It really is a new world. Orthodox Jews are no longer a curiosity the way they once were, or at least when I was growing up. Back then an episode of Gunsmoke depicting an Orthodox family had my whole Boro Park neighborhood surrounding televisions in the homes that still had them. Now the Orthodox are portrayed often in television shows and movies. News stories about the community and its various traditions from Kaparot to Purim parades are ubiquitous. Perhaps the selection of Joseph I. Lieberman as the Democrat nominee for vice president of the United States in 2000 was the ultimate sign that Orthodoxy has graduated from Fiddler on the Roof and Annie Hall to a place of acceptance and prominence in our culture.
Organized Orthodoxy will point to the most recent Pew Research study on Jews as proof that theirs is by far the most successful Jewish denomination. So integrated are Orthodox Jews in American life that most people would not know that current Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew is an Orthodox Jew or that former Attorney General Michael Mukasey is as well. Orthodoxy, according to a website called Kveller, spawned some quite famous Hollywood actors and even a currently popular porn star.
David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister is known to have said that Israel will not be a true nation until it has its own thieves and murderers. Orthodoxy too derives its legitimacy not just from its Nobel Prize winners, prominent billionaires and high-level politicos, but also from its infamous. There was a time not too long ago when the picture of an ultra Orthodox Jew in handcuffs on the front page of the New York Times was a hilul Hashem, an embarrassment and a desecration of the Holy One. Today, I really don’t think too many people let alone Orthodox Jews think twice about it.
With success, and Orthodoxy has a bragging right to success, comes heightened scrutiny of its failures. Orthodoxy, particularly Ultra Orthodoxy was slow to embrace involving law enforcement in the epidemic of child, sexual and spousal abuse in the community. Near God like powers granted to rabbis helped to delay exposing some prominent ones who used their position to molest and take sexual advantage of vulnerable women seeking counsel.
Humility, according to our rabbis, a precept more important than Torah, has been sidelined by the arrogance of success and power. Being Orthodox does not mean that you are always right. In the spring edition of the Orthodox Union magazine, Jewish Action, the Executive Vice President glosses over a visit to Turkey with the Conference of Presidents and meeting with Israel hating, rabid anti Semitic and Islamist President Recep Erdogan. I can only imagine the reaction from organized Orthodoxy if a Conservative, Reform or Open Orthodox publication printed the same thing. The politically rightward lurch of Orthodox politics allowed yarmulke-wearing Jews to give the xenophobe, racist Donald Trump multiple standing ovations at the recent AIPAC conference.
For too long, Orthodoxy abandoned those that left the fold. They have even coined a demeaning, degrading and derogatory term for them – Off the Derech, or off the path. The implication is that there is only one path and that of course one can always get back on it. It implies that the “off the derech” person has lost his way and does not have a legitimate right to question and point out hypocrisy and inconsistency. It also implies disloyalty as opposed to what it really is, a search for meaning, questioning and seeking fulfillment outside of Orthodoxy.
Orthodoxy is successful; most times it is a beautiful inclusive ideology. But it is also hurtful and painful and so wrapped up in its own success it arrogantly leaves behind the “other.” I have used this space to decry the abuse of power by local kashrut cartels, mikvah peeping rabbis, intolerant religious leaders and so on. I get criticized for being angry. I guess I sound angry, but what I really am is a mirror. Take a good look in it; what you will see is not anger but the face of one who has decided to not fall in lock step with a dictated, flawed value system. Outward displays of religious practice are less important than empathy, economic justice is more important than charity and inclusion is more important than elitism.
Today is Purim; Haman, like the Nazis that came after him didn’t differentiate between Orthodox and not. We shouldn’t either. So before we Orthodox, Open Orthodox, Social Orthodox or Post Orthodox pat ourselves on the back for just how far we’ve come, we ought to look behind us – there’s a great many people back there that have a lot to contribute.