This piece was originally written as a response to Rabbi Landesman’s of last night, but I think my point is important enough to be worth posting separately. I believe he has conflated two entirely different things — “why we are viewed with such antipathy,” and the many real deficiencies in the observant community.
One thing I can tell you with certainty: we are not viewed with antipathy because of our failures; we are viewed with antipathy because of our successes. How do I know? Simple: 25 years ago, today’s problems were barely on the radar, yet the antipathy was much the same. If anything has changed, it is that the Chinuch Atzmai schools are blossoming, attracting ever more non-religious Israeli families to “abandon” the secular system. It is that the Rabbi of the Western Wall is now able to preserve Jewish practice at our holiest site. It is that the number of those serving the Jewish people in the halls of a yeshiva rather than on a military base increases every year, rather than dying on the vine as the Zionists expected (Despite the Charedi Nachal units, with their apparently very positive history of discipline and performance).
In the late 1980s, an Orthodox woman was arrested in an horrific story of child abuse. The New York Times coverage detailed, in all of its facts, how much more difficult it is for an Orthodox family to hide abuse: the amount of time our children spend in each others’ homes; that Orthodox “enclaves,” are, by definition, places where we all live within walking distance of each other; the level to which the community, to borrow Hillary Clinton’s phrase, raises the child, with school administration, teaching staff, and other parents all “keeping an eye out” for every child. Obviously this did not mean then, and does not mean now, that it doesn’t happen — but these facts conspire to make it more difficult to hide. Yet the New York Times headline and opening paragraph referred to the “hidden phenomenon” of abuse in the Orthodox community, as if it were a common scourge that we were simply failing to publicize.
In the intervening 25 years, nothing has changed: the size of our community has skyrocketed, the financial pressures have, if anything, intensified, and as for the appalling phenomenon of child abuse, well, you’d have to ask a therapist, but the empirical evidence is that it remains blessedly rare. I don’t think it’s coincidence that the abusive family which dominated headlines last year dressed with an outlandish level of coverings — I would say, in order to hide what was really going on.
Let me emphasize rather than deny that we have no hard numbers on this. But neither does the NY Times or Jerusalem Post. These stories and their insinuations do not make good press for their accuracy. They are convenient “proofs” that “observant Jewish life is really no better than ours.”
Healthy self-criticism is always a good thing. But it has to be healthy; false, unreasonable, even hysterical “self-criticism” does no one any good. Rabbi Landesman dismissed carte blanche the idea that our lives are “better” as “statistically unproven assertions.” Obviously, he has not met the South African sociologist who conducted a detailed study of the Orthodox community in that country, and upon its completion proceeded to convert to Judaism. It is not a myth, it is not a guess.
When the Teshuvah movement began, it was dismissed as insecure and drugged-up young people falling into a Jewish ashram. As we all know, this was not entirely inaccurate! But those were followed by successful students, couples, families — people who returned to observant life in environments of greatest success. Jonathan Rosenblum was at Yale. I was at Princeton (and can name you another dozen). Uri Zohar was at the height of his career. We did not go blindly into a cult.
Does our system have its flaws? As per Eytan Kobre’s piece of this morning, welcome to the human race. We will never be flawless, and must always strive to be. But it is ridiculous to imagine that the real and serious deficiencies in our educational system are a cause of antipathy, when that system remains head and shoulders above any alternative. I now recall that I was in an “experimental” combined second and third grade as a child. The teacher was so ill that she routinely fell asleep at her desk. The whole class knew it and saw it, and our parents heard it every week, yet the situation persisted for the entire year — and beyond, for at least one more. To claim we’re a touch above is hardly “self-deception,” and to insinuate that nothing is being done to expand the variety of options is simply false.
On the contrary, if we magnify and imagine the flaws and make everything much worse than it is, if we actually imagine that the antipathy of the secular media is genuinely our fault, then hopelessness is the result. We will only work to dismantle Judaism in much the same way that the Israeli left, having concluded that European antipathy is the fault of the Jews, works to dismantle the Jewish State. Productive Mussar (reflection and self-improvement) is that which starts from a posture of belief in ourselves and what we can accomplish. As one of the Baalei Mussar once taught, first look at, and bask in, a Mitzvah you did today — then spend time thinking about and working on all the many things you are doing wrong. And there is no question that there are countless things we could be doing better.
My inspiration, in coming up with a vision of a “group blog” of Orthodox Rabbis and writers, was to provide an alternative perspective on today’s events, on what people are reading in the general and (secular) Jewish media. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a need to address the issues of today’s Orthodox community and see what we can do better; not every venue can tackle every subject, nor do I claim the expertise to be a relevant voice. I look at today’s news, see the anti-Orthodox spin, and share it with others in the hope that they will recognize a second side, often more accurate, to the story. My secular training focused upon rhetoric and computers, not sociology, psychiatry, or even education. I could also write about the latest Voice-over-IP codecs and devices, least-cost-routing, and SIP trunking, and be much more qualified to do so. But those, too, are not my intent when writing for Cross-Currents.
With regards to the quote from Meir Porush, there are only two alternatives: he was misquoted, or he was wrong. And as our detractors so love to point out, Porush is little more than a mouthpiece for the directives received from our Gedolim. Is there any Gadol, “filtered” or otherwise, who has said it is appropriate for a Sephardi Jew to abandon his or her Mesorah in favor of the Ashkenazic one, or vice-versa? I think, at the very least, there is ample reason to think that Rabbi Porush was misquoted, and forgive me if I am in error in thinking Rabbi Landesman’s last sentence was intended to dismiss that out of hand.
Can a reporter “quote” you as having said the exact opposite of what you actually told him or her? Well, I was quoted in the Baltimore Sun just two days ago as saying that a foster-parenting company’s restriction could “lead to extreme cases such as an observant Jewish child being placed only with an observant Jewish family.” What I had actually said was that, of course, placing an observant Jewish child with an observant Jewish family is the ideal, ditto a Muslim with a Muslim and a Southern Baptist with a Southern Baptist. I had said, rather, that to disqualify a parent because she had no pork in the home would open a “Pandora’s box” denying placements with not only Muslims, but vegetarians, those with a child with peanut allergies, etc. etc.
In the end, Rabbi Landesman’s response is notable primarily for what it does not say. In lieu of a tentative apology to the residents of Emanuel, he pats me gently on the head for my “good journalism” and immediately pulls out a quote that is indeed likely a misquotation and, even if correct, entirely at odds with reality.
And concerning the “numerous apologists” and rampant triumphalism, that concerning which I actually challenged Rabbi Landesman numerous times? Not a word. And I think that tells us all we need to know.
[I am sure this piece will, itself, be touted by some as an example of that very triumphalism. But what is undeniable is that I remain aware of our many blemishes, that all is not a bed of roses, throughout.]