Everyone knows that chareidim are hopelessly out of touch with modernity, hapless Luddites who are forever placing bans on this or that aspect of the fearsome outside world. This being so, you’d think that if from within this group of dolts there emerged a handful of individuals who summoned up the courage to, say, a) create a blog that harnesses the power of technology (=modernity=good thing), and in so doing b) reach across the religious divide to open a dialogue with other kinds of Jews as well as a window onto their own insular and mysterious lives, and c) use reasonably good prose and evince a decent grasp of contemporary culture — well, that would be a good thing, right? And it would merit coverage by the non-Orthodox Jewish media, true?
So, how to explain why, in a recent feature article on the JTA website regarding the relatively new phenomenon of Jewish blogs, the only ones that seem to draw the writer’s attention are those that are, to varying degrees, subversive of Orthodoxy from within, or antagonistic to it from without?
The phenomenon of Ortho-bashing is real, although reasonable people can debate just how widespread it is and whether specific claimed instances of it are actually that. Merely the latest confirmation of this comes from the admirably plain-spoken Jack Wertheimer of JTS, in a response in this month’s Commentary to critics of his recent article on the Jewish birthrate (and whose rumored candidacy for JTS chancellor, if not already doomed by this various politically incorrect positions on contemporary Jewish issues, was certainly not enhanced by the following):
[My critics] likewise chafe at at my positive assessment of what Orthodox Jews have achieved. In fact, they blame Orthodoxy itself, and its failure to “adapt,” for all sorts of ills besetting the contemporary Jewish community, including, no less, widespread intermarriage. There is a book to be written about the intolerance of many liberal Jews . . . who eagerly embrace Jews of every stripe except the Orthodox. (emphasis mine)
What most pernicious is the malice-of-absence, the unspoken marginalization of the Orthodox that is an ongoing feature of Jewish communal life. By virtue of their unwillingness to play the pluralism game, they get treated as if they don’t exist by the other kids in the sandbox who, ostensibly do play by that game — although we all know that no one, not even the theological mush that is G-dless, humanistic Judaism, is endlessly pluralistic (hint: can you spell M-e-s-s-i-a-n-i-c J-u-d-a-i-s-m?).
Of course, this is a large topic that deserves fuller treatment on another occasion, addressing the various motives at work in this forced invisibility of the Orthodox. Non-Orthodox clergy, for example, have an understandable business stake in minimizing, preferably eliminating their flocks’ contact with Orthodox Jews and knowledge of the reality of the Orthodox world. One of the most eloquent formulations of this was that of erstwhile (and we hope soon-returning) Cross-Currents contributor Rabbi Y.Y. Reinman, who described the prevailing non-Ortho approach thus:
So Reform laypeople want to hear and learn from Orthodox rabbis? Fine, but only if those Orthodox rabbis acknowledge Reform rabbis as allies. It is like a parent using the children as pawns in a marital struggle. If the Orthodox rabbi stands on the stage side by side with a Reform rabbi, then he can speak to the people. Otherwise, no visitation.
Later in the same article, which he wrote to explain why he withdrew from his scheduled book tour with co-author Ammiel Hirsch, Rabbi Reinman wrote that:
Their rabbis have told them that the Orthodox hate them and do not consider them authentic Jews — absolute lies — and then they have stood guard over the people to make sure that no Orthodox rabbi speaks to them unattended. . . I urge all my Jewish brothers and sisters not to allow your rabbis to hold you hostage.
Then there is another form of Ortho-related marginalization that one often finds manifested in media coverage. In this permutation, the Orthodox are indeed given their share of press, but the particular individuals and groups selected for highlighting tend to be anything but mainstream, often an assortment of people with various axes to grind, either openly or more subtly, against Orthodox Jews and Judaism. Chareidim, even more unconventional ones, are particularly invisible. That’s certainly not to say they are ignored; if anything, they are a primary source of unhealthy fascination. They are nothing so much as museum pieces, always to be viewed and commented upon, but almost never to be allowed to be heard by the public in unmediated fashion.
So, is there something invidious at work in the JTA writer’s decision to highlight blogs like the Reform Judaism Action Center, an Orthodox Jew who “strongly opposes authority, religious dogma and nationalism,” or those on which “fiery talk” and “vitriolic exchanges” are regular fare, while ignoring those (yes, there’s more than one) offering intelligent discussion of Jewish issues while striving, at least, for substance over ad hominem rhetoric, and for a spectrum of views even if all are coming, as is the case on this site, from a certain general religious or political orientation?
I don’t know why that happened, just that it did. Do you?