are definately very similar but I would never be able to express them so eloquently and poignantly.

  2. I have to agree with "reasonably nuts frummy" that you have done an amazing job of putting what I normally feel into words. The only thing I would add is that I do try to focus a lot on the fact that these news stories really are the exception rather than the rule, in most cases. I try to remember that there are so many more people out there doing good, unfortunately the good stuff doesn't sell newspapers. Also, I think FRUSTRATED would be an emotion that overwhelms me at times like these. I try so hard to see the good in people and want so badly for people to see the good in our ways, but there are so many people who make this seem like an impossible task. The final thought that I have, that I guess is part of my acceptance stage, is the longing that I feel for G-d to bring Moshiach right away. We need it now.

  3. Ruchi, I am humbled by the thoroughness and thoughtfulness of your response. Thank you. This exchange, including the comments on the previous post, are a great education for me.

  4. What an amazing answer, and what a great question. Thanks so much to Should be Working and to my favorite teacher in the world Ruchi! I am so grateful to you for teaching so well and with so much love and intellect. And, I'm borrowing your quote for my blog - hope that's ok!

  5. This post admirably covers the cases where Torah values mirror those of secular culture. I wish I had your talent for clarity.

    Where Torah values and secular values clash, as you mention, other approaches must be taken, because for many people the statement "To the extent that a person lives according to the Torah's instructions, will his actions be beautiful, admirable, and noteworthy" is not always true.

  6. Thank you everyone :) Your feedback means so much to me. I'm grateful that I have been able to shed light on this difficult issue.

    Larry, you draw an important distinction between laws that happen to mirror society's values in 2011, and those that don't. I did allude to this earlier. My experience has been that even when there are mitzvos in the Torah that seem odd or foreign to those that have not ever heard of them, where there is mutual respect (a Torah ideal) and an aversion to gossip and embarrassing others (more Torah ideals), the beauty of Judaism will shine through even here.

  7. Dear Ruchi,

    Your blog is wonderful. As someone who is gathering up the courage to pursue a reform conversion, I still feel it's important to know as much as I can about the full spectrum of Judaism in all its crazy, beautiful colors, and so I've spent months reading over Orthodox blogs, and recently, lurking on the imamother website (strange, I know, because I'm an unmarried young woman with no kids and have no intent of converting Orthodox for my own reasons). I have to be honest with you - some of the things I read there, they appall me. They make me wonder why on Earth anyone would ever voluntarily sign up for this lifestyle, and I'll admit that I have not always had the most charitable thoughts towards Orthodox Jews after reading threads there. And then I read your blog. And it gives me a whole other insight into Orthodox Judaism, in a different way than the others I read (In the Pink, KvetchingEditor, CrazyJewishConvert). And for that, I thank you. You are doing a wonderful service for your religion and your faith by being so willing to discuss things in an open, respectful manner. You help me to see the beauty in observance even if I know that the whole 9 yards isn't for me.

    Thanks :)

  8. I wonder if Larry is referring to instances where Torah dictates actions that seem exclusionary and insular, even if they are not meant to be. As you said, Ruchi, secular values ca. 2011 are not the moral absolute. However, it takes a brilliant, sensitive individual to take the "hot button" halachos (like anything pertaining to the definition of Jew or Non-Jew, for example) and stand firm yet respectful in an attempt to let the beauty of Torah Judaism shine through.

    Having walked that line myself, I encountered many bewildered and hurt family members and friends who were not able to see the beauty that I did, simply because the issues were too close to home. It was only many many years later, after much self-control on my part to constantly reassure them that these laws that I kept were absolutely not meant to be derogatory or insulting, that a level of acceptance was reached.

    But oh, my goodness, it was a long time before that level of mutual respect came along. Sometimes it takes a decade of hard work before the beauty emerges.

  9. wow, Ruchi. I don't really have anything to add here. It's amazing that you expressed how I feel better than I have ever expressed it to myself. Thank you for that!

  10. Anonymous: I'm really happy my blog is serving a niche. I find that in any forum where people are mainly anonymous, weird and creepy stuff emerges. That's why I've chosen to blog as myself, and I think it encourages a culture of self-respecting honesty and accountability. Not that I mind when commenters remain anonymous (such as yourself) - I get that not everyone wants to be "out there" - but the general atmosphere here has been set - I hope. Welcome to OOTOB and I wish you lots of success in your spiritual journey.

    Rachel: I am humbled by your experience. Didn't mean to sound trite or blithe. As you know, I have not encountered these huge issues much in my personal life, but have experienced them via mentoring others in the exact situation you describe. Yes, it's so, so difficult, but when BOTH parties are willing to be respectful, forgiving, and humble, and make things work; and are committed to making the relationship an absolute priority, I believe that ultimately (whether the process is painfully long, as you describe or not) it will be OK. I find that following indecipherable mitzvos, coupled with lack of respect, selfishness, and impatience, breeds the worst results. Not saying this was your story. Just an anecdotal observation.

    In my family, one of my brothers became Chassidic. No, it wasn't as difficult as what you describe - but in a way I know whence I speak.

    Rivki: Thanks :)

  11. Well put!

    Ruchi, please never stop posting from your heart here. I have a deep feeling that these heartfelt words of yours will mend more broken hearts than you could possibly ever know.

  12. Ruchi, I love your blog and find its content and work inspirational on so many levels. For the past week I have been trying to think of a meaningful way to respond to your comments about life here in Israel. I truly believe that all Jews need to see Israel as more than just a place to recharge your spiritual batteries - I don't think that's what G-d meant when he gave us this land. Yes, its tough, but I have had the immense merit and honor of living here for the past 15 years, meeting my husband, having my children and truly building a Torah life in a wonderful community (think of Beechwood with smaller lawns and no cars on Shabbat). Yes, we struggle - we have even had a few air raid sirens over the past few months. We live in between two air force bases and I know that they day is coming, sooner than I would like, when my son will hopefully take his place along side the others who are dedicated to protecting our right to live here freely. But I still see this as a privilege, with so many positive things on both the spriritual and physical level, and hope that someday more American Jews will feel the same.

    I would like to invite any of the people reading your blog to come see another side of Israel the next time that you are here. and would like to recommend this link that I just saw and which gave me the push to post this comment -

  13. Elle: comments like yours keep me going! Thank you! You too, btw!

    Mimi: I watched the video and it was really touching. I want to clarify the important point you raised. My way is the wimp's way. I don't live in Israel - and, per my post, still feel conflicted about it. Some more militant than you might hold me accountable for this, and perhaps they'd be right. I don't look at Israel as "just a place to recharge" - at all. For me it has become this de facto, but I know it is so much more. I appreciate your words, though, because I need to be reminded about this all the time.

  14. Great Post...

    To address the issue...I'll just copy an old post of mine...

    There is this great misconception about our society.
    This misconception is both false and harmful and it has led many off the derech.
    Have you ever asked yourself ...How can a frum person do that?
    How can a frum person behave that way?

    Then you are under this false impression as well.

    Frumism (anyone else have a better term?) is not a religion.. it’s a culture.
    It is a culture that incubates a religion.
    We dress a certain way, we listen to our own music, we have our own lingo, and we teach a certain lifestyle but we can’t force thousands of people to think a certain way and to believe in certain things.

    Religion is strictly between God and the individual.

    It just so happens to be..that of all the cultures in the world, it’s easiest to practice Frum Judaism in this Frum culture.

    After all, they share so many similarities. This culture has you going to shul anyhow ...and it has you refraining from work on Shabbos anyhow...

    But ultimately it’s up to all individuals to decide whether or not they choose to do so. Sometimes a person will go through the motions and go daven for an entire year and will only have kavannah once or twice. There’s the example of how the culture is an incubator for the religion. In order for our religion to survive in America a Culture had to be created to surround it. To keep us going through the motions during our weak moments and generational lapses.

    However our Education System does not focus enough on the individual, on every persons relationship with Hashem as an individual..and instead it allows us a glimpse of Hashem through the prism of the community. This is something that I believe should change..

    If one realizes this he will not become disoriented by “Frum” Jews not utilizing their personal choice of tapping into the Religion within.

  15. David: beautifully put. Yes and thank you.

  16. This was so beautifully and genuinely articulated. I found your use of Kübler-Ross's five stages of grief as a framework, with Torah everpresent, especially compelling.

  17. Thanks fs :) Just found you and liked your page on Facebook so now I'll be in the know when you post.


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